Post-apocalyptic science-fiction literature appears to have fallen out of favor, though it is still a common theme in movies. This may simply reflect a general trend of growing optimism in science-fiction literature, or it may be a mark of a shifting of concerns. The apocalyptic literature now focuses more on the collapse of civilization and not what comes afterwards, possibly suggesting a shift in our concerns. While the Cold War was looming over our heads the threat of nuclear war made the short-term less appealing as complete devastation seemed likely and the question was, “What would come afterward?” A Canticle for Leibowitz is a good example of an author exploring this question.
Our concerns are now more subtle, leading to more interesting stories that can take place as the collapse takes place. The previous nuclear fireball end to all things would have made for a boring story, “There was a flash of light. The End.” not so much fun to read. Ecological and economic collapses take place more slowly and are not so universal in their effects. The Windup Girl is a good example of a novel set during an ecological collapse.
In some ways I lament the (temporary?) passing of the long-view post-apocalyptic novels. These settings with the specter of evolution run rampant due to radiation induced mutations, lost technological treasures, and hidden enclaves of knowledge allowed authors imaginations to run wild. They were disturbing, yet strangely alluring.
Of the post-apocalyptic science fiction my favorites are Hiero’s Journey and The Unforsaken Hiero. A glance at the covers of these two wonderful books should be enough to show some of the bizarre wonder Sterling E. Lanier captured in this world.
Five thousand years after the nuclear death and enclaves of civilization are just beginning to emerge once more. The psychic mestizo warrior priest Per Hiero Desteen sets forth from Ot’wa in what used to be Canada with his war trained telepathic riding moose to find a legendary computer to help defeat the Unclean, mysterious, evil beings that are trying to revive the technology that allows them to control the power of the atom. This is epic soft-science fiction at its finest.
Hiero Desteen is a well portrayed, likeable character following a Joseph Campbell like epic story arc, meeting amazing allies and terrifying enemies along the way. His is a window into the strange world former anthropologist/archaeologist and fan of crypozoology, Sterling E. Lanier has dreamed up; a world of enormous predatory lampreys that infest the great lakes, ruined cities, ancient telepathic snails, glowing radioactive wastes, feudal East Coast cities, intelligent fungi with malignant intent, and cautious bear-people. The world is richly described and immensely fun to imagine.
The story is very reminiscent of ancient epics like The Odyssey and Gilgamesh, exploring what it means to be a good, moral person amidst a chaotic and strange world. Per Hiero Desteen is neither innocent, nor naive, nor is he an reformed anti-hero. He combines the best characteristic of a Han Solo and a Luke Skywalker without falling into the literary trap of making his challenges too easy to overcome.
The story is full of interesting twists and turns, all of which are internally consistent with the world, characters, and story-lines. The protagonist is someone you empathize with and admire, but not someone you would ever want to trade places with.
This is the only author besides Neil Stephenson who manages to get way with naming the protagonist “hero” or some variation of that.
Sterling Lanier is probably best known for being responsible for getting Frank Herbert’s novel Dune published while he worked with Chilton. The first publishing run of Dune sold poorly and Sterling lost his job over it. His promotion of the book was later vindicated, but too late to save his job. He was also in regular correspondence with J.R.R. Tolkien, sculpted ice age animals, and made miniatures featuring Lord of the Rings characters. Supposedly Tolkien admired the miniatures but did not want them marketed.
Unfortunately Sterling E. Lanier died before writing a third book, a real shame as there is so much more to be written in this unusual world.