Monday, October 31, 2016

An Outsider's View of Prepper Fiction

     I recently came across an article reviewing prepper fiction. The article, "Ready for the End: Works of prepper fiction reveal a dark truth about American virtues" by Rebecca Onion at Slate, is not so much a review of a single book but a review of the whole genre of prepper fiction, which the author distinguishes from the larger body of apocalyptic fiction. In fact, the piece is primarily about the differences between the two styles.

     For instance, the author notes that one feature that distinguishes prepper fiction from the broader apocalyptic fiction are lists--details of what is being stored or carried, and why. "Apocalyptic stories," she writes, "sacrifice some details of characters’ survival tactics on the altar of narrative. But in prepper tales, lists are inevitable." Onion goes on:
The lists are a point of complaint for some reviewers online, but the authors of these books know that they’re writing something that’s a cross between a novel, a shopping list, a survival manual, and a field guide; this is a wholly experimental form, and the results can be awkward. After a while, though, I relaxed into it. Like a high school junior struggling through Moby-Dick’s whaling chapters, the new reader has to realize that prepper fiction’s blend of description and plot is meant to make the minute details of a supercomplex material phenomenon more visible. Those lists soothed me, since they spoke a language I—a cook, a sometime backpacker, and a committed cataloger of household goods—found easy to understand.
She also notes two of the common character types in the novels--the prepper and the sheeple.
But am I a prepper? Or one of the sheeple? In the books, the difference between these two kinds of people really matters. If you’re mapping the tropes of prepper fiction against contemporary American politics, here’s where things take a right turn. Even as these books revel in the virtues of self-reliance, they graphically condemn the uselessness of other people who refuse to help themselves. Inevitably, after a catastrophic event, a prepared protagonist encounters people who just cannot believe that their water isn’t going to come back on or that the government isn’t going to come to bring them their refrigerated insulin. 
These sheeple are unreasonable, fussy, picky, and stupid. Are there really people who still can’t understand that grocery stores don’t fill up by magic? In these books, they are legion. 
     However, the biggest difference that the author sees between apocalyptic literature generally, and prepper fiction specifically, is that the protagonists in the prepper literature begin the book already willing (and able) to use deadly force to protect themselves and their families. The author writes:
The latter [i.e., prepper fiction] starts where the former [apocalyptic fiction] only ever ends up. Books such as Edan Lepucki’s California or a television series such as The Walking Dead gradually point toward a set of dark realizations—you can rely on no one but yourself and your family and a carefully chosen group of likeminded allies; other people will try to take what you have, perhaps violently; you may compromise many of your ideals in defending what you have. Apocalyptic stories, in other words, make slow meals of discord and disillusionment. Prepper fiction, by contrast, takes this dynamic for granted, starting with the cynicism instead of landing there: People’s evil tendencies can only be mitigated by small alliances, like those between family members or comrades in military service.
Onion seems both drawn to and repulsed by characters that are willing to kill to protect themselves or their kin.

     While I understand why she makes the distinction, it is a necessary starting point both from the perspective of the story. A standard apocalyptic story is not so much a story of the actual disaster that changes the world, but a story of how the characters change in response. For instance, in certain stories, such as 28 Days and The Walking Dead, the story opens with the disaster already in the past. The focus is how the characters are going to survive and how they change. Thus, in The Walking Dead (which title actually refers to the protagonists and other survivors, and not the zombies), the story assumes a Lord of the Flies decent into savagery, and explores the characters' slow loss of their humanity. Conversely, in something like Lucifer's Hammer or, to a lesser extent, in Rawles books, the story is about the preservation and rebuilding of civilization. The individual characters are less important than the process.

     The reason that prepper fiction does not focus on the evolution of the main protagonists, however, is that they--being preppers--have already mentally and physically prepared for what happens. To focus on a prepper transforming his outlook from a state of ignorant bliss to one of embracing principles of preparedness or survivalism would be to look at the character long before the disaster occurs; a transformation that is already complete by the time the disaster arrives. The story from that point forward is either a morality tale (a la, the ant and grasshopper) or a look at how the protagonists overcome the obstacles placed in his or her path. Turning to the original prepper story--that of Noah and the ark--we do not spend time on how Noah became a prophet and learned to listen to God's voice: that is already in the past. Rather, we focus on what he does and what happens to those that failed to heed Noah's warnings. 

    I will agree, however, that certain attitudes presented in certain books are somewhat repellent. For instance, I had previously reviewed one of the books specifically mentioned by Onion, A Distant Eden, and noted my disappointment at how ready the characters (who were supposedly Christian) were to kill others. The primary incident that bothered me in the book was where one of the main characters kills a small family that had (unknowingly as far as I could tell from the story) poached a deer. Although there was some minimal attempt to make the killing of the father an act of self-defense, the deaths of the mother and child were, to my mind, a perfect example of unrighteous judgment and cold blooded murder. To compound the lack of morals, the same character encountered another poacher, but didn't kill him because they discovered he was a Christian--all too reminiscent of Islamic terrorists sparing those that can recite a Muslim oath. 

     In any event, it is interesting to see that people outside the prepper movement are beginning to take note of prepper fiction.

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