Rebecca Onion “ate up” the canon of traditionally literary end-of-the-world science fiction — Alas, Babylon; The Sheep Look Up; Lucifer’s Hammer — and some newly published respectably literary postapocalyptic books — California, The Dog Stars, Station Eleven — and then found Audible recommending something subtly different — Patriots, by James Wesley, Rawles (the comma is intentional):
I didn’t understand that I was making a leap between genres when I purchased Patriots, which turned out to be a best-selling 2009 book of prepper fiction. Downloading it sent me down a new rabbit hole that I have yet to exit. Through prepper fiction, I find myself experiencing a subculture by way of its novels, finding some of its ideals repellent, while slowly — and unhappily — coming to agree with others.
One feature, I found, differentiates prepper fiction from mere apocalypse fiction: lists. Apocalyptic stories sacrifice some details of characters’ survival tactics on the altar of narrative. But in prepper tales, lists are inevitable. I have to quote this whole paragraph, about a survival group’s knife-buying tactics, to give you a sense of how Rawles, a notorious lister, does it:
For skinning knives, most of the members bought standard mass-produced Case and Buck knives, but a few opted for custom knives made by Andy Sarcinella, Trinity Knives, and Ruana. Most of them also bought a Leatherman tool and a CRKT folding knife. For fighting knives, most purchased standard factory produced knives made by Benchmade or Cold Steel. Kevin bought an expensive New Lile Gray Ghost with Micarta grip panels. Against Kevin’s advice, Dan Fong bought a double-edged Sykes-Fairbairn British commando knife. Kevin warned him that it was an inferior design. He preferred knives that could be used for both utility purposes and for combat. He observed that the Fairbairn’s grip was too small, and that the knife’s slowly tapering tip was too likely to break, particularly in utility use. Dan eventually wrapped the knife’s handle with green parachute cord to give it a more proper diameter. Because the Fairbairn did indeed have a brittle tip, Dan did most of his utility knife work with a CRKT folder with a tanto-type point.
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.
Here’s where things take a hard 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.
In more than one of these books, the prepper encounters people who expect him to share the resources he’s planned ahead to store. The analogy with communism or socialism is often explicit.