End-of-the-World Fiction

Friday, October 21st, 2016

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 differentPatriots, 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.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Back in the 1950s, there were discussions over whether a family that had built and stocked a bomb shelter could morally exclude their neighbors who hadn’t.

  2. Coyote says:

    Rawles has been one of the best for preppers. The hardcore details are indeed at times difficult to wade through but well worth the effort if you consider yourself a prepper or doomsteader. Even more important, in my humble opinion, are the excellent strategy and tactics of defense of small local communities if the zombie apocalypse does come about — and it will if the EBT cards stop functioning.

  3. Knickerbocker says:

    Twilight Zone episode, ‘The Shelter’ illustrates your point well, Coyote.

  4. Allen says:

    She gets defensive at the end doesn’t she?

  5. Isegoria says:

    “The Shelter” is available on Hulu, by the way. And Amazon Prime. Netflix, too.

  6. Slovenian Guest says:

    Or, for those living in the copyright outback like me, “The Shelter” on GorillaVid.

    And to Bobs point, we were actually turned away from the air raid shelter down the road back in 1991 during our short war of independence. It was for residents living directly above it only. Sorry comrades, socialism is over, so we went back home and reinforced the cellar. Good times!

  7. Space Nookie says:

    I’m personally not a fan of Patriots. “The Lists” seem to be lifted off discussion boards and rewritten as character actions or opinions. It is an easy way for the author to churn out the pages.

  8. Kentucky Headhunter says:

    Who’s gonna argue with Space Nookie? Not me. Lights Out is an enjoyable if not completely believable post-EMP scenario.

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