I have to delay the Sunday Science Book Club and my discussion of Voyage of the Beagle until next week. In the mean time, I'm initiating the first Post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi Corner. Over the next few months, I'll share my experiences as I work through my list of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, one of my favorite fiction genres.

Post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi Corner
Far North, by Marcel Theroux
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2009

Makepeace, the narrator and protagonist of Far North, living in post-apocalyptic Siberia in a not-too-future world devastated by what seems to be war and chaos brought on by catastrophic climate change, sums up her attitude towards science by saying, regarding one particularly implausible scheme to engineer a strain of anthrax that only kills men (leaving women behind to breed children for the conquering army):

"It sounds unlikely, but not unlikelier than many other things I know to be true."

As the great sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke said, advanced science can seem no different than magic, and this is clearly how Makepeace sees science. While this outlook is OK for the protagonist of the novel, it's clear in Far North that the author's outlook is the same.

And thus we get such nonsense as anthrax engineered to kill only men (because, according to the book, it was simply more "practical" to perform this feat of impossible biological engineering than to just create a generally lethal strain of anthrax), a scene where someone, knocked unconscious in a dark room, wakes up and still has to wait for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, a Arctic frontierswoman hero who is described casting bullets with great detail, in the middle of a place without any source of gunpowder, and most absurdly, a mysterious but non-magical flask of some blue light emitting substance that somehow heals wounds flawlessly within minutes, a process that would require rates of cell division that would make E. coli look downright sluggish.

Of course, regarding that last technological wonder, the books physician character 'has a theory' about how the flask works, but refuses to elaborate.

The issue here isn't scientific accuracy or plausibility; it's extremely lazy writing. No matter what crazy scientific advance an author cooks up, it has to be made to resemble science in some way - that is, however much like magic it may appear to the characters, from the author's perspective, there have to be constraints. Especially in a book that aims to reflect on our relationship to technology, our dependence on it, our longing for it, and our ability to destroy ourselves with it. Sci-fi authors, or, more typically, 'literary' authors crossing the genre boundary into sci-fi, would do well to heed Richard Feynman's description of scientific imagination: it's imagination in a straightjacket, imagination constrained by the requirement that it be consistent with all of the other known physical laws or biological principles. This is true even if, for the sake of the story, you choose a new set of physical laws to work from. Science, real or fictional, should always reflect that kind of constraint.

The core notion explored by Far North is this: "Everyone expectes to be at the end of something. What no one expects is to be at the end of everything." This is a rich idea, but it is underused in the book. In Makepeace's post-apocalyptic world, people do what they typically to in post-apocalyptic fiction - they turn to authoritarian religion, crime, enslavement, or isolated surivalism. The stoic, pragmatic Makepeace is a compelling narrator, and she certainly carries the book. However, her story did not add up to anything more than a fairly pedestrian exploration of what people do when the immediate necessities of survival trump all else. As an exploration of our relationship to nature and technology, the book fell short.

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