Monday, May 4, 2009


With swine flu threatening an almost indubitable apocalypse within weeks, I figure those of us in the general public had best get started on our pre-ordained roles in the planet's last hurrah. And whether it's reuniting what's left of the human race into a ragtag coalition just scraping by, pillaging and looting the weaker survivors or dying an unspeakably awful death somewhere along the line, each of us is fortunate enough to have decades worth of accumulated source material to pull helpful notes and tips from.

I'm talking, of course, about three of the greatest stories ever told about the end of the world, two novels and one a movie. I don't know what I find so fascinating about the annihilation of the human race, but it just so happens it's one of my favorite fictional subject matters, and I consider myself somewhat of a connoisseur of works about the end times.

Before you ask, no I have not read the Left Behind series. Yes, I'm perfectly comfortable living out the rest of my life, short though it may be, without crossing that one off the list.

But I feel works like Stephen King's The Stand, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer, and Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead are must-read (and view) material, even when there's not a final reckoning at hand. They're death by biology, natural disaster and zombies, respectively, so spending a weekend boning up on these classics basically prepares you for all the realistic possibilities.

Because, let's face it, as such bastions of entertainment, cannot we also assume they're factually sound enough to hold water in the event of the real deal?

I say I've got five points of advice gleaned from these works that I'm willing to stake my life on, and anyone who wants into my compound of survivors had best think likewise. The lessons to be learned from these works could spare us fatal mistakes and years of toil.

1. Buy a handgun. And then a rifle. And then a flamethrower. And then stock up on plenty of ammunition.

On a less-crucial note, it wouldn't hurt to know how to use all those things, but I understand money can be easier to come by than time. If Hollywood has taught us anything, it's that anyone can pick up a firearm and learn to use it effectively and safely as soon as the first bad guys come storming in.

And there will be plenty of bad guys in the post-swine flu world too. After an engineered version of the flu killed off 99.4 percent of the world's population in The Stand, a maniacal incarnation of Satan himself mobilized society's surviving evil element to attempt genocide on the gentler denizens of North America. In Lucifer's Hammer, a cannibalistic band of Army irregulars, criminals and religious zealots terrorized the Californian countryside, alternately conscripting or eating the innocents they encountered until a well-organized coalition of survivors and Boy Scouts (sidenote: befriend a Boy Scout) routed them in a bloody counter-attack.

Shaun of the Dead had zombies. The application of firearms explains itself.

But even before you fire a shot, you'll find your arsenal useful. The societal breakdown that inevitably prefaces any endgame scenario effectively reduces social interaction to a "might is right" set of circumstances, and those who invest the time and energy stockpiling foodstuffs, water and petrol will invariably find themselves robbed and stranded by armed brigands, if they're lucky.

If you think post-Katrina New Orleans was an ugly situation, just wait until concepts like "FEMA" and the "National Guard" lose their relevance to otherwise good, but desperate, people.

2. Have a designated fortress or stronghold in mind. As mentioned in step one, for all the survival preparations you make, there will be someone lazy looking to mooch off you or just take what you've got, and without a headquarters that enables you to keep them out and your stuff in, you can make a go of it on the streets and roads for a little while, but you won't make it in the long run.

The size and complexity of your compound really depends on your longterm goals (sidenote: set short- and long-term goals shortly after apocalypse, adjust as needed). If you feel comfortable in being as ambitious as the heroes of The Stand, settle on a small city somewhere with a favorable climate and natural defenses like mountains and get to work rebuilding the infrastructure and, eventually, a society. Boulder, Colorado is already taken, so don't think about it.

Others, like the characters of Lucifer's Hammer, might set their sights a little lower and settle for surviving the post-apocalyptic winter. For them, a mountainside ranch and a nearby town elevated above the tsunami-caused devastation of an asteroid strike was the only obtainable option, but had the advantage of being farmable and providing abundant natural game. The strength of their stronghold was in the type of people they allowed in, welcoming farmers and engineers but turning away many others.

And of course, you can't concentrate on surviving the winter if living through the night is in question. For the Shaun of the Dead crew, a neighborhood pub provided limited protection, stockpiles of food and plenty of drink. Then again, a number of them were eaten by zombies.

Personally, I've had my stronghold picked out since high school, when a group of friends and I laid plans for any worst-case scenario. If we're unable to meet up in our exodus from the city but you, gentle reader, still want to join our band of survivors, you can look for us at a certain low-profile ranch home on a rural farm road, set amongst the rolling farm fields and fed by a creek in northwest Green County.

But of course, we have to get there first. Hence,

3. Mobility is life. In a rural setting, it's crucial to patrolling the countryside for danger and foraging for supplies. In an urban area, a set of wheels lends you the added benefit of separating you from the dangers of the streets and alleys and allowing you to quickly escape dangerous situations. And if your stronghold is 45 miles away, like mine is, the notion of walking that far with your supplies in tow is just silly.

What are you trying to do, after all? Go green? Save the planet? Mission failed. And luckily, with tens of millions dead, supply and demand dictates you should have no trouble appropriating an automobile suitable to your needs.

But they will be unique needs, to say the least. The potential pitfall in procuring transportation is that, when the world ends, so do the services we take for granted like snowplowing, road maintenance and repair garages. While a Toyota Camry will last you decades in the pre-apocalyptic world, it can't mount a snowy incline, offroading around a patch of washed-out roadway or backed up traffic is out of the question and the first technical failure will strand all but the most skilled of mechanics.

As such, The Stand and Lucifer's Hammer each outline the same two diametrically-opposed schools of thought, the simpler of which is riding a motorcycle. While limited in terms of cargo and passenger capacity, the maneuverability and ability of a bike to surmount obstacles is surpassed only by its badass factor. The simplicity of an engine connected to two wheels via a drive shaft or chain means proper maintenance can keep one running long after a more complex piece of machinery would break down beyond repair, and most intermediate-level repairs on a bike are simple enough for an untrained gearhead to attempt.

Being as I own a motorcycle, I think I would tend toward that option, but for those more safety-conscious or not wishing to hibernate through the winter months (sidenote: snowmobiles could be a good idea as well), there's another option. That option entails going out and finding the most monstrous, solidly-built, gas-guzzling four-by-four you can dig up, filling her to the brim with supplies and striking out. A winch, a light bar and auxiliary fuel tanks will extend the usefulness of your new beast, but as gasoline will be an even more limited resource once the refineries stop churning, it would be best to embark on journeys in your post-reckoning tank only in times of dire need.

And of course, Shaun of the Dead demonstrates how your stepdad's Jaguar can be used as a passable battering ram... for zombies, nonetheless. And as long as we're on the topic,

4. Leave your tragic, crippling psychological flaws at home. And I mean that. Surviving without prepackaged food and electricity is going to be hard enough without unresolved daddy issues popping up at inopportune moments, like when the survival of the damn species is hanging in the balance.

Decades from now, the survivors of H1N1 influenza are still going to have nightmares about the horrors they witness in the next month. Post-traumatic stress disorder is just one of the hazards associated with being an Omega-man or woman, and nobody's saying coping is going to be easy.

So I like to think the sheer exertion of staying alive will force the Harold Lauders out there to shy away from their homicidal ego-mania, the Harvey Randalls of the world to move beyond the overwhelming guilt they'll feel for cheating on there soon-to-be-dead wives, but I've read too many books and seen too many movies to really believe it. Not even Shaun's best buddy Ed could stop, well, fucking everything up, and they had to deal with zombies!

Things are going to be ugly , and I'd just as soon spend the rest of my life as the lone survivor (sidenote: stock up on spare reading glasses) rather than devolve into a 30-page character development arc when I could be doing something important like bringing the power grid back online or whatever. And how's someone who can't kick a drug habit when there's work to be done supposed to have the fortitude to deal with the obliteration of the human race as we know it, Nadine Cross?

So steel yourself for the end. Honestly, if you can't stand watching the majority of your friends and loved ones die in agony without losing it, we're probably better off without you in the new world anyway. Which brings us to our next point...

5. If you can't handle post-apocalyptic life, consider dying in the first wave. Warring hordes. Cities populated with corpses. Crapping outdoors. There's a lot that's going to be unpleasant about the day after Judgment Day, and unless you're willing to commit to the full time job of surviving, you might want to save yourself the effort and make an early exit.

That part, thankfully, is much easier to achieve than survival. When the H1N1 virus takes a fatal turn, just make yourself an easy target. Do not wash your hands. Do not wear a face mask. Do not obey quarantine notices. Make your way to the nearest hospital and stake out spot as "greeter," exchanging hugs with victims as they're carted into the emergency room. You'll feel good about your new proactive role, they'll feel a little better and with any luck you'll both be dead within a week.

Going in the first wave will guarantee you a hospital bed, a sympathetic medical staff and a hale supply of morphine to get you through your last 24 hours. You'll be one of the lucky ones that gets to skip out on the storm of funerals that's sure to precede the breakdown of society, although your friends and loved ones will probably have to sit through yours.

So if you don't have the stomach to witness the end of the world as we know it, leave the struggling, the starvation and the panicked riots to those of us suckers with a foolish, bullheaded urge to push on in the face of certain doom.

Hope the tips here help make your end of days a once in a lifetime, successful event. Happy apocalypse, everyone!


Tim Morrissey said...

Great piece, Dusty. You've named two of my three fave "end of world" scenario books. Let me suggest a few more, all of them save one "oldies but goodies"...

First...Nevil Schute's novel "On the Beach", made into a pretty good movie in 1959 by Stanley Kramer. Post-nuke slow death scenario.

Second... Pat Frank's 1959 novel "Alas Babylon". A great read. Both the above were written in the late 50's when all of us baby boomers as kids were convinced we were going to die in a sneak nuke attack from the commies.

Third...Farnham's Freehold, a Robert Heinlein novel, which is the best survivalist tale I've read.

And sort of a newby to the list, the novel "One Second After", written a few years back by William Forstchen, about what happens to America when terrorists launch three EMP bombs from boats in the gulf coast, and all our electronics die instantly. Don't be off-put by the introduction from that ass Newt Gingrich; it's a hard-core survivalist novel that reads quickly.

I'm impressed that the Niven/Pournelle novel is in your repertoire; it sits right next to "The Stand" in my bookshelf. Have you read their novel "Footfall"? Or Whitley Strieber's "Warday"?

There are so many.....

MattRock said...

Nice adds, Mr. Morrissey! If all goes to hell in a hand basket, I want Heinlein's character "Friday" on my side!
1. I don't own a gun, but my third date with my now wife was to "Fletcher's shooting range" in Waukesha!
2. Our "Fortress" is a family farm in a valley here in Dane County. For added measure, we are trying to convince "Farmer Ludwig" of the income potential of wind power!
3. Got a motorcycle as well, but I have always said I will only buy one more pick-up after the current one. The next one will be a diesel so it can be modded to run on bio-diesel. Field to tank.
4. Prepackaged food? Heck, I'm married to Ingrid.
5. I'll be damned if I'm gonna roll over. I have a cousin who finished his last year of college in Whitewater in the 80's while living in a tent in some woods about a mile out of town. Seriously! He showered at my house or at the arts building! Survival is in our blood I guess...

Dustin Christopher said...

That's it, Morrissey and Mattrock. If it all comes crashing down, I want on the same compound as both you guys so's we can start a book club!

Tim, I was weened on classic SF by my Pops, and Niven and Pournelle were seldom far from the top of the stacks of books he would pass to me. Whether it's "Hammer" or "The Mote in God's Eye" or the tales of John Christian Falkenberg, theirs was some of the best. I haven't read the novel "Footfall," but I have read the short story it was based on. A couple friends have recommended "One Second After," so that's near the top of my list, and I'm always happy to have some Heinlein foisted upon me.

Mattrock, I'm coming looking for you after the endgame, 'cuz I already knew I want you on my side, bud. :) And the Rockwell clan.

Pops said...

I've got "Warday" at home, too...

And you know how high up on my list "The Stand" is.

Caity said...

I can't honestly believe that you forgot the recent advice given to us by I Am Legend! (And from the looks of it, the new Terminator movie will disclose the same counsel.) Always have a portable radio that works on any repeater in the state you choose to build your fortress in. That way, if any other badass survivors decide to reach out a helping hand to those with low supplies, you can easily strike up a deal and meet in a predefined, centrally located safe zone to make the transfer.

1. I don't own a gun but I know enough law enforcement officials that I can beat up and theft one from.
2. Fortress? How about a farm in southern Waupaca County!? The apocalypse will be sure to overlook that location!
3. No motorcycles but I've already picked out a Hummer that I can commandeer off a "hot blonde" that I'm sure won't make it past the first wave.
4. Prepackaged food? Again with knowing law enforcement - MRE's! And the fortress I've chosen is laced with farm land and since it is Wisconsin, teeming with deer.
5. All that being said, I'll probably take up a job as a hospital greeter. Great advice!

pricklypearbloom said...

Everything I know about post apocalyptic survival I learned from The Stand and Road Warrior. It's been awhile since I've read the old Stand, though, and I miss it. I might have to crack it open again, for a refresher course.

Bryan Kerrigan said...

First off, you don't need to befriend a Boy Scout, I am an Eagle Scout. I also have hand to hand combat and weapons training.

Secondly, you have to borrow Clinton's copy of "The Zombie Survival Guide." It contains an in depth look into the strategy of surviving after a level 3 outbreak.

To add to your post, you should also have some sort of melee weapon in addition to any sort of gun. The advantage is they don't run out of ammo and attract a lot less attention than a gun going off.

Thirdly, you need to get Left 4 Dead, it is pretty awesome.