Tag Archives: post-apocalypse

The perfect game for post-apocalypse fans

fallout3Post-apocalyptic stories abound in science fiction, in novels and movies far too numerous to list. For some reason we just love seeing the world wiped out by disaster, and have a fascination with the broken landscape that remains afterward. For those who share this interest, and who also like to play a good game from time to time, there couldn’t be a more perfect game than Fallout 3.

The game takes place a couple of hundred years after a nuclear war that occurred in the late 21st century. So, while the world is basically a wasteland, the environment (architecture, vehicles, etc.) has a slightly futuristic look to it. And while humanity is still devastated and downtrodden, there are pockets of high technology here and there, and groups struggling to rebuild society and/or grab power for themselves. You play a character who grew up in an underground facility built to protect a small group of people during the war. When your father leaves the vault under mysterious circumstances, you decide to go out into the big bad wasteland and find him. And that’s when the real fun begins.

The action takes place in the remnants of Washington D.C. — the Capitol Wasteland — and the surrounding countryside; and this shattered post-nuclear landscape is beautifully presented. The crumbling buildings and roads, the isolated sections of raised freeway, the abandoned cars, everything is portrayed in fine detail and contributes to a satisfyingly haunting atmosphere. And while there are plenty of other characters to interact with, one of the most appealing parts of the game is simply the ability to roam around and explore the ruins, whether it’s the sinister subway tunnels, the rubble-choked streets, D.C. landmarks (Capitol building, Washington monument, Arlington Cemetery), or the open hills and grasslands outside the city.

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The game packs in a lot of sci-fi elements besides the post-apoc setting. There are mutant humans in several varieties, giant mutant scorpions and ants, robots, runaway androids, a certain sub-plot that bears a strong resemblance to The Matrix, futuristic weapons, and other assorted pieces. There is also a huge amount of space to explore. After I finished the main story sequence, I realized that there were still huge areas of the map I hadn’t even touched. Obviously there were many side quests I missed out on, making me eager for a replay (something I don’t often do with games).

There seems to be quite a bit of flexibility in how you play the game, as far as what kinds of skills you develop and in your basic moral stance. My first time through I played pretty much the straightforward “good guy,” so next time I think I’ll try the dark side and be an evil S.O.B. As far as mechanical aspects, the controls and such, I have no complaints. Everything was easy enough to learn quickly and use effectively. There are a couple of features I did like. One is the ability to switch between 1st and 3rd person views. Another is the targeting system by which you can attack specific parts of an enemy’s body. Oh, one other point in the game’s favor: the voice of Liam Neeson.

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Plenty of exhilarating combat here, as well as a decent story to immerse yourself in. But the best part by far is simply the exquisitely-drawn atmosphere of a ravaged post-nuclear world. Roaming these wastelands was some of the most fun I’ve had from a game in some time.

Post-apocalypse classic: Canticle

Moving right along with my sf education, I just finished another of those famous classics I’ve heard about for pretty much my whole life but somehow never got around to reading until now. This time it’s A Canticle for Liebowitz, 1959, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. It’s a post-apocalypse story about the world after nuclear annihilation, and about the double-edged nature of human knowledge — how we value and treasure it deeply, while at the same time knowing it can (and almost inevitably will) be put to evil uses.

The novel is structured in three parts, set at 600-year intervals, and revolves around the actions and beliefs of an order of monks who are dedicated to preserving bits and pieces of knowledge from before the “Flame Deluge.” The Church is, in this post-apocalypse world, the primary force for the preservation of literacy and the copying of whatever written fragments survived; that’s a very believable direction for Miller to take, given that it echoes real history from the Dark Ages. In this first part of the novel, the world is a chaotic place with no real governments, just people trying to survive and slowly pick up the pieces. The major action takes place when a certain novice monk finds a stash of records and relics from the time of the Deluge. And since they appear to be related to a scientist named Liebowitz, the very man this monk’s order has nominated for sainthood, this of course causes quite a stir.

Things pick up in the second part, another 600 years down the road. By now, city-states have arisen and power has begun to centralize and politics has once again reared its ugly head. Science has also made some progress, due partly to information contained in the Liebowitz records. This part of the novel involves the first scientific genius in the post-apocalypse era, whose theories go a long way toward re-establishing humanity’s lost knowledge base. It’s heartening to see the rediscovery of the electric light and the possibility of humanity regaining its lost glory. At the same time, though, Miller forces us to think about the ugly intersection of science and politics. One of the themes of this novel is the question of what kind of responsibility scientists should have, and how strongly they should resist handing over their knowledge to ignorant politicians to misuse. Miller points out that “ignorance is king” — that politicians and leaders WILL abuse science and technology in pursuit of power, and WILL put their petty and selfish short-term goals ahead of the long-term good of the people, a fact even more blatantly obvious today than when this book was written.

After yet another 600 years, the species has achieved, and surpassed, its pre-apocalypse level of technology. They have computers, spaceflight, off-world colonization….. and, unfortunately, also retain their belligerent tendencies in the form of a large nuclear arsenal. There’s a tense Cold War atmosphere of impending disaster, and the tension only grows worse as we get little snippets of news reports about world events, and it becomes clear that another nuclear war is coming soon. As in the previous parts of the book, the abbot of the Order of Liebowitz plays a central role, and this modern abbot asks:

Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix, in an unending sequence of rise and fall?

Adding to the sense of impending doom are several press conferences in which the media grill the U.S. Secretary of Defense (who shows exactly the same air of arrogance, petulance, and evasiveness displayed by former SecDef Rumsfeld; and these reporters ask really tough questions — I can only wish that was realistic also).

The novel ends on a mixed note: yes, the second apocalypse happens, but not all of humanity is destroyed since there are some off-world colonies. But the question remains: will those colonies end up in the same position and eventually destroy themselves as well? Is a cycle of self-annihilation inevitable? Will humanity never overcome its war-like nature?

Overall I found this novel to be a very sobering and thoughtful look at these issues, although there was also some humor here and there to lighten the mood. There was also a small supernatural aspect to the book, and of course I didn’t care for that, but I can overlook it as it wasn’t major. I thought the prose was very readable, even beautiful in places. I especially loved the transition between the first and second parts, given through the viewpoint of generations of buzzards flying over the changing world. I also liked Miller’s description of a nuclear mushroom cloud:

The visage of Lucifer mushroomed into hideousness above the cloudbank, rising slowly like some titan climbing to its feet after ages of imprisonment in the Earth.

A very decent and worthwhile read.

Wilhelm’s Sweet Birds: sweet, yet partly silly

I just finished Kate Wilhelm’s 1976 classic Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, and it’s one of those love/hate situations. In some ways this is a really great book; but in other ways, it makes me want to grab the author by the shoulders and shake her while asking “what were you thinking!?” Well all right, I may be exaggerating a bit. Let’s just say I have some criticisms, but they didn’t stop me from enjoying the book, which despite some flaws was really very gripping and emotionally engaging.

What we have here is basically a post-apocalypse novel; within a very short time frame all the accumulated problems of human pollution and ecological rape reach a tipping point (while the politicians ignore it), and the world as we know it goes bye-bye. Through a combination of devastating new diseases and sterility, most of humanity is gone. This part is quickly sketched out as background with few details, which is no problem because the focus of the story is not how the disaster happens, but what comes after.

In an isolated valley in Virginia a small group of people (a few hundred) manage to survive because they foresee what’s coming and make plans. At the heart of this group is a small number of doctors and biologists who recognize the crucial problems that will have to be faced: the sterility of most of the survivors, as well as most of the livestock. These core planners, and most of the other people, are members of several large interconnected families, who use their wealth to build a research hospital and a laboratory complex before the disaster strikes, and to store up as many supplies as possible. They realize they’ll have to clone the livestock in order to have a steady food source. Only later are they forced to accept the grim realization that cloning is also the only option left for continuing humanity. So they give in to reality and start a cloning program, with just enough sexual reproduction from the few fertiles mixed in to barely stay ahead of the degenerative effects of sequential cloning.

Now, this is where things get silly: the clones take over, seeing themselves as something fundamentally different from, and better than, their “parents.” I’ve often wondered where people get their strange notions about clones being inhuman monsters, or exact duplicates down to the last detail, or the other bizarre stereotypes. Perhaps these attitudes came from the pulp SF of earlier ages, I’m not sure. But Wilhelm seems to buy in to them to some degree, and they infect the story from start to finish, detracting from what otherwise could have been a near-perfect novel if the science had been better grounded. Ironically, one of the characters manages to voice my criticism perfectly:

“Don’t be an ass,” David said sharply. “You’re not a separate species.”

But, the clones persist in seeing themselves as a new species, and this is largely due to the special qualities Wilhelm bestows upon them. The clone-groups (six or more people cloned from the same source) behave almost as a single individual. They are exactly alike physically, very nearly so mentally, can’t stand to be away from each other (to the point of freaking out), and have an ESP-like ability to sense each other’s moods, feelings, injuries, even their locations to some extent. And there are other strange effects. They are deathly afraid of the woods, for some strange reason. They have “dead areas” and a lack of creativity. And when they have a learning defect, they ALL share the same defect exactly. There’s no “nurture” to balance “nature” here — there’s no differentiation arising from slight environmental or experiential divergence, as would be the case in reality. They’re carbon copies. In what has to be THE silliest point in the book, one clone-group of six boys ALL have appendicitis AT THE SAME TIME!!! So yeah, there’s not much biological nuance here, and Wilhelm’s understanding of the issues surrounding cloning seems hopelessly muddled.

On the other hand, the takeover by the clones is also where the book gets good, because it sets up a deep and ongoing social conflict of individuality versus group conformity, and that’s one of my favorite social themes, surfacing in some of my favorite SF novels. The leaders of the clone society make their priorities very clear:

We all know and agree it is our duty to safeguard the well-being of the unit, not the various individuals within it. If there is a conflict between those two choices, we must abandon the individual. That is a given.

Indeed, the clone leadership has no compunctions about either banishing or euthanizing anyone who upsets their community by daring to be unique.

The conflict plays itself out through several generations, with different individualist “heroes” in different parts of the book. The first is David, quoted above, one of the biologists who founds the project, and who is unable to stop his “offspring” from taking power. Later on there is Molly, a clone who, after being away from her clone-group on an expedition, feels the urge to individuality emerge within her. Another such clone is Ben, who, along with Molly, happens to be fertile, and they have a son named Mark. Mark ends up being the strongest character in defense of individuality. In answer to the clones’ “there is no one, there is only the whole” philosophy, he defiantly declares:

“They’re all lies! I’m one. I’m an individual! I am one!

And he does this at the risk of his own life, knowing the powers-that-be barely tolerate his presence and may decide to end his life at any time. Now that’s a character I can admire and sympathize with. Indeed, that’s one of the things Wilhelm really succeeded at: on a personal level, the characters are believable and convincing, and exhibit realistic emotion. They are easy to care about, to worry about, to root for, and to admire.

Another thing Wilhelm does well is portraying the solemn emptiness of the post-apocalyptic world as the characters travel through it, reaching out to see what’s out there. As Mark travels the eastern waterways by canoe all alone, the sense of isolation is profound. There’s just something very convincing about the natural settings in which the plot unfolds: the rivers, the trees, the caves, the rain. I don’t know how she did it, but they all seemed so vivid, as if I could almost reach out and touch them.

By the end, there’s a resolution to the whole conflict, but I won’t spoil it for you. The bottom line: this novel was pretty weak on a scientific level, but was very very strong on other levels: social, personal, emotional, and on the level of writing style, which flowed smoothly and pleasantly. An enjoyable experience overall, and I will certainly consider reading more from Wilhelm.