Contributor Fleetwood Robbins is an editor, writer, and speculative fiction enthusiast.
Often, separating who we are from what we do is a difficult proposition, which makes it very hard to make a transition from, say, normal society into, say, a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I am an editor, for example. I have very little know-how when it comes to the natural world and surviving in it. Should there be a zombie outbreak, I can swing a bat or pull a trigger, but forget about setting a snare or making a battery out of tinfoil and pennies. So what does my identity get me when the thing that gave me value in society suddenly has no more value? The short answer is that I would need to re-think what I can bring to the table, quickly.
Fortunes change in an instant. When the president’s plane goes down in the convict colony of Manhattan, one the most notorious criminals in the nation can become the only hope for bringing out the commander-in-chief alive. A mild-mannered clerk at S-Mart, with the help of an intra-dimensional portal, can become a god-like warrior in the Middle Ages. These are the stories of the American Dream in many respects. Given the right circumstances, we can always become more than whom or what we are supposed to be.
That’s why I think Daryl is the best character on AMC’s Walking Dead. He was a self-confessed deadbeat, following his idiot brother from criminal enterprise to whatever redneck scheme they could cook up. Daryl’s loyalty to his brother was a detriment in the regular world, but in the face of the zombie plague his loyalty helps him create an identity for himself as protector and provider, a useful and trustworthy member of his tribe.
The first time I encountered this type of character was with Cottard from the Albert Camus classic, The Plague, and I believe he is the first character of this type. Cottard begins the story as a criminal. He is depressed and exhibits guilt for an unnamed crime. He even goes so far as to try to end his own life. His fortunes change when his city is quarantined with the bubonic plague. With the dire nature of the outbreak, his crime seems more distant. He finds himself in a position to be a valued member of the town as a black marketer. His criminality in this new context is a virtue.
I love the idea that vice can become virtue in the right situation, or that a different, more successful self can emerge from chaotic situations. There is a forthcoming book that is building a little buzz on this front. Due in August, Chimpanzee by Darin Bradley details a world on the wrong side of an economic collapse in which intellectual capital isn’t what it used to be. People unable to pay their student loans are subject to “repossession therapy” in which the government takes back a person’s education. Within the context of self-actualization in the face of cataclysmic change, Chimpanzee has a tremendous amount of promise. I, for one, am really looking forward to it.
But what about now? What can I read today? Billed as Cast Away meets Apollo 13, The Martian by Andy Weir is a book about survival in the face of imminent death. This book is less about identity than the previous titles, but it certainly tackles reinvention and the reclamation of one’s situation. The lead character is a part of manned mission to Mars in which he is left behind for dead on the surface of the red planet. Let’s just say the character’s ingenuity and perseverance go way beyond DIY batteries in his struggle to stay alive.
I think we all hope for that turn in life’s current that will help us swim better and faster than we thought we could. Some may even hope for an apocalypse that will revalue society’s virtues. Fiction allows us to experience these inversals of fortune from a rather safe distance. When it’s very good fiction, it maybe even shows us a way to change our own lives for the better. Is there a book that has given you a new perspective on life, love, happiness . . . or the zombie apocalypse? Maybe you can point to other characters like Cottard who are able to reinvent themselves when things hit the fan (Thomas Covenant comes to mind). Tell us about it in the comments.