Cozy Disaster

This past weekend, our friends Jan and Steve Stirling came over for dinner.

Curl Up with a Disaster

Some of you may know Steve better by his pen name, “S.M. Stirling.”  I’ve known Steve and Jan since 1995, when they moved to Santa Fe from Canada.  Now, I will admit, there was fear and trembling among New Mexico writers when the word arrived that S.M. Stirling was descending from the frozen reaches of Canada to take up residence in our arid wastes.  This was not a typical response.  Usually, New Mexico writers view the addition of another to our number with a certain amount of glee.

But this was S.M. Stirling – the man who created those supreme villains, the Draka; the man whose initials – so it was rumored – stood for Sacher-Masoch.  This was the man who blew up the United States.  Admittedly, Stirling did this in his novel The Stone Dogs, but was this indicative of some not so deeply buried resentment against Americans?  Stirling’s on-line persona – which he has admitted can be less than tactful and gentle – didn’t ease the worried hearts of those who tried to make his acquaintance over the electronic ether.

In this atmosphere of storm and thunder, George R.R. Martin spoke unto me, lines of worry deeply graving his normally bright and cheerful face: “Jane,” said George, “as you know, Roger [Zelazny] always made it his custom to at least meet any SF writer who moved to town.  He made things a lot easier for me when I came here alone and friendless.  Now that Roger’s gone, I really want to continue his tradition, but I admit, I’m a bit apprehensive about meeting S.M. Stirling.  Would you come with us to breakfast some morning?”

And I, eager as George to continue one of Roger’s finer gestures, agreed.

George and I drove to the restaurant mostly in silence, the quiet broken only by an occasional tense joke.  (Do I exaggerate for effect?  Probably.  After all, the restaurant was only about five minutes away).

We took a table in the back room, ordered coffee, and waited.  We weren’t kept long.  A couple clad all in black came through the doorway, pausing in that immortal manner of people looking to meet people who they have forgotten to tell to wear carnations in their buttonholes.

Except for the black, the Stirlings were nothing like what we expected.  There were no tattoos, no steel-studded leather, no jackboots.  True, both wore their hair long, but Jan’s was tucked into a tidy little bun.  Steve’s was drawn back in a neat pony tail, not free around his shoulders in the wild array one might expect.  (Though, honestly, one would more likely expect a tightly shaven skinhead’s coiffure).

The Stirlings were holding hands, as cute and natural as a pair of cuddly bears from a Saturday morning cartoon.  They smiled when their twinned gazes came to rest upon us, recognizing the people they had come to meet.

I’ve always been glad that I accepted George’s invitation to join them all for breakfast, for there I learned that Steve Stirling is nothing like what one would expect.   He’s a fun person of widely varied interests.  Jan shares many of those interests but has talents of her own.  Suffice to say that Steven and Jan rapidly became – and have stayed –  good friends to me.  Steve loves archeology and so he had a lot in common with Jim right off.  Jan’s name before she married Steve was “Moore,” so she and Jim like to joke that they are long-lost cousins.

Now, back to the present…  After we finished dinner (grilled chicken and zucchini with whole grain bread on the side) and were eating dessert (fresh apricots from Michael Wester’s trees), I told Steve how recently I’d read a couple of classics of disaster fiction.  One of these was Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham.  I read this one because – as many of you know – the nickname of my friend and Thursday Tangents collaborator, Alan Robson, is “the bearded triffid.”  After seeing “triffid” in my in-box multiple time a week, I thought I would be a good idea if I learned what one was.

I liked Day of the Triffids quite a lot.  It had some clever ideas above and beyond the mobile and carnivorous plants that give their title to the book.  When I mentioned to Alan that I’d read his name book, he asked “Have you read George Stewart’s Earth Abides?”  He mentioned that it was another classic of the sort of “cozy disaster” novel that had been popular at the time.

Well, I’d had Earth Abides on my shelf ever since it had been mentioned in the comments to my wandering on how the world hadn’t ended as predicted (“Didn’t Happen,” 5-25-11) by several people.  Now I  dove into it.  I’ve got to admit, I was pretty disappointed.  I’d thought the narrator in Day of the Triffids was a bit detached from events – especially at first.  However, compared to Stewart’s Isherwood “Ish” Williams, Wyndham’s William “Bill” Masen was a dynamo of human empathy.  In fact, one of the things I really like about Day of the Triffids is how Bill becomes increasingly involved in events and appreciative of other peoples’ reactions.

The books do have similarities.  In both, a sudden, non-nuclear disaster cripples modern civilization to the point that humanity must do without mass communication and most other technological advances.  In both, the protagonists do a fair amount of solo exploration.  In both, the protagonists feel confident that the stored goods (tinned food, clothing, equipment) left behind will make continued living possible without a heck of a lot of personal effort.  I think this last, especially, is what led Alan to call these “cozy” disaster novels.

One major difference is the narrative approach.  Day of the Triffids is first person.  We’re in Bill’s head for all the events.  Earth Abides is a third person from Ish’s general point of view.  Ish’s material is interspersed with excerpts from news reports.  Later on, when there is no more news, these are replaced by analysis from a never-identified source as to what is going on in the world beyond Ish’s immediate sphere.

As many of you probably already know, Steve Stirling also  tells stories about a fictionalized “end of the world.”  He has two series dealing with the same disaster.  The series that begins with Island in the Sea of Time drops the modern island of Nantucket into the Bronze Age.  The “Emberverse” series tells what happened in “our” world when modern Nantucket went into the Bronze Age.

Given that I was thinking about these similar but different approaches to “cozy disaster,” I decided to ask Steve about how he felt about these two predecessors of his own novels.  Like me, he preferred Day of the Triffids , though he did feel that perhaps too many interesting things (mass blindness, disease, and triffids) had been poured on early in the book.  His comment about Earth Abides was that he felt it lacked a plot – that Stewart had been aiming for a “mythic” treatment.

I had to protest.  Myths are anything but detached and blandly explanatory.  Still, Steve isn’t the first person I’ve heard describe Earth Abides as “mythic” in tone.  Maybe some of you can help me out.  Is Earth Abides “mythic” to you?   Does Ish’s detachment contribute to a “mythic” feel?  Do you like your disasters detached or do you prefer the more personal approach used by John Wyndham and S.M. Stirling?

(By the way, parts of the above are adapted from a piece I wrote on Steve some years ago. )

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2 Responses to “Cozy Disaster”

  1. Paul Says:

    “Earth Abides” was just boring to me, not mythic. “The Day of the Triffids,” on the other hand, kept me reading, as did Wyndham’s “The Kraken Wakes” (aka “Out of the Deeps”) and “The Midwich Cuckoos” (aka “Village of the Damned”). So did Philip Wylie’s and Edwin Balmer’s “When Worlds Collide” (after I’d seen the movie) and H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” (maybe the earliest SF cozy disaster novel). Charles Eric Maine and others seemed to write mostly disasters, with varying results. A few disasters in my SF reading go a long way for me.

  2. janelindskold Says:

    Jim also likes Wyndham’s _Chocky_

    I think that the problem with disaster novels of that type — for me — is that even if you focus on the survivors, the writer either has to deal with the grief and loss or have a protagonist so detached that the matter doesn’t arise.

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