APB started nearly a year ago, but its origins go a little deeper than that. Back quite a few years now, a small group of guys started feeling each other out on how we each saw the world. Everyone played pretty close to the vest, keeping opsec in mind, but pretty soon we were opening up just a little and sending each other emails on topics of common interest. That group has grown closer over the years to the point where we meet regularly, work on projects together, train together, and are now looking to get out of Dodge together.
One of the common threads in those early e-mail exchanges was started by Brother Harold and became known as “Brother Harold’s Book Club.” He would tell us about a book he had read that was either key to his understanding of the world as it really works, or provided some useful information on topics of interest to preppers – homesteading, tactical operations, medical information, permaculture, etc. I found BHBC very useful, and literally keeping the group on the same page has been very useful over the years.
In the spirit of Brother Harold’s Book Club, I thought I’d offer my take on a list of essential reading for the apocalypse. These are just books that have helped form my worldview and informed my prepping effort. I’ve started with fiction because I feel strongly that imagination is as important as outright facts and skills, and fiction, especially fiction in the apocalyptic genre, does a good job of stimulating my imagination.
I’ll cover my fiction selections roughly in the order I read them in my life, just to give you an idea into the development of my thoughts on the state of the world and as a way to trace the development of my attitudes toward preparedness and personal freedom.
“Warday” – Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka.
I vividly recall my introduction to this book in 1984, at the height of the Cold War. I saw an article in People magazine about the authors, and I went right to Waldenbooks and bought the hardcover. The article described the book as a pseudo-documentary first-person account by the authors of a cross-country trip after a limited nuclear exchange with Russia. They conduct “interviews” with survivors, including a general who was aboard NEACP (National Emergency Airborne Command Post) with the fictional President as the war was being conducted. At the time, I was darkly fascinated by the topic of nuclear war, but I found myself drawn into the story of life after The Big One. The book also was my first introduction into the topic of EMP, which is the first harbinger of the Soviet nukes tasked to New York City, home to the authors. Strieber “recounts” his first thought when the lights go out is that his VCR will be reset and not record a movie on HBO later that night. As quaint as all that sounds to us now, it’s a normalcy bias that nearly kills him, because he doesn’t make the connection between the power outage and the fact that the bus he had been riding on suddenly died.
“Nature’s End” – Strieber and Kunetka
I value this book not so much for its environmental message, although there’s some truth to it, but for its prognostication. Set 50 years or so in the future, it portrays an overpopulated, dying planet with unsavory but completely believable cultural changes – overfilled cities where the poor teem about while the rich extend their lives with expensive medical treatments; pervasive technology that destroys personal freedom and robs everyone of any semblance of privacy; tyrannical government and enforcement of countless laws by the dreaded “Tax Police”. The scariest bit is a growing depopulationist movement that seeks international treaties that will give to every person on the planet a single pill and compel them to take it at the same time. Half the pills are placebos, but the other half are suicide pills. Or are they?
As I recall, the environmental catastrophes in the book were mainly due to overpopulation and pollution, and not attributed in 1986 to the not yet fashionable global warming agenda, although there is some mention of that in the book. I don’t put a lot of stock in that aspect of the story, but I have to say that these guys were really switched on about a lot of things in the future. They predicted things like mood-altering pills taken recreationally; tiny computer disks that could fit in a wallet – this in the days of 5.25″ floppy disks, mind you; self-driving cars connected to a global network of computers to track your location and speed and assess tolls and speeding tickets automatically; and the rise of paramilitary law enforcement organizations. The made other predictions that haven’t come true yet, like being able to buy a car air conditioner at Radio Shack and stick it to the dash with double-sided tape, but being that they got so many other things right barely thirty years later, is there any doubt we’ll someday see international death-pact treaties? Oh, wait…
“The Postman” – David Brin
Let me stipulate up front that the Kevin Costner movie was horrible. To be fair, the novel would be extremely hard to make into an accurate movie, but still, in some places they didn’t even come close. I don’t remember how I got turned onto this book – I think I just spied it on the paperback shelf. But it turned out to be right up my alley. Gordon Krantz is a loner, a survivor of a cataclysmic world war that has wiped out something like 90% of the population and forced most survivors into small, walled communities that are disconnected from each other by circumstances, and often by choice. He travels across the remains of North America, working from village to village as a sort of wandering minstrel and singing for his supper. The story begins with him in Oregon, waylaid by bandits who steal his gear and destroy his camp, leaving him to freeze to death in the approaching night. In his pursuit of the bandits, he stumbles upon an ancient Postal Service Jeep, complete with skeletal remains of the postman. He shelters in the Jeep for the night, takes the postman’s clothes, and begins his travels anew. But another encounter with bad sorts gives him the idea of assuming the identity of a Postal Inspector of the fictitious Reformed United States of America, demanding entry into villages for official business. The people are so starved for contact with the outside world that they fall for the ruse, and eventually make Gordon’s fiction into a new reality.
I guess what I found most gripping about this book is the stark truth about how delicate freedom is. Scared, hungry people who are thrown from comfortable lives into subsistence farming and cut off from other communities are vulnerable to all kinds of abuses by petty tinpot tyrants and local lords. I also learned to keep my tetanus shot up to date, and to make sure I have plenty of oral hygiene supplies on hand – one of Gordon’s main concerns after having his camp looted was losing his toothbrush and dying of a raging oral infection, which he had seen happen in his war service. I can remember back in 1992 being obsessed with finding tooth powder, since Gordon was delighted by finding a can while gleaning through an old suburb. I figured I should stock some too. Have I really been a prepper that long?
“Dies the Fire” – S.M. Stirling
Part of a long series of books that really wanders from its original premise, DTF is the story of what happens when the lights go off for good. In what any prepper would take to be an EMP attack, the lights suddenly go out, no electronic devices will work, planes are falling from the sky, and panic is mounting. The EMP explanation goes out the window very quickly as looting spreads and it becomes apparent that not only is the power out, but guns don’t work anymore. With this improbable setup – the survivors eventually blame The Change on “alien space bats” who selectively changed the laws of physics – we follow two groups as the seek safety in a suddenly very dangerous world. One group is lead by a charismatic neo-Celtic Wiccan priestess out of the chaos of dying Portland, Oregon to safety in the Willamette Valley. The other is a former Force Recon Marine veteran of Gulf War I who was piloting a small plane across the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho with a wealthy businessman and his family. The plane crashes, and he leads (most of) them from Idaho to the Willamette, fighting bears, bandits, and cannibals, and eventually attracting a large following of survivors that forms a community of warriors known as the Bearkillers. A third group coalesces around a sadistic history professor and Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA – the Rennaisance Faire people) member who takes to a world without gunpowder like a fish takes to water. Already skilled with swords, which are suddenly the highest technology weapons on the planet, he uses his knowledge of feudal economies to take over Portland and turn it into a kingdom, with him as king, naturally. His group butts heads with the Wiccans and the Bearkillers over the course of the first three books, and then it just goes on to degenerate into Ren Faire geek porn.
But what I took from DTF is how rapidly everything could unravel under the right circumstances. I’m not prepping for alien space bats that can change the ideal gas constant and take away all our high-energy toys, but I do look at the map of Post-Change North America included in the books and see why vast swaths of the country are declared “Death Zones” populated by “cannibals and other neo-savages.” And lucky me, I live plunk in the middle of a Death Zone. No matter what causes a catastrophe, the further away from huge clots of people you are, the better off you’ll be.
And, when you’re looting, take garden seeds, tools, and a horse and cart rather than VCRs and jewelry.
“Alas, Babylon” – Pat Frank
I read this relatively recently, and I may need to reread it – it’s not anywhere near as ingrained in my memory as the other books, all of which I’ve read multiple times. And the book was published in 1959, so there’s definitely some aspects that are dated. But as I recall, the story is about a small town in Florida and how it survives after a full-scale nuclear war with the USSR. The usual themes appear – panic, confusion, food shortages, bank runs, bandits, and good people in bad situations forced into quickly learning how to defend themselves and take care of each other. But being from the 1950s, the book ends with salvation in the form of the arrival of government helicopters. From our vantage point in history, I’d view such an arrival with dread, not delight.
My biggest takeaway from this book was the title. “Alas, Babylon!” was a phrase heard by the main character and his brother in their youth as they listened to the fire and brimstone preacher at the local black Baptist congregation rail against perdition and sin. The older brother, now an Air Force intelligence officer and generally switched-on guy, tells is brother that if anything is ever going to happen, he’ll just use the phrase, “Alas, Babylon!” as a code. So Mrs. P. and I, having both read the book, adopted that as our SHTF pass phrase. It’s a little more manageable than, “Fetch me my Mossberg!”
“Lucifer’s Hammer” – Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Another alien invader crashed the party, this time an errant comet named Hamner-Brown after its dilettante amateur astronomer discoverer, and nicknamed “The Hammer” once it becomes apparent that it’s not going to be a near miss but a direct hit. Extinction level mayhem occurs, including massive firestorms that blot the sun out and plunge us into another Ice Age. To make things a little more fun, China launches a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Russia in case it was thinking about expanding south to relocate its frozen huddled masses. Like they didn’t have enough to think about.
My takeaway from this is the scene where the astronomer, a guy from a wealthy family, has the presence of mind to bug-out to a remote telescope installation in the mountains after surviving “Hammerfall.” It would have been the perfect BOL – remote, high elevation, defensible, and well stocked to house visiting astronomers. Too bad the local yokel caretaker got there first, and was well armed. Lesson learned: you’ve got to live in your BOL, or somebody else will be when you get there.
“One Second After” – William R. Forstchen
When the lights go out and the phones go dead one sunny afternoon in a small North Carolina town, everyone takes it in stride. After the impromptu barbecues of the thawing contents of their freezers, people begin to wonder why the power is taking so long to come back, and more importantly, why even battery-powered radios won’t work. They eventually realize that the country has been attacked by an EMP weapon, and the lights aren’t coming back on – possibly ever. The die-offs of the population start within a week, until 90% of the population is culled.
The book is a grim case study in the fragility of our interconnected, just-in-time delivery world. No power, no computers, no trucks, no food – simple as that. Being thrown back into the 19th century with few useful skills is a shock that most of the initial survivors cannot cope with – no much call for web developers in that world. And I learned that having a 1959 Edsel can look like a pretty sweet ride under the right conditions. But please, for the love of God, remember that off-grid refrigeration can be found as near as the closest abandoned RV.
“World Made by Hand” – James Howard Kunstler
A different imagining of apocalypse than the usual fare, Kunstler’s story is set in a world that destroyed itself with a slow burn of catastrophes – limited nuclear wars, pandemics, global warming, economic failure, and peak oil. Set in the remains of a small upstate New York town, it shows how people deal with life in “an enlightened nineteenth century,” according to Kunstler. In some ways, life is bleak and uncomfortable, but there’s a certain attraction to the slower pace and more sustainable life he describes. It sounds romantic, but the reality of getting there will likely be much grimmer.
Kunstler is a curmudgeon – how else to characterize a guy who runs a blog called “Clusterfuck Nation”? When reading this book, or the non-fiction exploration of peak oil (“The Long Emergency”) which is behind many of the book’s themes, it’s hard not to get the feeling that he makes the near future sound so bad that it couldn’t possibly all be true. Wishful thinking, perhaps – he’s pretty dialed in to what’s going on in the world, so a lot of what he says bears listening to. I especially like his message of sustainability, at least in terms of local agriculture and industry. He has a particularly dim view of the suburbs, and I agree, but I can’t get behind some of his peak oil ideas. Still, the story is full of great tidbits, and left me desperately wanting a spring house on my property some day. Although I hope not to have to use it like they did in the book.
“Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse” – James Wesley, Rawles
The canonical preppers book. JWR wrote it to be a story that could serve as a manual for preppers. It reads like a manual, and not in a good way.
My only real take away from this was learning what things like LP-OPs are. Aside from that, nothing in the book resonated with me. The uber-prepper group in the book is totally unrealistic, and not at all likable. By the end of the book, I was rooting for the government forces to wipe their smug asses out. ‘Nuff said.
“Under the Dome” – Stephen King
People seem to either love Stephen King or hate him. I’ve enjoyed everything of his that I’ve read, but I wouldn’t call myself a fanboy. “Under the Dome” is more aliens messing with us, this time focusing their attention on – what for it – a small town in Maine. These aliens deploy an impenetrable, hemispherical force field over the town, cutting it off from the world. Social conditions quickly deteriorate in town as the local tinpots carpe the diem, acting strictly in the interest of the people.
The lesson here is that small-town politics can quickly morph into a deadly game in an isolated community, regardless of the nature of the isolation. Grudges and scores will be settled, and you’d better be ready for it.
Those are my biggies. There are plenty more – “The Stand,” by Stephen King, “A Canticle of Liebowitz,” by William Miller, The Islander series from S.M. Stirling, and probably tons more that I can’t recall now. I’ve read a lot of them – doom junkie needs his fix, after all.
I’ll list the more practical selections from my non-fiction bookshelf soon. For now, I think I might go back and re-read “Alas, Babylon.” Seems apropos right about now.