Nandini quoted some Angela Carter on twitter and I found myself reading bits of Shaking a Leg again, as you do. And so I found myself rereading this, and it was just as I had started reading Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium (which is great, incidentally), and I’d forgotten how strongly it had resonated with me as an SF fan (and as someone whose apocalypse nightmares are always quiet). From “Anger in a Black Landscape”, originally published in Over Our Dead Bodies: Women Against the Bomb in 1983.
One of the most curious phenomena of the postwar period has been the growth of fictions about the blissfully anarchic, tribal lives the lucky fifteen million survivors are going to lead in a Britain miraculously free of corpses, in which the Man with the Biggest Shot-Gun holes up in some barbed-wire enclave and picks off all comers. (Polygamous marital arrangements are often part of these fantasies.) The post-nuclear catastrophe novel has become a science fiction genre all of its own, sometimes as warning — more often as the saddest and most irresponsible kind of whistling in the dark.
Have you seen Goya’s “black” pictures in the Prado, in Madrid? You go through several rooms full of sunlit, happy paintings — children at play, beautiful young men and women dancing, picking grapes, a world of sensual delight — and, then, suddenly … paintings in black and ghastly grey and all the colours of mud, where swollen, deformed faces emerge from landscapes incoherent with devastation. The most awful one, that most expressive of a world of nothingness, shows a dog’s head peering over the side of a mound of slurry. The sky, if you can call it a sky, is the colour of a bruise. And you know, from the infinite desolation of the scene, he is the last dog left, and, from the look of him, he’s not going to last much longer.
Impossible, in that appalling room, to escape the notion, that Goya, in his famous despair, in his hatred of war and human folly, saw further than most people; there is something prophetic in these pictures, that have the look, not so much of paintings, but of photographs taken with some time-warped, heat-warped camera, of a Europe in a future that remains unimaginable … a wreckage of humanity, a landscape from which all life has been violently expelled … unimaginable; but not impossible.
Yet the iconography of such catastrophe is, surely, familiar to us all, by now! Anyone who reads this book will have her or his own private nightmare of pain, loss, annihilation; my own private image is not a violent one. It is of a child crying in the dark, and there will be nobody to come, not ever. Which is the worst I can possibly imagine.
Also relevant to my unformed thoughts here is Matthew Cheney on apocalypse stories.