I’m reading The Stand for the first time, and it’s got me thinking I might need to prepare myself a little better in case some shit actually does hit some fan. What piece of pop culture do you anticipate relying on for survival tips when/if the end of civilization as we know it happens? —Dave Bow
As a teenager, I read a lot of science fiction, including Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s 1977 post-apocalyptic novel Lucifer’s Hammer, in which a comet strikes the earth and causes widespread havoc, destruction, and the meltdown of society, 2012-style. Most of the plot particulars escape me, but what stuck with me most was the one weak, overweight, middle-aged diabetic who earns a place for himself in a heavily fortified survivors’ enclave by virtue of the fact that he owns copies of The Way Things Work and various other basic how-to-do-and-make-things manuals. His practical knowledge of basic skills essentially makes him the court wizard in a feudal castle, a parallel that’s expressly drawn when he eventually uses his knowledge of chemistry to hold off a much larger and more aggressive band of survivors via chemical warfare. Since then, I’ve pretty much felt like since I have no particular skill with a gun or a skinning knife, if the apocalypse came around, I’d want to get my hands on as many useful-stuff-for-dummies manuals as I could carry, and hone skills that don’t rely solely on my ability to kill things. Oh, and hey, Todd’s answer below abruptly reminded me that I grew up listening to the work of an indie folk artist who was also an anarchist and survivalist, and she expressly wrote a couple of “teaching songs” explaining how to make gunpowder, alcohol, and glass lenses for “when the states and the cities fall.” The note on the publisher’s website—“The below lyrics are provided for entertainment purposes only. Don’t be stupid and try to follow them and blow yourself up”—isn’t particularly encouraging, true, but if my book-larnin’ doesn’t get me into one of those protective enclaves, I’ll need to take my chances with song-recipes.
I’ve mentioned this in AVQ&A before, but as a child of the ’70s and ’80s, I grew up pretty much assuming I’d never grow to adulthood. Sounds melodramatic, but honestly—after watching the chilling post-nuke speculation of The Day After on TV and being bombarded by the exhausted, fatalistic resignation of the late Cold War era, it seemed ludicrous to think I’d live to see my own pubic hair. It didn’t help that—in 1980, when I was all of 8—ABC debuted a new Saturday-morning cartoon called Thundarr The Barbarian. On the surface, Thundarr seemed like a kid-friendly mash-up of Conan and Star Wars. But it was way sicker than that; the show’s intro graphically depicted the end of Earth as we know it, thanks to a passing “runaway planet” that splits the moon in half and unleashes massive tsunamis, not to mention a little full-scale “cosmic destruction.” Even more fucked-up: The show even put a solid expiration date on civilization, which ends in 1994. Centuries later, the sword-wielding Thundarr and his big, furry, speech-impeded buddy, Ookla The Mok, patrol the wastelands of America, looking for evil wizards to battle. (Yes, the show’s creators—including subversive comic-book writer and Howard The Duck creator Steve Gerber—regularly set episodes in the recognizable ruins of major U.S. cities.) But what did I learn from all this? I’d love to be lighthearted and say that the lesson was this: The skills I would come to acquire playing D&D would serve me well when it eventually came to surviving in a post-apocalyptic fantasy realm. Seriously, though, this is what I really took from watching Thundarr at the world-weary age of 8: Existence is finite, mostly pointless, entirely hopeless, and subject to the I-could-give-a-fuck shrugs of fate. When judgment day comes, there will be no magic lightsabers or Wookiee-like sidekicks to help me. Embrace escapism while you’re here—and then curl up and kiss your ass goodbye when the shit hits the fan. I can proudly say I abide by that philosophy to this day.
If any of the Mad Max movies are to be believed, the post-apocalypse will suffer from a lack of gasoline, and the world will be ruled by biker gangs and Tina Turner. Max (Mel Gibson, in his arguably saner days) is resourceful and knows how to handle himself when facing down the biker gang that killed his wife and child. Or the biker gang that he’s battling for precious gasoline. Or when he’s entering the Thunderdome. Clearly, the ability to survive hand-to-hand combat is a must, as is the ability to drive a car or motorcycle without crashing. You must also, it seems, prepare yourself for the leather-fetish fashion of the dry, desolate post-apocalypse, as that’s all anyone seems to wear (except for the bike gangs who prefer armor that looks like football shoulder pads, thus leaving a large part of their body susceptible to injury from guns and arrows). Of course, the world seemed to get more post-apocalyptic between the first and second movies in the trilogy (the towns and villages in the first movie were still functioning, more or less) so it seems things only get worse, not better, when biker gangs (and Tina Turner) take over. Be warned.
If, after some catastrophic event, the world began quickly reverting back to the Iron Age, I’d tear “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” out of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and find a good island where I could ride it out. (In the story, this is one of the Aleutian Islands, which seems like a good choice.) Assuming things go down the way they do after The Fall, future generations on this island sanctuary will know what to expect should they travel back into the world. After devastating war (with destructive “flashbangs”) and plague (with a fatality rate of 99.5 percent), society will be pretty primitive, with most of humanity split into rival tribes. If you’re in Hawaii, avoid the savage, genocidal Kona. Assuming my descendents could retain some advanced education, medicine, and technology (like the “Prescients” of the tale), they’ll have the upper hand against these barbarians… but it won’t be enough to save peaceful tribes, like the pastoral Valleysmen, from being wiped out. (On the other hand, people only have a life expectancy of 40 years anyway.) “Sloosha’s Crossin’” has some important conclusions about preserving culture and history, and hopefully they’ll be heeded, but at the end of the day, it’s probably best to get back on the ship and fusion-engine that sucker back to the safe haven of Prescient Isle.
For some reason, I was really into survival-type fiction when I was in grade school, so I have some tips. According to Robert C. O’Brien’s novel Z For Zachariah, do live in a valley during a time of nuclear fallout, so all the nuclear bad stuff just sort of passes over you. If you’re a girl and you want to avoid being raped, don’t nurse the only living man on earth back to health after he bathes in the radioactive stream. And if you’re going by Gary Paulson’s Hatchet, where a young boy must survive in the Canadian wilderness after the pilot of his airplane dies, don’t be afraid to explore crashed planes for possible food sources, but do keep your eyes shut, because there might be gross, scary corpses inside. Do keep a hatchet around for food, shelter, and fire-making (you can create sparks if you hit it against a stone) and do prepare for campsite-wrecking tornadoes, but above all else, don’t lose your hatchet.
When people talk about the end of civilization as we know it, they almost always assume they’ll be lucky enough to survive the shit-meets-fan debacle. Call me pessimistic, but I’m guessing I’ll be going down with the rest of the rabble, which is why the advice in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy seems especially useful. Of course, that advice is really no advice at all, which is exactly the point. We all know the drill: As a group of bureaucratic Vogons prepare to destroy the Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass, the put-upon Arthur Dent is handed an electronic book by his E.T. best friend, Ford Prefect. The book is the fitfully useful Hitchhiker’s Guide (more popular than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus, and better-selling than 53 More Things To Do In Zero Gravity), and its cover contains a tantalizing bit of non-advice: “Don’t Panic.” Remarkably, these two simple words eventually save Arthur’s life, and ensure his survival over five more increasingly convoluted novels. So instead of preparing for doomsday by stocking up on batteries, bottled water, and live ammo, I’ll instead choose to stay calm, relax, and whistle past the incoming death rays.
I’ve long relied on the zombie films of George Romero to show me how not to survive an apocalyptic social meltdown: Don’t get cocky; don’t allow any kind of breach; and don’t start sniping at the people you’re stuck with. So if I ever find myself in a living-dead-type scenario, I hope I can be like the heroes of the original Dawn Of The Dead, and find a shopping mall to secure against zombies and rampaging biker hordes alike. I should think that two of the biggest worries in a desolate landscape would be boredom and want. With a well-secured shopping center, I could eat well and stay entertained. Plus, when I was a kid, I dreamed about what it would be like to live inside a shopping mall. If it takes the end of the world to make that happen, so be it.
Zombie movies, or movies about suspiciously zombie-like outbreaks, tend to be a little grim. That’s understandable, given the bummer nature of a zombie apocalypse. Thankfully, Zombieland is on hand to illustrate how marauding through a hellish, undead wasteland can actually be super-fun. Sure, it’d suck having to dodge various brain-cravers, but just think how easy it will be to cut into the front of the line at Great America! As if that weren’t exciting enough, I’d even be able to hang out with my comic hero and celebrate our survival, California-style. In Zombieland, a nightmare dystopia need not be depressing. Survival skills are of the utmost importance when it comes to surviving a zombie apocalypse, but why even bother surviving if you’re not having any fun? (As a bonus, the film opens with express, specific zombie-survival techniques.)
I’m pretty sure the end of the world (at least, the end of our world) is going to be largely depressing and free of zombies, road warriors, and/or The Walking Dude. Which sucks, and is a total missed opportunity on God’s part and everything, but I’m not going to get into that. Anyway, I’m pretty sure the real end of the world is going to look more than a little like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In McCarthy’s novel, an unnamed father and son cross the country in search of food, shelter, and anything even remotely resembling hope, with what could be called mixed results at best. They forage for sustenance in desiccated homes, finding comfort in dusty canned goods and small mouthfuls of boiled water. The discovery of an opened Coke is a major day-brightener for all involved, roughly akin to me finding $50 bill on the sidewalk, which I would then use to pay for my surprise dinner with Tina Fey right before she hires me to play “Amblin’ Handlen” on the next season of 30 Rock. (It could happen!) I’d like to think the slow death and dissolution of the human race would be a bit more bang-filled, but I gotta side with my man T.S. Eliot here, and The Road is probably the best way to prepare for a whimpocalypse: Accept that there’ll be lots of scrambling, and precious little purpose.
I spent a good period at my old job reading message boards where people talked about how they were taking preparations to survive the oil crash, most of which involved stockpiling canned foods and medicines, though one kid talked about how he was working on his archery skills so when the end came, he could kill wild game, or at worst, neighborhood pets. Why did I do this? Well, I’ve always had a bit of an apocalypse fetish, finding something vaguely fascinating in the notion of the end of all things. (This probably stretches back to when I was a bored little kid in church, looking at the horrific illustrations in Revelation Illustrated, what with the last book of the Bible being the original Christian horror novel and all that.) My favorite post-apocalyptic book, Riddley Walker, doesn’t have a great list of ways to live after the end (though it does have a very veiled recipe for gunpowder!), but I’m comforted by notion that humanity will stagger on, will find its way toward some sort of new way. On the other hand, I’ve also read the Left Behind novels, and I feel fairly confident that in the event of an ultra-specific apocalypse (one involving the antichrist and a beast with seven heads rising from the ocean), I could survive pretty easily by repenting my modernist ways and racing off to a Christianist commune in the desert somewhere to wait out the ensuing seven years. The real trick, in this scenario, is surviving the Rapture, what with its millions abruptly disappearing from the face of the Earth, but I’m confident that becoming a shut-in and avoiding all forms of modern transportation will take care of that. So if you don’t mind, I’ll be building up the colony of Zebedee right here in my apartment, and if I need to get anything, I’ll be taking the donkey.
As I sit at my desk, I’m surrounded by appliances, vital and otherwise, whose inner workings I can’t begin to comprehend. Forget the laptop, the stereo, the Blu-ray player; if society shut down tomorrow, I wouldn’t know where to get a glass of fresh water. In a broken world, the merest token of civilization—like, say, a shopping list—could be all that separates human from beast. At least, that’s the notion behind Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s novel A Canticle For Leibowitz, in which a new Dark Age descends on the world after a nuclear holocaust. The “Flame Deluge,” as it’s remembered six centuries hence, is followed by a period of violent anti-intellectualism, to which an electrical engineer was a noted, and soon martyred, holdout. In the new monasteries, scraps of that engineer’s “Memorabilia,” some significant, some substantially less so, are hoarded and scrutinized like transmissions from deep space, their meaning obscured by centuries of bloodshed. Leibowitz is short on pragmatic advice, but it’s a reminder that the simplest elements require as much preservation as the most complex philosophy.
Here's the apparently foolproof way to survive the rest of the population turning into zombies: Be in the hospital. Now if this only happened in 28 Days Later, I couldn’t rely on it as factual. But since it was the case both for Cillian Murphy in that movie and for Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead, I’m pretty sure it’s true. So when people start walking around, dead-eyed and trying to eat brains, I’m going to rush to my doctor's office and insist that she put me in a coma that lasts for a few weeks at least. Then when I wake up, I’ll still be surrounded by zombies and have to live in a hellish world that makes me hopeless and suicidal on a daily basis, but I’ll be alive! And maybe the zombies will eventually run out of food and die, or whatever’s going to happen at the end of The Walking Dead. I’m pretty sure I’ll survive, though, because I’m the main character in my post-apocalyptic fantasies.