During research for an upcoming project I found myself unexpectedly plunged into the murky depths of self-published novels written on the topic of civilizational collapse. In these stories, the most common cause for the “Fall” is an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), a burst of radiation powerful enough to damage or destroy the delicate electronics that power much of our modern world. Sometimes the EMP is intentionally caused and sometimes it originates from the heavens, but in either case the effect on humanity is immediate and profound. Which is obviously what a reader expects when he or she picks up a post-apocalyptic novel: Our convenient lives, cruising along at breakneck speed, crash headfirst into the unmovable reality of a world stripped of luxury, leaving behind a terrible, fascinating aftermath. What I didn’t expect from these stories, possibly because I’m as naive as I am curious, is to find the American culture divide as clearly defined as anywhere you might look.
If you aren’t familiar with how a typical EMP-centric story works, I’ll paint you a quick picture: The pulse destroys most or all electronic devices, which render phones and cars and computers inoperable and takes down the power grid. The world becomes (figuratively and literally) a very dark place where most people will soon die, either from starvation, dehydration, sickness, or violence. And while all that makes for a compelling plot, I’m even more interested in the philosophical reaction to world-altering events, the fundamental questions of who we are and who we want to be and why humans care about anything other than pure survival. Because a story that doesn’t include introspection isn’t much of a story at all. It’s more of a handbook on what to do if you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation. As it turns out, that’s exactly what most “prepper fiction” wants to be, and by the way I don’t mean handbook as a metaphor: Many of the popular authors in the (sub)genre not only tell you how to survive, but specifically describe the tools and supplies you’ll need to a level of detail that implores you to break out the credit card and start typing in part numbers. If none of these authors are getting paid for product placement, they’re doing capitalism wrong.
But if the stated goal of prepper fiction is to explain what to do and buy before the Fall, it’s also obvious that many of these authors want to lecture unprepared city folk (typically referred to as “sheeple”) about how wrong and horrible they are for being unprepared. A scene you’ll find in almost every novel like this is when the tough, no-nonsense white male protagonist happens across a downtown, leftist wimp who never realized until today that meat doesn’t grow in trimmed rectangular slabs, or that clean water from the faucet doesn’t get there accidentally, or that sharing resources amounts to nothing more than a socialist ploy that allows the weak to prey on the strong. And this is where the central theme of these novels can be found: The world is already falling apart, it’s happening before our eyes, and it’s time to choose sides. Are you the kind of person who takes care of himself and his family, or are you one those hope-y, change-y liberals who never worked a day in his life, who couldn’t survive a day without government cheese and subsidized rent? Is it really a coincidence the prepper movement found new life starting in 2009? Wasn’t President Obama a catalyst for the Fall so many were worried about, that in fact certain God-fearing people had long expected? Wouldn’t the new black President take your guns and tax you into oblivion and make your schoolchildren read from the Quran? At the very least he would probably be angry about hundreds of years of systemic racism and try to level the playing field by taking from you.
And there’s also this: Conservative readers (and viewers) are historically underserved. Authors and filmmakers and artists of all kinds are necessarily students of human nature, because understanding and empathizing with your neighbor lends depth and texture to your work. This is what, in my opinion, leads conservatives to consider most art and media as “liberal,” because if the actors in television and films don’t act like you or look like you, if the books you read seem foreign or even actively contradict your values, you aren’t going to like them. You might come to believe those artists and members of the media are conspiring to make you look provincial or stupid or childish, which is likely to harden your feelings against the rest of the world that isn’t you. After all, you as a conservative can plainly see the world is spiraling out of control (or that the balance of power is shifting) and it’s only a matter of time before the disenfranchised show up at your door, ready to steal. And if none of the liberal elitist publishers in New York want to publish a book that appeals to your worldview, Amazon is more than happy to let you do it yourself.
On the surface, prepper novels appear to be stories of survival against some future apocalyptic event, but no doubt some of these authors are writing about the world as they see it now: Enemies are already closing in and they have no choice but prepare to defend their way of life.
If you think this observation is only mine, you should check out reviews on Goodreads:
There are basically 2 types of people in this book, Christians and ‘evil bastards’. The good guys have the Lord as their wing man, like to state their need to ‘go potty’ and have an encyclopedic knowledge of guns and ammo – which they employ to shoot godless evil bastards through the head.
But, in fairness, negative reviews are far outnumbered by positive ones like this:
This book also made me want to be better prepared for any type of emergency. It really made me realize how spoiled we as Americans are. I already had a big fear of how much of our lives the government has control over and this book really shows how easily they could gain total command.
Many of us were surprised at the silent majority that pushed Trump to victory in 2016, but readers of prepper fiction might not have been. Trump says the things they want to hear. He appears to empathize with them in a way other Presidential candidates can’t or won’t. He never wants his base to see him compromise because they don’t believe it’s fair to compromise their core values. The protagonist in a prepper fiction novel solves his problems with a gun maybe because that’s how the author wishes he could handle his own conflicts and aggravations today. He’s angry at the state of the world, even if that anger is misplaced. Even if the one who promises the most delivers the least.
While preparing to publish this article I happened to read this piece in the New York Times that discusses the deep politicization of culture in the United States and how genetic predispositions could be partially responsible for differences in core values. In the piece, Kevin Arceneaux, a political scientist at Temple, offers this quote: “It is important to resist the tendency to see heritability of eye color, for example, as the same thing as the heritability of an attitude. I cannot change my eye color, but I can change my attitudes.” This is something I identify with, having been raised in a conservative household. I left home at age 19 with a set of political and cultural positions that mostly matched my family’s, but which have evolved considerably over time. This has led me to believe that personal and cultural values are malleable and can be changed if one is willing to be curious and open-minded. But what if that isn’t exactly true? What if curiosity and empathy are genetically-influenced? Taught? Both? How are we meant to reconcile differences that could be biological in nature?
America’s reckoning with race and income inequality, along with the demand for real change and opportunity that benefits everyone, has reached peak volume in recent months. There are no easy answers to the questions that every one of us will eventually face. Real change won’t come without many Americans being willing to adapt their deeply-held beliefs. And if the first step in reaching common ground is to better understand your adversary, pick up a prepper fiction title and immerse yourself for a day or two in reality as he or she sees it. You might learn something. I certainly did.