Survival Novels as Useful Preparedness Parables, by W.E.

As a college teacher, NRA firearms instructor, and military trainer (including survival skills), I have spent years sorting the most effective teaching techniques from less effective ones.  Obviously, some types of training, such as marksmanship, require hands-on methods, while classroom presentations are more appropriate for other subjects.  In all cases, however, it is common for students to base their questions on preconceived notions.  For example:  “What is the ‘best’ handgun?”  Best for what situation?  Or,
 “What is the best survival kit?”  I always reply, it’s the one you carry between your ears;  knowledge, not equipment.  And, I am often asked similar questions about “best” books, and again, I counter, best for what? 

For actual instruction on survival-related skills, there exists a plethora of training manuals, old and new, general and specialized, beginner level to expert.  Some of these books give the subject matter straight and unvarnished; others contain an admixture of politics, patriotism, or preaching along with the technical data.  I quarrel with neither approach, but I do have reservations about much recommended “inspirational” literature, – mostly novels, – intended to “send a message” or otherwise stimulate the readers’ thought. 

Far too many of the current crop are based on premises or plots so implausible that the author undermines any credibility his characters’ actions may have.  This is entertaining, but it leads the reader directly into the realm of imagination, if not outright fantasy, (not unlike imagining oneself as James Bond) instead of leading him to ask, “what would I do in that situation?”  Moreover, though it may be like sugared medicine, a truly inspirational story must go down smoothly, so the reader gets the point without feeling he is being preached to.  So, why bother? Why not stick with the technical books?

As mentioned, hard skills can be learned, and practiced, but it is difficult to develop, much less measure a person’s survival mindset, his ability to anticipate problems he might encounter, his situational understanding.  Even Jesus recognized that most people learn best through stories:

“. . . the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?  He answered and said unto them,  Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.  . . . because they see not; . . . neither do they understand.” – Matthew 13: 10 – 13

Some books that meet the criterion of  “understanding” have stood the test of time:

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank [the pen name of newspaperman Harry Hart Frank] is the overall best post-apocalyptic novel.  First published in 1959, it is still in print.  It tells the story of a fictional town in Florida, coping on its own after a brief nuclear war has destroyed central government and electrical power.  There are some exciting conflicts, but no space aliens, no diseases unknown to science, no comets striking the earth, no roving bands of drug-crazed looters – just sympathetic characters realistically dealing with plausible problems.  One older character salvages a discarded bicycle, recognizing its value if the gasoline runs out.  Another character saves irrigation pipe, realizing that the city water supply will soon fail.  Lacking medical instruments, a doctor improvises a surgical kit from household tools.

The book is well-written and the plot builds to an exciting, yet plausible, climax.  Some of the 1950s technology is outdated, such as tube-type radios, and some details have changed —  the Air Force Base mentioned is now Orlando’s airport – but the fictive town is based on the real town of Sanford, Florida, the other places mentioned are real, and the characters seem real, too.  They are neither survivalists, nor firearms experts, nor former Green Berets; the reader can relate to them without delving into fantasy.

First runner-up, and best in the emergency evacuation category, is No Blade of Grass (1956) by “John Christopher,” the pen name of prolific British science fiction author, Samuel Youd.  His series of books depicting life after a space alien invasion is popular, but this book is realistic and plausible.   A plant disease wipes out most of the world’s food crops; famines, riots, wars, and social chaos follow.   Several families band together to escape London, losing their vehicles halfway through their odyssey.  The characters deal with privation, hardship, danger and violence in realistic ways. Some of them cannot accept “murder for self-preservation;” others willingly trade their personal freedom for protection by the stronger.  A historically-minded reader can see a parallel to the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of feudalism in an insecure Europe.

No Blade of Grass is now back in print, but look for copies from earlier editions that are widely and inexpensively available on the used book market.  It is also known under the British title Death of Grass and a reprint title, An End to Grass.  A 1970 motion picture bears little resemblance to the book, so skip the movie.

The award for Miss Uncongeniality goes to the title character in Vandenberg (1971), re-titled by the publisher as Defiance: An American Novel (1981), by Oliver Lange (the pseudonym of novelist John Wadleigh).  Vandenberg, the character, is a rebellious social misfit who resists indoctrination after a Communist take-over of the American West. He finds it harder than most such books make it seem.  Vandenberg pontificates, “to listen to some, if the day ever came, 500,000 citizens, all appropriate Rogue Male types, would melt into the hills, and when they weren’t creating havoc among brutal Occupation forces, they would be practicing the fine art of survival.”  On equipment, he says, “if a survival and guerrilla nut bought all the stuff the outdoor stores and catalogs said he needed, it would’ve taken a 25-foot U-Haul trailer and two weeks of packing to get him out of his damned driveway.”

Of course he does go into the hills, and the author’s descriptions of the New Mexico mountains are so accurate the book’s locations can be found on a map.  Eventually he does get some equipment, and he does recruit a few other rebels willing to fight back, but the ultimate result is more thought-provoking than satisfying.  Both titles are out of print but available on the used book market. 

A similar theme with a more optimistic conclusion is developed  by Samuel Southwell, a former U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, in If All the Rebels Die (1966). Southwell’s characters resist enemy occupation after a brief nuclear war, but it is their discussions about patriotism, duty, resistance and its consequences – especially the consequences of reprisals by the enemy – that stimulate the reader to think, “what could I do in such a situation?”  “What would I do in such a situation?”

Many books, both current and past, develop the idea of retreating to the mountains and ultimately fighting the “bad guys” of that particular scenario. “Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse” ( 2006, 2009, and earlier draft editions [under other titles]) by James Wesley, Rawles, is a current best-seller that has been described as “a survival manual disguised as a novel.”  It is the now-standard dystopian tale of the hardy band of survivors coping in the wake of the collapse of civilization, and it is representative of this type plot – nothing original here.  But it differs from similar works in the early chapters which describe a collapsing economy: 

“The President . . . instead of reducing growth in government spending launched an immoderate bank lending stimulus package . . . the Federal Reserve . . . began monetizing large and larger portions of the debt (p.13)  The dollar collapsed because of the long-standing promises of the FDIC . . . the government had to print money – lots and lots of it.”  (p. 15)

This is prescient, considering the first edition of this book came out about 1999, before the current government actions it seems to predict, and the theme of economic collapse followed by chaos has resonated with many readers.  The remainder of the book, however “action-packed,” is far less plausible.  An earlier, briefer treatment is found in Fire and Ice (1975), by Ray Kytle.  Note the author’s name, since there are several books by this title.

Fire and Ice was written shortly after the very first Arab oil embargo of 1973, and it posits a three-year economic decline precipitated by an oil shortage.  The protagonist and his family do, indeed, go to a mountain cabin, and do, indeed, fight the good fight.  But along the way they must deal with such problems as obtaining firearms on the black market, and the enmity of less-prepared neighbors.  They also face their own crises of conscience, not over the morality of killing but of the “selfishness” of protecting themselves versus attempting to help their friends and community.   Except in Southwell, this psychological dimension has not been dealt with in other books.  Some of the technical details are less plausible: Even if you can obtain guns ‘off the books,’ don’t try to smuggle 2,000 rounds of .30-06 ammunition in your children’s luggage; they would weigh about 140 pounds!

It is training that prevents an emergency from becoming a crisis, but no one can say, with absolute certainty, what he or she would do in a given emergency.  Soldiers and “first responders” are trained (and trained, and trained) on how to react in foreseeable situations, yet even well-trained persons sometimes fail to take appropriate action.  There are also a number of our fellow survivalists who are so committed to a particular scenario they either cannot or will not consider possible alternative situations or outcomes [If I just have enough guns and ammo, I’ll be safe, no matter what!] or they do not take into consideration many of the human factors that affect sound judgment and decisive action.

While it would be best to develop one’s situational understanding through long training and practice, such training is not available to all.  Some degree, however, can be gained by a study program that involves reading for mental exercise as well as practical knowledge.  I believe the books I have briefly reviewed will be helpful.  However, if an asteroid does strike the planet [as in Lucifer’s Hammer] or if the aliens land, you are on your own!