So I have to start off by saying that the post-apocalyptic genre is not my favorite, which has led me to think a lot recently about its current popularity. Why are authors producing so much of, and readers consuming so much of, this rather grim and inherently limited, in that it is defined by there being a scarcity of everything, including people, genre?
One reason, and one that Brooks makes abundantly clear in “Armageddon’s Children,” is that these stories serve as a warning of a future that seems all too possible. The Four Lands, the world in which Brooks sets his Shannara books, is, one comes to realize over the course of the series, a post-apocalyptic Earth many, many centuries or even millennia in the future. Trolls, dwarfs, and so on are humans who have been changed by radiation and pollution and adapted to survive the circumstances in which they found themselves. The Shannara books are, in a sense, post-post-apocalyptic fantasy.
In “Armageddon’s Children,” Brooks gives us the beginning of the story, when the Four Lands are still recognizably the West Coast of the US and recognizably American characters are eking out an existence or going on quests in places like Los Angeles and Seattle.
As such, “Armageddon’s Children,” while it has plenty of references to things that Brooks fans will recognize, so that for example we see the genesis of the Spider Gnomes, Trolls, is (at least to my taste) less mythic and inventive than the Four Lands books. Brooks has always had a flair for world-building, so I can’t help but feel that his talents are wasted on depictions of decaying American cities. I can see those things just fine without reading about them in fantasy books, thank you very much. If I’m going to travel to other realms, I want to travel to other realms, dang it.
Still, “Armageddon’s Children” is a solid example of the post-apocalyptic genre, and delivers a pointed warning against greed, environmental destruction, and general war-mongering that is even more timely now than it was 10+ years ago when the book first came out. Which brings me back to my question of why this genre is so wildly popular. Yes, it’s warning us about things that we need to do something about but aren’t, but that hardly seems like a plus for the average reader. Most people don’t like having inconvenient truths shoved in their faces.
But perhaps that is the secret to the genre’s current success. You see, at the moment, the apocalypse is looming, but it’s not here yet–in fact, we might even be able to avert it, but only if we make some hard decisions for the sake of long-term gains. Once the apocalypse has arrived, though, those hard choices get taken away, and all you have to do is survive. It’s a spare, stripped-down existence that makes for spare, stripped-down literature, which is just what so many people in first world countries, oppressed by unbearable abundance of health, wealth, and choice, think that they long for.
This has been brought home to me in interesting ways as I struggle with late-stage Lyme disease–one of the “plagues” that Brooks refers to?–while surrounded with intolerably healthy people on all sides. My own personal apocalypse has already arrived, and I am currently living in a tiny, one-person post-apocalyptic landscape of extremely limited options and a daily bitter struggle to survive. From my new vantage point on the other side of the end of the world as I knew it, I can’t help but notice how so many people around me are constantly seeking to fill up the intolerable emptiness that their incredible health, wealth, privilege, and freedom gives them. When survival is easy and your biggest battle is to deal with overabundance, abstain from overindulgence, and make those necessary strategic decisions for long-term well-being, it’s easy to long for a simpler, harder way of life. We don’t want to do the things necessary in order to avert the apocalypse, so we wish it would just get it over with already, so that we could have some of this oppressive freedom and luxury taken away from us, and get down to the business of living for today instead of figuring out how to live for tomorrow as well.
Anyway, back to “Armageddon’s Children.” It’s different from the earlier, or should I say later, Shannara books, so it may appeal to a slightly different reading set, but Shannara fans are likely to enjoy the glimpse it gives us of the creation of The Four Lands, and it showcases Brooks’s ability to create a diverse group of sympathetic protagonists and write gripping action sequences. The first book in a trilogy, it ends on a cliffhanger, so if that is a problem for you, that will be a problem for you (and in that case maybe fantasy isn’t your genre in general?). I, however, thought it got better and better as the story progressed, and am now keen to read the next installment.