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Eliot Pattison’s Ashes of the Earth

Posted on September 12, 2011 by Flames

In Ashes of the Earth Eliot Pattison pieces together a new society after global annihilation. While most novels set in the future offer heavy doses of imagined science and technology, in his new novel Pattison constructs a more realistic society out of the ashes of apocalypse—with characters who sometimes became a little too realistic for the author. As Pattison explains:

The Apocalypse at the End of the Hall

    Many of my readers have been asking why I would make such a big leap from my two series set in Tibet and the 18th century to the post-apocalyptic future of Ashes of the Earth. From my perspective the leap was not so great. I have been writing for years about characters, and groups of characters, who are cast out of society. I think tales of people who must construct their own justice because law and government have failed them provide a fertile ground for storytelling, and also allows me to explore the interplay of government, culture and religion in defining justice. For many years I pursued those themes in the context of Tibetans who have had their culture systematically dismantled by outsiders, then moved to the 18th century Scots and Native Americans whose cultures were also directly attacked and nearly annihilated. I kept wondering what it would be like to throw together people who not only have lost their culture but also their government, their social and economic context, their very identity. This is the fundamental premise of Ashes. It’s a rich context for a novelist, but seldom explored in any detail.

    If you’re asked to name a book or film about the end of the world you’re likely to think of a high tech spectacle like 2012 or Day After Tomorrow or a gloomy survivor tale like The Road. They’re either adrenalin rushes or morose tragedies. Tales of the day after are always the same: how to stay alive and make it to another day. I am more interested in the day after the day after. My characters have had a generation to think about what happened, to adapt, to step forward, however imperfectly. Faced with a blank slate, they have been forced to consider, very deliberately, what their new world should be. They are driven by new tools, new tensions, new cultural priorities, but have to face some very old forces of corruption and crime.

    I always develop a bond with the lead characters in my books, and as that bond grows, writing the book becomes a journey in which they are my close companions. In Ashes, as I grew more deeply engaged in that journey I began to feel the weight that constantly pressed down on these companions. These are people filled not just with self-doubt but also a collective doubt about the viability of their very world. Driven to reconcile the pieces of their lives, their prior lives have become more like a puzzle that is impossible to solve.

    At the same time, of course, they are haunted by grief. Those lost to my protagonist Hadrian Boone in the apocalypse are still so vivid to him twenty-five years later that they are sometimes more real to him than those around him. For some of these survivors no meaningful comfort is available, no real possibility of healing the pain of their losses. They have realized the pain will never really go away, they simply have to find ways to endure it, letting scars build over it. An unexpected scent, sound or image can suddenly trigger a memory of a lost place, lost moment, or a lost loved one, threatening to drown such survivors in a flood of emotion. There are times when these ghosts become so real they are like characters in the book, phantoms lurking offstage that very much affect events and personalities, a dark presence that can pounce on my companions like a paralyzing seizure.

    As my journey in the ruined lands progressed I began to sense another ghost that hung over all my characters, the ghost of the old world in a collective sense. The self-annihilation of that world has caused the survivors to distrust it, to suspect it, to often consider the prior civilization—our civilization—as an experiment that had to be set aside. Despite its wealth and dazzling technology their prior world failed them, and after a generation that world has begun to feel like something of a fraud in the broad history of mankind. Some readers have questioned my new society’s practice of not speaking of the history of the past century but in the long quiet hours every novelist spends with his characters I grew to understand that they really did not want to speak of their former world. Discussion of it wasn’t simply painful to them, they also genuinely feared that the new generation would try to emulate it. As I say in the novel, it was very like, a communicable disease that spread by speaking of it.

    My close bond with my characters—for months they were shadows lurking just behind me—made the apocalypse seem all too real sometimes. When I was walking down the hall to my office for another session with the book it was very much like stepping into that world. The apocalypse was always waiting for me at the end of the hall. During the last few months of writing Ashes I was dreaming about apocalypse almost every night.

    Another surprise in writing Ashes was my discovery of the frightening normalcy of apocalypse. In my many dialogues about the novel I have discovered a remarkable, though sometimes reluctant, resonance among others about post-apocalyptic scenarios. I expected that initial reactions from readers would be along the lines of “why select such a dismal context?” or “why would you want to spend so much time in such a dark, unlikely place?” –but that has not been the case. Instead, a surprising number of readers seem almost eager to offer their personal view of the post-apocalyptic world. They don’t reject the notion that such scenarios are a real possibility, they want to explain their own version of what that world would be like. Apparently we have lived so many years with the Doomsday Clock set at five minutes to midnight that the apocalypse has taken on a familiar aspect. We may often treat discussion of the apocalypse as taboo but it is uncanny –even alarming—that so many of us are thinking about it.

    I have been truly amazed at how many people harbor ready, well-considered views on what post-apocalyptic geographies would be safe, what technologies would endure, what types of people would be most likely to survive, or even what food survivors would be eating. This may not be a topic for dinner table discussion but it is one that many of us have harbored secret thoughts about, often in great detail. Realizing that I have obviously spent a lot of time immersed in such scenarios tends to make others ready to divulge these dark secrets. I have become their post-apocalyptic confessor.

    Eliot Pattison – August 2011

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