The Big Idea: John Barnes
It’s a lot, to contemplate the end of civilization as we know it. John Barnes knows this for truth, as he’s been ending the world over the three books of the “Daybreak” series, of which The Last President is the latest. But the end of civilization isn’t just an event — it’s a process. Barnes explains below.
I’m not a linear guy, as I often explain, and as both my fans and detractors frequently remark. I like books to be everything and the kitchen sink and a bag of chips with a moonwalking bear, Thomas Edison, a levitating lawnmower, and a roller derby on Saturn’s rings thrown in. Big sprawls of chaos are what I like to read and what I like to write, and I make no apologies for it, because they’d be exactly the sort of lame apologies our esteemed host warns us about.
Readers of my blog know I like to set up seven slightly related ideas and riff on them till it adds up to something, so here are seven big ideas/speculations/musings that have had a good, fun run (well, I had fun anyway) in the Daybreak Trilogy, and that are prominent somewhere or somehow in The Last President.
1. Rome didn’t fall, it slid. The disastrous end of a civilization takes time: time during which people fall in love or out of it, make babies or create new identities, grow up or refuse to, hope that the old order will return or come to realize it won’t. From the Daybreak Event that begins Directive 51 to the end of The Last President is about two years. Out of almost eight billion people alive on October 27, 2024, around 250 million are still moving around in the fall of 2026. That’s a pretty fast slide, but it still happens a day at a time, and individual people still try to stay alive, and make it, or don’t, and find new things to do with their lives.
2. The constitutional thriller. This is a nearly extinct genre but I used to love them, and long ago such books as Advise and Consent, Seven Days in May, and The President’s Plane is Missing hit bestseller lists. I would guess that readers outside the US are barely aware of the genre (since the American obsession with our constitution seems to puzzle the world). A constitutional thriller is about the maneuvers and infighting when one of the many contradictions or little-used provisions of the Constitution suddenly manifests itself. I saw a way that the contradiction between Article II (powers of the executive) and Amendment 25 (succession to the presidency) could lead to a whirlwind of one president after another (four of them in four months) eventually ending up with two (or more) legitimate but unelected claimants to the office (and rival governments formed around them).
3. The title. I mean, The Last President. Someday someone will be the last person to hold the office. Possibly next year when Yellowstone goes off so savagely that the few survivors from North America are scattered over the earth as refugees. Probably not nearly as long as it will take changes in the sun to move Earth out of the habitable zone. But just as there was a last Roman Emperor and a last Caliph and a last Inca Emperor, the day will come when there was a POTUS yesterday, there isn’t a POTUS today, and there will never be a POTUS again.
4. Maybe self-replicating nanotech will go down the same pathway as nukes. It took a wartime emergency and an astonishing amount of effort and money to make a nuclear reaction do anything useful, and the first use was as a weapon. Only years afterward did we have reactors that could propel ships and make electricity. The technical challenges were simpler and the purpose more urgent for war than they were for peaceful applications. It seems to me that self-replicating nanotech has much the same technical and cost profile: getting nanobots to work together to synthesize an object, and at the same time to make more of themselves, looks very hard to me. But nanos that destroy things by reproducing around them? Comparatively duck soup. In the real world I don’t think weaponized self-replicating nanos will bring on the apocalypse (though I would not rule it out) but for a trilogy, it was more than seven billion high-piled corpses worth of fun.
5. The Cunning of History. That book, by Richard L. Rubenstein, contains some of the most sobering ideas I’ve ever encountered. Calmly and clearly, he points out that most people alive today are beneficiaries of something absolutely hideous in the past. His particular example was that the Holocaust made the postwar world much less complicated for most of the leadership of the Allies, so that they had a strong incentive to denounce it after the war when it was publicly confirmed, but not do very much to stop it while it was happening during the war. He connects this to many more cases along the way. In the long tale of the world most of us are the recipients of stolen goods and the fruits of murder, just by happening to be alive after they happened, and atrocities cannot be undone later.
And so, Richard L. Rubenstein says, like it or not, if we know our own history, because we usually can’t reject its bloody gifts, we become complicit in it, even in things that no human being wished at the time. The children born just after the Black Death didn’t ask to get a richer world with more to go around and more open opportunities via the death of half the people in the older generations, but that is what they got, and that is how they got it. Similarly, my Daybreak disaster kills billions; but the millions born just after it are, in many cases, much better off than they could have been before.
6. Shadow civilizations. In Latin, a fortified house or compound was a villa, and in Old German it was a burg; in Latin a town was an oppidum and a city was an urbs. There are practically no settled places in Europe with any form of “oppidum” or “urbs” in their names, but countless ones ending in -burg or -vill(e), and the standard explanation is that the towns and cities were deathtraps and the fortified homes were safe havens. Well, the doompreppers (hey, there’s a band name) have been building various kinds of quiet refuges since the 1970s, and accelerated their activity since Obama was elected; some of them are rich. And as for the Tribes that were waiting to surge into existence after Daybreak, it’s kind of interesting how many Masons there were among the founding American revolutionaries, and the real story behind the Jacobin Club will probably never be known, and I’m told that some Irish, Algerian, and Indian families treasure wedding licenses issued by revolutionary governments well before the revolution. If something will someday replace the American government, it may be present in embryo on the street where you live.
7. Diesel is the coolest punk. For the pure pleasure of sitting in a chair and imagining wild adventures that I would absolutely hate (because I’d get killed) in real life, nothing beats the between-the-wars pulp adventure tradition, when you could have real cowboys, intrepid reporters, fierce war lords, jaded PI’s, gallant aviators, secret weapons, remote fortresses, crazy inventors, cunning spies … eahh, I’m literary-homesick again. So I created a world that could have all of those, because without radar, radio, satellites, computers, etc., the world is a big place with a wild diversity of romantic occupations again. Not that I want to live there, but it’s where I want to go play.
And then a bonus: the way I like to do things.
8. ALL AT ONCE!