After finishing The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison it occurred to me that every generation might need its own end of civilization novel. One of my favorite books growing up was Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, about a disease that kills off most of humanity. It’s a great novel, so why does anyone need to write another novel about a disease that kills off most of humanity? Meg Elison’s novel is just as gripping as Earth Abides and leaves the same psychological taste in the mind, so in some ways, they are almost identical. But not quite.
Elison’s main character is a woman, and Elison gives a feminist view to the collapse of civilization that George R. Stewart could never have imagined back in 1949. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is a last-woman-on-Earth novel for the #MeToo generation. (By the way, these books start off with the main character feeling they are the last person on Earth, but eventually find other people. I’d like to read one where the main character is really the last person on Earth.)
Science fiction has a set of standard concepts that every child eventually encounters. Space travel, aliens, time travel, and robots are the biggest science-fictional concepts kids learn about first, usually from television. The end of civilization and the post-apocalyptic new world does appear now and then in movies and television, but I believe many people don’t really grasp the idea fully until they read about it in a book. And I’m not sure how many people have read any end of civilization novels.
Everyone learns about Frankenstein but few people ever read Mary Shelley’s novel, which is a shame because the novel is so superior to the films. Fewer still know she wrote The Last Man, one of the earliest end of civilization novels. Ever since then such novels have come out infrequently but consistently. I’m wondering if every generation has one. When I was growing up in the 1950s we were afraid of The Bomb and WWIII, and read On the Beach by Neville Shute and Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. At the movies, we saw The World, The Flesh, and The Devil where Harry Belafonte was the last man on Earth until Inger Stevens showed up. I think it’s hard to convey the depth of loneliness in a film of believing you’re all alone in the world. A first-person novel is required.
Like I said, science fiction has a set of defining concepts that the genre owns, and some are so popular that most people can’t remember when they first encountered them. Post-apocalyptic stories have become almost as common as space travel, but not quite. I don’t remember when I first encountered the idea. I can’t say if it was a book or movie, but I feel it was Earth Abides, which I read in my late teens. I’m wondering to fully get into the concept you have to read a book and be old enough to appreciate the idea. To grok the existential crisis of the collapse of society we need to understand civilization and imagine what it would be without it.
Meg Elison imagines being a woman without all the protections of law and order. In her story, women and children die off at a rate greater than men. Women are hidden or enslaved. Strong men take women away from weak men. They are raped and put on leashes, they are captured for group marriages, or they are aligned with men who are willing to kill and die for them. The unnamed midwife of this story is a woman who dresses as a man and hides from people. She is a loner traveling across the western states trying to survive while encountering many horrors. She feels the safest living alone but suffers from soul-crushing loneliness and boredom.
Elison’s story is not exactly a first-person point-of-view narrative. Her novel has a frame. It begins in the future, supposedly after civilization starts developing again, where boys are taught to copy the journals of the unnamed midwife. Part of Elison’s tale comes from journals, partly first-person, and part is an omniscient narrator. I wasn’t bothered by this mish-mash of techniques, but some reviewers have complained about it. It allows Elison to let us inside the head of the unnamed midwife – she actually goes by many aliases. But we also get to read the stories of other characters in their first-person voices, plus we get to hear what happens to people that the unnamed midwife never gets to know.
The Book of the Unnamed Midwife has some similarities to The Handmaid’s Tale. I assume the boys are made to copy these journals so future men will be sensitive to women’s point of view. Elison also deals with patriarchal religions. And the framework suggests a new religion, which might be revealed in the later novels.
In The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, the population is killed off by a mysterious flu-like illness. During the cold war era, nuclear holocaust and biological weapons were usually the cause of leaving few people alive. A couple decades later it was nuclear winter or comet impact. Writers have come up with all kinds of ways of reducing the population down to near zero. These end of the world stories have humans almost becoming extinct, but not quite. Their stories are always about how a few people start over.
I’ve read a lot of these stories. They nearly all follow the same basic plot. A protagonist discovers they are alone. They wander about wondering what happened. Eventually, the protagonist encounters a few other people, but they quickly learn that other people can be dangerous. The stories continue with the search for food and shelter in the ruins, and after a lot of violence, people start finding a way to rebuild. The point of these stories is to tell us what life without civilization would be like. They also get into the foundation of right and wrong, and why people bond. It’s a good sub-genre for being philosophical. It’s a way to criticize the existing civilization and theorized about a better one.
Meg Elison covers all the bases. Her book has two sequels that are set in the same universe, but The Book of the Unnamed Midwife can stand alone just fine. I recommend it to any connoisseurs of end of civilization novels, or to any male that doesn’t fully comprehend the importance of the #MeToo movement. However, I should warn readers who like light and uplifting tales that this one is heavy and painful. I admire these kinds of books because they really make me think hard about existence, but I finish them psychologically worn out.
James Wallace Harris, October 8, 2019