I’ve turned paranoid lately. When I’m in an airport, I look at the people around me at the gate, trying to suss out who might make a good ally if things went bad. I carry two plastic tubs full of warm clothes, hiking boots, and first-aid supplies in the back of my Subaru at all times. I have as large a volume of canned and dry goods in my pantry and laundry room as the shelves will hold.
The political climate, and the climate climate, aside, I blame apocalyptic novels for my new levels of situational anxiety. In the early 2010s, increasingly addicted to the dark vision and sky-high stakes of the genre, I ate up the canon of traditionally literary end-of-the-world science fiction at rapid speeds: Alas, Babylon; The Sheep Look Up; Lucifer’s Hammer. During that time, I drove a lot; separated from my husband by our jobs, I traveled solo through the mountains between Ohio and Pennsylvania, listening to stories of the world’s end along the way. Soon, despite a small influx of newly published respectably literary postapocalyptic books (California, The Dog Stars, Station Eleven), I found myself starved for material.
Browsing Audible before one such trip, my by now totally apocalyptic recommendations pushed me to Patriots, by James Wesley, Rawles (the comma is intentional). I didn’t understand that I was making a leap between genres when I purchased Patriots, which turned out to be a best-selling 2009 book of prepper fiction. Downloading it sent me down a new rabbit hole that I have yet to exit. Through prepper fiction, I find myself experiencing a subculture by way of its novels, finding some of its ideals repellent, while slowly—and unhappily—coming to agree with others.
One feature, I found, differentiates prepper fiction from mere apocalypse fiction: lists. Apocalyptic stories sacrifice some details of characters’ survival tactics on the altar of narrative. But in prepper tales, lists are inevitable. I have to quote this whole paragraph, about a survival group’s knife-buying tactics, to give you a sense of how Rawles, a notorious lister, does it:
For skinning knives, most of the members bought standard mass-produced Case and Buck knives, but a few opted for custom knives made by Andy Sarcinella, Trinity Knives, and Ruana. Most of them also bought a Leatherman tool and a CRKT folding knife. For fighting knives, most purchased standard factory produced knives made by Benchmade or Cold Steel. Kevin bought an expensive New Lile Gray Ghost with Micarta grip panels. Against Kevin’s advice, Dan Fong bought a double-edged Sykes-Fairbairn British commando knife. Kevin warned him that it was an inferior design. He preferred knives that could be used for both utility purposes and for combat. He observed that the Fairbairn’s grip was too small, and that the knife’s slowly tapering tip was too likely to break, particularly in utility use. Dan eventually wrapped the knife’s handle with green parachute cord to give it a more proper diameter. Because the Fairbairn did indeed have a brittle tip, Dan did most of his utility knife work with a CRKT folder with a tanto-type point.
The lists are a point of complaint for some reviewers online, but the authors of these books know that they’re writing something that’s a cross between a novel, a shopping list, a survival manual, and a field guide; this is a wholly experimental form, and the results can be awkward. After a while, though, I relaxed into it. Like a high school junior struggling through Moby-Dick’s whaling chapters, the new reader has to realize that prepper fiction’s blend of description and plot is meant to make the minute details of a supercomplex material phenomenon more visible. Those lists soothed me, since they spoke a language I—a cook, a sometime backpacker, and a committed cataloger of household goods—found easy to understand.
But am I a prepper? Or one of the sheeple? In the books, the difference between these two kinds of people really matters. If you’re mapping the tropes of prepper fiction against contemporary American politics, here’s where things take a right turn. Even as these books revel in the virtues of self-reliance, they graphically condemn the uselessness of other people who refuse to help themselves. Inevitably, after a catastrophic event, a prepared protagonist encounters people who just cannot believe that their water isn’t going to come back on or that the government isn’t going to come to bring them their refrigerated insulin.
These sheeple are unreasonable, fussy, picky, and stupid. Are there really people who still can’t understand that grocery stores don’t fill up by magic? In these books, they are legion. The prepper in A. American’s Going Home, stranded by an electromagnetic pulse, walks along a highway and meets a totally unprepared couple. He gives them some water and tells them to pick up the next water bottle they see so that they’ll have a receptacle to fill when they come to a water source. The woman resists.
“You mean, pick them up off the side of the road?” The girl had a look of disgust on her face. “Yeah. You got a better idea?” I gave her a what-the-fuck look. “That’s gross. I’m not drinking from a trash bottle.”
As the prepper walks away, the woman tries to shame him into giving them one of his canteens. (“But you have three different ones, and God only knows what else is in that big-ass bag. We don’t have anything. You need to help us!”) He refuses, offering her a lecture instead.
In more than one of these books, the prepper encounters people who expect him to share the resources he’s planned ahead to store. The analogy with communism or socialism is often explicit. In Steven Konkoly’s The Jakarta Pandemic, the prepper character lives on a cul-de-sac with many unprepared neighbors who demand that each household reveal the amount of food it holds, to be put into a stockpile and shared. The prepper’s ally accuses the stockpile faction of having a “socialist agenda.” The group’s other plan, to put together a shared day care, strikes even more notes of Soviet Russia. This kind of sharing, in the book’s logic, puts everyone in danger; the mothers who don’t want to take care of their own kids will end up sick and, finally, dead. In Rawles’ Patriots, the survival group halts a group passing by their retreat, then digs through their belongings, finding first “six English copies of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book” and then “three small human legs and four small human arms.” A horrified group member kills the baby-eating communists on sight.
There is a lot of immediate, hair-trigger violence in these books, and when the prepper doles it out, it’s always justified. In his introduction to A Distant Eden, author Lloyd Tackit writes: “Mindset is probably 85% of survival and it is difficult to describe. It is easier to show a person shooting another person without hesitation, than it is to explain why it is a stupid idea to let the bad guy draw first.” Proving his point, Tackit’s protagonist Roman kills a group of four men that comes onto his property as soon as the leader says: “We’ve come to offer you a deal. We’ll offer you protection …” Boom. In Tackit’s rendering, the scene is not so much brutal as it is matter-of-fact.
This is the biggest difference between postapocalyptic and prepper fiction: The latter starts where the former only ever ends up. Books such as Edan Lepucki’s California or a television series such as The Walking Dead gradually point toward a set of dark realizations—you can rely on no one but yourself and your family and a carefully chosen group of likeminded allies; other people will try to take what you have, perhaps violently; you may compromise many of your ideals in defending what you have. Apocalyptic stories, in other words, make slow meals of discord and disillusionment. Prepper fiction, by contrast, takes this dynamic for granted, starting with the cynicism instead of landing there: People’s evil tendencies can only be mitigated by small alliances, like those between family members or comrades in military service.
Do I believe that people stripped of civilization’s affordances will turn on one other—that the strong will prey on the weak? I used to have more faith in human nature, but now (is it the prepper binge, or the Age of Trump?) I believe it. Can I turn the corner with these authors and console myself with the thought that I could save myself and my loved ones through my own forethought and willingness to kill? I can’t. And that’s the darkest timeline of all.
Check out this great listen on Audible.com. America faces a full-scale socioeconomic collapse in the near future. The stock market plummets, hyperinflation cripples commerce and the mounting crisis passes the tipping point. Practically overnight, the fragile chains of supply and high-technology i...