The ideas that eventually turn into a book are scattered and scavenged things. For me, when I started to write my post-apocalyptic YA novel, Nomansland, one of the many fragments that came to form the whole story, were images of the town of Pripyat, the company town of Chernobyl a decade after the nuclear reactor blew in the spring of 1986. Those images continue to mesmerize: a closed place of buildings softened and transformed by swarming greenery, the brutalist architecture now alive with mutant birds, colonies of bats and contorted, irradiated trees. Wolves now roam among the rusting swings in the playgrounds and rare wild horses cross the faded parking spaces outside the derelict office buildings of what was once a town of some 50,000 people. I think of it as a toxic Eden.
I hadn’t, until then, realized the depth of my fascination with ruin and, more precisely, decay. Records of left-behind places seem to me to always offer some kind of beautiful, poignant lesson in transience that we probably never learn. In my futuristic, post-nuclear story, a community of women struggle to keep a society together on an icy, windswept island. They impose a rigid code of behavior based more on memories of ideas rather than ideas themselves, and they guard their borders against what they think of as the enemy—mutant men deformed by radiation. In this frightened world, found objects from our century are of worth—their very island is called Foundland.
When a group of teenage girls discovers a house sealed in the earth and buried by vegetation, they discover a cache of objects from our century, in particular, objects in a teenage girl’s bedroom: makeup, magazines, high-heeled shoes. And although the main focus of my story is to try to get my readers to think about feminism and the ways which consumerism has shaped our time, I used a post-apocalyptic landscape to warp my ideas into something strange and new. The girls in my book have never seen these modern objects before and their reactions to them form key parts of the story. But introducing this idea meant there was a practical issue to resolve. The objects had to be sufficiently preserved for my characters to be able to handle them—and this begged the question: What, in this thing-filled world of ours, would be left behind after some kind of apocalyptic event? What would deteriorate the most quickly—and how?
The answers are less obvious than one might think. I worried that the magazines the girls find would have disintegrated long ago, only to find out that 1930s newspapers and magazines that have been buried in landfills are still easily legible. “That’s why we have 3,000-year-old papyrus scrolls,” says Stanford archeologist, William Rathje, who has made a study of garbage in America. Vast amounts of 21st century stuff are what Alan Weisman, in his brilliant book The World Without Us, calls ‘nature-proof.’
In the remote, sparsely-inhabited, agrarian community that the women have made in Foundland the girls, used to rougher textures, are unfamiliar with the smoothness of plastic, concrete and rubber—all of which is going to last an unbelievably long time in the inhabited places of the world, apocalypse or not. What will future generations make of Barbie dolls buried like dinosaur bones in the fossil record or in the seabed? The dolls found by the Trackers frighten them—they put them back in their box.
Anything that is impervious to the destructive force of moisture and damp is set to last, so the old college buildings that make up some of the main dwellings on Foundland are made of hewn granite—one of the substances that may withstand some of the ravages of radiation, rain and plants that prise other, weaker materials apart. In time to come, Harvard might turn into something like Machu Picchu. In their buried house (really a kind of tomb), a pair of upright, dancing ceramic pigs fascinates these girls who live a hard, rural life and accustomed to only the real, snorting thing.
Though breakable, protected ceramics will be fine after the apocalypse because they are chemically similar to fossils, glass can also last thousands of years. The makeup the girls find, though largely made of biodegradable mineral substances such as zinc oxide and chalk, might well last if it is sealed in plastic tubes or glass jars. I took my cues from ancient cosmetics that are regularly found—most recently a tin of 2000-year-face cream from Roman times, buried in the banks of the River Thames in London.
For the girls of Nomansland these shiny discoveries have consequences, unevenly introducing them to a distorted and partial picture of our time—their sense of discovery mirrors our own fascination with lost cultures and ruined societies, but in Nomansland, it is our current society that has failed. We are our detritus. Once we are gone, the stuff we leave behind supplies the clues, the stories, the puzzles of disappearance—and that has always been fertile ground for novels, not least because, after reading them, there is that residue of a frightened and fundamental human question: how long does anything last?
Photo of Pripyat by Flickr user mattbr