Is Cannibalism the Most Clumsily Handled Motif in Post-apocalyptic Fiction?

Posted: April 9, 2012 in Literature, Post-apocalyptic fiction
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When the gods do it, it is horrific and epic in scale.  But when characters in post-apocalyptic fiction are driven to it by circumstances, it is almost always laughably unbelievable.

Saturn Devouring His Son (c. 1819–1823) - Goya

Spoilers for Bodeen’s The Compound, McCarthy’s The Road, and a few other things follow, if you care.  Post also contains unapologetic and practical considerations of cannibalism with no moral/ethical judgment on those who eat others to survive.

Reading S.A. Bodeen’s YA post-apocalyptic novel The Compound, I was annoyed at how poorly handled and unrealistic one of the central horrors of the story was.  It’s an otherwise decent read (though with a predictable “twist”), but it is bogged down with a central motif that just doesn’t make a damn bit of sense.

The author sketches a somewhat preposterous scenario where survivors of a supposedly apocalyptic event, confined to a well-stocked compound, eventually begin to run low on food stores and contemplate killing and eating their “surrogates” to survive.  These surrogates are genetic clones of our survivors and have been bred through in-vitro fertilization by way of the evil genius science guy antagonist and brought to term (rapidly) by a quasi-surrogate mother (she’s their real genetic mom too–the horror!).  The lurid situation and moral quandary, then, is supposedly that these surrogate babies are not just real people, but also siblings/children.

It’s kind of a silly set-up, but it could be played reasonably well under other initial conditions if there weren’t a huge logical problem under these conditions.  Matter, energy, and therefore food, doesn’t just pop into existence because people have babies.  The babies need to eat, which means either they are consuming food directly out of the existing, limited stores or via a nursing mother who needs more energy/food in order to nurse and thus more rations.  And the human body isn’t that efficient of a system, which means some of the food energy consumed by the surrogate babies is lost to things like playing and breathing and the like.  So by even breeding and feeding these surrogates (which is totally unnecessary to the story for any reason other than to provide potential food sources and a bit of horror at the extremes people will go to to survive), the survivors are actually wasting food they can never hope to recover.  To say that another way, the premise of eating people to preserve yourself is predicated on those people eating food you have no opportunity to eat directly.  So the genius science guy is obviously not all that smart and the scenario comes across as stupid.

I guess this is sort of forgivable since it’s a YA novel playing on specific horrors/fears of being a kid while employing the furniture of post-apocalyptic fiction and an old motif of one of our greatest taboos–people eating.  But it is just one of many examples of this motif being deployed poorly in this kind of fiction.  In fact, I can think of few post-apocalyptic stories where cannibalism comes in and actually seems well-done.  Where the custom of the sea has been used rather deftly in many realistic tales of survival, it turns into either an absurd and obvious attempt to shock or a logically flawed plot device (or both) in almost all post-apocalyptic fiction.

One of the most critically and commercially successful post-apocalyptic novels is an obvious example of this: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  The setting is perfect for cannibalism: all the food is gone besides what canned goods remain stashed away in bunkers or the like.  No new food grows, and consuming another human being makes sense in the context of the novel (though it is the thing the protagonists will not do because it would remove them from the tribe of “good guys”).  McCarthy actually handles this well early on: the man and the boy rightly fear very believable cannibals and encounter what the reader sees as dangerous people-eaters.

Realistic, scary cannibals from the film adaptation of The Road

However, McCarthy’s doing justice to need-based cannibalism falls apart in two of the most horrific and famous scenes in the book.  First, the man and boy break into a locked basement to discover people being held alive for use as food–one man’s leg has been amputated (presumably eaten) and cauterized badly.  The implication is that these people have been abducted by a group of cannibals who captured them off the road.  So, in this way, the situation makes sense because they are immediate victims who had their own supplies of food–not depleting the stores of their captors.  But, why keep them alive?  I suppose they are not fed by the cannibals, but whatever food energy is in their bodies is decreasing with ongoing starvation and atrophy (not to mention they must need water, which is also somewhat scarce in this world).  A smarter group of cannibals would have killed them immediately and found a way to preserve the meat.  There is no shortage of firewood, and, given that this is their subsistence strategy, you’d think they would have worked out a way to smoke and dry the only meat  available.  But, no, the scene isn’t that thought through and the horror of the discovery seems expected to overshadow any objections to the lack of realistic and practical considerations.

Far more egregious than this is the scene where the man and boy see a group including a pregnant woman.  They later discover the group’s camp, hastily abandoned with a newborn’s body spit-roasted for great horrific effect.  The atrocity of this scene carries it through for most readers I’m sure, but I can’t get over how obviously flawed it is.  One, this is a world where everyone is pretty much starving–women don’t usually get pregnant, much less bring a child near term, under such circumstances.  Two, even if the young lady could conceive and successfully bring a child to even a month or two near full-term, the increased caloric necessity of a mother with child would far outweigh whatever caloric value the child would have for these resourceful and vile cannibals.

It just doesn’t make sense to include cannibalism in a realistic (ie, not fantastic in the sense of magic and such) scenario if the motif isn’t worked through in a plausible fashion.  A far better portrayal of cannibalism than these is found in the oft-maligned Harlan Ellison story/novella, “A Boy and His Dog” (and the film adaptation with Don Johnson as Vic, which is fun if you are watching it as the black comedy it really seems to be).  There it is obviously used in a lurid, metaphorical, and absurd manner, but it passes without objection from me on realistic grounds because it is entirely plausible from a survival perspective . . . if one can stomach it.

Maybe I’m just selecting a few poor examples, but I’m having a tough time thinking of much fiction in this genre where the motif is handled well.  Chime in if you think there are examples that can disprove my general feeling on this.

  1. sarahsss says:

    Mr. X says: Thermodynamics wins again!

  2. Josh M says:

    You’ve highlighted a really important distinction here in the discussion of “The Road,” between the frightening-yet-human cannibal group, the (almost) absurdly non-human baby-eaters, and the “morally superior” father and son duo at the heart of the novel / film. Overall, I think this post really hits the nail on the head; I really can’t come up with a counter-example, where cannibals would be seen as anything but completely monstrous. The notion that the “good guys” would even HAVE a choice in the context of a situation such as that presented “The Road” is, as you suggest, perhaps the most far-fetched notion in the entire piece.

    • nightwork says:

      Thanks. The only times I can think of where cannibals are sometimes presented as sympathetic is in “realistic” survival stories like Poe’s Pym or the film Alive (and presumably the book based on the same actual events). For whatever reason, and I’m sure there are counter-examples, this changes when we move into speculative/science fiction scenarios of widespread and extreme food scarcity.

      I think McCarthy’s book banks on the reader’s willingness to go along with the portrayed nobility and restraint of the protagonists without analyzing it as realistic or not. And this (along with the violence) makes it one of those books that strongly splits its readers into advocates and detractors. It’s really a tale of anachronistic heroism, which is non-realistic in the way most heroism is (you ever try to pick out the illogical elements in Star Wars?). I still like the book a lot (I guess I’m a sucker for hero stories even if the heroism is not very realistic; I also like Batman), but for me the deviation from basic physics/biology is quite annoying, especially coming from a careful writer like McCarthy.

  3. […] Road, although from what I gather this review will apply even moreso to the book. Like The Matrix, the use of humans in the story goes against the Laws of Thermodynamics. In short, eating a human yields less energy than it took to grow the human. (Hilariously, this […]

  4. Isaac says:

    It seems like in most instances people would fare far better raising things like insects, fish, or even chicken by feeding them things that humans can’t process. But that wouldn’t make for very interesting reading 🙂

  5. Wyllow says:

    Oddly, in your discussion of The Road, you infer that women would not ‘carry baby to term” under those conditions. You must not know very much about biology. Women who have unprotected sex get pregnant. They cannot “choose’ to not get pregnant unless they have some kind of birth control. If you’ve ever seen pictures of famine in Africa, you will see many mother’s with babies…and yes, they are both starving. The woman could not “choose” to not get pregnant! Your argument here falls apart as your evidence is false. Would that group kill a newborn baby to eat? That is much more plausible than a woman “choosing” not to get pregnant, which cannot happen without birth control (and where is she going to get that in the post-apocalyptic scenario?)

  6. Eric says:

    Wyllow: It may be you with a poor understanding of biology, and not such high reading comprehension either. At no point does the original post use the word choose, yet you throw it up there in quotes repeatedly. He’s not talking about the women choosing not to get pregnant, women who are starving are highly unlikely to conceive – FAR less likely than when they are healthy and well-fed. Continued starvation during the pregnancy carries an extremely high risk of miscarriage.

    Famine in Africa is not a permanent state. The pictures you see of women with babies may well be of babies conceived or born prior to famine striking their region. People suffering extreme malnutrition also appear to have rounded bellies because while they lose fat and muscle mass, their visceral organs remain the same size.

    The poster’s logic is right on the money. In the scenario presented in The Road, a pregnant woman would have miscarried, or starved to death due to the increased food demands placed by a fetus.