He had my name, and he died in a pandemic

Nicholas Dirga died in a pandemic.

This was my great-grandfather, who I share a name with, and he died 101 years ago at the age of 38. He was one of an estimated 50 million people who died then in the great “Spanish flu” pandemic.

I think about my great-grandfather, gone more than 50 years before I was born, a lot these strange days. He and his family had emigrated from what used to be Austria-Hungary (now somewhere in Slovakia). I’ve got just two pictures of him, one from his wedding day in 1901, another taken in 1911 of him with his young family. My grandfather, yet another Nicholas Dirga, just a baby, is in that image. 

You stare at a photo long enough you can project a lot of things. My great-grandfather looks a fair bit like a sterner version of my own father, with the distinctive “Dirga chin” (a cavernous dimple much reduced by my generation) and an impressively cool moustache. I don’t know a lot about him, but we shared a name and a pile of genes. And he died way too young of a disease that swept the world. 

So, my whole country entered a month-long lockdown last night, where for four weeks, almost everyone in the country of more than 4 million people has to shelter in place. I’m counting my blessings. I already work from home, my family is safe, and I’m surrounded by books to read.

I have to admit I’ve been thinking a lot about the relative with my name who died in a similar pandemic a century ago. With my recent health troubles, I’m somewhat at a higher risk category than some, so it’s even more important that I do what our Prime Minister has said – “Stay home, be kind.” 

A lot of families are going to have stories that end cruelly, sooner than they should, like the Nicholas Dirga who died 101 years ago did. His wife lived to be 96 – she died the year after I was born!

There’s a lot of flailing and some truly appalling behaviour by some governments going on, but there’s also moments of grace and at the moment, I’m very, very happy to be in New Zealand, even if much of my family is still on the other side of this troubled world. 

It’s a world Nicholas Dirga wouldn’t recognise, although he might recognise the story of a disease spreading, inexorably, around the world. And I figure by staying shut in for the next four weeks or so, I’m at least giving myself a fighting chance of outlasting this one. 

Pandemonium: My top 10 fictional apocalypses

It’s weird times. My country has closed its borders to the world, which sounds like the opening sentence to a hundred dystopian fiction novels and movies. It doesn’t quite feel real.

New Zealand has been luckier, so far, than many other nations during this global pandemic. But we’re all still connected, and all still freaked out a bit. We’ve seen the end of the world coming many times in stories, and maybe that’s why this particular crisis seems so terrifying and uncertain. We’ve imagined how it could go for years. 

In the spirit of howling defiantly into the abyss, here’s my top 10 apocalypses of all time – an apocalypse defined as one where most of the population bites the dust. We’re not there in real life, yet, cross fingers, and hopefully we never will be.

10. Atomic Knights, DC Comics

I always dug this old 1960s sci-fi serial comic from the pages of Strange Adventures, which images a post-World War III world (the war of 1986!) where a group of plucky survivors don old medieval suits of armour that turn out to be ray-gun proof and fight evil warlords and also there are giant mutant Dalmatians and … OK, it’s pretty silly, but good fun, and this may be the most cheery, clean-cut apocalypse of all time, in the G-rated way of Silver Age comics.  Plausibility factor – Could this actually happen? Medium. While we may get all wiped out in a nuclear war, it probably wouldn’t be quite as tidy as this comic imagines. Trigger warning – Would I want to revisit this if self-isolating during the current unpleasantness? I’m always up for goofy sci-fi comics. 

9. The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver

Of everything on this list, this is probably the most “realistic” work, a fine epic novel from 2016 starting with the economic collapse of America in 2029 and following what happens to one family as everything goes to shit.  Plausibility factor – High. This is one of those books that may seem eerily prescient.  Trigger warning – High. The Mandibles is great, but all too plausible. 

8. Dawn Of The Dead (1979 and 2004 versions)

Zombies run amok and the only sanctuary is a shopping mall. While George Romero’s original is a stone-cold classic of the zombie genre, Zack Snyder’s millennial remake is surprisingly good too, amping up the action and yet still keeping the essential unease of the premise. Plausibility factor – Low. We’re still not at zombie stage of this outbreak. Trigger warning – Medium. Both Dawns offer up a lot of scary scenarios for society breaking down. 

7. Battlestar Galactica

I grew up not knowing this was regarded as a Star Wars ripoff, but at its core, both the underrated cheese of the original and the stoic doomsday of the reboot are about humanity carrying on after it’s been reduced to mere shreds of itself. Plus, Cylons! Plausibility factor – Low. Remember when we all worried about the robots killing us? Trigger warning – Medium. The reboot gets pretty damn dark sometimes, but the original is swashbucklingly easygoing for the most part. 

6. Marvel Zombies

A series of Marvel comics starting in 2005 imagined what might happen if superheroes turned into brainless zombies and ate the world. Often hilarious, very gory and, until the premise started getting wrung out by endless sequels, one of the more creative “what ifs” of the overused superhero dystopia genre. Plausibility factor – Low. First, we’d have to have superheroes, then zombies. Trigger warning – Low. A good bloody tonic for the staying-at-home blues. 

5. 1984 by George Orwell

One of my all-time favourite novels, barely fitting into the “apocalypse” scenario, but a lot of the action in Orwell’s imagined “Big Brother” world is predicated upon endless wars with unrevealed death tolls and a world laid low by chaos. Its message of media control and manipulation only seems more urgent every day. Plausibility factor – High! Trigger warning – Medium to high. While pessimistic at its core, to me 1984 is still a story about the power of hope. 

4. “The Deathbird” by Harlan Ellison 

This 1974 short story from Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories collection has always kind of got me right in the feels. It’s kind of a rewritten take on the Bible, where Satan is actually the good guy, and it’s about finding the strength to end everything. It’s also very emotionally vulnerable, not always a quality associated with the bigger-than-life Ellison, and beautiful in its shattered way. It’s a quiet storm about the very end of all things. Plausibility factor – Low. Of all the things I have to worry about, the Deathbird is low on the list. Trigger warning – Medium to high, depending on how you feel about sad stories about dying pets. 

3. The Stand by Stephen King

The plague novel to end all plague novels, and one of King’s finest epics. A disease sweeps across the world, leaving only a handful of people to face a second kind of Armageddon against a very real devil. As the critics say, “impossible to put down,” even if it’s approximately 3000 pages long. Plausibility factor – Medium. We’re not likely to see Randall Flagg wandering Las Vegas, but as always with King, he’s got a lot of tiny details that ground his fanciful fiction. Trigger warning – Medium. The famous scenes of characters trying to make their way out of a body-filled Manhattan might be a bit harrowing now. 

2. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson 

They’ve tried to make this into a movie several times, but nothing touches Matheson’s original novel, about the last human on earth in a world of vampires. Claustrophobic, creepy and stark, it’s a gem in apocalypse literature.  Plausibility factor – Medium. Matheson ably captures the siege mentality of self-isolation, but so far vampires aren’t really a threat. Trigger warning – Medium. Matheson eerily captures the feeling of being the last man on earth. 

1. Planet of the Apes/Beneath The Planet of the Apes

Damn dirty apes, Charlton Heston in a loincloth, Roddy McDowell and quite possibly the bleakest single ending to a big-budget franchise in history (the nuclear annihilation of Beneath) – what’s not to love? Sure, most people are dead, enslaved or hideous mutants living underground, but still, for all my end-of-the-world needs, I’ll always go ape first. Plausibility factor – Low. Even when the great more recent Apes reboot tried to make it more plausible, we’re still a while from Caesar swinging in the trees. Trigger warning – Low, unless you’ve recently visited the Statue of Liberty. 

How Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer helped make NZ feel less isolated

Hi all, just a quick linkpost today – let me turn your attention to a review/essay sort of thing I wrote over at Radio New Zealand during this crazy week: Finding a community in isolation.

As I wrote last post, Amanda Palmer has been touring New Zealand, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic played havoc with the end of her tour. She wrapped it up in style, though, with a livestream “ninja concert” Monday in Wellington featuring special guest star Neil Gaiman, puppets and more. I wrote about watching it and how we can all maybe find new kinds of communities until this weirdness passes. Amanda herself had a very kind word or two to say about it on her various platforms as she and Neil prepare to bunk down in NZ for a while.

Go read it. And I’ll just note one last thing, it’s pretty darned cool to have one of my literary idols Neil Gaiman retweet a tweet from his wife praising an article that I wrote. If it’s all gonna crash down soon, it’s not a bad way to go out.

Review: Amanda Palmer and staying sane in insane times

…So this week has been one hell of a year, hasn’t it? There’s a growing sense of madness and uncertainty and are-we-all-living-in-a-Mad-Max-prequel vibe. The perpetual hysteria of the internet doesn’t help, and honestly, often feels like it’s making it all worse. Who knows what’s going to happen next?

So after an endless cascade of bad news, yesterday seemed like a good night for a four-hour intensely emotional concert with hundreds of other people.

I went to the fourth-from-last show of Amanda Palmer’s epic “There Will Be No Intermission” world tour last night, despite the voices in my head saying that a sold-out show was kind of a scary place to be after a day full of headlines about mass contagion. 

But in the end, I went, because over and over again in my life when things have gone to shit, art is what lifts me out of the ditch. 

I know Amanda Palmer is an acquired taste for some folks. She’s intense, oversharing and excessive; she’s made some controversial statements. She’s also quite funny, captivating and honest to her core, I think. I like her because she’s brave, the reincarnation of every dazzling theatre girl I ever dug. You can call her “punk cabaret,” “folk-rant,” whatever you like. 

For “There Will Be No Intermission,” she’s crafted a hardcore show – yes, four hours! – that combines lengthy “stand-up tragedy” monologues about love, “radical compassion”, life and death with piano-pounding selections from her career. She cites the touchstones of Nick Cave, Nanette Gadsby, and others, but Palmer makes the night uniquely her own style. 

It’s intense stuff – Palmer talks candidly about her sexual life and in particular her three abortions in riveting detail. It’s the kind of frankness you rarely see in a public figure and while it’s sometimes unforgettably hard to listen to, Amanda also pulls out as much black humour as she can. I mean, this is a woman who wrote a song called “A Mother’s Confession” that features a chorus of “but at least the baby didn’t die.” An expert storyteller, she knows exactly how far to take the audience before dispelling tension with a bit of wit. 

An artist’s job, she said, “is to go into the dark, and make light.” 

It all wrapped up in an explosively cathartic, hilarious yet heartfelt rendition of “Let It Go” from Frozen, disco ball glittering light shadows through the audience, and we finished the night wrung-out and worn out, but you know, it felt good. Palmer got two standing ovations, and while the dramas and fears of the world outside never entirely left the room, for a few hours, they receded a bit. 

One of the appeals of Palmer’s music and ethos is that intense sense of community, and right now when the very idea of community is kind of freaking everybody out, it’s good to know there are other people like you out there, even if you’re just seeing them from afar in your own form of self-isolation. 

I don’t know what the hell is going to happen next. But I’ll try to make light, because it beats the alternative. 

And it’s just a ride / It’s just a ride

And you’ve got the choice to get off anytime that you like

It’s just a ride

It’s just a ride

The alternative’s nothingness / Might as well give it a try

(-“The Ride” by Amanda Palmer)