Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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The … cozy catastrophe?

At tor.com, James Davis Nicoll: Four Stories That Subvert the Cosy Catastrophe Genre

My first response: There is something that fits a sub-sub-genre called “cozy catastrophe”? Apparently this is enough of a thing that there are also multiple books that subvert the common tropes of this category. What could this sub-sub-genre be? What sort of catastrophe is “cozy?”

My second response: Hmm, still not coming up with anything that could be described in this way.

So let’s take a look at the article and see what Nicoll has to say:

It seems that some authors are happy to kill off most of humanity as long there’s interstellar colonization. Perhaps getting rid of most of the population is the point? Jo Walton would describe this as a cosy catastrophe. Finally, an end to all those other people while the virtuous get a brand-new world.

Oh, so this is Jo Walton’s term? Let us pause and click through to Walton’s post on this topic:

Cosy catastrophes are science fiction novels in which some bizarre calamity occurs that wipes out a large percentage of the population, but the protagonists survive and even thrive in the new world that follows. They are related to but distinct from the disaster novel where some relatively realistic disaster wipes out a large percentage of the population and the protagonists also have a horrible time. The name was coined by Brian Aldiss in Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, and used by John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by analogy to the cosy mystery, in which people die violently but there’s always tea and crumpets.

Huh. Well, this is a new one on me.

I am not completely on board with this concept. For example, let’s consider SM Stirling’s Dies The Fire. In this world, all electronics quit working and we’re back to swords and horses and so on. The primary protagonists do indeed survive and thrive, eventually. But cozy? I wouldn’t say so. They have lots of struggles and not many crumpets. This isn’t cozy. It’s an adventure story. Is Jo Walton familiar with a significant number of stories like this, except with afternoon tea rather than dire struggles against bad guys?

She would say yes. You can click through and read her post, if you wish. I haven’t read any of her examples. Day of the Triffids is the one she uses to define the type.

Triffids are odd, interesting little plants that grow in everyone’s garden. Triffids are no more than mere curiosities—until an event occurs that alters human life forever. What seems to be a spectacular meteor shower turns into a bizarre, green inferno that blinds everyone and renders humankind helpless. What follows is even stranger: spores from the inferno cause the triffids to suddenly take on a life of their own. They become large, crawling vegetation, with the ability to uproot and roam about the country, attacking humans and inflicting pain and agony. William Masen somehow managed to escape being blinded in the inferno, and now after leaving the hospital, he is one of the few survivors who can see. And he may be the only one who can save his species from chaos and eventual extinction . . .

I am not sure this sounds all that cozy. But I haven’t read it. Maybe it feels less like a dire struggle than this description makes it sound.

Well, back to Nicoll’s post:

Firefly’s backstory provides a marvelous example of the sort of thing I don’t ever want to see again: The Earth was somehow used up, despite which an astonishingly homogeneous subset of humanity managed to make it to another star system armed with the exact sort of terraforming technology that should have made repairing Earth easy-peasy.

I grant, that is indeed implausible. Though the people who colonized space don’t seem all that homogeneous to me, so that is an odd complaint. But it’s true that if you could terraform a planet like Mars, you could certainly turn around and repair Earth. No question there.

Nicoll’s goes on to describe four books he feels subverts this general type. Without going on and on about whether the type exists and whether “cozy” is a appropriate adjective, I will say that this first one sounds really kind of neat:

A UN report predicting the near-certainty of nuclear war spurred a golden age of space colonization R&D. Twenty years later, atomic war having failed to materialize, the product of that R&D was available for a group of Quakers to purchase as surplus. Imagine their surprise when they reached their destination to hear only ominous silence from the Solar System. Apparently, that UN report was correct after all, and Earth has perished in fire. Except, as we learn at the beginning of the novel, that is not quite correct either. Foxfield’s colonists, isolated for generations, must deal with sudden and unexpected contact from a world they assumed dead.

I never heard of Still Forms on Foxfield. Sounds intriguing! It does not, however, appear to be available as an ebook. It IS available as a paper book. Copies range from a non-insane $18 to a remarkably insane $920, which may be the highest price I’ve seen for an out-of-print used book. Wow.

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2 Comments The … cozy catastrophe?

  1. Mike S.

    Whether or not “cozy” is the right word, I think I get what’s meant. (I’ve also seen it attributed to Brian Aldiss.) And maybe it is; it’s presumably by analogy with cozy mysteries, all of which upturn the comfortable estate or quiet village with a murder.

    There’s a subset of disaster stories where bad things happen, and maybe a sympathetic character makes a noble sacrifice or dies due to being too fragile for the new world, but where the general sense is of the protagonists being forced out of their civilized rut to make a more meaningful life in a world that’s harder, but also somehow cleaner or more clear cut.

    (Often either improving their marriage and family life in the process, or alternatively trading in a troublesome spouse who [single tear] sadly doesn’t make it for a much better and hardier model.)

    That the protagonist’s basically improved situation (give or take occasional wistful thoughts for lost luxuries) is at the expense of a few billion Sirs Not Appearing in this Book tends to be let slip into the background.

    As I’ve grown to identify less with soi-disant “survivor types” (to pick a phrase not uncommon in mid-late 20th century SF) vs the much larger number of disposable extras, I’ve been less fond of that sort of story. It has a bit in common with the pioneer story, but with much more “99% of the people you know are dead.”

    (The traditional pioneer story has its own blind spots sometimes, but SF has the advantage of being able to use actually uninhabited planets if it chooses.)

    The last part of Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer would be an example: sure, they have to face overwhelming odds in the climactic battle, but they’re the ones who’ve got enough technology and organization to succeed and protect their comfortable stronghold (which has dispensed with messy things like elective politics). And they’re conscious of having shed a lot of dross from the old world.

    Or David R Palmer’s Emergence, where being a self-reliant supergenius girl with mad martial arts skills alone with her macaw After the End often seems kind of fun, or at least not terribly traumatic.

    Original Battlestar Galactica had some aspects of this as well, with light comedy and drama and no non plot-essential resource crunches after narrowly escaping the destruction of twelve inhabited planets. The reboot had a lot more desperation and consciousness of the enormous loss, at least in the first season.

  2. Herenya

    I read The Day of the Triffids as a teenager, and from memory, it definitely had something of a similar vibe to the Golden Age murder mysteries I was reading around the same age. The mysteries were reassuring in the sense that they explained why something horrible happened and justice is served; Wyndham’s stories were reassuring in the sense that something horrible happened but the characters survived and were okay. Cosy — so long as you don’t think too hard about the ramifications of who does and who doesn’t survive.

    I’m better now at considering those ramifications than I was aged seventeen, and I think these days people — or at least, those who write about books books online — are much more inclined to critically consider that sort of thing than people were when some of these books were written.

    Our of the books Nicoll mentioned, Still Forms on Foxfield was the one I thought sounded most intriguing too.

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