The world we know is scattered with monuments whose nature and purpose are unknown, perhaps unknowable, constructed by people whose motives we can guess at but cannot really explain. For Britishers like me, the examples that come to mind are Silbury Hill, the largest artificial mound in Europe, which is itself part of the ceremonial landscape around Stonehenge, constructed over hundreds of years from around 3,500 BCE to c. 1,500 BCE. Every so often, new “explanations” arise for these phenomena: astronomical calendar, “ritual” centre, political consolidations of an elite (or a confident collective) telling the universe “we are here.” Among these explanations (some of which, of course, might have been true at different times) are puzzled examinations of how Neolithic cultures managed to plan and administer such massive projects. How and why did individual stone age farmers find themselves hauling rocks over Salisbury Plain only for succeeding generations to rearrange and realign them? What did they think they were doing and, more interestingly, what did other cultures, observing this activity at work, think was happening?
Robert G. Penner, a Canadian living in the USA, might have such examples in mind, or might be drawing upon other, more local cultures. But similar mysteries lie at the heart of this intriguing new approach to the post-apocalyptic anxiety which gnaws away in many classic science fiction texts such as Eric Pangorn’s Davy (1965) or John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (1955). In this near future, the majority of humanity has simply walked away from mundane existence to engage upon constructing a number of incomprehensible, labyrinthine earthworks. Is the cause of this a virus or a visitation? The calm, orderly exodus has left behind those who, from examples we meet or hear about (a homeless man, another with burns from some drug-related incident, several characters with frequent seizures, a woman with Down’s syndrome and many with what seem to be mental-health issues), are in some way what is now dubbed “neuro-atypical.”
Miranda is one of those who did not join the builders. Scavenging food, clothes, and medication in abandoned stores and fighting off packs of feral dogs, she is travelling across the USA to find her parents’ home. She spends some time with a small community of elderly people with dementia, cared for by Esther. When Esther commits suicide, Miranda teams up with another wanderer named Dave, who is heading for Chicago to find a legendary chemist at the University, who can make up any drug you might want: “That’s the Holy Grail now, isn’t it? The new alchemy, someone who can make drugs out of the leftovers.” Dave’s theories of what happened, and why, form a running commentary throughout the novel. On their travels, they meet a community of aesthetes/intellectuals, and visit “Big Echo,” a religious community. Ultimately, the novel’s elegiac, almost hallucinatory ending offers no conclusions except (and I could be very much reading my own interests back into the story here) another echo of one of those Neolithic “activities” for which we already have so many interpretations.
This is a story for which there are several possible readings. One is that the remnants are the inadequates, the losers, left behind in a kind of secular version of the Rapture. Also “left behind” are the institutionalized and hospitalised, people in jail, and the sociopaths such as Smacksburg, whom Miranda and Dave meet early on as one of a gang robbing the "digger" convoys, and whose presence haunts Miranda long after they move on from his group. There are feral children (who may or may not join the mass of diggers at puberty), and dark hints at chaos in cities. In contrast, the Toledo Citizens Co-operative, “curating important civilizational values,” simply offers a very gentrified, cosy-catastrophe kind of post-apocalypse. And even here, one character says of another, “he’s damaged goods. He’s filled with corruption, like all the others around here … That’s why the virus or whatever couldn’t get them, they were already broken things, diseased.”
“We were saved because we’re damaged goods,” says Miranda to a member of another community. But, she goes on to say, “for that matter, we don’t even know if it’s us that’s saved and them that’s damned, or the other way around.”
Somehow, although Miranda comes across areas where communities of “diggers” have been wiped out through blizzards, starvation, and disease, there is some kind of industrial backup going on, shipments of food and fuel which the “survivors” have learned how to raid, stopping convoys and unloading supplies while the unspeaking diggers look on, waiting until they have finished and then continuing on their way. What they construct are hieroglyphs on the landscape, as much so as the concrete bridges, like “arched spines of long-dead monsters,” which Dave imagines archaeological digs of the future laying bare. His dream of excavating an archaeological site, layer upon layer of human history—“random, curving gouges that went on and on, down, down, as deep as we could dig”—is as close as we get to the activity in which the human race is now, in his world, engaged.
Penner allows his characters their speculations. They all have their illusory goals—Dave’s pharmaceutical “Holy Grail,” Miranda’s parental home—but they dissipate like Ish’s dreams of passing on civilization through his children in George R. Stewart’s novel of the USA post-apocalypse, Earth Abides (1949). And so there are a number of ways of reading this story. Another is hinted at by Adrian of the Toledo Citizens Co-op, who says of the nearby refinery: “I personally think they have it close to its previous capacity, I used to count the trucks and in one twenty-four hour period last August a little over 500 trucks rolled out of there. At 200 barrels a truck, that’s at least 100,000 barrels. It was their busiest day ever, but still, they do keep plugging away.” Is this inexplicable routine ant-like herd behaviour, or planned activity? Are we (and this is a very different reading from the “losers” or “inadequate” reading) looking at the industrial USA seen from the outside by people unsuited for it?
Strange Labour may be an active engagement with the motifs of authors like Stewart, Pangborn, and Wyndham, even J. G. Ballard and films like Mad Max (1979). Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) is referenced early in the novel, and Penner shares some of Wyndham’s reluctance to offer a concrete explanation for the event that kicks off his story. This novel’s strength and readability, though, lie in the way Penner shows humanity searching for explanations. From Dave’s “folklore” creation of the variant stories of the “Dog Killing Goat Boy” told in each community he visits, to his “lying, cowardly bastards who wrote history books”; from Miranda’s memories of family life to the sculptor Eli, carving every square inch of wall, floor, and ceiling into a maze of grooves reminiscent of the earthworks carved upon the landscape, Penner suggests that the deep and lasting anxiety at the heart of the “post-apocalypse” is that we might not even comprehend the Apocalypse when it comes along.