There’s a very large oeuvre of survivalist fiction. There are entertaining popular bestsellers like Robert Merle’s 1972 Malevil, Matt Bracken’s Enemies Foreign and Domestic trilogy, and James Wesley, Rawles’s current Survivors series. There are explictly gun-culture-oriented works like John Ross’s Unintended Consequences. There are inexpensive Kindle-published or self-published works, which range from “as good as those bestsellers” to “we see why it’s self-published” and every station in between.
There’s the nuclear-apocalypse genre, the zombie-apocalypse genre, the terrible-disease- and supernatural-apocalypse genres (rolled into one in Stephen King’s excellent The Stand) and the bankers-finally-totally-crater-the-economy genre. There are probably more stylistic and thematic divisions than that, but we accept that our mission here is not to be the Linneaus of apocaliterature, rather to call out some unrealistic memes that frequently recur in these works — even the ones by the best writers.
Some of these works are of great literary and instructive merit; some, well, not so much. Apart from the illiterate and the racist stuff (two sets with a considerable intersection), we enjoy reading these things, but our dentist says we need to stop grinding our teeth. And some of the things characters do in these books would make their real lives nasty, brutish, and most assuredly short. And make us grind our teeth. (Bracken, mostly, is an exception: a SEAL, he keeps his characters grounded in the realm of possibility).
Here are things that your characters, should you be moved to go toe-to-toe with Rawles, King, Bracken or Merle, ought not to do:
1. Assume battles are decided by single combat.
Look, it makes a great story. The Greatest Storyteller Ever has told it (David v. Goliath), and a few pretenders to the Greatest throne have, too (Homer’s Achilles v. Hector, for one; Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book’s glib revision of the David tale, for another). Good guy fights bad guy; bad guy gets whacked; other bad guys throw in the sponge on seeing the defeat of their champion.
It doesn’t work that way in the real world. Any org big enough to have a leader is big enough to have a succession plan, implicit if not explicit. The ancient story you’re channeling is more like Hercules and the Hydra. Solo combat is essentially Suicide By Enemy.
2. Attack combat units with a single deer rifle.
In some cases, the authors have the militia guy defeat entire platoon-sized elements. A few hearty optimists raise this to one-man massacres of companies and battalions. A fact which should be obvious — if they are in engagement range, so are you. Military units can do things to counter sniping that individual combatants cannot — like fire and maneuver.
A rifle is the fundamental infantry weapon, but the rifle does not make the infantry man, let alone the infantry unit. Infantry units have machine guns that can dominate any exposed area for a kilometer and more, and mortars that can extend that domination many times further. And infantry units seldom walk alone. They tie in with other infantry units to their left and right; they advance behind a mailed fist of armor; they employ artillery and air support, with fires preceding them in the advance, shielding them in the defense, and striking precision targets on call.
The Final Protective Fire of an infantry unit is awesome to behold and terrible to experience. But the real reason that, throughout history, well-led militia and irregulars avoid contact with regular infantry, is that infantry units do not only have all this hardware but they have the far more important software — the knowledge, training, skills and experience –to use the hardware to best advantage.
We love Steven Hunter’s books in which a crafty former Marine Scout Sniper takes on various bad guys and (invariably) slays them all. But, while Hunter is an experienced shooter and knows his way around guns, he was never a Marine or a sniper. Real Scout Snipers know their utility to their command comes with how they integrate into an overall plan, often as an intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance asset. Their weight in the scales of combat is not just the number of enemy Joes they whack.
To put it another way, even the best trained sniper is a retail killer. An artillery battery is wholesale.
3. Do things weapons just can’t do.
We recall one book where the protagonist made 1000-meter shots with a scoped but otherwise GI Springfield rifle. If you talk to actual combat snipers, ypou’ll find that individual 1000-meter shots with a battle-rifle cartridge like the .30-06 or 7.62 NATO are possible, but not by any means routine. And military match ammo is capable of sub-MOA acuracy, but not from a two-groove wartime 1903A3 barrel. Another book had a teenage character who quickly became an expert at, we are not making this up (although the author certainly was) throwing a knife. Not just any knife, either: a Marine Ka-Bar. Knife-throwing is a trick of stage and screen with no application to combat. It’s beloved of Hollywood and by people who, God help them, learn their tactics from Hollywood. Real knife-fighters don’t throw their knives away; and real knife-throwers, Hollywood that they may be, would despair of throwing the blocky Ka-Bar (or most other fighting knives, including the frequently-thrown-on-screen Fairbairn-Sykes commando knife).
In Malevil, Robert Merle takes this surrealistic knife-throwing fancy even deeper into surrealism, by making his expert, miurderous knife-thrower a transvestite.
4. Use single-channel unencrypted voice radios when the enemy is a modern army.
They have entire units that listen to, decode and locate that stuff, and then pass the information to other units that rain death on the offending location — by means of either precision fires, or heliborne troops.
Your clever CB-radio-guy codes? Broken in seconds. Book codes? Broken in an hour or two without having the book or knowing what it is. And every emitter on the battlefield, whatever else it does, emits one message that you may be sure is taken up by the enemy every time: I am here. Guerilla warfare depends, in part, on the counterinsurgent having difficulties locating the insurgents, because the COIN force can mass, maneuver, and defeat them in detail — Find, Fix and Finish as the Vietnam-era COIN slogan put it, a tactic that forced the NVA and VC to reconstitute hundreds of annihilated units from scratch.
5. Expect the enemy to be significantly dumber than you.
A lot of survival fiction treats enemies as something with an intellect somewhere between a lobotomized cretin doing the Thorazine Shuffle, and a robot imbued by a mischievious cypherpunk programmer with an impetus to suicide. They act in predictable ways and don’t exploit their advantages, some of which are enumerated above. So survivors in these works tend to make slipshod tactical errors, which nonetheless go unpunished.
This works in fiction because the author has predetermined the result of the fight, and lobotomized his adverse charaxters appropriately. So they shuffle off, robotically, towards certain doom.
Need we say that real enemies do not and will not act like that? In the nonfictional world, slipshod tactical errors are rapidly and mercilessly punished.