Survival is an interesting subject for both fiction and fact. Whether you are thumbing through your Service’s survival FM or The Zombie Survival Guide, there is much to be learned from both… Since very often survival boils down not only to a person’s ability to survive whatever’s trying to break them, but also their will to survive it. And in that, human psychology is relevant whether you are dealing with a fictional threat, or a very real one.
Below is a short list of both fiction and real-life survival stories. Both categories will definitely put your mind in thinking mode, as you sink into the context of the book. If you’re like me, it’s basically The Neverending Story and I completely put myself into the shoes of the protagonist and process information in real time as if I was actaully there. So when it comes to survival books, you may carry some of that book with you when you close that back cover.
The Open Boat — Stephen Crane. The Open Boat is a short story about four men surviving in a small dinghy after their ship sinks in the Caribbean. Published in 1897, this story is a fictionalized narrative of Crane’s own experience surviving at sea after the ship he was on, the SS Commodore, hit a sandbar and sank.
Originally published as a news report a few days after his rescue, Crane later put his experience into a narrative, which then became the “fictional” short story. This is generally accepted to be Crane’s greatest work. But you should read it and judge for yourself.
The opening lines of the story are: “None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them.” Not only is that one of my favorite literary quotes ever, but it also pretty much sums up where the line is for a person to be in a “survival” situation — those “waves” could be anything. How many people in daily life would those two lines describe?
Adrift: 76 Days Lost At Sea — Steven Callahan. Adrift is the memoir of sailor Steven Callahan. Published in 1986, the book mostly covers Steven’s solo survival on the Atlantic Ocean in a life raft, after his small sailboat collided with something and sank. As the title suggests, he was adrift for 76 days — between early February 1982 and April 21, 1982 — across 1,800 nautical miles of the Atlantic. The bulk of the book discusses what he did to survive.
An important point to note, though, is that even in the middle of his epic Odyssean quest for survival, he found lucid moments of pure calm reality: “My plight has given me a strange kind of wealth, the most important kind. I value each moment that is not spent in pain, desperation, hunger, thirst, or loneliness.”
Year Zero — Jeff Long. Year Zero, fictional as it may be, is one of the most stressful books I’ve ever read. Published in 2002, this book covers a plague that kills off all but about 5% of the human population. The plague is airborne, 100% contagious, and has a 100% fatality rate. But that’s not the point — the plague is just the plot device.
The plot follows Nathan Lee Swift, an Archaeologist and mountaineer, as he surface-travels from Nepal to Washington, DC (over the Himalyas, across China and Russia, over the Bering Straight, through Canada and the US), to Los Alamos, NM — in the middle of all this plague and civilizational collapse — to get to his 3-year-old daughter.
Once in New Mexico, he joins a group of scientists and survivors struggling to understand and overcome this plague and save humanity. The plot manifests a number of twists and turns, to be sure, but the one bedrock solid point that remains non-megotiable is a father’s love for his daughter. I don’t know how Nathan survived his trials in this book, because I only damn-near did.
This book — among a very few — drastically changed the way I looked at the world.
Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why — Laurence Gonzales. The final installment on this list, Deep Survival is an anthology type book that pulls several real life survival stories into one book. It does so in order to give the reader a detailed overview of these stories, as well as some of the common moving parts churning in all surival situations. From shipwrecks to falls off cliffs to plane crashes in the deep jungle, this book absolutely grips you into whichever situation is being covered in that chapter.
But even more than that, the book seeks to illustrate and articulate that ability & willingness thing I mentioned above. It conveys that there are many times that someone with the will to survive, did so. While someone in the same party who possessed the ability to survive (but lacked the will), did not.
It also does a great job in humanizing these horrific and epic events. It correllates them to smaller — but no less grave — “survival” events we might face in normal human life. Loss of a loved one, sudden financial ruin, a protracted or ruthless divorce. All of thesee things are life-changers — survival experiences — and the book argues that the basic human psychology of survival is constant throughout all of those experiences, and that it boils down to your will, backed up by any ability you might have.
Not quite to the level of Year Zero, this book also changed the way I viewed my world… and how fragile my place was within it.
I encourage you to run these down — along with other titles by these authors. I have no doubt you will learn something, even if only about yourself.