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'Prophecies of doom' inspire La Roche professor's teen novel

| Friday, Sept. 26, 2014, 8:57 p.m.
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Author Joshua David Bellin
'Survival Colony 9' by Joshua David Bellin

What if the end of the world happened — and it was the least of your problems?

For the small, nomadic tribe of humans wandering a vast, deserted Earth in “Survival Colony 9,” the scorching sun, denuded landscape and lack of food, clean water and shelter are serious problems. Life-threatening, even.

But there are things out there in the wastes that are tracking them, that offer a much, much worse end than starvation or exposure. Out past the scouts, flamethrower-armed sentries and few remaining ramshackle trucks are the Skaldi.

The Skaldi don't just eat humans, they devour their insides and inhabit their skins before shedding them like a snake. Once inside, they're excellent mimics, and it's very hard to tell them apart from normal humans.

“I know it's a cliche, but it came to me in a dream,” author Joshua David Bellin says. “The desert landscape, the monsters, the survival colony, all came to me in a dream.”

Bellin, 50, is an English professor at La Roche College in McCandless. “Survival Colony 9,” recently published by Simon and Schuster, is his first novel. He'll be discussing and signing his book this weekend at the Pittsburgh Comicon.

“Survival Colony 9” is the result of Bellin's close study of monsters. He has even written book about monster movies, “Framing Monsters: Fantasy Film and Social Alienation,” and often uses literary monsters, from the Old English epic “Beowulf” on down, in his courses.

“When I was a kid, I liked the monsters that could stomp on cities, like King Kong and Godzilla,” Bellin says. “Things that had something not fully human, but had some human characteristics.

“As I've gotten older, I've gotten interested in the insidious-type creatures, that get under your skin, like ‘Aliens' and ‘The Fly' — the whole idea that there are monsters within us. The book I wrote about monsters — they're good tools for getting us to think about ourselves. They show what we're afraid of, what we desire.”

As a novel intended for the booming, but hard-to-define, Young Adult genre, the story is told from a teenager's point of view — Querry, son to colony leader Laman, who remembers nothing prior to the previous six months.

“Survival Colony 9” also fits neatly into the current cultural interest in dystopian futures and post-apocalyptic survival — reflected in everything from zombie movies to “The Hunger Games.”

Bellin notes that this fascination isn't new and seems to hold a particular attraction for teenagers.

“It's something we've been reading about for hundreds and thousands of years — whether it's Revelations or Nostradamus — prophecies of doom,” he says. “We do actually see some warning signs of things going wrong, whether it's global climate change, terrorism or wars in the Middle East. There's a lot of really threatening things in our world. I think the apocalyptic thing responds to that.

“I think for teens, there's a sense that their teen years have a sort of apocalyptic dimension. On the one hand, they're enjoying growing up. But at the same time, they feel like they're living under enormous pressure and uncertainty about their futures, and, in some cases, real threats to their safety and well-being.

“That may be what drives kids to this kind of writing — it, paradoxically, feels safer and helps them get a handle on things that are actually happening.”

Not coincidentally, discussing dystopias and utopias happens to be a good entry point into literature.

“We read Thomas More's ‘Utopia,' ” Bellin says. “Now, they're doing their first paper, which involves creating their own utopia or dystopia. It's a writing class, so I like to start with a more creative assignment to ease the pressure of the more harder-core academic writing.

“They lean toward things that look like utopias until you look closer, and they're actually dystopias. I think that's the influence of ‘The Hunger Games.' Maybe young people tend to be skeptical of what their elders tell them is utopia.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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