As I write this, more than a third of the world’s population is expected to be on lockdown in an attempt to slow the coronavirus pandemic. For many of us, the days have been filled with stress baking, worrying, stress eating, worrying, and reading. A lot of reading. Some of us are reading for comfort, some for distraction, some for enlightenment, some for visions of the apocalypse.
It’s a common observation that the coronavirus outbreak makes it feel like we’re living in a dystopian novel right now. It is scary, unwelcome territory for us, but humanity has been here before and written about it. In a time of crisis, fiction can serve as a catalyst for reconsidering our ways of living. With that in mind, here are ten post-apocalyptic books to add to your lockdown reading lists.
*Spoiler alert: not one of them features a scene of people hoarding toilet paper.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
‘Oryx and Crake’, the first novel in Atwood’s incredible ‘MaddAddam’ trilogy, introduces us to a corrupt dystopian world ravaged by humankind’s failure to respond to the threat of the anthropogenic climate crisis. In this novel, the engineered apocalypse forms a chasm in the narrative as Atwood alternates between the pre and post-apocalyptic scenes to tell her cautionary tale of how the catastrophe came about.
This is speculative fiction at its finest. Atwood deftly plays with real-world ideas and fears. Corporate capitalism, techno-science, and social injustice are to blame for the destruction of the planet, but the cause of the apocalypse itself? Well you’ll have to read to find out. She gives us an oblique, funhouse-mirror glimpse at the revolutionary changes that will be required to avert the climate crisis and I couldn’t recommend it more.
The Stand by Stephen King
‘The Stand’ is ostensibly the most famous of my recommendations and definitely the longest at over 1300 pages. It is frightening how much this novel, in which a deadly influenza pandemic wipes out 99.4% of the population, correlates to the coronavirus, albeit more extreme. There are scenes in the beginning of ‘The Stand’ where as soon as you see someone sneeze or cough into their arm, everyone’s eyes in the room darts towards them. Sound familiar?
“I wrote The Stand about a pandemic that wipes out most of the human race, and thank God this one isn’t that bad, but I wrote that in 1979 and ever since then this has just been waiting to happen.”
“The fact that nobody really seemed prepared still mystifies me.”
– Stephen King
Notwithstanding the frightening similarities, ‘The Stand’ is a masterpiece. It’s a rich, atmospheric, American epic enriched with detailed storytelling. What would I do if I were alone and everyone I had ever known had died within days? Where would I go? Although lengthy, ‘The Stand’ is a rich, layered atmospheric novel enriched with detailed storytelling that made the premise of the world’s end even more daunting.
The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard
‘The Drowned World’ imagines a terrifying future in which solar radiation and global warming have melted the polar ice caps and Triassic-era jungles have overrun a submerged and tropical London. Meanwhile, a team of scientists endure the suffering heat in upper floors of buildings which protrude the water and silt.
There’s no denying that Ballard is difficult. The external Triassic landscape in ‘The Drowned World’ is a profound echo of the mindscapes of his characters and the archaic surrounding landscape prompts the protagonists to undergo psychological regressions to prehistoric and prenatal pasts. The examination of the effects of environmental collapse on the human mind is fascinating. In this novel, the characters aren’t resisting the apocalyptic collapse, but are intent on joining it. Ballard’s work is brimming with lavish descriptions of the flooded city and I highly recommend adding it to your list.
The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel
While ‘The Stand’ is the most famous, this is perhaps the least known of the post-apocalyptic books on my list. ‘The Purple Cloud’ is a strange “last man” novel that follows Adam Jeffson: the first man to reach the North Pole and the last man left alive on earth. Upon discovering that a peach-smelling purple cloud of poisonous gas has obliterated the world, he travels around the silent globe in search of human life. As the years pass by, he slowly succumbs to madness, questioning God’s plan and sets about burning and, thus, destroying his planet.
Shiel somehow sustains a story with a single, unsympathetic character at its core. His writing has a mystical quality. I’ve never read prose quite like it. Amid the dense paragraphs are some of the most stunning descriptions I have ever read. Shiel created an influential, unsettling story which although a task to read at times, encompasses a rich adventure and thought-provoking ideas.
Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter
Continuing with strange stories, Carter’s ‘Heroes and Villains’ is a Gothic domestic drama that comprises a barbaric romance amid a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Much of civilization has been wiped out by some type of “blast” in a war. What was it? We don’t know. All we learn is that the people who live in the world described in the novel have been splintered into several groups – the Soldiers (the remnants of the army), the Workers, the Professors, the Barbarians, and the outcast mutant Out People.
Marianne is bored of monotonous life in the town of the Professors and at 16, exempts herself by running off with her brother’s killer, a Barbarian named Jewel. Carter blurs binaries as Marianne falls in love with the illiterate brute who rapes her into marriage, and the runaway girl is a stranger to her own needs and desires. It’s strange, unnerving and unpleasant to read to the extent that I felt weary. A wild ride, indeed.
The Death of Grass by John Christopher
With the deadly Chung-Li virus wiping out all grain-based crops worldwide and soon landing on England’s doorstep, fragile civilization collapses overnight. As the revelation of the grass virus spreads, the country’s government, police and elected officials lose their power and there is a rapid breakdown of societal norms. In the wake of a global catastrophe, every man is for himself.
To reach his brother’s remote farm, John stockpiles supplies and weapons and leads his little band of survivors along on a tedious journey from London. In just a matter of days, characters switch from being civilized beings to murderous savages. Would ordinary law-abiding citizens resort to violence so quickly?
‘The Death of Grass’ tells the tale of a realistic environmental catastrophe. It shows just how precarious life on this planet truly is. It is a fast-paced, engrossing story that explores tyranny, the implications of leadership, the balance of Nature and advanced science, and more. I just wonder whether they ever did manage to return to their ‘normal civilization’ after committing such heinous crimes.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The only novel on the list that I haven’t read, but that I’ve wanted to pick up for years. A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food – and each other.
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
‘Cat’s Cradle’ is a bizarre, satirical commentary on modern man and his madness. The story begins as a satire about a journalist’s attempt to investigate the life of one of the creators of the atomic bomb but ends as a bleak allegory about the annihilation of life on earth.
Vonnegut’s irreverent wit and straightforward prose makes for a whole combination of wacky nonsense with poignant, often satirical, philosophical messages. Although he wrote this in the 60s, the ethical question of man-playing-God remains more relevant than ever: ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, forests are burning. Just because scientists possess the tools and power to create something doesn’t mean they should.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
‘Station Eleven’ is an audacious novel with its events taking place before, during, and after the pandemic of the Georgian flu. The human race collapses and takes everything we have come to know with it. Phones, air travel, medicine, spacecraft, the Internet, everything.
It is a layered, thought-provoking story that ultimately reminds us that nothing is promised. Rather than being teleological, this novel asks, who says things will get better? Overall, although some things are left unsaid, the story wrapped up perfectly, leaving us to wonder what the lives of the survivors will entail in the years to come.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The trilogy we all know and love; in the ruins of a place once called North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in the annual Hunger Games.
‘The Hunger Games’ is dystopian but not without hope. It’s dark and foreboding but not without the light of the human spirit keeping aflame. I’m hoping that Collins’ upcoming prequel, ‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’, gives us an insight into how Panem reconstructed itself after the Dark Days.
Have you read any of these novels? What post-apocalyptic books would you add to the list?
Stay home and stay safe,