I have to confess… the end of the world is a source of great pleasure to me. Just when I think I’ve read about every possible way that humanity can slide into the abyss, another author comes up with an inventive take on armageddon or its aftermath.
Many readers only recently discovered post-apocalyptic literature, when Oprah led her readers down The Road. It’s fantastic that readers and book groups found this work, one of the excellent Cormac McCarthy’s best creations yet. It takes the power of someone like the esteemed Ms. Winfrey to convince mainstream readers that they have good reason to read science fiction subject matter (even if it is marketed to the literary crowd). It takes a trusty guide to convince folks that they can get something out of looking into the abyss and then coming back. Still, I hope book groups won’t stop with just one book.
One of the reasons why apocalyptic fiction is so compelling is that it pokes a stick into the most basic of questions: What is human nature like at its core? If we strip away the complicated trappings of civilization, how will people behave? McCarthy’s version is about as bleak as it gets–a few lovely moments between a father and son as the candle gutters out–but his approach is just one among dozens. Comparing and contrasting these versions of the end would make a fascinating study for brave book groups, either in one themed meeting or in a series of shared readings.
Nevile Shute’s classic On the Beach reaches a similar conclusion to The Road but Shute looks at a broader cast of characters, a real variety of noble and ridiculous behaviors as radioactivity spreads into southern Australia.
The Pesthouse by Jim Crace is written with all the literary skill of McCarthy’s work and is similarly silent on what exactly brought the world to its degenerated state, but Crace’s view is just a smidgen more hopeful about human nature, featuring a very tender relationship between a young couple that readers are bound to like. Readers will enjoy playing with the idea of whether this is intended as some kind of allegory, at what Crace is saying about an America gone awry.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s near-future trilogy about science in the American capital, beginning with Forty Signs of Rain is set on the verge of a global warming disaster, but he remains hopeful that technology and human ingenuity can find solutions. The journey of one character, who works on high level scientific solutions during the day and spends his nights camped in an icy park, is particularly fascinating. This work is a bit on the wonky side, but Robinson has a special gift for illuminating the working world of scientists.
In The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier imagines not just the end of the world, but the end of a fascinating afterlife in which the dead live in a city, a kind of monument of memory, until the last person who remembers them on earth has died themselves. This is a metaphysical, dreamy work that will leave you thinking about the human connections that you have made during your life.
Works like Pat Frank’s classic Alas, Babylon or S. M. Stirling’s series that starts with Dies the Fire show that while the end of the world is certainly tragic, it doesn’t have to be depressing. In fact, readers may come away with these novels with a renewed sense of the ability of the human spirit to cope with the worst that can come its way. These works are fine examples of how good pulpy fun can combine with thoughtful questioning.
I could go on! Octavia Butler’s duology The Parable of the Talents and The Parable of the Sower are luminous. Max Brooks’s oral history of zombie wars World War Z is unlike anything else you’ve ever read. Thomas Disch’s The Genocides and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids will leave you with second thoughts about your garden. Alan Weisman takes a nonfiction look at the apocalypse in The World Without Us. Try Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country for a feminist look at the subject, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz for a theological view, or Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos for the darkest of humor.
I’m just tickling the fringe of this fascinating subgenre of fiction. Try it with a bang (a la Lucifer’s Hammer or The Stand) and try it with a whimper (The Children’s Hospital or Riddley Walker), your group won’t run out of interesting approaches to the end.