After watching the majesty of Mad Max: Fury Road, I decided to revisit some classics of the post-apocalypse over the last couple of months. I’m not sure what I was looking for, precisely but my rough outline was - the work (movie, television show, book, whatever) had to involve the end of the world as we know it and spend a significant portion of its narrative examining what sort of society would exist after such an event.
Obviously, there is no shortage of the post-apocalypse. To go out on a limb, the collapse is even in a bit of a growth cycle. Before even watching Mad Max, I read five novels all published last year that addressed TEOTWAWKI in some respect. Whether following spore zombies in post-collapse London (The Girl With All of the Gifts) or the slow crumbling of social order in The Book of Strange New Things, I was already in this catastrophic state of mind.
As far as books go, the post-apocalypse has a long history. Mary Shelley wrote “The Last Man” way back in 1826 but I’d mark "Earth Abides" as the true start of post-apocalyptic literature. Seriously you should read this one. The character is compelling and the narrative, perhaps because George R. Stewart wasn’t aware of some of the cliches and tropes an End of the World story is supposed to have. One of my favorite moments happens early in the book when the survivor, Isherwood, finally finds a few survivors living in San Francisco. Instead of quickly settling down and trying to restart civilization, he takes one look at the bedraggled, traumatized remainders of humanity and decides he’d rather take a road trip. The whole book, with its poetic rumination on the slow decay of modern artifacts and the resumption of nature, is like Grapes of Wrath in reverse.
I can also recommend "The Stand” by Stephen King (obviously) and Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel, as books with similar themes and details to Earth Abides. But seriously, read Stewart’s book. In most respects it hasn’t aged a day.
If "Earth Abides" represents the meditative, philosophical take on the post-apocalypse, the other two early titans of this genre - “Alas, Babylon,” by Pat Frank and “A Canticle of Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller, take a look at one of the big enduring mainstays of the end of the world, a thermonuclear exchange. I read Canticle a while ago but finally tore through Frank’s book this summer. In total, I preferred “Earth Abides,” but “Alas, Babylon” has a lot to recommend it as well. For one thing I would point out the rigorous adherence to verisimilitude in Frank’s book. Small details of the nuclear war and its aftermath ring true, and lead to a somber but ultimately optimistic vision of the world after such a disaster.
Nuclear war, as a survivable event, doesn’t seem to crop up as much nowadays - which is probably a consequence of a clearer understanding of the horror of such a war and the receding threat of the old Soviet Union. That said, it remains a favorite of movies (Mad Max being an obvious example) and television shows (the justly praised ‘Jericho’). Trendier catastrophes like superflus and environmental collapse reign currently.
Once you get away from the “Day After Tomorrow” style hyper-disasters, the lingering effects of the total disintegration of the biosphere have produced some of the most compelling science fiction in recent years. Books as diverse as “The Drowning World” by J.G. Ballard, “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy, and “The Fifteen Lives of Harry August,” have all taken up this theme. This is also the subtext of this year’s “The Water Knife,” by Paolo Bacigalupi, where the western United States slowly dries up as the world grows warmer and warmer. The Water Knife is also notable because of the literate and sophisticated way Bacigalupi handles the question of the post-apocalypse. In The Water Knife, the almost pornographic fascination people have for dying cities and desperate refugees (#collapse) contributes to the spreading disaster. Of all of the versions of the end of the world, this was probably the one that felt the most up-to-date to me, certain features of the story - the ongoing draught in California, economic instability, and spreading wildfires - brought to their all-too-plausible conclusion.
Finally, I’d conclude with Neal Stephenson’s “Seveneves" which convincingly wipes out every living human being except for a handful of women and then fast-forwards a few millennia to the civilization created by the genetically manipulated offspring of these “Seven Eves." I found myself admiring this book more than actually enjoying it. The bleak picture of the end of the world (caused by the inexplicable explosion of the moon) is heavy on interesting speculation and light on characters you’d actually want to survive the end of the world. On the other hand, this is a novel that is utterly unafraid to consider colossal ideas, one of the biggest being what if all human civilization could be rebooted from the ground up.