In the mood for some human-race-almost-gets-wiped-out reading? Then apocalyptic novels are the books for you.
Some of those books are also dystopian novels, but a major difference is that things like disease and nuclear bombs can bring on the apocalypse while a dystopian society can come about via (harsh) political change. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Donald Trump owned the New Jersey Generals in…1984.
Why do some of us like apocalyptic novels despite those books being depressing as hell? Well, they’re intense, dramatic, and cautionary — as in here’s what we don’t want to happen in real life and let’s support ways to prevent it (by trying to eradicate contagious diseases, reduce various countries’ nuclear arsenals, etc.). And of course climate change is another existential threat that many countries (but few Republican leaders) take seriously.
Readers of apocalyptic lit also wonder how they would personally react to a decimated world — even as they’re fascinated with how fictional characters deal with that scenario.
Apocalypse is on my mind after reading Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney, in which a 20th-century nuclear holocaust has the survivors living a rather primitive existence. Goods are bartered, decent food is scare, people travel in cars pulled by horses, and it takes months for a letter to get from New York to California. As they deal with those privations, the characters in Dick’s novel do what ultra-stressed people often do — become despondent, behave recklessly, steal from each other, and occasionally act in inspiring ways.
It’s not clear what causes the already-happened apocalypse in The Road (Cormac McCarthy is more concerned with how his characters react to it), but the U.S. is in bad shape. The Road is also an example of how many apocalyptic — or post-apocalyptic — novels mostly focus on a small number of protagonists and a few secondary characters to bring readers into the story on a very personal level.
Novels with an apocalypse caused by disease or something else of a pandemic nature include Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Albert Camus’ The Plague, and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. (Shelley’s book is also quite fascinating in that its three main characters are thinly veiled versions of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and the author herself in male guise.)
I should also mention Stephen King’s The Stand, one of the longer end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it novels. The bleak, haunting conclusion of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is apocalyptic, too — or maybe more an Earth is dying of old age thing.
Of course, apocalyptic novels can make for eye-catching movies — as with The Road and I Am Legend. And there’s the famous “Time Enough at Last” Twilight Zone TV episode — adapted from a Marilyn Venable short story — about a man who’s rather pleased with the Earth’s devastation because he can finally read in peace. (Needless to say, that bibliophile ends up barely having enough time to peruse a blog post, much less a bunch of books.)
Speaking of short stories, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” is also pretty darn human-race-is-in-big-trouble.
What are your favorite apocalyptic works?
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