It’s the end of the world as we know it … and I feel fine! Nine apocalyptic novels

I love a good apocalypse, don’t you? But because they can sometimes be a bit harrowing I’ve rated them with some 50-shades style safe words:

Green: painful – but with a happy ending!

Yellow: approaching my pain threshold….

Red: make it stop!!!! Don’t read these if you’re feeling a bit fragile.

1 The Stand by Stephen King

‘Epic’ is a word that gets bandied about a lot, but at a whopping 823 pages, this really is a massive book. To get some perspective on that, The Goldfinch is only 784 pages. In this novel, a weaponized flu virus  – nicknamed ‘Captain Trips’ – is accidentally released from a military research facility. It kills 99.4% of the world’s population in a fortnight. Then the Satanic Randall Flagg appears, walking down a dusty road in his cowboy boots, calling all the evil people to join him in – where else? – Las Vegas. Meanwhile, the holy mother Abigail brings all the good people together in Colorado, and the stage is set for humanity’s last stand. What I love about this book is the huge variety of characters from all walks of life, and how convincing they are as people. A pregnant teenager, a one-hit wonder rockstar on the run from an angry drug dealer, a deaf man beaten up and anxiously waiting to face his tormenters, unemployed loafers hanging out at the petrol station in small-town Texas, two criminals on a mad killing spree… All their problems look a bit silly after Captain Trips. What I didn’t like was the silly ending and that Mother Abigail is another of King’s awful ‘magic Negro’ figures. Oh Stephen!! Apparently there’s going to be a film version starring Matthew McConaughey as a heroic Texan. This is a travesty: I imaged the character much older and more normal-looking. I’ll still watch it though.

Rated: green

2 Z for Zachariah by Robert C O’Brien

This is young adult fiction and it scared the hell out me as a teenager. 16 year old Ann Burden lives alone, self-sufficiently, in a small valley protected from nuclear fall-out by its unique weather system (suspend your disbelief here). One day a man in a radiation suit appears out of nowhere. Ann is excited and scared, and hides. After the man drinks from a poisoned stream, Ann nurses him back to health, and starts to dream of marrying this man (she’s rather religious), and re-starting the human race together. But the man doesn’t dream of an equal partnership. He’s got something rather different in mind. So begins a battle of wits to survive, which ends with Ann donning the radiation suit herself, and setting off in search of other survivors. Some commentators have talked about how this novel pits the male scientist against nature, threatening to start the whole destructive cycle again. But I saw this more as a feminist novel, proving that there are some men who, even if they were last man on earth, you’d better stay away from.

Rated: yellow

3 On the Beach by Neville Shute

Australian writer Neville Shute was pretty right-wing, and is therefore completely ignored these days. This is a shame because his books are really interesting. In this 1950s novel there has been a nuclear war between Albania and Italy (unlikely I know), and the fall-out is gradually spreading across the world. In Melbourne, they’re just waiting for the inevitable. First of all people go all end-of-the-world crazy, then they keep calm and carry on, but with rationing and petrol shortages. As they gradually lose contact with the outside world, and the fall-out creeps closer and closer, most people do the sensible thing and commit suicide, quietly and without making a fuss. It’s basically the same outcome as ‘the road’, but far more civilised. Stiff upper lip and all that.

Rated: yellow

4 The Drowned World by JG Ballard

Ballard’s weird, psychedelic novel is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which global warming has forced the remnants of humanity to the Polar Regions, while most of the world’s cities are semi-submerged tropical swamps full of terrifying lizards. A military group sets out to survey the remains of Europe and falls prey to a mysterious psychological illness, gradually consumed with a mad desire to go southwards into the heart of the destruction. On the downside, it’s seriously 1950s: racist, sexist, prudish, full of psycho-babble and major plot holes.  On the positive side, the world building is magnificent: creepy and freaky as hell. A visit in a diving suit to the submerged London planetarium will stick in my mind for a long time. It’s also nice to see people gleefully embracing destruction instead of fleeing from it. Can you hear that? It’s the sound of the sun, calling to you – the drumming!! The Drumming!!!!

Rated: green. There’s not actually a happy ending, but it’s too weird to be traumatic.

5 The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Are you sometimes disappointed that apocalyptic novels are a bit too jolly and don’t feature enough cannibalism? Then this is the book for you! After an unspecified but seemingly nuclear catastrophe, the skies are filled will roiling grey clouds, it gets freezing cold, the oceans are poisoned and all plants and animals die. A father and son are left wandering on the road, eating whatever canned goods they can find, and hiding from troops of cannibals. It’s beautifully written in fine literary style, but it’s bleak and hopeless and it doesn’t end well. The film version is absurdly bad – I had to stop it after about 10 minutes.

Rated: red, red, red!!

6 When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs

Like many other kids of the 1980s I was horribly traumatised by this comic book. A sweet but dim elderly British couple trustingly follow the government’s guidelines on how to survive a nuclear war, and die of radiation sickness. Briggs intended this as a satire on the whole ‘duck and cover’ nonsense that was being peddled at the height of the cold war and it certainly worked. I decided then and there that if the three-minute warning sounded I would just run out into the playground and die as quickly as possible.

Rated: simply red

7 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndam

This 1950s novel has been massively influential on everything from Nobel prize winner Saramango’s The Blindness to the movie 28 days later. Humanity is menaced by two different threats, both of which are more creative than the usual nuclear war/virus/climate change. A mysterious shower of green lights in the sky (meteorites? Or weapons?) causes an epidemic of blindness, while giant, carnivorous, hyper-aware, mobile plants (genetically engineered by the Soviets?) stalk about eating people. Essentially Wyndham foresaw bio-weaponry. Our hero wakes in hospital and has to escape the city (the first rule of apocalypse survival is to escape the city), save the woman he loves, and gather enough of the right kind of survivors to build a new life in a countryside colony. So far, so formulaic. But the interesting focus on how to structure the society of the future – communism? feudalism? polygamy? make this old-fashioned (i.e. massively sexist) classic worth a read.

Rated: green

8 Oryx and Crake/The Year of the Flood/MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

This is cheating, because I’ve only read the first one in the trilogy. Humanity is wiped out by a genetically engineered virus created by Crake, a sort of green messiah-lunatic figure, obsessed with man-made extinctions. He also creates the crakers: genetically engineered humanoids, who are vegetarians and have polygamous mating seasons. I guess they’re supposed to continue the legacy of humanity, without the characteristics that drive us to megalomania and destruction. Crake’s left his disciple Snowman – who he’s stabbed in the back – to help shepherd the crakers in their brave new world. It’s the dystopian, pre-apocalyptic world that I really liked here. Mega-corporations own everything, the poor live in the ‘pleeblands’, while the rich have plastic surgery and organ transplants. Everyone eats artificially grown chicken breasts called ‘ChickiNobs’ *shudder*, and men’s hobbies are mainly watching executions and child porn over the internet. Overall it has a sickeningly contemporary feel compared to some of the other books on this list. Apparently the second 2 books introduce more female characters, religious and environmental mania, and a group of human survivors called ‘God’s gardeners’, who aim, inevitably, to rebuild a better world.

Rated: yellow

9 The Time Machine by HG Wells

This is usually lumped in with sci-fi general, but actually it’s all about doomsday. A Victorian gentleman, known only as the Time Traveller, regales his dinner party with stories of his adventures in a tardis-like time-travelling box. He has seen the future, and it involves the expansion and then death of the sun, leaving planet earth cold and dead. Plausible. In between times, he saw the future of the human race. We evolve into two races. The Eloi are a a leisured class, so dependent on technology that they have lost all intelligence and physical prowess, and simply loll about enjoying themselves, too stupid to even flee from danger. Meanwhile the working classes have become the Morlocks, hideous ape-like creatures who do all the work that keeps the Elois going. Also, they eat the Elois. Wells was here applying his socialist perspective to the contemporary theory of ‘degeneration’, mixed with a classic adventure story, to come up with something rather different.

rated: green


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