This is the second of two columns that touch on apocalypse. If you haven’t read it already, start here, at https://bibliolennlibrary.wordpress.com/2015/10/29/a-good-scout-will-not-be-caught-unprepared-and-you-should-be-prepared-as-well-in-case-of-zombie-apocalypse/
But why is the idea of apocalypse so popular? Doomsday is everywhere – it’s big, big, BIG! Zombies are wildly popular on television, yes, and also in print, such as with last week’s Good Reads pick, Pride And Prejudice And Zombies (by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen, 1813/2009, filed in the Lennoxville Library in Young Adult).
But it’s not just zombies. Humanity’s collapse is just around the corner – every corner.
Big cataclysm thinker and writer Robert Brockway suggests the appeal is our own arrogance: “We’re fascinated by the potential ruins we will leave behind when we’re gone: We want to read the headstones proclaiming the magnificence of our society to whoever comes along next.” Plus there’s the belief that no one is properly prepared for The End but you: “Let’s face it, when you talk about doomsday, you’re really saying ‘that time when everybody else died, but not me.’” You, lone survivor, are King Of The Hill.
And that’s fun when battling annihilation is a game. Still, that might not end up being so fabulous if you really do turn out to be The Last Man. That’s the title (and the ending) of writer Mary Shelley’s three-volume tale of the end of the world, published in 1826.
The story begins in 2073, in England, now a republic. The whole first volume is devoted to hatred, revenge, love, friendship, and political machinations. It’s tons of fun.
It is only in volume two that plague makes its way to England (after Greece has freed Europe of Turkey’s rule; the book relies on 19th century technology and politics for its vision of the future).
With plague, survival results from a genetic accident.
The writing is old-timey, filled with long sentences with marvelous digressions, and citations from the literary stars of the time. Shelley makes fun of Romantic writing (when the leader of the Greek army is captured and tortured, his wife suffers agonies: “She abstained from food; she lay on the bare earth, and, by such mimickry of his enforced torments, endeavoured to hold communion with his distant pain”). Romantic ideals also take a drubbing. Find The Last Man online (for free), at Gutenberg.org.
Plague, of course, was very real in the 19th century, just as the possibility of nuclear destruction was very real during our own Cold War. Nevil Shute’s On The Beach was first published in 1957, and was continuously in print for more than a decade (the Bishops’ University library has a copy).
Some 4,700 atomic bombs have hit their targets, and radioactive haze is slowly covering the Earth. On The Beach is a portrait of a handful of people who have a few weeks left to live, in small-town Australia. Each attempts to cope in their own way. This is a great – and short — read, but it pulls no punches. Everyone dies. There is no king of the hill.
Come the 21st century, our fears have refocussed. Daniel Wilson’s Robopocalypse (2011, filed in the Lennoxville Library in Adult Fiction) is a thriller that collects up moments in the lives of a ragtag group of humans during the robot uprising: “The world has changed over the last year. Our technology has been going feral. Incidents. The incidents have been piling up, slowly but surely. Out transportation, our communications, our national defense. The more incidents I saw, the more the world began to feel hollow, as if it could collapse at any moment.” And it does.
Robopocalypse is set slightly into the future, where big cities like London, UK, are filled with self-driving cars and surveillance cameras, and guns are banned. “In London, the citizens were too safe to survive.” The human resistance is led by Native Americans, a Latina child, and armed forces soldiers. Lots of humans, and robots, die. This thriller is a quick read. (You can find more worries about science and technology in Margaret Atwood’s 2003 Oryx And Crake, her award-winning first book in a trilogy of mass destruction, also filed in Adult Fiction.)
Then there’s terrorism. James Howard Kunstler writes of an American collapse launched by a terrorist bombing. More bombs, uncontrolled disease, and political assassinations follow. There is very little left of civilization.
In small town New York, former corporate executive-turned carpenter Robert, and fellows, are growing their own food and dig out whatever else they need from the town dump (they pay organized crime for that privilege). “We were fortunate to still have running water in the village. The town established its water system in the early 20th century. The reservoir lay a hundred feet higher in elevation and above the village, so the system was gravity fed and it still worked. It wasn’t treated anymore but it was good potable water.”
Then a group of stern evangelicals arrive, and a farmhand is murdered.
The writing is almost understated, and this is a fascinating tale about sustainability, fear, violence, and the quest for control, even in small communities. It’s a doomsday novel for people who aren’t big on science fiction. World Made By Hand (2008) is filed in Adult Fiction. (There are two sequels.)
But good sci-fi also makes for a darned good armageddon. Seven Eves is the latest from Neal Stephenson (2015, in New Arrivals), an almost-900-page novel that spans 5,000 years.
But it begins tomorrow, when the moon suddenly explodes. Soon, its fragments will begin to rain death upon the Earth. It will take thousands of years before the surface will be habitable again. In the meantime, the world’s politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs send up as many humans as they can into space, sharing an orbit with the International Space Station. Plus DNA from everything on the planet.
Stephenson loves to explain the technology, so this novel is full of personalities, politics, death and cool science. Despite the entire planet’s resources, only a handful manage to survive in the next few years, and their hi-tech solution to extinction is both terrifying and fascinating. Stephenson is a best-selling author whose work has won multiple awards (both as a novelist, and as a game designer). This is a thriller packed full of fun ideas and surprising twists.
Here’s one last way the world will end: Horrific pollution has left swaths of China uninhabitable, and a corporation has shipped whole populations into abandoned US cities. Princeton University’s Chiang-Rae Lee has written a deceptively simple novel, titled On Such A Full Sea (2014, a New Arrival).
What’s left of the United States is split between the privileged and the worker bees, both living in gated (but separate) cities, and the lawless, violent rabble of the badlands.
In the former Baltimore, agricultural workers live lives of quiet numbness, growing fish to feed the rich. Fan is 16, a diver who cleans out the water tanks. One day she escapes the walled city, seemingly to find her disappeared boyfriend.
Her quest — her rebellion — is narrated by members of the community she abandoned. Her travels are terrifying, her decisions easy to condemn. But Fan’s story changes the people she left behind. She makes a difference.
Why is apocalypse so fascinating? Pick a book, and you’ll find a different answer in each. Or perhaps in the end, at the end, community does mean something, after all.