For the other side of the argument, check out Mia Lipman's entry Apocalypse Never.
Let’s face it, the signs are everywhere. Global warming, forest fires, nuclear meltdown, massive oil spills… the list can seem endless. And maybe it is. The destruction of the planet demands daily mentions in the news, but it’s not just a topic for television, radio, and newspapers—the end of the world is finding its way into much of our popular fiction, too.
To be fair, stories about the apocalypse have been around for a long time (see the Mayans). But about five years ago, something significant happened: Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer, thanks to his best-selling post-apocalyptic novel The Road. Before McCarthy wrote his book, post-apocalyptic novels were generally condemned to the science fiction ghetto. But in 2007 something clicked, and the general readership and Pulitzer committee (and later Oprah) changed all that. It was as if the zealot in the sandwich board on the corner shouting “the end is nigh” had suddenly been given a briefcase and a gray suit. The apocalypse had gone mainstream.
Now the best-seller lists are peppered with post-apocalyptic books. But why would your average non-sci-fi reader pick up a book about a ragged, nameless man shuffling with his son across the scorched earth?
That behavior probably has as much to do with fantasy as with science fiction. Most of these novels touch on a variety of themes, but all of them have one theme in common: change. The world that you know has been replaced with a new one—and in almost every case it’s a simpler one. Your new world may be grim (hello, Hunger Games), but all those little things that occupy your present day—cable television, Facebook, email, telephone calls, your commute… even news about how the world will end—are replaced by the need to survive. Forget quiet desperation; this is the full-throated variety.
Many of us fantasize about clearing our worlds of noise, of finding clarity. And most of these novels do that—but they also carry a deeper message: embrace the small moments in the present. In more than one post-apocalyptic novel I’ve read (including The Road), a character luxuriates in the simple pleasure of drinking a Coke. If I drank a Coke today, I’d likely feel more guilt than pleasure. But in post-apocalyptia even empty calories merit unclouded appreciation.
I can think of no better illustration of this than a scene in Peter Heller’s excellent novel The Dog Stars, where a character rues the loss of his trout-filled fly fishing streams. It’s a profound and touching piece of writing that skillfully recreates the joy of fishing; it makes us understand what we lose when we no longer have simple joy in our lives. I have joys like that. So do you. With any luck, you won’t need the world to end in order to appreciate them. But if you do, here’s a list of books that might help:
The Road, Cormac McCarthy: The book that convinced Oprah to embrace the apocalypse.
The Dog Stars, Peter Heller: A man, his dog, his plane, and a distant beacon that gives him hope.
The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker: A 10-year-old girl comes of age in a suddenly altered world.
The Passage, Justin Cronin: A man-made apocalypse is the launching point for this first in a series.
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins: Young adults and adults alike have been swept up by this huge best seller.
Earth Abides, George R. Stewart: A classic of the genre, following a sole survivor of the apocalypse.
I Am Legend, Richard Matheson: This sole survivor has to battle vampires in this horror/sci-fi mix.
Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delaney: A midwestern city is cut off from the rest of the world by catastrophe.
Blood Music, Greg Bear: The misdeeds of one renegade scientist bring destruction on us all.
The Stand, Stephen King: An army-developed virus kills off more than 99% of humans.