This is the Way the World Ends

If pushed to name a favourite genre, post-apocalyptic would come close. Depending on my mood, it would often be top. That’s the thing with naming your favourite anything, from food to film to song to book: it depends how you are feeling when deliberating. I’ve talked in a previous post about my love for this genre and how I first became attracted to it by watching the film The Omega Man when I was a child, and I’m not going to rehash that. Instead, I want to mention some of my favourite apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels. (I’m not going to discuss dystopian books where there hasn’t been an apocalyptic event, or there has but it isn’t key to the story—dystopia has its own post.)

This is a category crammed with excellent novels. Harder to know what to leave out than include, but what follows is a mention of many of my favourites (which, of course, on another day might have included one or more of the books I’ve today omitted).

Let’s start with one of my favourite authors. If you know me, you’ll realise I refer to Stephen King. Can’t recall how old I was when I first read The Stand, but I’m guessing I was around seventeen. The tale of civilisation coming to an end through the accidental release of a lab-engineered strain of influenza blew me away and cemented SK as my go-to author. (As an aside, one or two reviewers of my own apocalyptic novel, The Cleansing, commented that it reminded them of The Stand. True, my tale also involves a manufactured virus which virtually wipes out humankind, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Tenuous though the comparison is, I usually shrug and take it as a compliment, even where it’s clear it’s not intended as one.)

Another PA novel I read in my teens was On the Beach by Nevil Shute. Set in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, it tells of the last days of humanity while the survivors wait for the fallout to reach them. It was published in 1957, which perhaps explains why I felt in some ways it was a little unrealistic. I mean, for people awaiting certain death, they behave in an awfully civilised manner—stiff upper lip and all that. Still, it’s a sombre evocation of how the world might end (‘not with a bang but a whimper’*), with the government doling out suicide capsules so the people might be spared the slow, lingering end of radiation poisoning, and entire families popping them together.


On The Beach

Another favourite of my younger days was Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. The apocalyptic event doesn’t take place until towards the end of the tale, but when it does, it’s about as life-ending as it’s possible to imagine. And that’s all life, not only human.

A couple of books I’d describe as curious, both disturbing in their own ways. The Death of Grass by John Christopher presents a grim (grim? It’s PA—of course it’s bloody grim) look at how humankind might react in the event suggested by the title, with the British government responding to the crisis in a dramatic and overly drastic way, and what is left of society descending almost instantly into mob rule. And Night Work by Thomas Glavinic. It’s not giving anything away to say that it’s about a man who wakes up one day to find that he appears to be the only person left alive on the entire planet. Can’t say more because spoilers, but it’s a dark and intriguing read.


Night Work

The next two books have something in common: they both involve a form of vampirism. In Justin Cronin’s The Passage, we see the event unfold. The story continues in two sequels and it’s a fine trilogy indeed. In Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (the book upon which the film The Omega Man is loosely based), the event has already taken place and we witness the aftermath. Unlike the film versions, the book’s ending is deliciously dark; pity the film makers didn’t have the courage to stick with it.


I Am Legend

Next, a Marmite novel: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp (that’s the book, not Marmite). It’s unremittingly bleak and utterly gripping. They didn’t do a bad job with the film version, either.

A few more crackers (most of the books included in this post are crackers). Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel.  Both captivated me for different reasons: Atwood’s for its sense of lyricism and surrealism mixed with a scenario all too realistic, Mandel’s due mainly to the intrigue I felt as to how the present would tie-in with the back story, though this is beautifully written as well. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller is a classic PA novel, though it reads more like three long short stories, which is how they were originally written.


Oryx And Crake

For someone who’s a huge fan of TV’s The Walking Dead, strange that I’m not really one for novels about zombies. They simply don’t interest me. The exception is World War Z by Max Brooks. I bought it as one of my books to take on holiday to Greece a few years ago. It took me a while to grow used to the style of the novel—it has no central narrative, as such, but is told after the event through a series of interviews with characters who played a central role in the ‘war’—but once I had, Wow! A rip-roaring read that I didn’t want to end.


World War Z

To finish, a novel that haunted me for weeks after I’d finished it and one that I want to read again: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. The story is set in the south-east of England, far into the future, hundreds of years after the apocalyptic event. I’m hazy on the details because it’s been more than five years since I read it, but I still recall how the tale resonated with me. The author developed a form of pidgin English in which his characters speak and, due mainly to that, it’s a difficult book to get into. But, boy, was it worth persevering. If you enjoy works of apocalyptic fiction, I’d strongly recommend this, and every other book mentioned in this post.


Riddley Walker

Happy reading!

* this is a line from a poem by T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, the same poem from which Shute took the title of his novel, and I took the title of this piece.

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

The title comes from an REM song that was a minor hit in the UK in the early nineties. It’s a good song by an excellent band, but that’s by the by. It’s the phrase I want to talk about: the end of the world as we know it.

To me, it succinctly sums up the attraction of post-apocalyptic fiction to both readers and writers. The world hasn’t ended in the sense that it’s been blown to smithereens and Mars has become the third rock from the sun. The world is still here, but it’s a version that we don’t recognise.

Apocalyptic events come in all shapes and sizes: meteor and asteroid strikes; deadly pandemics; nuclear war; disastrous climate change; attack by extra-terrestrials; plagues of undead. What they have in common is the wiping out of a large chunk of the planet’s population, and a struggle by the survivors in a world where the previous rules no longer apply.

In the immediate aftermath there is no law and order, no society, no culture, no international boundaries. There are no checks and balances. What morality remains has to struggle to assert itself amidst anarchy. Humankind is reduced to its basest, most bestial form.

There’s the attraction for the writer. A blank page that can be filled however he (or she, but can we take ‘she’ as read?) chooses. The writer may open the story with the apocalyptic event itself. Or he may jump forward a hundred years, or a thousand, to whenever he wants, and leap right in at a point where new rules are already established, new orders have arisen, new currencies are being traded or fought over.

The writer can develop goals and conflicts that are unlikely to arise in the world as we know it. Maybe the acquisition of uncontaminated water will be the overwhelming aim of survivors in the new world; or arable land; or sanctuary from mutant enemies; or dry ground; or a cure for disease; or shelter from deadly solar rays. The possibilities are endless.

The reader will take delight in entering a world where all bets are off. He will relish trying to identify the new rules, if indeed there are yet any, and putting himself in the place of the protagonists. How would he, the reader, cope if thrust into such a world? Might there even be, whisper it quietly, something desirable about inhabiting a world where there are no conventions?

That was how I first became attracted to the genre. I was a young boy and watched the film The Omega Man on television one Saturday evening. I can still recall the thrill I felt at seeing Charlton Heston enter a department store and pick out any clothes that took his fancy without having to pay for them. I imagined being in his shoes, walking down a litter-strewn, deserted high street, calling into every toy, sweet and gun shop that I passed (they were always toy, sweet or gun shops—I was nine) and simply helping myself. I was the most dangerous sweet-sucking, gun-toting, toy-laden critter in town. Of course, I was the only sweet-sucking, etc. critter in town but didn’t let that get in the way of a good fantasy. My childish self conveniently ignored the downside to finding myself in such a scenario: the loneliness, the desolation, the abject despair.

Those aspects were brought home to a slightly older version of me with the BBC television series The Survivors. I only vaguely remember the original (it was remade a good few years ago), but recall it being grey, gritty and downright miserable. It nevertheless cemented my love of the apocalyptic story.

Around four or five years later, I read Stephen King’s The Stand. This still ranks as one of my favourite post-apocalyptic books (along with Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Cormack McCarthy’s The Road—more on them in a future post). I especially enjoyed watching the apocalyptic event unfold and seeing what happened in the immediate aftermath (elements, along with a deadly virus, that I use in my own apocalyptic novel The Cleansing). Having wiped out most of the population of the United States—we never see what is happening in the rest of the world—with a manmade superflu bug, Mr King could have taken the story in any one of a multitude of directions.

There is so much conflict inherent in an apocalyptic scenario that the writer doesn’t need to invent more. The mere struggle for survival is compelling in itself: the competition with other survivors for scarce resources, threats from predators old and new (animal and human), establishment of new bonds that will determine whether the human race can continue. But that’s the beauty of stories about the end of the world as we know it: almost any new element—spiritualism, the supernatural, mysticism, the extra-terrestrial, and so on—can be introduced to add even more spice to an already tasty dish.

Mr King could have shown the surviving humans in The Stand struggling to adapt to their new world without introducing any extra conflicts, and no doubt it would have been a cracking tale. As it was, he opted to have the survivors gravitate to one of two camps (figure-headed by the ancient and pious Mother Abigail, and the charismatic and deadly Randall Flagg) and constructed a ripping yarn about good against evil, while retaining all of the basic conflicts mentioned above.

There are many more books and films in the apocalyptic genre that I have enjoyed, as well as computer games like the Fallout series, so it was inevitable when I began writing fiction that sooner or later I would turn my hand to an end of world tale of my own. Like many writers, I write the sort of stories that I enjoy reading (and watching and playing).

Apocalyptic books, films, games, they all provide the reader, the viewer, the player, with the vicarious terror of experiencing a horrifying situation and wondering what he would do next. Run for the hills? Give up? Fight back? But in contrast to being actually thrust into such a scenario, the reader will derive great pleasure from the journey without suffering the accompanying deprivations and heartaches. He will feel relieved or even smug that he will never, hopefully, have to undergo such an experience in the real world.

And that brings me back to the title of this piece. It’s not quite correct or, at any rate, complete. The full title of the REM song is It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) . Now the title sums up the attraction of the apocalyptic genre more fully. It explains it all.

The writer will pen tales that involve the deaths of millions or billions of people; he will place the survivors in yet more jeopardy (as if the poor buggers haven’t already suffered enough); he may offer them the flimsiest hopes or the thinnest opportunities to escape ever more desperate situations; he may force them to champion the cause of mankind against overwhelming odds (give them a break, for goodness’ sake).

The reader will sit on the sidelines, watching the tale unfold with increasing incredulity or awe or horror. He’ll sympathise with the survivors; gasp as they face each new challenge; root them on when there’s nobody else on their side; laugh and cry with them.

But neither writer nor reader have to die with them. And maybe, only maybe, we end up appreciating the world we know, this world, just that little bit more. Perhaps it isn’t quite as bad as it sometimes seems. The apocalyptic tale shows us that it could be a whole lot worse. It might make us feel, even if only subconsciously, a little better about our world and ourselves.

And that can only be a good thing.