Am I the only one who has the tendency to get stuck in a genre rut? Over and over again I find myself knee-deep in a stack of related books, searching for the best of the best in that genre, before tiring of it and moving on to something new. A year ago I was reading every Holocaust memoir I could get my hands on, but for the last few months, I just can’t get enough of post-apocalyptic sci-fi.
I love post-apocalyptic sci-fi because it deals with such a fascinating question: how do you survive when society collapses? What do you do when there’s no electricity or running water, no gas at the gas station, no food to buy at the grocery store, no police to call when you’ve been victimized, no fire department to put out fires, no doctors or hospitals when you’re sick or injured? Here are a few novels I’ve read recently that deal with these harrowing questions:
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
This is the type of post-apocalyptic sci-fi you recommend to your friend who is convinced she doesn’t like post-apocalyptic sci-fi. In fact, after reading the first chapter of this book, I went back and read the synopsis on the book jacket, just to verify that this book was indeed what I thought it was, as there was nothing even remotely post-apocalyptic or sci-fiish about the entire first chapter. In fact, a substantial portion of this non-linear novel is set pre-disaster. This gentle introduction into the post-apocalyptic world makes it an excellent choice for newbies, not only because it spends huge chunks of time pre-apocalyptic, but because it truly is a literary novel. The language is beautiful, rhythmic, evoking images and sensations with its prose. Anyone who appreciates good writing will find much to enjoy in this book.
But for those who are interested in the action, here’s the rundown: Mandel’s story follows the marginally interwoven fates of several individuals (some who do and some who do not survive the deadly “Georgia Flu” that spreads like wildfire and wipes out most of the earth’s population in days) both before and after the disaster. Each of their stories is unique and interesting, not only in terms of what happens to them when the flu hits, but their lives before the disaster as well. Mandel includes interesting details in her world that I’ve not seen in other works in this genre, such as a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors that doubles as a symphony, and a museum of now obsolete pre-disaster artifacts (credit cards, iPhones, a motorcycle, etc.) located in an airport. Also unique to this genre, Mandel is able to portray a general feeling of hopefulness, rather than the usual desperation, lawlessness, and despair. Beautiful writing, believable characters, and excellent pacing make this a highly recommended read.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
First, if you’ve never read anything by McCarthy, I think it’s important to inform you of a few of his quirks: he doesn’t like chapters or punctuation. There are no chapter breaks or quotation marks in the entire book. Now, personally, I am a huge fan of both chapter breaks and punctuation. I believe chapter breaks are important in terms of pacing and that punctuation helps create meaning in written language in the same way that nonverbal cues (pauses, intonation, etc.) create meaning in spoken language. However, since McCarthy won a Pulitzer prize for The Road and I have not won a Pulitzer prize, I will bow to his expertise on the matter. With that said, if you’re used to the normal conventions of writing in English, McCarthy can be a bit difficult to read for the first few pages, but I encourage you to persevere.
The Road is the story of a nameless man and his son traveling around a devastated United States in search of food. McCarthy gives us very little backstory, but the reader can infer that the characters are living in a world that has been so destroyed by some sort of nuclear disaster that no plants can grow. No plants mean no food, so our protagonist and his boy are constantly scavenging for canned and dried food leftover from before the nuclear disaster. In addition to battling hunger and cold, the lack of a food supply has resulted in many people turning to cannibalism, making everyone they encounter a threat. Like Station Eleven, this is a literary novel, and McCarthy is able to create a bleak, desolate, visceral world into which he transports the reader. My one complaint about this book is that I found the ending a bit unlikely, but I know others feel differently, so I’ll leave you to decide.
The Stand by Stephen King
I don’t normally read Stephen King because I’m not a big fan of horror, but when someone mentioned that The Stand is actually post-apocalyptic sci-fi, I decided to give it a try. The Stand was originally released in 1978, then rereleased in 1990, with some of the text that had been cut for brevity from the original version added back in and a few other small changes made.
In The Stand, a strand of flu which has been altered to use as biological warfare is accidentally leaked from a U.S. military base and wipes out the majority of the country’s population in weeks. In the first of the book’s three sections, multiple storylines of several major characters are introduced. I found this section of the book most interesting, as it describes what life is like for each of the characters as they survive while everyone around them is dying. In the second section of the book, survivors are drawn through dreams to one of two survivors, Mother Abigail or Randall Flagg, and begin traveling across the country to reach them. In this section of the book, the religious symbolism becomes obvious, with Mother Abigail representing God and Randall Flagg representing Satan. In the final section of the book, the two groups face off to determine who will take control of the development of a new society. If you like a little horror mixed in with your sci-fi, The Stand is an excellent choice.
What about you? Have you read any good post-apocalyptic sci-fi recently? Or maybe you’ve been reading a different genre you’d like to tell us about. We would love to hear about it!