Reading List for the Apocalypse
May 21, 2012 – The Mayan Apocalypse, or so they say. You may be asking yourself the important questions, like what would you be doing if this were indeed the last day on Earth. With less than two days to go, what would you do? More importantly, what would you read? With that in mind, I’ve compiled a handy-dandy list of my recommended apocalyptic literature.
It is one of the many days occurring during the course of my lifetime wherein the world is supposed to end. Days arbitrarily plucked from the minds of some man or woman based upon the thinnest of evidences and hailed as the end of life as we know it are a recurrent theme. The prevalence of this phenomenon indicates that it strikes a particular chord in all of many: the idea that we won’t die singularly and alone somewhere, but as a part of a global catastrophe.
When I was a teenager, I had frequent nightmares regarding nuclear war. Someone I knew who claimed knowledge of interpreting dreams told me that such dreams signified subconscious concern about impending change. That made perfect sense, as I was preparing to enter the adult world, and my life would change on many levels. About six months after I left home and got my own apartment, I stopped having the nightmares. But when my parents were each diagnosed with different cancers (and my father has now been diagnosed with two cancers in as many years) I found myself writing an apocalyptic novel, “Solitude”.
The writers of apocalyptic fiction may have personal or impersonal motives: I really can’t say. What I can say is that the theme enchants the imagination so that there are innumerable such stories in both film and literature.
Today, I am going to talk about books. Here are a few of my favorites with apocalyptic themes or undercurrents. There will be great stories I’ve left off the list, because there are many more stories than I could possibly mention. What are your favorite works of apocalyptic fiction? Please comment below.
[SPOILER ALERT] Some of these descriptions contain spoilers, if you haven’t read the books yet, consider yourself forewarned.
H.G. Well’s “The Time Machine”
While certainly not his only work of apocalyptic fiction, “The Time Machine” was the one that most captured my imagination. I remember as a small child, my father taking me down to the science museum in Los Angeles and showing me the exhibit about stars going supernova. When the Time Traveler reaches the end of the line, the last moment of life on earth it is the sun’s expansion that destroys all remaining life. As a young reader, this seemed more possible than the alien invasion that threatens to destroy us in his “War of the Worlds” and more unstoppable than the global warfare in his “The Shape of Things To Come”, two books that also certainly belong on this list. I was young and idealistic enough to believe that a wise humanity could take heed of the warnings against war and prevent such an end… but who could stop a supernova? The space program was running out of steam when I was a child, and taking away it’s dreams of interplanetary travel and escape from a natural disaster destroying the earth along with it.
Frank Herbert’s “Dune”
The two movies made from the book never really seemed to communicate the overlying sense of pre-apocalyptic dread first Paul, then Leto Atreides experienced for most of the first three books. In Dune, before he becomes Maud’Dib, because he is the Because the Kwisatz Haderach and can see the masculine as well as feminine genetic lines of potential futures, Paul Atreides struggles with nightmarish visions of a future where his own actions unleash a jihad in his name that ultimately destroys the world. Even after he becomes Maud’Dib… Paul and his son Leto spend a great deal of time trying to avert yet another catastrophe: a war over the spice melange. Indeed, it seems that seeing into the future is a kind of a curse, with terrible consequences and an endless series of horrible choices and sacrifices to make in order to avert the extinction of mankind. In many cases, these are choices that no one else can understand and the actions Paul and Leto take make them seem at times monstrous. It is due to the pre-apocalyptic tone of these presentient visions that the book is included on this list.
Stephen King’s “The Stand”
When the first version of “The Stand” was released in 1978, Larry Underwood was still a disco singer. By the time I read it in 1983 at the age of fifteen, we were just becoming aware of the global AIDS epidemic which would color the adolescence of many people my age. “The Stand”, with it’s story of a global pandemic “Captain Tripps”, started by the government appealed to us on so many levels back then. The idea that AIDS was created by the government was just one of the contemporary fears it managed to strike: we were also afraid of biological warfare, and it hit that nerve quite nicely. The story follows multiple protagonists and we see through their eyes the unraveling of an extinction level event. The book also contains many Christian religious references, tapping into the deep psychological well of end-times fear that has spawned so many apocalyptic films and stories. Stephen King is another writer with multiple apocalyptic stories, as he also crafted the post-apocalyptic “Dark Tower” series.
Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”
“I Am Legend” is another, earlier story regarding the extinction of humanity as caused by a global plague. Indeed, Stephen King admits that this story was one of his inspirations. In the story, Robert Neville is the only person on the planet who is immune to a disease that causes it’s victims to look and act a lot like vampires. The novel has a far more provocative ending than the Will Smith blockbuster film based upon it, with a dark little twist. In the end, protagonist is forced to accept the fact that the vampires, the infected and mutated variant on mankind, are actually the “new normal”. When originally infected, the other people were quite wild and irrational, but now they have recovered their sense and formed a new society. Neville finds out that he’s not actually the hero, but the villian – having slain thousands of the infected, he’s now legendary as the world’s greatest serial killer.
Harlan Ellison “A Boy and His Dog”
In this, one of my father’s favorite science-fiction stories, the world ends due to Nuclear War. The story follows the adventures of a teenage boy named Vic and his genetically altered telepathic dog Blood. The dog is definitely the brighter and more civilized of the two. The young man’s mind tends towards theft, gluttony and rape. Blood is only able to telepathically communicate with his semi-feral human companion, so they are for better or worse stuck together. They live in a world rife with nuclear contamination. In a possible nod to “The Time Machine”, these above-ground dwellers run into a girl named Quilla June Holmes and she turns out to be secretly searching for men to abduct and hold captive in order that they might impregnate women in the underground society she lives in.
Pierre Boulle “Planet of the Apes”
The first apocalyptic story to frighten me was not the 1963 novel, but the 1968 film. It was playing on the television one day when I was about five years old, and when I registered the meaning of the Statue of Liberty at the end, it caused me to have nightmares for the next week or two. As such, I must of course include it. The book, written in French, is actually a bit scarier than the movie: the story is told within another story, distancing us a bit from the subject matter. A couple find the story of a man named Ulysse Mérou, told in his own words. When he lands on this planet where human beings are like monkeys, and monkeys like humans, although he maintains his abilities, his companion Professor Antelle begins to lose his faculties and find himself more and more like a wild animal. The apes perform experiments on the humans. Of course, like the movie, there is the twist ending where we learn that the planet was earth all along – so, like “I Am Legend”, this is a story where the planet continues but humans as we know ourselves fall into decline.
Wendy Pini’s “Masque of the Red Death”
The online comic is based upon Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death“, a short story which can be read in it’s entirely online. The Poe story is about Prince Prospero’s fruitless efforts to avoid dealing with a national epidemic, an ebola-like virus called The Red Death. Ignoring the suffering of the poor, he plans a fantastic ball to entertain his well-off friends. But death in the end touches all of us, rich or poor. The Pini story moves the epidemic to the future, where it is an accident of failed genetic engineering. Instead of being a national epidemic, this time it is a global pandemic, and the storytelling centers around the doomed romance of Stephan and Anton, two young men falling in love near the end of the world. Pini’s Masque of the Red Death contains mature content and is only for adult readers.
You can find it online here.