by Lily Houston Smith
I’m not quite sure whether I should be proud or alarmed at how well I’ve acclimated to this past year’s apocalypse. Shuffling past boarded-up storefronts and faces anonymized by N95s no longer makes me feel like I’m living in a dystopian nightmare. My apartment has transformed from a prison into a haven. I’m not even lonely anymore; sometimes a Zoom call feels just as intimate as a hug.
At least part of my adaptability is owed to the thousands of pages I’ve read about people weathering apocalypses far more devastating than our own. Time spent imagining worlds that are reeling from climate collapse, or contaminated with some viral form of zombieism, or swallowed up by ice, can act as a palliative.
Apocalit tends to put things in much-needed perspective. Times are tough, sure, but if I had to choose between this reality and the one Nevil Shute imagines in On the Beach, I’d choose this one every time. Reading about our collective doom also acts as a kind of exposure therapy, in the same way frequent horror movie viewing—something else I’ve done quite a bit of recently—can reduce anxiety. I may have been blindsided by this global-scale disaster, I think, as I open up my copy of Station Eleven, but next time, I’ll be ready.
Even if you’re feeling a little tired of dystopia, it might be a good time to pick up a novel and glimpse all that another apocalypse might have to offer. There are plenty of scary end-of-world books to look forward to this summer—The World Gives Way, Appleseed, The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell—but for now, here are some of my favorite grim, fatalistic, just dreadful books about facing world-crumbling catastrophe.
The coronavirus pandemic brought into sharp focus some of the existential threats we face as a species: vulnerability to disease, fragile governments, crumbling infrastructure, looming class war in the face of unjustifiable poverty and homelessness. But it was possible to forget, as the economy faltered and hospitals crowded, that we’re also hurtling quickly toward a potentially anthropocene-ending ecological collapse.
Peter Heller doesn’t leave out any disasters in this disturbing (and disturbed) apocalypse novel. Nine years after a deadly super-flu wipes out the overwhelming majority of the planet’s population, our narrator, Hig, is guarding an abandoned airstrip that he shares with his dog, Jasper, and a gun-obsessed maniac named Bangley. The planet is warming, weather is becoming more extreme, and roving bands of dangerous survivors threaten the group’s ever-diminishing security.
This book is bleak. Like On-the-Road-meets-Old-Yeller bleak. And also beautiful. And tense. And surprising. And—despite everything—full of something close to hope. If you want a preview of worst-case-scenario societal collapse, ideas for what ammunition you should be stocking, or just a good cry, this is the apocalypse novel for you.
At times, A Children’s Bible will feel less depressing than The Dog Stars; Millet is darkly funny, writes whip-smart dialogue, and maintains a certain levity in her tone, even as more and more shit hits the proverbial fan. At other times, it will feel infinitely bleaker, like when you pause and reflect on the plausibility of its premise.
Set in a not-too-distant future, the book begins with narrator Evie being dragged along on holiday with a group of her parents’ college friends and their families. When a massive storm hits, crippling the nation’s infrastructure overnight, the rag-tag group of children and adolescents are left to fend for themselves. (Their parents repeatedly defer blame for the eco-apocalypse, avoid proactive solutions to its consequences, and drink themselves into unintelligible stupors.)
It’s an allegory steeped in biblical references—there is a Flood, a Plague, even a crucifixion—and informed by Millet’s experience at the Center for Biological Diversity, where she’s worked since the ‘90s. Read it if you want a frank look at the horrors that await us but want a chuckle now and then, if only to soften the blow.
Maybe Millet’s light-hearted approach to the apocalypse appeals to your sense of humor, but its premise is too close to home for it to feel like entertainment, per se. Well, here’s an apocalypse novel so divorced from reality it hardly has the power to inspire dread.
Published in 1963, Cat’s Cradle satirizes the apocalyptic anxieties of a time very different from our own. Mid-century apocalit tends to employ massive weapons that decimate the planet in an instant, à la Fat Man and Little Boy. In this case, it’s an ice molecule that freezes over all the water on the planet in an instant.
Like all Vonnegut novels, Cat’s Cradle is absurdly funny, deeply sarcastic, and uncannily sage. And quick! With large text and lots of dialogue, you can breeze right through this book in a day or two, which is important. After all, we may not have very much time left.
When you think of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, you might picture the 1984 anime film with an English dub featuring the voices of Uma Thurman, Patrick Stewart, and young Shia LaBeouf. In fact, Nausicaä was originally a manga series, written and illustrated by Miyazaki before he became the animation legend he is today. And the movie (brilliant though it may be) only covers a tiny sliver of this epic tale of survival.
The story is set in a distant future, in a world that has been so thoroughly poisoned by humans that most of its surface is toxic—and inhabited by massive, bug-like creatures. Our badass, glider-plane-flying heroine, Princess Nausicaä, might be the only hope for humankind to restore balance and harmony on earth.
It’s one of Miyazaki’s many masterpieces—at once a fun, dreamy window into a world entirely unlike our own, and a condemnatory mirror held up to the erratic, often abusive relationship our society has with the world it inhabits. If you’re willing to drop $70 on a box set (like I did), Nausicaä will keep you absorbed for hours and will make you think hard about the natural world, and our place in it.
Perhaps you’re ready to resurface from this pandemic, carefree and immunized. Or perhaps—like me—you’ve gotten rather comfortable, and the idea of commuting to work five days a week or regularly meeting friends for drinks sounds tiring and a little expensive.
If you fall into the second category, you should probably pick up a copy of the 2019 novel that predicted the pandemic with alarming prescience. Severance tells the story of Candace, a young woman who is sleepwalking through a demanding and unfulfilling job when a strange, airborne fungal infection—originating in China—begins to spread globally.
What was so prophetic about Ma’s debut was not the spread of her fictional illness (which looks more like a non-violent form of zombieism than the coronavirus), but the begrudging diligence with which her characters continue to perform their soul-sucking professional tasks, even as everything they’ve ever known slips imperceptibly into the void. This book won’t make you feel good, but it might make you feel at home in a world that’s falling to pieces.
*Thumbnail Image: “Triptych - Apocalypse” from The Prometheus Triptych by Oskar Kokoschka, 1950.