Welcome to the end of the world.
Dramatic, huh? Well, these two genres are for the most dramatic people of all. Or cynical, depending on how you look at it.
This is how the first book on the apocalypse probably happened. The would-be author was having a really shitty day and his friend came up and said, “Hey, it could be worse.” The writer thought about it for a second. Then he said, “You know what? You’re right, it could be a lot worse.” Bam! New genre created.
Jokes aside, I love books about these two genres for similar reasons. Which is why I lumped them together in one post.
Dystopian novels are great to read about because they usually take one or two aspects of modern society and expand them, pushing them to the extremes. It results in a crippled, oppressive future that also seems all too possible, given humanity’s distaste for moderation. These stories tend to have an undercurrent of social commentary that speaks truths about the world we live in today.
Post-apocalyptic fiction is also about extremes, but more specifically about what we become when we’re pushed to the brink of extinction. These books examine human nature at its most desperate, when we have nothing more to lose. It’s fascinating to think about.
Here is my list.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
A theocratic authoritarian regime has taken over the United States, stripping women of their rights and placing them in distinct social classes. Pollution and disease has rendered much of the population sterile, which necessitates the creation of Handmaids, or concubines who are given to high ranking officials for the sole purpose of reproduction. The story follows one of those Handmaids.
Although published in 1985, this book is still very relevant today. Especially since the way the United States government is overthrown is by killing the President and most of Congress and blaming Islamic extremists. Maybe I’m being overdramatic, but it doesn’t seem that far-fetched in the current climate.
It’s easy to think of this as an anti-religious book. And well, you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But I feel like this is more of an indictment of what happens when you focus only on the outdated and intolerant aspects of a certain religious text instead of focusing on the love and spirituality present throughout. Above all, it’s a chilling look at the effects oppression has on a human being, even if it’s supposedly for the greater good.
Feed by M.T. Anderson
Titus is a teenager in an America that has been completely overrun by corporations and consumerism. The majority of people have a brain implant called a “feed” that is connected to a more advanced version of the internet. With the feed, people can access databases, communicate telepathically, share memories, and shop, shop, shop. The environment is devastated and there seems to be a war coming with the Global Alliance, but Titus doesn’t care. He just wants to party. So when he meets Violet, a girl who seems to have a distaste for feeds and values critical thinking of all things, he is intrigued and strangely attracted to her.
I don’t really like the young adult dystopian novels of late, mostly because they’re of the same story of a special teen destined to save the world or whatever. It’s not necessarily a bad template, and many great stories follow the same structure, but because it’s used so often, you have to execute it really really well. Which isn’t the case for a lot of those books nowadays.
But this book is different. Titus isn’t special. Perhaps he has a bit more introspection than his friends, but ultimately he’s just another shitty, media-obsessed teenager like everyone else who can’t be bothered to care about anything besides what to buy next. And it’s his apathy for anything substantive and his struggle to understand why Violet is like the way that she is that makes Feed feel incredibly real and relevant. Not to mention depressing.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Speaking of depressing, nothing can be more bleak and soul-crushing than this post-apocalyptic novel. Nobody really knows how the world died, but all that is left is ash and a few pockets of desperate human beings, struggling to survive. We follow the journey of an unnamed man and his son as they try to reach the coast in the hope that something, anything is there.
If you’re looking for a light, fun read, look somewhere else. A lot of people say that they loved this book but would never want to read it again because it’s just so sad. And I would agree with that; Cormac McCarthy creates an atmosphere of despair like no other. But here’s the thing. Mixed in with the misery and gloom, there is an indomitable sense of hope and love that emanates from the father and son. It shows me that even in a world full of darkness, you can find something or someone to live for.
World War Z by Max Brooks
I enjoy a good zombie movie (28 Days Later anyone?), but books about them never really appealed to me. That was before I read World War Z. By taking a serious approach to what would realistically happen to the world if there was a zombie plague, Max Brooks crafts a surprisingly scary future.
This book is not structured like a usual novel. It has no main storyline and is instead a collection of individual accounts from people around the world. This allows us to see from many different perspectives from many different nationalities, although the book does remain U.S.-centric. Some of the stories include: the Chinese doctor who first discovered patient zero, a scam artist who sells “zombie vaccines” that are actually just sugar pills, a soldier who fought at the first disastrous battle that confirmed that modern war tactics were useless, and many many more. Max Brooks attempts to touch on every aspect of society you can think of: social, psychological, political, religious, and even environmental.
Mixed in with all of that is a scathing social commentary on the ineptness of bureaucracy and the pettiness of political disputes. Brooks draws parallels with the horrible mismanagement of the AIDS epidemic by the Bush administration as well as the corruption of worldwide governments that leads to the destruction of their citizens.
A lot for a zombie book, huh?
I also have a full review of the book which you can find here.
Honorable Mentions: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago (I’m reading this now and it’s great.)
What I Want to Read Next: The Stand by Stephen King, Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven, Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
Reflection: I feel like I write too much in my descriptions. I’m thinking maybe I won’t give too much of a plot synopsis in the future.
Also, the more lists I make, the more I realize that I haven’t actually read that many books, especially the ones that are considered classics. I tend to read books that are more recent, which isn’t a bad thing per se, but I still feel like I’m missing out. It’s something that I’m going to have to tackle in the future.
Also, if you’ve noticed that I didn’t put 1984 by George Orwell on the list even though you’ve heard me talk about it being a masterpiece, well that’s because it’ll be on a different list. Don’t worry about it.
Until next time!