Science fiction has always provided fertile ground for imagining the end of civilization. The questions that arise from such terrain are familiar to readers of all literary genres. Like most good writing, apocalyptic fiction puts normal human relationships in a pressure chamber, examining what elements of our humanity remain when all but the essentials are stripped away by circumstance. Here are four wonderful introductions to the literature of the end:
One of this summer’s big literary debuts was Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles (my review). It has an undeniably apocalyptic premise: the rotation of the Earth has begun to slow, making each day and night longer than the one before, threatening the survival of the human race. But at its heart, The Age of Miracles is a quiet coming of age story, about an 11-year-old girl who struggles as much with her changing body and mind as she does with the tumult of the world outside her front door.
After the Apocalypse (Jessica’s review) is an aptly titled short story collection by Maureen McHugh which imagines the everyday lives of people living amidst catastrophe. She reminds us that whether bombs are falling or zombies are threatening to devour us, our relationships survive much as they did before.
Speaking of the zombie apocalypse, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (my review) is perhaps the most relentlessly highbrow examination of the undead I’ve ever come across. Set in the aftermath of a zombie plague, it chronicles the progress of a clean-up crew in Manhattan who pick through the empty streets and office buildings, exterminating the remaining undead, grimly looking forward to a bleak new world.
Finally, we come to my dearly beloved Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (my review). Yes, I put this one on the list in part as an excuse to link to the new movie trailer (which I may or may not have watched four times already). But it, too, gives us an insightful look at mankind after the fall of civilization. Set in six time periods over the course of a thousand years, Cloud Atlas moves from a sea voyage in the 19th century to Hawaii after the apocalypse, and at each stop in between we are reminded of our persistent human frailties and triumphs, those immutable facts of our existence that plot the trajectories not only of our lives, but of history as a whole.
- Sara D., Public Services Librarian at CADL Downtown Lansing