My Dystopian Life

The topic is a tired one. And this post is not meant to wipe the sleep from its eyes. I often find myself writing stories in this genre therefore, I’d like to put all this here so as to keep track of it.

Note, I tend to focus on “apocalyptic” dystopians. Those other story lines that come about through gradual oppression, I don’t much care for. (Hell, we live in one now.)

I’ll be updating this post from time to time, and commenting with links and data.

Reasons why dystopian stories are alluring:

  1. A return to survival mode.
  2. Simpler cause and effect living.
  3. The elimination of wealth inequality.
  4. Imagining and preparing for the worst.
  5. Societal “clean slate” thinking.

A return to survival mode

Let’s face it, the act of survival (in the Western world) is less than challenging. On average, most people do not have to worry about surviving from day to day. (Many caveats to this I know, but that’s not the point now.) As animals, humans, when threatened, have a fierce will to live. In fact, we evolved during such times when our ferocity undoubtedly determined the survival of our genes. We’ve lost that edge.

“Attack that sales meeting!” “Tear into that engine overhaul!” “Shred that software bug!” Nope, sorry. Our million year old survival instincts are just not triggered these days.

I think a return to a time (or reading about one) when every decision you make, throughout the day, influences your personal and family’s survival gives us a momentary boost of Darwin’s and London’s “Survival of the fittest,” and “Eat or be eaten,” sense of immediacy. Choices would mean something again.

Simpler cause and effect living

Similar to a return to survival mode, a jump into a post-apocalyptic world simplifies one’s life. Would you have to manage your IRA? Worry about interest rates? Think about saving for yours or your child’s college education? Second guess that office photo you posted on fadebook? Hell no! That shit would be history, a quaint recollection as you lie beneath a glowing sky lit by strange aurora, listening to the wild dogs circle your camp.

When you buy a new cellphone, how much impact does that really have on your life? Diddly squat! That’s how much.

If you fail to step quietly through the broken, rubble-strewn town, what effect then when you neglectfully kick that empty jerry-can waking the denizens that lurk there in the shadows? One hell-of-a-lot!

We have no agency in our lives today. (Of course we do. But not the kind that will get you killed within seconds or minutes after your mistake — unless we’re talking about stepping in front of a bus or texting while driving.) Meaningful agency is lost to us. A return to learning to survive, where every action and choice matters, would be a refreshing reemergence of “feeling alive!”

Return to equality

Take the world and turn off the internet. Turn off the lights. Turn off the electricity. Turn off the water and food delivery and medicine production and police protection, fire protection, military protection. Turn everything off that makes our technological society what it is today.

Now tell me, what’s your net worth now? Yeah, exactly! You are worth whatever you have in your backpack — and that’s it! Those of you in your razor-wire shrouded compounds? Your food will run out eventually. Do you have private generators? Fuel production has ceased. This is a drastic simplification of course, but the vast differences in “wealth” we have today? Those would vanish overnight in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

Just to see a time when your own wits and skills of survival lend you a modicum of superiority would be worth watching the end of technological society. Or so many dystopian novels would have us believe (including mine).

Preparation for the worst case

Imagine the end of all convenience. The end of easy calories, of secure sleep, of clean water. Dwell on this imagined world; examine it in your mind, angle by angle. Now, pull back from this catastrophe and look around you. We have it pretty damn good today, don’t we? But it could be worse, much worse. By considering such End-of-Times scenarios you’ve both prepared yourself for the possibility, and you’ve reestablished your sense of what is important to you today.

Prepare for the worst, but live and survive today. Know that you have evaluated the ramifications of Armageddon but also know that, were it to arrive, you’re prepared. Your task would then be a constantly adjusting triage: evaluate, act, move on. Your future, cataclysm or not, will unfold (or not), and all you can truly do is handle the “now”.

Clean slate

Take the U.S. Constitution, patch the holes (corporations are not people!), add some equality of citizen amendments, and maybe some term limits, now, wipe the slate of human government clean and then apply your new World Constitution to civilization.

There! All better.

Well, not quite. While you were struggling to survive, a bunch of bad actors sprung up with their massive caches of ammunition and alt-right supremacy notions and bloomed, like a red tide, beneath your clean slate.

But at least your thoughts and intentions were true. They must count for something. Right?

An apocalypse and the dystopia that would follow “could” evolve into a new and beautiful utopia. This is one of the appeals of dystopian stories — the possibility that from the ashes a new, equitable and loving society could emerge. (Cough, cough!)

A list of dystopian novels I’ve read:

  • The Road
  • Alas Babylon
  • On the Beach
  • The Girl with all the Gifts
  • Far North
  • Earth Abides
  • Robopocalypse
  • Terraforming Earth
  • Stranger
  • Hunger Games
  • Divergent
  • Maze Runner
  • The Dead Lands
  • The Giver
  • Battle Royale
  • World Made by Hand
  • Night Work
  • The Last Man
  • Oryx and Crake
  • World War Z
  • Year One
  • One Second After
  • Blue Across the Sea (my own)

Non fiction:

  • The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch
  • (Numerous others to be listed soon, before, you know, The End.)


8 thoughts on “My Dystopian Life

    Liberty Hardy Mar 15, 2023
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    How accurate are the best dystopian novels and fiction? Throughout the last several years, we have seen a lot of predictions made by novels from decades before become realities. Technological surveillance, climate disasters, nuclear accidents, plague, police states, loss of bodily autonomy. (Penny Lane’s Almost Famous voice: It’s all happening.) What would George Orwell think of the 21st century? His novel 1984 is perhaps the most famous dystopian novel of all time. Orwell’s idea of a world where the government is always watching is now a reality, like in his native England, where there are hundreds of thousands of CCTV cameras. But what is a dystopian novel? Read on for the definition and 40 of the best dystopian novels!

    A dystopian novel is basically one where the world has changed for the worst. The climate, the health, the government — they’re all damaging in one way or another, usually to marginalized people and communities, but sometimes to everyone. For example, another of the most popular dystopian books is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, where a certain percentage of the population of women must bear children for the rich and powerful (something that has occurred in marginalized communities throughout time, but was seen by the general population as science fiction when it was released).

    Why do we love dystopian novels? Perhaps we are trying to get an idea of what we are in store for, or perhaps looking for hints on how we would survive. The pandemic actually brought more readers to dystopian novels. The fact that the popularity of dystopian novels greatly outweighs that of utopian novels shows that we don’t have a lot of faith that the future is going to be all rainbows, candy cane trees, and sparkling kittens.

    I recently heard something that mentioned how we love Star Wars, but the fact remains that these stories show there is still war and oppression in the galaxy. Which tracks. But at least for now, the future is entertaining. That’s where this list comes in. There are dystopian books ranging from the slightly speculative to the all-out apocalyptic. You can’t have a list of the best dystopian novels of all time without including the classics, but you’ll also find some more modern titles and great YA titles that will fill your TBR. Get ready for the best feel-bad books around!

    Written in response to the horrifying events of 2016, this is the story of a teenage girl who joins a resistance after she and her family, and many other Muslim American citizens, are put in an incarceration camp.

    In this electrifying (pun intended!) novel that is soon to be a series, teenage girls develop the ability to cause electric shocks with a touch of their hands, which shifts the balance of power in society.

    When a plague wipes out any edible sources of animal meat, humans turn to what they have available: each other. This is the story of a meat factory worker who becomes attached to one of the people intended for slaughter. For another great novel along these lines, pick up Animals by Don Lepan.

    This isn’t just an amazing dystopian novel, it’s one of the best zombie novels out there. When a plague brings the undead to life, a young woman running from a painful past does whatever she can to survive.

    cover of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury; illustration of a book made to look like a box of matches
    In this disheartening age of book banning, now is a good time to read (or reread) this dystopian classic about the outlawing of books and the group responsible for removing contraband from homes.

    And this prescient classic is set in a California of the 2020s where political and climate upheaval are destroying the world. From the chaos arises a young woman with supernatural empathic abilities who might be the salvation of the planet…or its end.

    Widely considered one of the best dystopian novels for young adults, this mega-popular series starter is about a future of poverty and oppression. Children from the country’s 12 districts must compete in a battle to the death in order to gain vital supplies and attention for their districts.

    And this is another dystopian novel featuring frightening creatures of mankind’s own making. When the test subjects of a secret experiment escape captivity, they bring about the end of civilization as people know it and turn the country into a horrifying wasteland.

    cover of All City by Alex DiFrancesco; faded image of man wearing glassed superimposed over rubble of a building, with the title in huge yellow letters over the whole front
    When a superstorm hits New York City, the city’s most vulnerable are left behind to fend for themselves. The survivors form a community of sorts, bolstered by the appearance of mysterious street art.

    This multi award-winning YA novel is set in a near future where people have lost the ability to dream, and it can only be restored by the bone marrow of Indigenous people, who are now hunted for it.

    On an unnamed island, the letter “Z” falls from the town sign. Taking this as its own sign, the local government bans the use of the letter. As more letters fall from the sign and are also outlawed, those letters also disappear from the text of the novel, which is written in snail mail between cousins. It’s a brilliant delight.

    In this classic middle grade novel, humanity lives in a world with very little light left. When that source begins to go out, a young girl thinks an ancient message holds the clue to saving the world from complete darkness.

    cover of American War by Omar El Akkad; title and author’s name in big red, white, and blue letters
    In a future America, a second Civil War has divided the country and climate change has flooded much of the coastline. A young girl and her family are forced into a displacement camp after her father dies, where she is vulnerable to a group preaching resistance through violence.

    And like P.D. James’s great classic Children of Men, this novel deals with human babies in the future. When children being born start exhibiting the characteristics of earliest man, sending the world into a panic, the government attempts to intervene in the lives of people who are expecting.

    For more great novels about strange changes to humans, check out The Book of M by Peng Shepherd and Sip by Brian Allen Carr.

    And this classic of science fiction and technology is still relevant today. It’s an award-winning look at the highs and lows — and dangers — of artificial intelligence and the future. Fun fact: Gibson coined the term “cyberspace.”

    In what is surely going to be one of the best-loved modern dystopian novels, a young woman who doesn’t know if she wants to get married must decide if she will submit to the government’s tracking program of unwed women. If she doesn’t, she will be arrested as a witch.

    cover of Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison; image of a crowded city from far above
    In a prediction of future population growth, Harrison has penned a novel about a detective searching for a serial killer in a crowded city of millions, where people live in dwellings stacked high to the sky. This was the basis for the film Soylent Green (but you won’t find the line “Soylent Green is people” in this book).

    After a deadly flu wipes out most of the population, a man and his dog attempt to survive the harsh, lonely conditions of the new world while trying to escape the notice of the violent packs of people who roam the lands looking for victims.

    And in this sadly relevant recent dystopian novel, marginalized communities are hunted and incarcerated in work camps by a horrifying, violent group known as “The Boots.”

    It seems impossible that the author of this wild story of post-apocalyptic England written in an invented language is also the author behind Bread and Jam for Frances and Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, but here we are.

    cover if Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; illustration of a man like figure with gears for a head
    In a book most of us probably had to read in school, authoritarian rule sweeps the land, and people are forced to submit to the technological whims of the new dictatorship.

    It’s really a spoiler to explain why this classic is a work of dystopian fiction, so let’s just say it’s about three close friends who grow up together at a very special boarding school.

    This is a modern classic of climate fiction. The first book starts with the world after cataclysmic events have ruined the surface. The Broken Earth trilogy won the Hugo Award for all three books in the series, making Jemisin the first author to do so.

    In one of King’s most famous works, a virus kills most of the population. The survivors gather together in two factions, good and bad, and head west to stop the coming of a great evil.

    cover of The Giver by Lois Lowry; photo of an elderly man with a beard next to a small image of a forest
    And this classic of children’s literature is set in a supposed future utopia where everyone is cared for and obedient and doesn’t ask questions. But when one child receives the memories of humans’ past, he begins to question everything.

    A young woman in New York City who is so bored with her job and isn’t aware that a deadly flu has broken out until she is one of the remaining uninfected people. She joins up with a group of holy rollers looking for more survivors, but she is harboring a secret that may put her in danger.

    And this is probably the most beloved dystopian work of the 21st century. It’s about the survivors of a deadly flu who are located in pockets around the country and are trying to survive as best they can against dangers, both environmental and human, while holding on to the memories of the Before Times.

    In this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, a father and son make their way across an America that has been devastated from coast to coast by ash and fire, encountering friend and foe along the way. But is it really surviving if there’s nothing to live for?

    cover of A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, Jr.; illustration of a monk surrounded by books on fire
    This is the greatest science fiction novel of all time, in my opinion. Set in three parts, it tracks a future civilization, on a planet that has been destroyed by nuclear warfare. The residents are the offspring of the survivors, who rose up and killed all the intelligent people on the planet for creating — or having the ability to create — nuclear weapons. There’s now a group of monks who hold onto the sacred text of “Leibowtz” and try to survive. Widely considered one of the first, and best, works of apocalyptic fiction, this one will knock your brain’s socks off.

    This is a recent stunner, told in stories set from the recent future to hundreds of years ahead. It all starts with a virus unleashed during an excavation, and in the aftermath, humans must learn how to care for the vast number of sick and dying people, first adults and then children.

    In this powerful novel that is unfortunately all-too relevant, America of the future is a place where all citizens must swear loyalty to the country and no discussion or celebration of other cultures is allowed, under penalty of law.

    The Memory Police rule over an an unnamed island, where common everyday items disappear from homes, and the memory of them from brains. In this police state, remembering the lost items could cost a citizen their life.

    cover of Infomocracy by Malka Older; illustration of blue computer motherboard
    And in this exciting technological dystopia, a search engine has become a big influence in the world of politics, and the government parties are still wrestling one another for control.

    In this thrilling start to a YA series, set 150 years in the future, two sisters in Nigeria fight for their lives in a world that has been all but destroyed by climate catastrophes and nuclear war.

    This is one of the most accurate dystopian novels of the last several years. Released a year before the world faced Covid-19, it’s about a planet where a deadly virus has forced everyone to remain in their homes, and gatherings have been outlawed.

    Shusterman has written a lot of fantastic dystopian YA novels, like Unwind, where kids can be “retired” by their parents. But this one, about a future state-sanctioned culling to keep population growth down, is definitely the best (and hopefully not prophetic).

    cover of On the Beach by Nevil Shute;; photo of a nuclear mushroom cloud
    This is a classic, and one of the first popular novels about nuclear war. It’s set in Australia in 1963 after World War III, where citizens await the inevitable radiation from the nuclear fallout to reach the country.

    This is an excellent and wildly popular YA series about a future where martial law rules the land, with academies training new soldiers to uphold order, while rebel forces work to dismantle it.

    This is a very light dystopian novel. It’s really a story about a young girl and the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, while outside their home, the world begins to change when the Earth’s rotation begins to slow down for unknown reasons.

    And last but not least, this is a fantastic adventure about a future where a sleeping sickness has affected a lot of the population, bringing chaos, death, and destruction to the world.

    For another great sleeping sickness novel, check out The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker.


  2. FROM M.R. Carey…

    “To say that the apocalypse is a modern obsession is like doing a shock exposé about the Pope’s religion. Just in terms of sheer volume, there has never been a time when apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories have been produced in greater profusion and variety than we’re seeing now. I’m not complaining, being right in line with the zeitgeist here. I’m just stating a point.

    Partly, of course, this is a case of taste being informed by fashion. You read a book, enjoy it, and go looking for something in a similar vein. And partly it’s publishers responding to and accommodating that taste. But I’d argue that these are both reactive processes. They kick in after something has already begun to happen. And in this case, the something was writers turning to the end of the world as a theme that needed to be explored.

    We’ve been here before, of course. The end of the world holds a perennial fascination for us, and we just can’t keep ourselves from going there, time after time. But the modern era is different in a lot of ways. Until recently those end-of-the-world narratives were mostly the province of religious texts, which having told us how things got going in the first place seemed to feel obliged to wrap up all the plotlines at the end. But after we invented the novel (early eighteenth century) and universal literacy (work in progress, TBC) an inexorable shift began. It was slow at first, but gradually those themes and ideas became the province of popular fictions consumed by large numbers of people.

    At that point they were free to evolve. Bibles don’t, very much, except through the vagaries of translation. There are always fundamentalists ready to hand to get outraged if you shift a comma. Novels, on the other hand, because of the way in which they’re produced and consumed, proliferate like rabbits, swap DNA like viruses and change more rapidly and unpredictably than Darwin’s finches.

    That’s also true of genres, none more so that the apocalyptic novel. Each wave of doomsday plot devices is different from the one before, and I think those changes tell us something about ourselves. Or at least, something about our nightmares and neuroses, which the apocalyptic novel both plays on and partially assuages.

    Each wave of doomsday plot devices is different from the one before, and those changes tell us something about ourselves.

    Every generation sees the end of the world through the prism of its own day-to-day reality. And the popularity of apocalyptic fiction seems to rise and fall in line with real-world fears and tensions and insecurities. Taxonomy only takes us so far, though. What’s remarkable about the best post-apocalyptic narratives is what they do with their initial premise — what kind of stories they launch from the springboard of global catastrophe.
    1960s: Eco-Apocalypse

    Barring a few nineteenth-century outliers (Mary Shelly gets there first, as usual, with The Last Man in 1826) science fiction doesn’t begin to address itself en masse to the end of the world until the 1960s. The pulps flirted with it, but the few doomsday scenarios were far outweighed by the bright, millennarian visions. Most future Earths from the ‘30s to the ‘50s had tidy little galactic empires with well-manicured lawns. The aliens would get a little frisky from time to time, but there was almost always a Buck Rogers or a Kimball Kinnison to put them firmly in their places.

    The writers who were coming to the fore in the ‘60s had experienced World War Two firsthand; they had seen how a seemingly stable world order could tear itself apart in a sudden paroxysm. But if their uncertainty about the future was rooted in the past, their main reference point was still a contemporary one. Their biggest nightmare, time after time, was environmental disaster.

    It’s easy to see why. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, released in 1962, blew the lid off the pesticides industry and brought the term food chain into everyday use. Revealing how chemicals like DDT built in concentration as they worked their way up from plants to herbivores to predators, Carson changed the way most people looked at the natural world. It would be another decade or so before James Lovelock proposed the Gaia Hypothesis, but the idea of the environment as a system of complex interdependencies whose ability to self-repair might have limits arguably starts with Carson’s passionate wake-up call.

    The science fiction writers of the day answered and amplified that call. J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World was the first of many novels of the time to take the theme of eco-catastrophe and run with it. In Ballard’s book, global warming has caused the ice caps to melt, shrinking the habitable land mass of the world and overwhelming entire countries. In the same year, John Christopher’s The World In Winter pushed in the opposite direction to imagine a new ice age, while Ballard went on to make eco-apocalypse a recurring theme with stories like The Wind From Nowhere (super-hurricane), The Crystal World (a mysterious phenomenon that crystallizes living tissue) and The Drought (guess).

    Obviously Carson’s work identified the human impact on the natural world as the real problem that needed to be addressed. Sixties sci-fi took that idea on board too, imagining worlds in which overpopulation, pollution, and resource depletion were the catalysts for global meltdown. John Brunner’s work stands out here, particularly Stand On Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, and The Sheep Look Up.
    1970s and 1980s: When Two Tribes Go to War

    Man-made disasters continued to be a dominant theme in the science fiction of the ‘70s and ‘80s. In fact, the cinema of the day, playing catch-up with the previous decade’s prose fiction, was making up for lost time with movies such as Silent Running, Soylent Green, and Zardoz.

    But themes like deforestation and global famine were gradually eclipsed by a new sort of end-of-the-world McGuffin, one that depended on the ever-more-plausible scenario of global nuclear war. Nevil Shute had led the way with On the Beach, much earlier, and the nuclear apocalypse had never really gone out of style, but the late ‘70s and ‘80s saw an unprecedented spike in such stories. Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley dates from this time, as do David Graham’s Down To a Sunless Sea, David Brin’s The Postman, and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

    Themes like deforestation and global famine were gradually eclipsed by a new sort of end-of-the-world McGuffin, one that depended on the ever-more-plausible scenario of global nuclear war.

    I remember very vividly how ubiquitous that fear was. It became such a dominant cultural meme that it was no longer the province of science fiction. Pop music paid homage to it in songs like “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,” “99 Red Balloons,” and “Let’s All Make a Bomb.” Sober, realistic TV dramas like Threads and The Day After brought the idea into the post-watershed mainstream, and Raymond Briggs reduced it to its heartbreaking basics with When the Wind Blows. Whatever medium you worked in, whether it was film, TV, prose, or comics, if you wanted to imagine a future that was dislocated from the present then a nuclear war was the only entry ticket you needed.

    This is where the generational model starts to break down a little, for an interesting reason. The sheer volume of texts produced in prose and other media had been climbing exponentially ever since the start of the twentieth century. As a side effect, influences get faster and faster and cycles get shorter. Ideas that were fresh and new become familiar cultural shorthand, then cliché, in the space of a few years.

    Human mutation is one of many ideas that suddenly becomes ubiquitous — a universally available trope that needs no explanation. Earlier novels such as John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids had for the most part stayed closer to the known scientific facts, portraying mutation as something that was random and for the most part unwelcome. But the super-powered mutant now becomes a staple in popular fiction. The link to atomic radiation as a mutagenic agent is often forgotten, but it persists for example in the perennial tagline for Marvel’s mutant X-Men, “the children of the atom,” and in 2000 AD’s Strontium Dog.

    With the end of the Cold War in 1991, the fear that it would suddenly turn hot dissipated too. With no Soviet Union to hang our anxieties on, we invented new ones. It’s around about this time that the zombies come lurching into view.

    With no Soviet Union to hang our anxieties on, we invented new ones. It’s around about this time that the zombies come lurching into view.

    1980s–2000s: Evil Dead

    The zombie apocalypse presents a special case. For one thing, it exists at the contested border between horror and science fiction. And for another, it has proved to be uniquely versatile, splitting into sub-genres of its own and (arguably) becoming more intensely self-referential than any other type of genre text.

    The shading from classic horror zombies to the more nuanced zombies of today took place gradually and subtly, and with a minimum of fuss. Where 1978’s Dawn Of the Dead assured us that “when there’s no more room left in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth,” the zombies in 1985’s Re-Animator were created by a serum devised and administered by a scientist, and Joe R. Lansdale’s Cadillac Desert (1989) had zombies spawned by a bacterium — an innovation that changed the whole fictional landscape. 28 Days Later, in 2002, locked in this idea of the zombie plague with its vivid imagery and Wyndham-inspired plot, and most zombie texts that have followed (including my own The Girl With All the Gifts, 2014) have been strongly influenced by this template.

    But what do zombie movies tell us about our fears? Surely the zombie apocalypse — unlike eco-collapse or nuclear war — isn’t a rational thing to be afraid of? Well, you’d think that, but a lot of people do seem to be afraid of it just the same. Here in the U.K., the Daily Mail ran a story last January with the headline A ZOMBIE OUTBREAK COULD COME CLOSE TO WIPING OUT HUMANITY IN 100 DAYS. A similar article in the Huffington Post offered tips for survival under the sub-deck quote “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

    Surely the zombie apocalypse — unlike eco-collapse or nuclear war — isn’t a rational thing to be afraid of? Well, you’d think that, but a lot of people do seem to be afraid of it just the same.

    So zombies work surprisingly well on the literal level, but they’re also a great vehicle for other fears. In the horror milieu, they were often a vehicle for barely-veiled jeremiads against the ills of modern society, confronting us with a distorted mirror of our own instincts and drives. The shopping mall in Day Of the Dead, to go for everyone’s favorite example, continues to dominate the ruined suburban landscape as the world falls apart. It’s a refuge for the living and a weird lure for the undead, who dimly remember that everything they ever wanted was once contained within those walls. Director George Romero followed that dark vision in 2005’s Land Of the Dead with an allegorical fable about the class struggle in modern America and the growing wealth gap.

    In science fiction, I think the zombie apocalypse presents differently and carries a different freight of meaning. To make an obvious point, the rationale for the existence of zombies in the first place usually relates not to the lack of available storage space in Hell but to a plague — the work of a bacillus, a virus, a fungus or an alien mind-worm. Modern fears of a pandemic, stoked by near-misses with SARS and H1N1 are obviously very relevant here.

    But there’s also an existential aspect to the threat zombies pose. Zombies are people in shape only; they look like us but they don’t have any spark of consciousness. They remind us that our own personhood can be rescinded. To become a zombie is to lose what makes you human — so these apocalypses tear us down from the inside, replacing the heroic property damage of (say) a Roland Emmerich movie with something subtler but much more devastating, the inexorable crumbling of your own selfhood, your soul. Hence the counterpoise in a novel like Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies between the familiar genre furniture of ruined urban landscapes and survivalist enclaves, and the precarious affection that forms between R and Julie. The abyss, here, is wholly internal.

    Zombies are people in shape only; they look like us but they don’t have any spark of consciousness. They remind us that our own personhood can be rescinded.

    2000s and 2010s: Slouching Towards Bethlehem

    That seems to have taken us past the dawn of the new millennium, where apocalypses come in every flavor to suit your pocket and your taste.

    The plague-based apocalypse isn’t limited to zombies. Novels such as The Space Between the Stars and Louise Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy both dramatize very vividly the widespread societal collapse that a pandemic might bring.

    Eco-catastrophe has returned — but with more teeth, informed by the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming and a shedload of incontrovertible evidence. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi offers us a near future where water scarcity has made the U.S.A. a union in name only, pitting the Western states against each other in vicious legal and paramilitary skirmishes. In The Stone Gods, Jeanette Winterson hauntingly invents a migratory past for the human race, suggesting that this isn’t the first time we’ve devoured an entire planet’s resources out from under ourselves. And let’s not forget Wall-E, whose garbage-choked cityscapes were one of the most haunting visions Pixar’s brilliant animators have ever produced.

    Eco-catastrophe has returned — but with more teeth, informed by the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming and a shedload of incontrovertible evidence.

    Global war (nuclear or otherwise) is still contending strongly, although these days it seems mostly to express itself through massive franchises like The Hunger Games, Mad Max, and Planet Of the Apes. Actually, in saying that, I’m ignoring Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), one of the most powerful and affecting post-apocalyptic novels ever written. And I guess there was The Book Of Eli, too, however much we might wish there wasn’t. In that movie, in case you don’t remember, the power of God’s guiding hand allows a blind man to fight his way (with ninja warrior skill levels) across a blighted America to bring a copy of the bible to a miraculously intact printing press on the West Coast. The Almighty may have allowed the human race to descend back into barbarism, with incalculable loss of life, but at least He still gets to tell His side of the story. Yay.

    We’ve also got a growing trend for stories where humanity is destroyed or superseded by its own technology, with the emergence of artificial intelligence research proving very fertile soil for paranoia. The Terminator movies had already given full vent to these concepts back in the ‘80s, but Robert Cargill’s Sea Of Rust (2017) goes one better by setting its narrative after the human extinction event has already happened. In shifting the never-ending struggle for survival from us to the beings who exterminated and replaced us, Cargill offers some startling insights into the way ecosystems work and our place in Earth’s so fragile yet so resilient biosphere.
    What’s the Point of It All?

    Looking at this cornucopia of cataclysms, you could be forgiven for thinking that in the modern era we’re afraid of pretty much everything — or at least that our end-of-the-world presentiments are reaching an unprecedented high. I wouldn’t argue against either of those things. In the wake of the financial collapse a decade ago, the prospect of having your life suddenly and spectacularly become non-viable has become a day-to-day reality for many — and the world’s political systems have largely been put into the hands of rogues and fools (I don’t mean either rogues or fools, I mean people who are both), so it’s no surprise if we keep probing the sore place to see how badly it hurts.

    But apocalyptic fiction is far more than a sort of psychic immunization program, giving us little disasters so the big one won’t hurt so much when it comes. For one thing, apocalypses are a good place for conducting thought-experiments. By clearing away the inessentials they make room for searching questions about who we are and what we’re for. So much of our behavior and our thinking is dictated by the social roles we play. We move through our days like actors crossing a stage, all our moves blocked and all our words cued up for us in advance. If society breaks down, there’s nobody left to prompt us. We suddenly have to improvise, and in the process we discover ourselves, as the American poet Wallace Stevens put it, “more truly and more strange.”

    Apocalypses are a good place for conducting thought-experiments. By clearing away the inessentials they make room for searching questions about who we are and what we’re for.

    That’s certainly true of Cormac McCarthy’s masterful The Road, in which a father and son journey through a landscape so depleted by catastrophe that food is almost entirely exhausted. Their humanity and their love for each other is tested beyond every conceivable limit, but it holds. “If he is not the word of God,” the father thinks as he looks down on his sleeping child, “then God never spoke.” In N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth books, by contrast, the focus is on racial tensions and divisions seen through the lens of a society hardened and coarsened by regular apocalypse events. Jemisin brilliantly dissects the way mistrust between groups can be fomented to serve political agendas that have nothing to do with survival and everything to do with power and advantage.

    In some stories, the end of the world functions as metaphor. Kurt Vonnegut’s early masterpiece Cat’s Cradle is a darkly hilarious fable about the arms race and its logical end point, but it’s many other things besides and one of them is a meditation on human mortality. The book is full of deaths that are tragic, absurd or both, and though in due course it builds to an end-of-the-world moment (“the great ah-whoom”) it also reminds us poignantly that every death is the end of a world. That’s literally one of the tenets of the novel’s invented religion, Bokononism, which also gives us the novel’s closing lines and humanity’s defiant response to the arbitrariness of the universe.

    Post-apocalyptic narratives differ, too, in where they position themselves relative to the end of the world. Many show it happening in the narrative present (which means they’re not post-apocalyptic at all). Most jump forward a generation to show the new world order that’s forming, and make that the central focus. That’s become a staple of YA fiction in recent years, with many writers following the trail that Suzanne Collins blazed in the Hunger Games trilogy.

    But some writers go off-piste. Jasper Fforde’s brilliant Shades Of Grey (a title he must regret every day of his life) takes place many centuries after its sundering apocalypse, which is referred to only as “the something that happened.” The new society that has risen up is profoundly ignorant of its own past, and so is the reader. We see the end product, but we don’t see the process, so we’re false-footed again and again by the novel’s brilliant reveals.

    And some novels don’t announce themselves as apocalyptic at all, but are still suffused with the elegiac sense of an era, a way of life, a civilization winding to its close. Foremost among these implicit apocalypses is Claire North’s wonderful The End Of the Day, whose point-of-view character, Charlie, acts as the harbinger of death. When death is coming, Charlie is sent before, sometimes as a courtesy and sometimes as a warning. But the deaths he is sent to mark aren’t always the deaths of individuals, and as the book progresses we start to see patterns and correspondences that foreshadow a bigger, more profound death. The personal, the global and the cosmic overlap and interpenetrate, as they do in Cat’s Cradle.

    Perhaps, if there’s a common thread running through apocalyptic fiction (and I admit that’s a big if) then it’s novels like Cat’s Cradle and The End Of the Day that give it its clearest expression. There’s a scene in the latter book where Charlie attends a funeral for someone he has got to know in the course of his work.

    The Harbinger of Death sits quietly and nods at the words that come… and cries with the rest of the room, not in raging grief that shouts and screams, but at the size of the hollow left behind, which no one now can fill.

    And outside the church…

    Death waits, but does not enter. Her work is done, for today, and funerals she feels are a ceremony for the living, not the dead. She has no interest in corpses.

    That exquisite tension defines apocalyptic fiction for me. It always gives us a split focus, on “the hollow left behind” and on the living who now have to reach a new accommodation with a new reality. That’s a crucial and complicated part of being human, and we need all the help we can get. Perhaps that’s why we turn so often to stories that take us to the edge of the abyss and hold our hands as we look down.
    About the Author

    M. R. Carey has been making up stories for most of his life. His novel The Girl With All the Gifts was a USA Today bestseller and is a major motion picture based on his BAFTA-nominated screenplay. Under the name Mike Carey he has written for both DC and Marvel, including critically acclaimed runs on X-Men and Fantastic Four, Marvel’s flagship superhero titles. His creator-owned books regularly appear in the New York Times bestseller list. He also has several previous novels, two radio plays, and a number of TV and movie screenplays to his credit. His most recent novel is The Boy on the Bridge; his next novel, Someone Like Me, will be published by Orbit in November 2018.”


  3. Have you not read Orwell’s 1984, or Zamyatin’s We? I enjoyed those and I read The Hunger Games books this year before watching the DVDs. The trailer for Divergent was included on one of the discs, I didn’t know that was based on novels too. There are so many future-based films that are dystopic, which makes me think of Blade Runner and Dick’s novel for that. I must be a sucker for such things for the reasons you outline, as for the films I think I also like the ‘grittiness’ that is a common feature I think. If my planned for model railway gets to the point of having a theme, as I hope it will, somewhat dystopic is what I’ll be aiming for.

    As for our present situation, I think at times that any perceived glossiness is an illusion that we cling to, or are deceived with, that could come crashing down at any moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “If my planned for model railway gets to the point of having a theme, as I hope it will, somewhat dystopic is what I’ll be aiming for.” — Now that would be cool! I’d bet you could make a whole graphic novel/blog from photos and story pulled from this.

      Not read “We”, will add to my list. 1984 sticks like a craw in my 1975-English-class throat. There are dozens of such stories out there. I was amazed at how many I’ve read (and I think I missed about 1/3 of them).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a very well thought out post. Thanks. IMO, I think sports takes the place of jungle survival mode. Playing, first. Watching, second. Gets those primal juices flowing and no one has to die. Writing may do it for you, and for others. But in a bored, safe society…rather than tear it down, it’s time to build on it, then reach out and create your own thrills. Just sayin’. But you have outlined the appeal of dystopian novels perfectly…almost like remembering a nostalgia that never existed. Great thoughts! And thanks for the reading list!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kind words George.

      Organized team games certainly takes the place of war. I’ve considered that before. I suppose sports (and some games — any activity with a ball and rules is a game not a sport in my book) does take the place in society of some of our need for aggressive competition.
      I wonder about the risk level though. If the losing team was beheaded… Or if we returned to Colosseum rules — that might be an equivalent risk level. I suppose the hooligans that tear apart cities after a soccer win (or loss) feeds this too.
      Maybe, with virtual reality (with pain inducement add-on modules) we can return to our primal roots. The life-risk eliminated, but while immersed, you’d never know it.

      Liked by 1 person

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