An Apocalyptic Primer
April 4, 2016 News and Reviews
These are books that (in my opinion alone) are the best examples of the genre. This list is meant to give suggestions for books to read or purchase. It’s not intended to be an exhaustive list. However should you want one look here. As to a definition of ‘apocalyptic fiction’. I’ll use Megaton‘s from The Post-Apocalyptic Forums: Post-Apocalyptic: Nuclear War, Pandemic, Economic Collapse, Natural Disaster, Alien Invasion, Machine Revolution, Global Warming, Cosmic Rays, Zombie Apocalypse, Astronomical Impact, Animal Revolt, Science Gone Wrong, or any combination of these. I’ll try to include an example from each. Again my (admittedly) drunken opinion.
#1 The Stand by Stephen King
I’ll start with the first apocalyptic book I read. Stephen King’s The Stand. I’ve noticed that most people when listing their favorite book will normally put the first one they read at the top of the list. The Stand is both the first PA book I read and also my favorite. Also I am surprised to find out from time-to-time that there are apocalypse geeks who haven’t heard of nor read The Stand. If this is you don’t worry I won’t spoil it. The basic premise of the book is a military project to engineer biological weapons has a breech. Its name was Project Blue. As the virus spread it was known by other names. The most common one being ‘Captain Trips’. The disease was almost uniformly fatal. Only .06% of humanity survived.
After everyone who is going to get sick dies. The basic conflict of the book is one of Good vs Evil. The survivors all gravitate to either Randall Flagg (Evil) or to Mother Abigail (Good). While The Stand is my favorite book, I consider the portions when the survivors are regrouping and the denouement as my favorite parts.
Also the book has a couple of nifty little Easter eggs scattered around for the careful reader to discover. Most notable of these is Christine.
Remember this book is here because it is the first apocalyptic book I read. I understand I could have gone with several different choices for pandemic. Amongst these are Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague and George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides.
#2 The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeir
The next book you really need to look into is The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeir. The nugget that started this novel began with African tribal beliefs. Basically that humans can be divided into three groups: Those still alive on earth, the recently departed (remembered) (sasha), and the dead (forgotten) (zamani). When people die they aresasha while people are still alive who remember them. When the last person remembering them dies, they go to the zamani and are then recalled by name only.
Kevin envisions sasha as being a city. A very large city that is being added to constantly. As people die new rooms are added to apartment buildings and new houses get built. Residents of the city stay as long as there are people living on earth that still remember them well; their faces, their personalities, the actual sound of their voices. When all of the people who remember them live in the city, they vanish along with all their belongings, house and stuff.
The main action of the story centers an a massive populating of the city. Descriptions of entire new neighborhoods appearing overnight. This population explosion is followed quickly on its heels by a depopulation.
It’s a quick and rather strange read.
#3 Vault of the Ages by Poul Anderson
This is the first ‘far future’ apocalypse book I read and also the first one that dealt with ancient artifacts left behind by ‘before time’ people. In this book the world ends in nuclear fire. It follows the whole ‘Treasure of the Ancients’ theme that runs in PA works like Jack Mcdevitt’s Eternity Road (which reads like a sequel to The Stand), Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and to a lesser degree in The Pelbar Cycle by Paul O.Williams.
This book centers on a farmer (who is somewhat intelligent) stumbling on a time capsule containing relics of the past. These relics are books and diagrams as well as scale models of fantastic machines that just might be able to send the society on a path back to its former greatness.
#4 Fire by Alan Rodgers
This is a fairly strange book in which everyone comes back to life and no one dies. Also everything as well.Fossils in the museum, cuts of meat in the grocery store, and all people in the all the cemeteries. Everything.
It all starts at a laboratory with a scientist who creates a bacteria that reanimates ancient life. The point to doing this is so science can study extinct creatures like trilobites. The only problem is that once the animal has been resurrected it is impossible to kill. The entire organism needs to be reduced to carbon. Fire, in other words, will permanently kill the reanimated creature. But nothing kills the bacteria.
Selling point is that it takes the book of Revelation and makes it plausible. In other words, if an ancient prophet saw the events in the book he/she might write the book of Revelation to explain it.
#5 Year Zero by Jeff Long
The general premise Year Zero is that a very nasty, super contagious, and uniformly fatal plague is unleashed. It spreads from the tiny island of Corfu in Greece and eventually spreads all across the globe and the last bastion for humanity turns out to be Los Alamos. It starts because Niko, the collector, liked to find artifacts and the best of these in his opinion were sealed vials. He broke them open a give the ol’ sniffer sniff to the rarefied air of millennia past. But inside of a very intricate puzzle lies four vials filled with a nasty virus. It is invisible and as it kills you it erases you; both you and your memories.
The book this most reminded me of was The Dying by Leslie Horvitz. Mainly just the relentless onslaught of the virus and descriptions of deserted cities. I haven’t read The Dying in a good long time but as I read it I kept thinking about how it reminded me of that book. Loves the part where the scientists were tracking the progress of the virus with satellites. Corpse gas being let off by deaths in the billions was a fantastic visual.
#6 Dark Advent by Brian Hodge
I have heard Swan Song equated with The Stand far too many times. It’s simply wrong. Those two books are not really very similar. Even the basic conflicts of those two books are vastly different. The Stand is clearly Good (Mother Abigail) versus Evil (Randal Flagg) and in Swan Song it Life (Sue Wanda) Versus Death (The Man With The Scarlet Eye).
That being said Dark Advent is pretty much dead on The Stand. Has the vastly fatal diseases. Has the Good verses Evil conflict. Has characters meeting through dreams. Also a final battle at the end.
The one big difference? Way more violent and follows the evil character more. In other words less Boulder and more Vegas in a ‘Stand’ sense.
#7 Ice! by Arnold Federbush
This is a story of a new Ice Age. It features a climatologist as the main character. He’s a book smart sort and gets help from another scientist who specialises in Arctic Peoples and customs. The story is told from the climatologist’s perspective but it’s the Arctic expert who steals the show. It’s very similar to the movie The Day After Tomorrow. It has the same basic setting the same basic plot. It also features climate experts. The ending however is quite different. Well worth the time you’ll spend reading it.
#8 What Niall Saw by Brian Cullen
This book is one of the bleakest (most bleak?) books I’ve read in a good long time. It’s offered as the journal of boy who is seven years and seven days old as the book starts. He gets right into the meat of the story as well. The whole family is under the stairs with their dog (a wolfhound my personal favorite dog breed) because the bombs have fallen. Over the course of the story there are more bomb detonations which Niall describes as ‘shakes’. Little by little his situation worsens. They deal with hunger (them and the dog), cabin fever from being sequestered in the closet under the stairs for weeks on end, and roaming scavengers looking for food. About 3/4 of the way into the book they make their escape. The ending stayed with me a very long time. It ranks withWhen the Wind Blows, Level 7, and On the Beach in terms of downer endings. If you haven’t read it yet find it and do so.
#9 Barrett, Neal Jr. Through Darkest America
I don’t know what caused the end in this book. I do know however that it centers on a very special type of ranch. In this brave new world they have thought of some pretty interesting plans to outwit hunger. And also forged some new and interesting social classes. Cannibal Cowboys? Gives a whole new meaning to cattle drive and rodeo. It’ll take a strong stomach to make it through this one. Also a sequel that picks up the action right where this book ends and ties up all the loose ends.
#10 Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay
I’d have not even found this one of not for my mother-in-law. She’s a teacher too. Or was before she retired. Anyhow one day she told me about this book she used to use when she taught an archeology unit. The point of the specific lesson was how sometimes professional archaeologists have to take a guess about the purpose and function of some of the things they find. How sometimes they can be wrong. Perhaps mostly wrong and never even knowing.
The deal with Motel of the Mysteries is that it’s in the future. The world as we know it now ended because it got buried in its own trash. A future archaeologist stumbles upon a vast complex that has been untouched since the time of the great cataclysm. The descriptions of the items paired with the uses of them is pretty fantastic. The ‘Alter of Worship’ (to me anyhow) is the best one. But trust me they are all really great in their own right.
#11 Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
This is the story of Miranda. She’s an ordinary high school girl. Like many girls she keeps a journal. This book reads as her journal. All is great with her world until an asteroid is predicted to hit the moon. She is not worried about it though. In fact she is, at first, irritated by it. Her teachers use the looming disaster as an excuse to pile on the homework with not one, not two, but three essays about the moon.
May 18th… it happens. The moon is hit. Miranda and her family are outside reveling in the street in a party-like atmosphere. All is fun and games. The asteroid hits the moon so hard that its orbit moves much closer to the Earth. When the partiers notice this panic sets in. Now we all know the moon’s gravity is what causes tides. So the first sign that all is not right is when coastal areas get flooded. After the flooding there are massive storms and earthquakes. Just when you think they can finally settle in for simple survival, volcanoes begin erupting bringing on an ice age.
#12 Skeletons by Al Sarrantonio
I think this book is best described as being a zombie novel. In a move that is reminiscent of ‘Night of the Comet’ and also ‘Maximum Overdrive’ the earth is bathed in strange space radiation. The effect is that everyone who’s dead gets up. They’re all animated skeletons with shimmering/ghostly flesh. Like all living dead they hate the living and immediately turn and kill.
Due to the space radiation the skin of the newly dead sluffs off and the skeleton rises. They can be be dispatched in the traditional way; a good blow to the head that shatters the skull will do it. A glowing high light of this work is Abraham Lincoln’s vengeance against John Wilkes Booth.
#13 Plague Year by Jeff Carlson
Anyone else read Prey by Micheal Creighton and feel cheated? He set up a pretty good apocalyptic scenario there. Nanotech goes out of control and starts to turn on people. But Creighton turns out to be a giant wuss and pulls back from world annihilation.
This is not the case in Plague Year. It opens at a run and doesn’t slow down. Nanotech has indeed been released. It’s self-replicating and flesh eating. The creators have put in a kill switch that is activated at ten thousand feet. So the world is reduced to a series of high altitude islands. Features one of the best PA first lines ever. ‘They ate Jorgensen first.’
And also you’re in luck. It’s a finished trilogy so no waiting.
#14 Dies The Fire by S. M. Stirling
Gasoline has been rendered useless. So has gunpowder and everything else. Even steam power is hampered. The only choice? Rip the leaf springs from the car and forge swords. Make some chain mail. Get medieval on their ass. That’s how things work in The Emberverse. Are you Wiccan or a member of the SCA? You’ll do just fine.
So anyhow if you want a modern day dark ages go for Dies The Fire. If you ignore the heavy Wiccan references you’ll find a pretty great book. And if you’re so inclined you can continue and read the whole (quite large) series. Also if you happen to be from the Pacific Northwest of The United States, you’ll enjoy it more as it’s set there (here). Gervais, Oregon with a castle? Sign me up!
#15 It’s Only Temporary by Eric Shapira
It’s Only Temporary is one of those rare fantastic books. It is just beyond words. The deal is that a giant asteroid is going to strike the Earth just off the coast of New Zealand. It’s going to hit so hard that it will kill everyone. There are some scientists who think that .00001 or .00002 of the human race will survive. The governments of the world knew about the asteroid for years but chose to keep the knowledge from everyone until there was only six weeks left. Some people keep working, some commit suicide. Everyone deals with the knowledge that the world will end in their own way.
The story reads as a journal of sorts told from Sean’s point of view. He chooses to spend the last six weeks of his life watching television, smoking pot, spanking the monkey almost constantly and also hanging out with his parents. On the final day though he decides to go looking for his girlfriend. So he says his final tearful goodbye to his mom and dad and sets out through a world that has no tomorrow, second thoughts, regrets or punishment.
This is by far one of the best books I’ve read … ever. Some trivia about the book. If you preordered it the book came autographed and with a bonus chapter called ‘Speaking of Butler’. I chose wisely and preordered. Well worth it. And the cover — the asteroid/skull cover thing is pretty goddamn righteous too.
Lastly. The Afterblight Chronicles. A Series.
I’d be remise if I went without mentioning these books. I don’t normally go in for series but on this one case I have to make an exeception. These books are GOLD. All of them. I’ll open the cover start reading and before I know it half the night and the book are simultaniously gone.
From the publisher:
‘The Blight arose from nowhere. It swept across the bickering nations like the End of Times and spared only those with a single fortuitous blood type. As the numbers thinned and societies crumbled, the survivors picked their way between silent streets and looked out on the squalid new order… and reconsidered their good fortune.’
Reposted with permission of the author, Fear Death by Water, author of the Cosy Catastrophe blog.