Friday, May 20, 2011

Literature for the Apocalypse: A Top Five

Yes, some Nostra-dumbass in California has predicted that we're all going to die tomorrow. You have to admit, the guy's theory —  spelled out humorously in this Esquire article — is nothing if not interesting in its creativity. Based on a literal interpretation of the Second Epistle of Saint Peter (for God, a day is like a thousand years), and given that God gave Noah seven days' warning before the first flood, and given that the flood occurred in 4990 BC (no idea how he settled on that year), this Camping dude "reasonably" concludes that 7,000 years later is 2011 (if you include year 0, presumably), and "May 21 corresponds to the 17th day of the second month in the Hebrew calendar, the anniversary of the original Judgment Day." Man, that is some A+ delusional logic!

So, of course, this has gotten me thinking about end-of-the-world literature. There seems to be a dearth, at least in my reading experience. Perhaps that's because Hollywood's got that market cornered, churning out awful blockbusters like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 just as fast as Roland Emmerich can churn out recycled story ideas. But here's a selection — and I'm interested in hear yours too. (Though there is a fine line between apocalyptic fiction and dystopian, let's try to stay as close as we can to the former.)

5. The Stand, by Stephen King — I'm no great King fan, but I read this in high school and loved it. You know the story here, right? A killer virus leads to a post-apocalyptic battle of good vs. evil. The characters — King's signature — really make this story, though. I still have nightmares about Randall Flagg. (Now seems like as good a time as any to mention that, yes, The Passage is also an example of the genre — just pointing it out now, so you don't have to comment about what an idiot I am for forgetting it. ;)  )

4. The Footprints of God, by Greg Iles — This smarter-than-your-average thriller has scientists storing a human brain on a computer, with near-disastrous results, i.e. the "Great Collapse" of the universe into a single consciousness. Sounds a bit fantastical, yes, but Iles is a master at bringing you along with him — delivering an impressive Philosophy 101 course along the way.

3. The Omega Theory, by Mark Alpert — I really enjoyed this thriller about a bunch of religious fanatics trying to destroy the world with a nuclear bomb so they can all go to heaven. The novel asks the question: If the universe is nothing more than an incredibly complex computer program, what could cause it to crash?

2. Everything Matters, by Ron Currie, Jr. — The first real example of literary fiction on my list, Currie's novel begins with its protagonist Junior Thibodeau born into a world of which he knows the exact date of its demise. So Junior has to go through life trying to make meaning out of a seemingly purposeless existence, or as he says at a particularly low point of his adulthood, " has never been any great f#$%ing shakes in my opinion. In fact, it's always seemed a messy and heartbreaking and overall pointless affair." With a few flaws, this is still a solid novel — I'd recommend it.

1. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy — This is the standard by which all post-apocalyptic, end-of-the-world novels should be judged. It is bleak, but beautiful.

So, if you have a second or two between finishing up the items on your bucket list before tomorrow, I'd love to hear about your favorite end-of-the-world books. What's on your list?

(Of course, if we silly sane people all are wrong and this Camping fellow is on the money, I look forward to seeing you all in the aisles of the Barnes & Nobles on the other side...)


  1. Well, you know how I feel about number one. Anyway, I gotta go with On the Beach by Nevil Shute. That book is awesome stuff. "You're telling me the bloody rabbit's going to put it across us, after all? They'll be alive and kicking when we're all dead?"

  2. I absolutely love The Stand (I even have the graphic novels) as well as The Road. I might add Blindness. That book knocked my socks off.

  3. EVERYTHING MATTERS just killed me. Need to get a copy of FOOTPRINTS OF GOD, that sounds crazy-fascinating.

    I submit CLOUD ATLAS, by no means a straightforward end-of-the-world story, but it gets there, and when it gets there, it REALLY gets there.

  4. Does World War Z count? It's certainly post-apocalyptic but I never really thought of it as an end-of-days book. I haven't actually read any of the ones on your list but I'm intrigued by Footprints of God.

  5. "A Canticle for Liebowitz" by Walter Miller is a brilliant, though episodic, post-apocalypse novel with a deeply moving ending. Nobody remembers Gore Vidal's "Kalki," a rather sardonic though popular end-of-the-world entry.

  6. I love The Stand and thought The Road was good but my choice for entertaining end of the world read is Swan Song by Robert McCammon. Sort of a popcorn movie approach to the whole concept yet it's a great thrill ride that doesn't entirely let you mentally coast there.

    Great minds think alike,Greg-my post today was about great songs to play for any apocalypse parties going on this weekend. Maybe one of your favs made my list:)

  7. Swan Song by Robert McCammon is an doorstop also-ran to The Stand but it has a crowd of defenders that like it better.

  8. Oooh yes, The Road was so intense, couldn't put it down.

    Maybe it isn't exactly an end-of-the-world book, but how society falls apart in "Blindness" by José Saramago is pretty haunting.

  9. We've been through all the 'this is the end of the world' stuff before; and if we took it all that seriously, we'd have a lot more people in church. However, along the reading lines of the end of the world genre, I love 'The Stand'. It was the first book I read about it and has always been in my bookcase as something to get my nose into as a familiar adventure of SK's. He's the ultimate King of storytelling; knowing how to keep me from closing the book and turning out the light.

  10. I am going Second Joel's pick. When I think of end of the world stories The Stand and Swan Song always come to mind. Of course we cannot miss the single most silly of the end of the world books; The Left Behind series had me first laughing then shaking my head. I would have left these shallow boring characters behind too.

  11. Great list. I haven't read much apocalyptic literature other than The Stand, The Road, and The Passage. The Passage I could do without (although not a bad book at all) but The Stand and The Road are hard to live up to.

  12. Well, looks like we all lived and get to still blog all over the world instead of being able to hang out and chat about what we've read in the fiery pits! I agree The Road is magnificent. Another fave of mine is Red Queen by HM Brown.

  13. On the Beach, and the dated but still interesting (clouded by racism accusations) of Lucifer's Hammer, Larry Niven's comet hitting opus, along with the Stand, are my go-to post apocalyptic reads.

    Thanks for the referral to The Passage, I'm now halfway through! No better read for the almost- rapture evening!

  14. I read a couple of end-of-the world books last summer-I was on a dystopian kick. I really liked In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke, and a young adult novel called Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffier. I also loved The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood and The Children of Men by P.D. James.

  15. The Stand is fantastic. I read it several years ago and I think it is the best Stephen King book I've read. (Although I did really like On Writing).

    I also thought The Road was an incredible book. Bleak and unsettling, but hard to put down.

  16. @Kenneth - Yes, I know you think No. 1 is much more preferable to No. 2 - it's just quicker and less messy. On the Beach shows up a number of times on this list - gonna have to check it out.

    @Sandy - Good call on Blindness. I've still never read it but still intend to.

    @Books - Ah, the inimitable Cloud Atlas. That book has officially set a record for most times recommended to me without reading it. Boo, me.

    @Red - Not sure on World War Z - does it have zombies? Then, no. ;)

    @Richard - Thanks for the great recommendations - I'm not familiar with either one. Off to check them out. You're right, the only thing I know Gore Vidal for is Lincoln and Burr.

  17. @lady t - Even though Joel right below you sort of bashes Swan Song, I'm intrigued. I'm all for a good mindless "popcorn" read from time to time, as long as it's not intelligence-insulting.

    @Joel - I'm guessing you're not among the defenders who like it better? But as I said, I'm intrigued. Even if it's only half as good as The Stand, it's probably still solid.

    @superheidi - Good call on Blindness. And I agree totally - The Road was un-put-downable. Very intense. Did you see the movie?

    @Mozette - Agreed on King. As my friend Jeff said, "The man just knows how to tell a story." I'm not a huge fan of all of his stories - Under The Dome almost put me off King forever - but the ones for which he's "on" are awesome!

    @SariJ - Ha - hadn't even thought of Left Behind. Good call! Wasn't there a story about how that kook in California quoted Left Behind or somehow used it as inspiration? Did you read those? I've never even been slightly tempted.

  18. @Pete - Didn't like The Passage, eh? I haven't read it, but with all the hype, and the fact that very few people haven't liked it, I gotta say it's got some on-my-radar-staying-power.

    @mummazappa - Yep, and it's a day later, and we're all still here. Wonder what dude's sermon was like this morning? ;) Hadn't heard of Red Queen - thanks for the recommendation.

    @Selene - Enjoying The Passage then? And thanks for the recommendation on Lucifer's Hammer - not one I'm familiar with.

    @Heather - Yeah, I thought about Atwood and James, but as I said, I was trying to stay clear of the dystopian stuff - that opens up an entirely new (and to me, not as interesting) can of worms.

    @James - I liked On Writing, too, but I'm with you that The Stand is what he'll be known for 100 years from now. The Road was terrifying and hopeful all at once - a brilliant novel!

  19. No, I haven't seen the movie "the road". I saw the trailer and decided it would be too explicit and probably miss its point. The written word is already so strong and visual. I guess filming this story is unnecessary and overdoing it.

  20. I only know The Stand from your list but Everything Matters sounds intriguing. I think I can add a few.

    The Day of the Tryffids is really quite good as is I am Legend. both suffer from sorry movie version, but I like The Omega Man for its Charlton Heston cheesy goodness.

    Earth Abides holds up pretty well.

    Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are both wonderful and pretty close to literary.

  21. @superheidi - The movie is actually very, very well done - it doesn't quite match the novel in terms of intensity, but it comes as close as it possibly could. Viggo Mortenson as The Man is unbelievable.

    @CB - Thanks for the recommendations.

  22. @ okay, I know I am prejudiced about it, it's just that I can live without a film adaption if I liked the book. :-)

  23. Well,I do agree with Joel that Swan Song doesn't reach the artistic heights that The Stand does but like I said,it's worth a read for sheer popcorn entertainment.

    There's even a fun scene in a movie theater,where the supernatural villain of the piece enjoys a solo showing of a terrible movie as the outside world enters into chaos. Very twisted black humor indeed:)

  24. Enjoyed the Passage, and have been winging my way through a few post-apocalpytic novels since. I like this amazon list: (and part 2) about how to survive the end of mankind (I am compelled to put sic there, last I looked, women were in danger in the apocalypse, too, just sayin'). Some great books there.

    Just finished Far North, and also read Everything Matters!, so popped back to say thanks for the reading jag. Happy apocalypse to everyone!