In which I recommend a dozen post-apocalyptic/ pandemic books
Ever since humans have known of a beginning, we’ve imagined the end. One of my favorite literary genres has been post-apocalyptic, not because I’m a sick puppy (okay, maybe I am to a degree) but because I’m fascinated with stories where we peel back every layer of society and see what ensues. As a political science student, I understand that to be civilized is to enter into a social contract, and like any contracts, there needs to be a mutual agreement on the rules. In a post-apocalyptic setting, familiar norms get thrown out the window and in the chaos, we get to see variations of how we humans reshuffle, adapt, and maintain our values.
I’ve also been fascinated by pandemics and have read a huge number of novels as well as non-fiction about infectious diseases. So much, that if anyone needs me as your lifeline for a major disease category during Who Want’s to be a Millionaire, I’m your gal!
SARS, Influenza, Hantavirus, Legionnaires Disease, H1N1, Ebola, the Black Death, Smallpox and now Covid-19, I’ve read about them all. Thanks to social distancing, we’re getting fewer nights out, which will give us time (theoretically) to read. And if reading about pandemics helps manage your anxiety (counter intuitive, I know. But for me, reading about something worse than reality, can make real life suck less) I’ve got recommendations for you!
The Stand, Stephen King: This is the grand daddy, the OG, the GOAT of pandemic stories. Imagine 99% of the world’s population dies from a lab-created version of a super flu, and that’s not the scariest part of the book. Captain Trips, (or Captain Trumps as I’m calling Coronavirus) spreads across the country over the course of a few weeks, leaving a band of survivors who remain frightened, not only by societies breakdown, but by terrible dreams. They dream of two people, Mother Abagail, a 100+ year-old woman in Nebraska and a terrifying man wandering the West, who goes by the name, Randall Flagg. Each represent good and evil and throughout the book, it’s never clear whose followers will win, but evil eventually forces the good to make a stand for all of humanity. What King does, with delicious precision, is point out the ever thinning line between civility and chaos. I’ve read this book at least a dozen times and the first time it rocked my psyche because until then I never realized that we are a set of rules and agreements that can be easily torn. To be fair, I was 13 the first time I read it.
Swan Song, Robert McCammon: A friend who learned that I loved The Stand, recommended this book and it’s a great read for the post-apocalyptic fan. A nuclear war destroys much of America and a few people band together trying to survive, while crossing a wretched countryside. A professional wrestler rescues a young girl, named Swan, who is the key to the country’s survival. Not only are they dealing with radiation sickness, crop destruction and a nuclear winter, but they are forced to battle an army of survivors following a malevolent force who goes by the name “Friend” and can take any human shape. There’s a scene in a Target that I will never forget and an insane president who is ready to blow the world up, just as there are glimmers of rebirth.
World War Z, Max Brooks: This time a virus out of China is turning everyone into zombies, which of course is the beginning of the end. It was fresh when it was written, (before The Walking Deadand Zombieland), and because it’s written as a series of interviews years after the Zombie Wars, Brooks was able to capture a multitude of experiences that would have been hard to do in a traditional novel. The movie, with Brad Pitt, is a very pale facsimile of this engaging and fun book.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel: Overnight people start dying from a pandemic and years later, a small band of survivors cross the Chicagoland area as a traveling troupe of Shakespeare performers. It’s one of the few post-apocalyptic books that isn’t overly violent and kind of lyrical. It’s been a few years since I’ve read it, but while I remember liking it, it didn’t stick with me like the other’s I’ve read.
The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier: I picked this up in Paris a number of years ago and I have to say, reading a post-apocalyptic book while traveling is a bit unsettling. I don’t know if this book is well-known, but it’s highly imaginative and worth a read. Its premise is that there is a city where the dead go after they die, where they hang out until no one alive is left to remember them. A virus (which they believe was spread through Coca Cola products!) has killed almost everyone. For weeks, waves of dead crowd the city, because there are still some alive who can remember. The dead wander the streets not knowing why they are there, but steadily it empties once there is one person alive. In the end a few lone “survivors” are left, not understanding their connection to each other. In the living world, a single scientist is left in Antarctica working at a station and wondering why no one is answering her calls. It’s a haunting story and I kind of wish it would be made into a movie—which come to think of it, sounds like the world of Coco without the pandemic and better music.
Girlfriend in a Coma, Douglas Coupland: From the father of Generation X,(yes he’s the author who helped coin the phrase and introduce the world to what feels like an ignored generation) is this meditation on what it means to be alive, what the modern world destroys and how Generation X was the first to turn friends into family. One night Karen slips into a coma and for the next seventeen years her friend’s lives go on, each changed by their loss, until the day that she wakes up. While under, she saw things both terrifying and beautiful in a way only Coupland could conjure, and she provides the key to riding out the end of the world. I’m not doing the book justice, but it’s one of my favorite, not only because it’s about an apocalypse but asks the question, what’s worth saving when there’s little hope?
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood: Okay, maybe it’s not post-apocalyptic if you’re a man, but Gilead is fucking terrifying if you’re not. After a fundamentalist sect of Americans mows down most of Congress during the State of the Union, and takes over an already weakened government, women are stripped of all rights and their humanity. I read this while in college and what stayed with me was that Margaret Atwood did not create the horrors out of thin air. Everything that happened to Offered (the main character) and the women around her, had been done in some way to real womenthroughout history and across cultures. The rise of the Christo-fascist regime in this book, was due to environmental destruction that rendered women infertile. Forcing young, fertile women to be enslaved and raped by men in power was considered in service to God. The mini-series on Hulu has been good (some say it’s kind of torture porn) but I preferred the movie staring the late Natasha Richardson.
Earth Abides, George R. Stewart: Written in 1949, this is one of the original post-apocalyptic novels. Because it was written in a different age, it’s calmer, with little of the drama that is in post-apocalyptic fiction today. It’s more a study of humankind’s relationship to ecology and superstition. The main character, Isherwood has been wandering in the mountains and comes down to the city to find that almost everyone has died from some disease. He wanders from California to New York and back again. There’s a lot of wandering and a lot of meditation on what constitutes a civil society.
City of Thieves, David Benioff: Sometimes the end of the world is limited to your own back yard, but that doesn’t make it any less horrible. In 1942 during the Siege of Leningrad, two young men are given a choice, ransack a decimated city for a dozen eggs necessary for a Colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake, or be executed. The prose is tight, sad and yet funny. Benioff, has been behind some of the great blockbusters on the screen including Game of Thrones and The 25th Hour.
The Power, Naomi Alderman: Imagine that women were physically stronger than men thanks to a bundle of nerves nestled at the base of their neck which allows them to electrocute anyone who attacks them. This is a novel within a novel and I love how the writer creates a mythology from which a matriarchal system arises, in the same way we’ve done to establish patriarchy. This has a post-apocalyptic feel because the story focuses on the time of major upheaval (our present time) when these powers came about and how four main characters reacted to the change.
The Road, Cormac McCarthy: This is the first, and so far only book I’ve read by Cormac McCarthy. It’s stunning in its violence, but the prose is tight, the book itself feels slight and almost transitory, it captures an American noir that has almost become his own genre. An extinction event, (my guess was a huge EMP) has rendered the modern world obsolete and a unnamed man and his son journey across a post-apocalyptic America searching for a place they can survive the winter. It’s bleak and there is a scene in a basement so horrifying I will never forget, but I think the message at the end is one that is in every Western movie that our culture has revered, the idea that there is a clear good and bad and the good will prevail.
Severance, Ling Ma: My kid gave this to me for my birthday this year (she knows me so well!) it’s one of the more modern entries to the post-apocalyptic genre because it’s really a satire on work and consumerism. Like The Road, it’s a slight book, and the story is simple, a woman joins a group outside New York City after a major plague called the Shen Fever (named for Shenzen China where it originated) forces people to repeat old routines compulsively until they die. I loved her backstory as an immigrant who was brought over to America years after her parents settled here, and she has an interesting millennial take on our modern economy. The thing that was frustrating about her story is that I’ve never read a main character who was more oblivious to her surroundings! Like, how do you not notice the largest city in the country emptying out? How do you not predict that electricity will be spotty and that getting into an elevator could be a death sentence if there is no one to get you out when it suddenly dies? Characters are supposed to not only grow and change, but observe their world and I got more of a sense of the office supplies on her desk than the world changing rapidly around her.