In the past year, I’ve read ten books that fall under the umbrella of apocalypse fiction. That might not sound like that many if you happen to be a big fan of that genre, but I’m not one of you. I read a lot of books, but before 2021, apocalypse stories had to be really pressed into my hands before I’d give them a try. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy them — Hanna Jameson’s The Last is one of my all-time favourite books. But it wasn’t generally a genre that I sought out.
When I was a little kid, I hated any and all of those end of the world films. Little Anxious Me was convinced that the meteor was hurtling through space right at us, and I didn’t want to be reminded of it. As I got older and wiser, I relaxed a bit on my stance, but it still wasn’t the sort of thing I went looking for.
Then 2020 happened.
I’m not comparing the pandemic to Armageddon, but things did change. Of course they did. For the first time for many of us, we realised how quickly life can turn on a dime. The veil of civilisation felt a little bit thinner than it had before.
For much of 2020, I struggled to read anything. Reading is the one thing I have always loved, my whole life long, and not being able to focus on a book really hurt. I promised myself 2021 would be better, even if I had to force myself back into the routine. Now at the end of 2021, I can say that I was successful. And part of that success came from, surprisingly, seeking out apocalypse type stories.
The very first one I read this year was Faultland, by Suzy Vitello. I didn’t exactly choose it, as I was offered it for review. It wasn’t my thing, I thought – especially because it was about the very pandemic we were still living through, and I didn’t really want to read about a world where the author had imagined the pandemic as being much worse than it was. But I decided to take it because I have a friend who lives in Portland – where the book is set – and I thought it would be interesting to see her world fictionalised.
To my surprise, I really liked Faultland. Not only liked it — I enjoyed it. It’s a book that centres on a profoundly unhappy family dealing with a terrifyingly realistic future, but what struck me by the end of the novel was that none of the characters were talking in political euphemisms anymore. A spade was called a spade, and it felt like by finally naming the problems – the rise of the far right, climate change – these issues became something that could actually be handled. People are trying their best at the end of Faultland, with clear goals in mind, and no nebulous political bullshit is getting in the way.
After that, I was sort of hooked on the genre and I found myself looking for more of the same.
A surprising amount of the books I read were about sicknesses. Little Anxious Me would have been horrified I was reading such things while they were still happening. But, of course, they aren’t really the same. Faultland was the book most similar to the reality we are living, but it still wasn’t the same. Others like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Christina Sweeney-Baird’s The End Of Men dealt with similar respiratory diseases, but they pushed it in a much more apocalyptic direction than our own pandemic was managing. José Saramago’s Blindness is a completely different sort of sickness, but that was in the mix too – as well as a range of zombie inducing virus books too. It seems obvious now, but on reading those stories, it was a new concept to me that I could take comfort from reading about situations similar to, but much worse than our own.
I found that I didn’t even really mind if the story was happening in real time, like in The End Of Men, Blindness or Susannah Wise’s This Fragile Earth, or if it was set after the apocalyptic event, like Station Eleven or Brianna Bourne’s You & Me At The End Of The World. The real time books felt familiar. The post-apocalypse books were far removed enough that I could direct my focus onto new scenarios and new questions.
And it is questions, ultimately, that I find I enjoy the most when it comes to apocalyptic stories. I enjoy the questions that the authors raise, and I enjoy the questions that I come to explore in my own mind. A fact that Little Anxious Me didn’t realise is that by engaging with these big scary questions, it actually helps soothe the worry. I’m not saying I have a plan for every end of the world scenario I can think of (except for a zombie apocalypse, when my plan is to let them take me – I’m not a runner and never will be) but I’ve always dealt best with anxiety by knowing what’s coming next and thinking about my strategies ahead of time. It means I am never surprised. I will always spend time obsessing over the worst-case scenarios, so I might as well make use of that and come up with a ten-step plan.
There are practical questions which these books made it fun to engage with, but there are also more philosophical ones, and those are what I really enjoyed. Station Eleven encourages readers to think about a world where we’ve lost everything we knew and what, therefore, we should save. What is worth digging out of the ashes of an old life and polishing up to be enjoyed in the future? In the opinion of Mandel, it’s culture. A travelling troupe of actors drive their caravan around what used to be the USA, performing Shakespeare. In an abandoned airport, a man lovingly creates his own museum. We’ve seen how, in the course of our own pandemic, art and culture became a lifeline for many people as they were trapped in their own homes. Mandel’s vision of the future, where people still feel a compulsion to create art, is one that I felt very comfortable with.
Finally, I’ve enjoyed the message at the end of many of these books, even one as seemingly grim as Blindness. The message is simply this; things are going to change, and it is going to be hard. At times it will seem impossible. But someone, somewhere, will keep going and they will keep fighting and maybe – eventually – things will be okay.
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