As the Mayan calendar ends today, what better way to fit the theme of the end of the world than do another dreaded list, this time of the best/most notable, or even the most neglected apocalyptic, end-of-the-world novels.
In an episode of the much-loved television show, The Twilight Zone, called ‘Time Enough at Last’, an avid book-lover is discouraged by his work and his wife from reading, until a nuclear explosion destroys everyone and everything, except a library, with the books still intact. When the man rejoices in the ability to read for the rest of his life, his glasses break, rendering him basically blind, fitting the characteristic dire endings of the series. Here are eleven other apocalyptic concepts, some popular, others that have fallen by the wayside:
1. The End of the World News- Anthony Burgess, 1982
Three stories vaguely interwoven, including a story about Trotsky and another about Freud, the last segment of the book is set shortly before an extrasolar planet is to collide with the earth. Less illuminating than much of Burgess’ work, though similar to The Devil’s Mode, the cameo of famous figures lifts the story up.
2. The Drowned World- J.G. Ballard, 1962
A refreshing take on apocalyptic fiction, Ballard characteristically avoids predictability and features a protagonist who gladly welcomes the end of days, manifested through the flooding of the world. He uses the end of the world as a metaphor for the collective unconscious of his characters.
3. The Day of the Triffids- John Wyndham, 1951
Described as ‘cosy science fiction’, in which many of the characters are able to go about their lives throughout disaster, this science fiction classic features giant plants that attack the world, rendering many blind. While some survivors attempt to help the blind, others attempt toe set up a colony including only those that can see.
4. The Road- Cormac McCarthy, 2006
One of the more sinister, uncomfortably realistic novels to emerge in the genre, this story features a father/son, man/boy duo in a post-apocalyptic world, the catalyst of which is unexplained, where they encounter rampant cannibalism and starvation. More grim than many others, this novel focuses on the darker and less surreal aspects of end times.
5. Sleepless, Charlie Huston- 2010
From the author of Six Bad Things, Huston posits Insomnia as humanity’s Achilles Heel. A noir detective/crime work, the story follows Parker Haas, LAPD officer investigating the trafficking of the drug ‘dreamer’, which is the only drug that enables temporary relief from insomnia, as society breaks down.
6. The Machine Stops- E.M. Forster, 1909
A short story, Forster invents a world in which it has become impossible to exist on the surface world, and so society are forced to live in cells underground, all powered by a machine that, as the title suggests, stops, putting society in jeopardy once again.
7. The Last Ship, William Brinkley, 1988
By the author of The Fun House, Brinkley, who began his career as a Naval Officer, fittingly wrote this apocalyptic work about a nuclear war that ensues between a fictional US naval ship, and the Soviet Union. After the destruction, the ship sails around looking for a new place to call home.
8. The Scarlet Plague- Jack London- 1912
With The Iron Heel as his ode to the Dystopian novel, The Scarlet Plague is London’s ode to the apocalyptic, set in his favoured city of San Francisco. The tale takes place in the year 2073, after the Red Death, an epidemic that gas devastated the world. The protagonist, James Howard Smith, is one of the last survivors in San Francisco, and attempts to pass on his wisdom to his grandsons before time runs out. A more poignant addition to the genre.
9. Cat’s Cradle- Kurt Vonnegut, 1963
A satirical science fiction novel, Vonnegut attempts to make light of the impending doom of the planet, injecting humour in places other authors might avoid, to produce a novel that science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon called annoying, albeit a must read. Most of humanity is destroyed by the alternative water-material, ice-nine, which is a form of water that is solid at room temperature.
10. The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion- Edgar Allen Poe, 1839
With the author’s loyalty to surrealism and the gothic, this short story, published originally in the ‘Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine’, takes place after the world has ended, when two re-named souls, Eiros and Charmion, discuss the apocalypse. A neglected but intriguing concept from Poe’s macabre oeuvre.
11. The Burning World- J.G. Ballard, 1964
Another overlooked Ballard work, The Burning World features a world in contrast to his Drowning World, one that is suffering from drought. If it has a moral, it is not to dump industrial waste into the ocean, lest the ocean dries up.