Edition 31: Article: Beyond the Apocalypse: A Reading List for the End of Days by Lee Murray
Stephen King is well-known for stating that “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” And King isn’t alone in saying this: all the advice suggests that for writers to achieve success, they should read widely in their genre. The reasoning is sound. Quite apart from the enjoyment reading affords us, it’s useful for writers to examine examples of our chosen genre, analysing character traits, plot events, style, and recurring themes. The point is to challenge popular beliefs or tackle a weary trope from new or insightful perspective. To redefine the parameters of a genre, and in doing so offer original and meaningful narratives to our readership.
So, when the New Zealand Society of Authors assigned me to mentor a promising writer of post-apocalyptic fiction, I kicked off our partnership with a list of book recommendations from the genre. My mentee immediately came back to me with a reading list of his own, something no other mentee has ever done. He got no argument from me. Mentorship is a two-way street: I’ve never escaped one without learning something. Besides, if we were going to discuss his novel in the context of other post-apocalyptic narratives, then we needed to be on the same page. Or pages. He’d suggested six books; so I loaded up my iPad and started reading.
I began with Michael Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. In this pioneering tale, main character Peter is literally light years away, off ministering to the occupants of another planet, to another species, while the apocalypse plays out at home. Peter only reads about the crisis through infrequent communications with his wife, Bea, from whom he becomes more and more estranged. A good place to start out post-apocalyptic study, I loved this story for its unique perspective on distance—physical, emotional, and cultural distance—and the impact it has on the way events, even devastating events, can be perceived. Peter’s situation becomes equivalent of our being able to turn off the news when the images of starving children become too much to bear. Casting him as a minister is central to the story, a deliberate act by Faber, allowing him myriad opportunities to examine faith and belief in the face of impending death.
From there I segued to Under the Skin, Faber’s exquisite debut novel, where the apocalypse has already begun, Earth invaded and exploited by ‘humans’ from a planet which is itself on the brink of collapse. Here perspective is turned on its head, with Faber forcing readers to question the very concept of humanity. Superbly written, the story also provides a chilling look at hunger and the increasing demands for food placed on a burgeoning population. My mentee described it as one of his favourite reads of recent times, and I’m inclined to agree.
The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey also turns post-event fiction on its head, with a story told mainly from the point of view of the anti-hero, Melanie, a highly intelligent ten-year-old who’s been a prisoner as long as she can remember. Spending her days strapped to a chair, Melanie has never been outside, but they have to be preparing her for something, because she’s in school. She loves her lessons, especially when the teacher is Miss Justineau…Carey is a master of the plot twist, cleverly opening with the imprisoned children and immediately demanding the reader’s empathy, although the clues are there: “Melanie sometimes says, ‘I won’t bite.’ She says it as a joke, but Sergeant’s people never laugh.” Yes, it’s a zombie story, but in this case, while the humans are busily focussed on how we’re going to survive the apocalypse, The Girl with All the Gifts sneaks up on us and questions why we presume to own that right. One of the most provocative and engaging novels to grace the genre.
In Annihilation by Jeff van der Meer, a widowed biologist retraces her husband’s steps, joining a group of scientists on an expedition (#12) into the mysterious Area X. It’s hard to say if this book is pre-apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, or indeed a slow progression into dystopia, but certainly things in Area X are not as they seem, with memories not be believed, accounts—even those seen by one’s own eyes—not to be trusted, and their superior’s instructions even less. A chillingly dark psychological horror, Annihilation provides valuable insight in that it shows us how, when faced with crises, humans strive for understanding and connection, even people who typically operate outside normal society. Another aspect Annihilation contributes to our study is van der Meer’s canny choice of narrator, the biologist (Ghost Bird to her husband), whose passion for observation and detachment has estranged her from her husband, to the point that he signs up for Expedition. When certain strange events inside Area X affect all the members of the expedition, we begin to mistrust the biologist, and yet her methodical scientific approach, her detachment, also makes her account reliable.
My reading recommendations included The Eschatologist a novella by Greg Chapman which I reviewed for SQ Mag on its release last year, describing it as “a study of human nature and the degradation of humanity in the face of hopeless odds.” In this post-apocalypse story, a detective and his family are close to death when they’re brutally attacked by a band of desperate men. But, at the last minute, the family are rescued by a strange albino—the eschatologist—who delivers them to his bizarre secular community deep in the woods. Sparsely written and achingly bleak, The Eschatologist isn’t a comfortable read, but it makes a valuable addition to our line-up as a study of how people seek out hope, even where none exists.
It would be a crime to omit Cormac McCarthy’s The Road from any contemporary list of post-apocalyptic fiction, especially since everyone seems to have caught the movie adaptation starring Viggo Mortensen. The story of a man and his son walking America in search of sanctuary from the deadly swirling ash, Cormac’s prose is both brutal and moving, the words so evocative that readers cannot look away, even as the story rushes towards its desolate conclusion. What strikes me, particularly, about this book is that once again we see dual themes of connectedness and isolation in situations of extreme stress, McCarthy’s character refusing to give his son a name, referring to him only as ‘boy’ as if keeping the child at arm’s length will spare them both pain. It doesn’t: the love between the pair as clear and sharp as a shard of glass.
Jeremy and Hilaree Robinson’s The Distance is a recent title, one I included for the complementary perspectives of the two protagonists, August and Poe. From two different generations, the pair don’t know each other, yet they manage to connect via Hamm radio. Expecting a baby, teenager Poe needs help, and since everyone else appears to be dead or missing, August sets off across the country to find her—only neither of them are completely alone and whatever is out there isn’t friendly. The juxtaposition of one character staying put while the other character journeys in The Distance is helpful in that it allows us to look at the pros and cons of both scenarios. Themes of connectedness and new forms of family come to the fore here.
The Rain Trilogy by Joseph A. Turkot is a YA apocalyptic trilogy, bravely written in second person. Turkot carries it off perfectly, and my guess is he pulls in the younger readers with this modern fan fiction format. Another reason for including this story in our list was the way the work was produced, in serial form, with each section, book, and the trilogy as a whole, following the classic three act story structure. Readers won’t care about that, of course. They’ll simply be enthralled by Turkot’s story: Tanner’s desperate race for high ground and her ongoing struggle to retain a veneer of morality when there’s every likelihood she might not survive her teens. A key theme of post-apocalyptic fiction also prominent in Turkot’s books are the unlikely alliances that occur when the rain and the cold set in.
An older story, I included Lee’s Goldberg’s classic novel The Walk on our list. It’s the story TV executive Marty Slack, who must make his way back to his wife in the San Fernando Valley when LA is levelled in The Big One. Not strictly post-apocalyptic, this novel offers an interesting perspective on how people escape into themselves, entering a kind of stasis, in order to cope with the unspeakable.
Unlike The Walk where the protagonist flees to safety, CyberStorm by cybersecurity expert Matthew Maher looks at the deterioration of society when people are forced to stay put, a situation mirrored in my mentee’s story, making this book an important addition to our list. Another reason for reading CyberStorm is that the lead character isn’t a battle-hardened soldier or a gifted resourceful teen. Instead, Maher’s protagonist is a common man, an everyman, who is facing the basest challenges, things we all understand like hunger, fatigue, cold, and despair. Maher’s story is especially terrifying because the scenario he portrays isn’t so far-fetched, and the people who inhabit it, look a lot like us.
I can hear some of you wailing that the end of the world will be upon us before you can get through all these titles, so for those readers looking for something more bite-sized, there are plenty of anthologies offering short stories on this theme. For example, I recently picked up The End of the World: Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by Robert Silverberg, which includes post-apocalyptic tales by literary giants like George R.R. Martin, John Wyndham, and Arthur C. Clarke. A book like this allows us to consider the classicists’ approach to the apocalypse, back when it was called science fiction, rather than a genre in its own right.
There. A month’s reading and still it’s not an exhaustive list. It’s not even a representative sample. There are some glaring gaps. There’s nothing on our list by Paul Kane or Michael Hicks or Margaret Atwood, for example. No antipodean versions, like Anna Smail’s The Chimes, or Paul Mannering’s gruesome Tankbread series. No doubt I’ve omitted your favourite apocalyptic title, and we’ve haven’t even got started on the film versions. Nevertheless, reading and rereading my way through this list has certainly expanded my insights into the genre. And who knows? Perhaps having read them, I’ll be a little better prepared when the final curtain comes down.
In the back of my volume of The Girl with all the Gifts there is an interview with Carey, where he’s asked, among other things, why he believes post-apocalyptic thrillers are so appealing. He replies: “Part of the appeal is that when the world ends all your day-to-day cares and woes and angsts and crises end with it. It’s like the first day of the summer holidays, with this big undivided space opening up in front of you. You’ll never have to make another mortgage payment, work in a job you hate, worry about your cholesterol or any of that. The apocalypse starts as a wiping of the slate. A rebirth.”
So, now that my colleague and I have delved a little into what’s classic and current in the genre, it’s time to wipe the slate clean as Carey says, and look for a fresh approach, once which will contribute to the body of post-apocalyptic fiction in a new and provocative way. No pressure then.
A Reading List for the End of Days:
The Girl with All the Gifts, 2014, MR Carey
The Eschatologist, 2016, by Greg Chapman
The Walk, 2009, by Lee Goldberg
The Book of Strange Things, 2014, by Michael Faber
Under The Skin, 2001, by Michael Faber
CyberStorm, 2013, by Matthew Maher
The Road, 2006, Cormac McCarthy
The Distance, 2016, Jeremy and Hilaree Robinson
The End of the World: Stories of the Apocalypse, 2010, edited by Robert Silverberg
The Rain Trilogy, 2013, by Joseph A Turkot
Annihilation, 2014, by Jeff van der Meer
Lee Murray writes fiction for adults and children, winning New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award for science fiction and fantasy writing no less than six times. However, she has only recently turned her hand to horror, and finds teenagers to be far more terrifying than spiders or zombies.