What Happens After the End of the World?
With everything going on lately, I’ve been swallowed by a thousand emotions and thoughts per hour and my mind’s been haphazardly ping-ponging between the doors holding each one in place. To be fair, in order to comply with D.C.’s Stay At Home Orders, my body only ping-pongs around my apartment so at least one part of me stays steady.
It’s helpful to compartmentalize, but it’s also been helpful to get a little air into the space that might allow my thoughts to come into the open. For me, opening the mental doors in order to give my thoughts room to breathe has led me to art that is decidedly NOT reassuring, and I have been reading and watching books and movies that present other characters dealing with a range of dystopic scenarios. Pretty grim, maybe, but because what is happening feels so unprecedented, it is helpful for me to turn to the feelings someone else speculated onto characters and settings also experiencing extremely stressful situations.
Not everything included on this list of titles is entirely realistic, but it humanizes these extreme situations and makes me focus on the interiority of someone else’s experience. So, I’m going to recommend some works that are available while the library is closed in case you use art to help your heart catch up to reality, as I do.
Content warning that some of these books have violent content and deal with self-harm or suicide in some cases. If that isn’t something you’re looking for, I’d skip these blurbs. Otherwise, I hope these recommendations might be useful to you as you do your best to take care. Links are for either text or audiobooks, but most are available in both forms through a general search of the catalog.
Bird Box by Josh Malerman
If you have heard of this, it’s possible that it’s because you saw (or, at least, know about) the movie available for streaming on Netflix. The film is based on a 2015 book by Josh Malerman. This story of survival follows Malorie and her two young children as they fight to find a place of security in a world that is too dangerous to be seen. The cause of this danger is a malevolent force that appeared years ago, leading people who saw it to death by suicide. In order to navigate to safety, Malorie and her children wear blindfolds and take to a river journey in search of a haven. The story shuttles back and forth in time filling in the gaps between their dangerous river journey and the events that occurred immediately after the world became unsafe, bringing them to this point.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep / Blade Runner by Philip K. Dick
Both Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (what the film Blade Runner is based off of) and a novelization of the film are available electronically. Book to film to book is a bit of an odd journey; but, if you’re a completist, or if you just really enjoy sci-fi dystopian noir, maybe you want to enjoy both. The aesthetic of the film adds to the appreciation of the books, I think; but, it definitely isn’t necessary to have seen it before diving into these titles. Both follow the same trajectory, describing the life of Rick Deckard, an officially sanctioned bounty hunter living in 2021 (date changed from original edition) who is hunting for unauthorized humanoids living undetected among human beings in order to “retire” them. As he hunts for those he’s been assigned, we’re given a whole lot of world building, as well as reflections on morality and identity.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood is as close to essential reading as one can get, and this verdant and beautiful, but starkly written book holds some harrowing truths and reflections. Another thought experiment of a world post-apocalypse, this tale pulls double duty as both a vision of the future and a moving love story. On the other side of a plague, Snowman (nee Jimmy) is struggling with the notion that he may be the last human while deeply missing his best friend Crake and the mysterious Oryx, whom they both loved. Atwood’s characters have such humanity and an ability to be self-reflective around their struggles that this book is deeply affirming to read. Readers are able to go with Snowman on his journey for answers and get to wonder and learn in tandem the question that feels more than a little haunting right now: how did it all fall apart so quickly?
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead, best known for The Underground Railroad, has also tackled the “Pandemic Novel” with his book Zone One, a novel that takes place after humanity and the planet have been devastated. In this new world, humanity is sorted into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead. The book’s events begin when the plague is over and the armed forces have reclaimed Chinatown’s Fort Wonton, “Zone One.” Mark Spitz is one of the members of a small team tasked with clearing feral zombies off the streets. We’re given only three days with Mark as he goes about the tedious tasks of his work and dealing with PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder) before things go terribly wrong. A really great literary horror novel, it is a book when you want to live with the unease you might be feeling anyway.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
A perpetually popular book from 2014, Station Eleven has both humanism and a bone deep melancholy between its pages. It’s difficult to think of any novel that isn’t cored by humanism, but this book turns that core into limbs that reach out to readers. It opens with the death of a theater actor on the night a deadly virus begins to spread around the globe. It spreads in such a way that within a week the majority of the human population is wiped out. The book traces two timelines: the before and the after. Its focus is either concentrated on Arthur, his three ex-wives, his best friend Clark, and Jeevan (a relative bystander enmeshed in Arthur’s life unexpectedly), or on Kirsten, a child actress in the before and who remains an actress, but who is now with a traveling troupe that goes from place to place finding meaning in being able to remind people “what was best about the world.” The plot is never static, and driving it forward there’s mystery and danger, pathos and interpersonal conflicts large enough to feel like tectonic rifts. And, as Arthur, Jeevan, Kirsten and their circles find their way forward, two things are certain and close in step: the promise of death, and the hope for beauty.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
The final book I’ll mention is another post-apocalyptic story more famous for its recent film counterpart. Written by Richard Matheson, way back in 1954, the book has influenced decades of zombie and vampire literature. Adapted three times, most recently into a film starring Will Smith, the novel depicts Robert Neville - the lone survivor of a vampire bacteria pandemic that has turned everyone else remaining into beings who hunt him nightly, hungry for his blood. As he struggles to make sense of what happened, he spends his days researching the cause of the affliction and hunting down the assailants, and spends his nights guarding himself against encroaching attackers. Slowly he discovers more and more about the vampires he is left alone with - and in doing so, he discovers more about who is, and who isn’t a monster.