A More Introspective End of the World: A Reading List of Quiet Apocalypse Books
Jane Hennigan Recommends Rumaan Alam, Kate Sawyer, and More
Apocalypse brings to mind cataclysmic events, often involving Mad Max-esq fighting, cannibalism, and what horrors one must endure, or commit, to survive. I love such stories. I like to imagine that I would survive, thrive even, conveniently forgetting that my life of indoor pursuits, reading, writing, and streaming drama box sets whilst ordering pizza, has probably not provided me with the skills I’d need to navigate a zombie invasion, or rebuild civilization.
So, as an alternative I’ve listed six titles, centering around personal, introspective aspects of the demise of humanity—who would you want there with you on that final day, what it might feel like to watch the final days unfold, and what if the hero can’t save us all?
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
Two families find themselves isolated in a vacation home during an unexplained, possibly global event. Told from the characters’ limited perspectives, with information about the outside world coming from sporadic news reports and unreliable sources, Alam creates a constant state of unease and powerlessness. He then uses the tension to highlight the dynamics of race and class. To add to the tension, an omniscient narrator peppers the story with occasional moments of doom: he’d die there, though that was many hours in the future yet, as the apocalypse creeps up on everyone against a backdrop of eerily domestic moments of paranoia and fear.
The Stranding by Kate Sawyer
The apocalypse unfolds gradually, as a series of environmental disasters lead to societal collapse. The narrative follows Ruth, who seeks refuge in a beached whale carcass, and Nik, who joins her in this unconventional sanctuary. Nature figures highly, as you would expect in a book starting with a beached whale – the focus is on intimate physical aspects—flesh, touch, sex, birth—the reader is repeatedly reminded that we’re denizens of the natural world. A moving story about a woman’s escape from her old life and the strength she needs to forge a new one, emerging from the belly of a whale.
The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay
Andrew and Eric and their adopted 7-year-old daughter Wen, go on holiday to a remote cabin, where they are confronted by four strangers claiming to have been sent to prevent the apocalypse. Exploring the tension between faith and doubt, the family are forced to grapple with the possibility of their actions determining the fate of the world. The strangers become more and more insistent on their bizarre beliefs, and Tremblay traces Andrew and Eric’s journey from incredulity, to dilemma, to despair. I found myself reading faster and faster until the end, dreading the climax but unable to look away. It’s currently being made into a movie and I can’t wait.
Emergency Skin by N.K Jesmin
Emergency Skin is a science fiction short story that tells of an agent who returns to Earth, a planet he believes is uninhabitable because of an environmental apocalypse. However, he soon realizes that all is not as it seems and Earth’s apocalypse was more a beginning than an end. The story explores what it means to be human, how capitalist greed corrupts humanity, and the nature of physical beauty. A satirically clever tale, it packs in more than most full-length novels.
On the Beach by Nevil Shute
A cloud of radioactive dust has killed everyone in the Northern Hemisphere and is now drifting south towards Australia. The pacing is slow. Shute emphasizes the mundane. There is no panicking in the streets, no looting or violent gangs; the characters drift through much of the story in a domestic daze, jolted now and then by the enormity of what they face. On The Beach is dated, and the stoicism could be a consequence of a different generation, yet I found the dignity and quiet of Shute’s post-apocalyptic ‘hiatus’ reassuring–that when facing the end, mankind does not necessarily descend into violent anarchy, but, carries on quietly shrouded in the mundane of everyday living.
When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs
I was eight years old when When the Wind Blows was published. Unwitting grown-ups at the time thought it was a children’s book—it had pictures, after all—and a copy appeared in every school, library, and youth centre in the UK. A brief flick-through might have alerted the adults to the fact that Briggs had crafted one of the most terrifying, powerful and understated pieces of apocalyptic fiction of the twentieth century. The graphic novel follows an aging married couple Jim and Hilda Bloggs as they attempt to ride out a nuclear attack using the guidance of a government-issued leaflet. They slowly come to the realization that their government may not be as organized, dependable, and knowledgeable as they previously believed. My eight-year-old self was suitably traumatized reading how the Bloggs succumb to radiation sickness—polemic apocalyptic fiction at its best.
Moths by Jane Hennigan is available from Angry Robot Books.