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The Appeal of Post-Apocalyptic Reading


A few years ago, we put together a list of the best post-apocalyptic fiction. But I’ve been reading more and more of it, and there have been some excellent selections since then, so wanted to look into it again.

What is it that so attracts me to post-apocalyptic fiction as a genre? I’m not sure why I would feel drawn to delve again and again into subject matter that gives me nightmares (and it does), but I suppose there’s no accounting for (even one’s own) taste. And a quick scan of my reading choices over the past 5 or more years shows a definite pull.

It began with my zombie fascination, I suppose. I realize that paints an extremely immature picture, as obsession with a fictional monster as an adult is a bit strange. But there is something so compelling about the idea, even in a repellent, horrific landscape, of death not being the end, and of being forced to use your wits, skill, and luck to survive in a world completely turned upside down. And that last sentiment applies to not only zombies, but also plague, war, aliens, and a host of other catastrophic occurrences best left to fiction. There’s a pull, to that notion of necessity.

I’m clearly not alone, either. There is plenty of post-apocalyptic fiction in mainstream popular culture, zombie and otherwise, not only in books, but also in movies and television. The television series The Walking Dead, which premiered in 2010, is on its 5th season, wildly popular, and still going strong. In the fickle, flash-in-the-pan era of Netflix and piracy, that’s impressive. It’s also probably where my fascination began, when I started reading the original Walking Dead comics in 2003, by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore. I loved them, have kept reading them, and then also read World War Z, by Max Brooks, which is written as a historical account of the world’s downfall (again, zombies) and revitalization. That one was riveting, because it’s written so thoroughly, in such articulate, well-thought out detail, that it makes the entire event feel plausible, despite our rational brains knowing better. It looks at every angle of what would happen, in every corner of the world, in such an event. So those were my first real interest zombies (besides George Romero movie binges), sparked after an interview I read with Kirkman in which he said he loved zombie movies, but that every one ended too soon. His premise for the Walking Dead comics stemmed from his need to see what happened next – how society tried to rebuild; what day to day challenges arose when the main problem of being eaten had been addressed or adjusted to; how a new society would differ from the old in both positive and negative ways, and more.

I think that’s the part that I find the most riveting – the removal of the comforting and restrictive societal rules, norms and institutions that (largely) keep society running (arguably) smoothly.

My first memory of reading something that gave me that feeling was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which I read in the 8th grade as assigned reading. I was horrified by it, and I loved it. The speed with which the schoolboys abandoned their uniforms (and all they stood for) and submitted to their most base and primal inner instincts was shocking, yet didn’t feel unnatural in the book. Are we held in place by so flimsy a barrier? Is there such a thin line separating us from savagery?

In Lord of the Flies, as in The Walking Dead and all other post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve read, the answer is yes and no. Some rise above, to find their best selves revealed in the wake of a disaster, while others have their worst brought out by fear, panic and mob mentality, and sink quickly into cruelty and depravity. Perhaps that’s what draws us to the genre – am I wondering, deep down, what my own true nature is? Am I hoping I’d be a noble leader, a humble hero helping to create a new, better way of life? Or am I afraid that I’m weak, spineless and cowardly, quick to step on others for my own personal gain? It’s an interesting question to think about – when it comes right down to it, what kind of people are we?

I recently finished the complete & uncut edition of The Stand by Stephen King (1153 pages! What a behemoth). I’m not usually a Stephen King fan, particularly in recent years (though I still think Misery is one of the most terrifying novels ever written), but I’d had so many recommendations for it that I caved, and I’m glad I did. I found the earliest parts of the book, when the flu is spreading, to be the most terrifying of the whole book. Many of the elements I’ve found so appealing in other post-apocalyptic fiction were thoroughly expanded upon and even turned into symbolic metaphor. It definitely got a bit hokey at points (okay, a lot hokey), but I still found it very engrossing and interesting, and always appreciate King’s attention to detail. What’s nice, as I realized midway through, is that the very nature of a post-apocalyptic novel helps it to be timeless. The Stand was written 37 years ago, but didn’t feel dated, because all the technology would have been absent anyway. Sure, if you think deeply, it might be conspicuous that nobody mentions missing Facebook or finding a dead cell phone or using the glare off an iPad to start a fire – but who thinks that deeply while engrossed in a good story?

I also recently read Station Eleven by Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel, which I would very highly recommend. Like The Stand, it tells of a frightening, fast-spreading illness (The Georgia Flu, in this case), and the small numbers of survivors who are left behind struggling to survive and make sense of the new world. It also has a very interesting theater and drama bent which made the novel enjoyable on another level. It’s beautifully written, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

If you’re into YA, a really interesting choice I read recently for post-apocalyptic goodness was More Than This, by Patrick Ness. It’s difficult to discuss the novel in detail, as to do so would involve spoiling some of the unusual and unexpected developments therein. It begins with a teenager named Seth, who wakes up in a deserted neighborhood in England and comes to believe he is in hell, or purgatory. The novel follows a surprising trajectory and makes a powerful statement about modernity. It could have come across as preachy, and thankfully, didn’t (I hate that).

What else have I missed over the past few years? Leave a comment and tell me what other post-apocalyptic titles I should explore.


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