The End of the World as They Wrote It

Words: Chelsea Haith
Images: Sourced

This is not the book list to end all book lists, nor is it particularly apocalyptic, I’m certain the world will carry on just fine with or without it.  Here then, are five of the novels that deal with the end of the world as we know it. Picking from the modern classics and unknowns to the beginnings of the genre there seems to be little doubt that, however it comes about, the apocalypse is going to be rather unpleasant.

1. The Road – Cormac McCarthy

Some apocalypse novels like to focus on what happens to the planet, the breaking up of continents, the disappearance of Los Angeles into the Earth’s crust, that kind of thing. McCarthy deals with the interior, with the human experience in his classic The Road. Acknowledged as one of the greatest apocalypse novels of all time, the plot follows a man and his son as they try to make it to the sea, where some sort of salvation is supposedly waiting after what is presumed by the reader to be a nuclear meltdown. The depths of human resilience, inhumanity and violence are tropes of McCarthy’s work and the reader does not go wanting in this fine piece of work from the author of No Country for Old Men and Blood Meridian.

2. Then – Julie Myerson

The narrative is jerky and unstable, the narrator is untrustworthy, starving and emotionally damaged – living in an abandoned office building in the middle of London. The characters fade in and out of existence, merging and changing as a group of misfits struggle to survive in the wasteland of a post-apocalyptic London. Battling the eternal winter and each other, trying to retain a semblance of humanity. Myerson has written the narrator and protagonist’s internal conflict ingeniously; she battles with suppressed memories and mental illness in the midst of the end of the world. The plot twist in the final pages is earth shattering!

3. World War Z – Max Brooks

An apocalypse novel would not be an apocalypse without a zombie or two, be it the emotionally dead or real, rotting-flesh, brain-eating walkers. By all accounts the novel is better than the film (unsurprising). Told through a series of first-person accounts of life after a zombie plague given to the United Nations Postwar Commission agent, the novel is a criticism of the incompetence of government (particularly America’s) and digs into philosophical questions about survival and community.

4. Lucifer’s Hammer  – Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle_1977_Lucifer's Hammer-horz
Zombies, disease and man-made nuclear meltdown are the more popular tropes in modern-day apocalyptic fiction. NASA keeps the world alert to the potential of asteroid apocalypse but the scares are usually dismissed, a bit like the boy who cried wolf. In 1977 Lucifer’s Hammer became a cult classic about an asteroid that unexpectedly collides into Earth. Chaos ensues, the environment is damaged, nuclear war breaks out as nations try to protect themselves from one another and society reverts to a feudal system. One evangelist gathers followers and creates a destructive and fanatical religious army. It’s a bit like the history of the world in reverse.

5. The Plague (originally Le Peste)– Albert Camus

Most apocalypse enthusiasts nowadays are interested in zombies and disease because incurable diseases are very much a part of our social concern with the growth in the prevalence of Aids and cancers due to a lack of education and genetically modified food production systems. However, going even further back in time to 1947 we see that writers were interested in the potential of  recurring apocalyptic events like the Black Plague, which was an apocalyptic event in its own right. Camus’ masterpiece Le Peste is a philosophical consideration of the human condition and plays with existential questions as was typical of his work.

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