And I feel fine: 10 best novels about the end of the world
Fire or ice, makes no difference, suggests Robert Frost. Either will do the job. The end will come not with a bang but a whimper, prophecies T.S. Eliot. Things fall apart, warns W.B. Yeats, anarchy is loosed upon the world. So much for the poets — on to the novelists, who know how to squeeze the juice out of a good apocalypse!
Some people complained that I bummed them out yesterday by writing about Eli Kintisch’s new nonfiction book, Hack the Planet, with its tour of terrifying plans to save the world from global warming by scientists who seem to have no qualms about playing God.
Allow me to make up for that by suggesting a list of 10 books involving either the end of the world, or scientific hubris, or both. In fact, every scientist and engineer on the planet should be compelled to read these books before, say, seeding the ocean with iron in hopes of fostering carbon-chomping algae blooms.
Two observations: We love to scare ourselves to death (and what’s scarier than planet-wide destruction?). And, of course, the world has been ending since the moment it began: Expulsion from the Garden of Eden must have felt like an apocalypse to Adam and Eve (a sense beautifully conveyed by Gioconda Belli in her 2009 novel Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand).
It’s worth noting that the most eagerly awaited novel of the summer (or at least the one we’re being told we should await most eagerly), is Justin Cronin’s The Passage — a vampire rampage novel by a formerly PEN/Hemingway Award-winning serious lierary artiste.
In the eyes of its publisher and marketers, it’s a grown-up and respectable bid to duplicate the success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight franchise. And it has to — Random House ponied up$3.7 million for The Passage and two sequels, according to The New York Times, while Ridley Scott sank $1.7 million into the film rights.
I have to say, advance indications do not prompt optimism. Cronin’s premise of a virus escaping a lab to turn the general population into monsters is beyond cliche (used to best effect in the 2002 zombie film, 28 Days Later).
His idea of vampirism as a communicable disease has already been staked out by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan in last summer’s The Strain, the first in a series of vampire apocalypse novels. And the breathlessly dumb promotional copy on The Passage website doesn’t inspire confidence:
“With The Passage, award-winning author Justin Cronin has written both a relentlessly suspenseful adventure and an epic chronicle of human endurance in the face of unprecedented catastrophe and unimaginable danger.” Holy cow.
Still, as the proof is in the reading, Cronin should be given a chance. It wouldn’t be the first time I approached a touted book with a jaundiced eye, only to be won over. Be warned, though: The Passage clocks in at 766 pages, and it’s only the first in a trilogy.
Meanwhile, here’s my list of the 10 best apocalyptic novels, most dealing with scientific hubris and/or general human folly.
This list is arranged in order of preference — my preference — from 1 to 10:
Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. Why Do Birds, by Damon Knight. Peace on Earth, by Stanislaw Lem. Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke. The Stand, by Stephen King. On the Beach, by Neville Shute. Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller, Jr. I am Legend, by Richard Matheson. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley.
Okay, Frankenstein isn’t apocalyptic, but it’s the granddaddy of all scientific hubris novels. I also have to mention Robert R. McCammon’s short story, “Something Passed By,” which you can find in its entiredy at the author’s website. It’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever read. It haunted me for…well, I read it 20 years ago and I still can’t get it out of my head.
Well, then! Does anyone have a favorite end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it novel to add to my list? Surely….