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And I feel fine: 10 best novels about the end of the world

June 2, 2010

Jusin Cronin: Is this man scary?

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….

24 Comments leave one →
  1. emma t. permalink
    June 2, 2010 1:15 pm

    Glad to see you included The Stand, which literary snobs often exclude from their own lists but have secretly read and loved) and Oryx and Crake (which I have not read but is at the top of my list). But what of The Road? Did you find its diction to biblical? Please comment, Mr. Mabe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 2, 2010 4:51 pm

      I have not read The Road and therefore cannot endorse it. I disliked No Country for Old Men so much (and All the Pretty Horses, in retrospect, only slightly better) and thus may never be able to read Cormac McCarthy again. But from what I’ve read about the book, it certainly seems like a dandy end-of-the-world-and-there-is-no-hope-we’re-all-going-to-die-like-degraded-animals kind of thing. Did you like it? By the way, I have no prob with biblical diction, if well rendered.

      I also haven’t read Jose Saramango’s The Blind, Andre Norton’s Star Man’s Son, Rene Barjavel’s Ravage, or Lucifer’s Hammer, by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, and James Howard Kuntsler’s World Made By Hand for the same reason: Haven’t read em.

      I left out Wells’ The War of the World because of its happy ending, and Day of the Triffids, John Windhams seminal “cozy catastrophe” just barely didn’t make my list. Lots of books fit in this discussion, both genre and literary.

  2. AbcAnarchy permalink
    June 2, 2010 1:24 pm

    I love how relevant Frankenstein has become in the past few weeks. Good job.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 2, 2010 4:57 pm

      Thank you. In my mind, Frankenstein has always been relevant, at least beneath the cultural encrustations that have built up, through no fault of Shelley’s upon it.

  3. Tommy Smart permalink
    June 2, 2010 1:31 pm

    Don’t call me Shirley.

    Apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic?

    “Good Omens” by Gaiman and Pratchett in the Apocalyptic category. I mean, the world will end on a Saturday, Next Saturday, in fact, A missing Anti-Christ, a dog named Dog, demonically inspired highway interchanges, The Nice and Accurate Prophesies of Agnes Nutter. Does it get better?

    Also, “War of the Worlds”, not the greatest book, but the first of many that I would read and frighten me.

    In post-Apocalyptic:
    I second “The Stand”, Trashcan Man, M-O-O-N that spells moon, and the eagles roadie.

    Also, “Earth Abides” by Stewart needs mentioning.

    In conclusion, everything ends or is changed beyond recognition, so don’t sweat it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 2, 2010 5:02 pm

      Good Omens is a good time, but it’s to cheerful to be scary. It’s kind of like Monty Python’s view of crucifixion: All together now! “And…always look on the bright side of life…
      Always look on the light side of life… ” Ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum-ta-dum-ta-dum-ta-dum!

      Extra points for mentioning George R. Stewart..

  4. John Karwacki permalink
    June 2, 2010 2:58 pm

    Loved “Childhood’s End”, but the “Foundation” books by Assimov tweaked my quantum geek-o-meter like no other sci-fi ever has; although, I can’t remember if Earth is even part of that equation. The King James version of St John’s Revelation is pretty damn hairy too. “Fire and Ice” is an amazing little poem, glad you referenced it. How about “Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy”, does making room for a cosmic hiway count in this contest? What about “Lucifer’s Hammer” by Larry Niven, light years better than “Armagedeon” but basically an asteroid hits earth tale. Why are we, as a race, so set on killing ourselves off in fiction? And in reality? Excuse me while I go slap a self igniting fish on the grill.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 2, 2010 5:05 pm

      Hitchhiker’s Guide doesn’t make my list because, like Good Omens, it’s doomsday scenario is just too damned cheery. Extra points, though, for mention of John the Revelator, whose Apocalypse cannot be beaten with a stick, especially in the KJV. The final chapter of Childhood’s End is one of the scariest things I’ve read.

      We cook up doomsday books for the same reason children like scary fairy tales — they offer a safe way to discharge our deepest anxieties.

  5. Candice Simmons permalink
    June 2, 2010 3:20 pm

    Apolcalypse and Vampires? Together? Wow!!!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 2, 2010 5:06 pm

      Vampyre Apocalypse! There’s the title of a sure-fire bestseller. Or a new emo band, I don’t know which.

  6. rachel permalink
    June 2, 2010 3:31 pm

    I really enjoyed “Cat’s Cradle” and while I have not read “Oryx and Crake” I have read “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Can’t this be substituted? I loved it. It scared me. And it changed the way I think about the world, or the end of it.

    “Fire and Ice” is one of those poems whose lines often come back to me like a song’s.

    I really enjoyed a book published a few years ago called “Birmingham, 35 Miles” by James Braziel. Good. And frightening.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 2, 2010 5:07 pm

      Yes, the Handmaid’s Tale may be substituted. Oryx and Crake scares me more because I fear bio-engineering and genetic manipulation. So very, very much.

  7. Candice Simmons permalink
    June 2, 2010 3:36 pm

    How about “A Clockwork Orange’?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 2, 2010 5:09 pm

      Very interesting suggestion. The world doesn’t end, but it does have a pronounced and gloomy post-apocalyptic mood to it. Outstanding book.

      Also Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban, another post-apoc novel with a credible made up language.

      I might also include The Lord of the Rings, which is very much a novel of doomsday narrowly averted.

  8. Connie permalink
    June 2, 2010 6:05 pm

    I’ve been a little worried about the hype for The Passage, but 50 or so pages in and I have to say it’s got me curious. Although the fact that it’s part of trilogy makes me very, very tired.

    I don’t read a lot of post apocalyptic novels because they scare the bejesus out of me, but I really liked Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, which is kind of a companion to Oryx and Crake. Love her oh-so-dry sense of humor. Refused to read The Road, but the movie freaked me out. And while I loved most of The Stand I have to say, the end was lousy…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 2, 2010 10:22 pm

      Surprisingly I’m in agreement with almost everything you say, Connie, including the cheesefest that ends The Stand. But it’s good for a long ways. I haven’t read The Year of the Flood, but Oryx and Crake unsettled me profoundly. I refused to see The Road, even though Aragorn was the star…I do like doomsday and post-apoc novels. They confirm my most pessimistic fears…

  9. June 2, 2010 7:58 pm

    I was forced to read “Alas, Babylon” for a high school English class. The world as we know it ends in a nuclear war. But I don’t know if it counts because the survivors all end up happier and better off then before the explosions. Did I mention that I hate the book?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 2, 2010 10:24 pm

      Yeah, I didn’t care for that one much, either. Self-improvement through nuclear holocaust.

  10. Tommy Smart permalink
    June 2, 2010 10:19 pm

    Under the heading unsolicited opinion: I do not like the updated look. The link to read the comments is at the bottom of the blog now, and the sidebars lack a border making them all flow together.

    Content is still first class.

  11. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    June 2, 2010 10:25 pm

    Noted. I had nothing to do with these changes. Generally, I say: Change is bad. With rare exceptions.

  12. June 3, 2010 8:25 am

    The endless end. Of course. One cannot ask for more.

    Thank you much Chauncey.

    Not quite the end, but a book I love: At the End of the World We Learn to Dance, by Lloyd Jones

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 3, 2010 10:35 am

      David, many thanks for the recommendation. I’ve heard of Jones, but have not read his book.

  13. June 3, 2010 12:02 pm

    I highly recommend Jose Saramago’s Blindness & Cormac’s The Road, both riveting page-turners that leave a haunting sense of apocalyptic foreboding that doesn’t let go long after you’ve put either book down. Saramago’s style takes some getting used to, but if you stay with it you’ll find the groove and realize how perfect his stylistic choice is. Same with Cormac M’s style choice for The Road, bare bones brilliant. R.A. Rycraft swears by the new Atwood offering The Year of the Flood. She’s ordered it for her fall literature class.

  14. johnny b permalink
    June 3, 2010 1:48 pm

    Mr. Mabe, can’t seem to find the link to post about 10 best Arab Novels, but I would definitely add Naguib Mahfouz’s unforgettable The Beginning and The End, and the haunting Camus-esque short novel, The Thief and the Dogs.

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