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Apocalyptic Fiction: The Literary End of Things

Friday, December 4, 2009

I recently developed an obsession with apocalyptic fiction.

It seems like the newest fad in movies, TV, and books (right behind vampires), but I’ve always been interested in the “what-ifs” of the apocalypse. What if there was only martial law? What if the limited constraints of our society fell away all at once? Do you have an apocalypse action plan? I’m working on mine. I consider it to be good preparation just in case.

Here are a few of the many fiction books on the subject right now. I’m attempting to make this spoiler-free so people will actually want to read the books after reading this post, but if anyone has read them and wants to comment and get into an in-depth discussion of the merits or idiocy of any book on the list, please do!




One Second After by William R. Forstchen

After a mysterious nuclear device detonates over the United States, the electrical grid of the nation is fried, leading to mass devastation and chaos. A history professor in North Carolina is among the first to recognize the extent of the catastrophe, and he begins the agonizing and almost unfathomably complicated process of triage, seeking to end the bedlam. While the book has some elements of a common thriller, the focus is more on documenting and detailing our dangerous reliance on technological systems which are so extensive that they actually remain hidden.”

I read this over a weekend at the cottage, and was completely fascinated by the idea that a nuclear bomb could cause an EMP that would effectively put us back to the Stone Age. This book falls into my favourite category of apocalyptic fiction, which is set on the EVE of APOCALYPSE! as opposed to years in the future.

This book is brutal and beautiful at the same time. The book is well written, and you get emotionally involved in the story, specifically with the main character. I think it’s scarily realistic of what would happen in these dire circumstances. The author actually wrote the book as a warning for people and government that this kind of attack could actually happen. The book was cited by the American Congress as a book “all Americans should read.” The pentagon also considers it a realistic portrayal of what would actually happen. And it’s just a great read, all in all.

Did I cry? – Hell’s yeah. There is more than one incredibly sad scene.

Recommend? – Highly. This was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It will keep you thinking a long time afterward. Mostly about how you might want to start stocking up on essential supplies.

Interesting Notes – This, like many books on this list, is also being developed as a movie by Warner Bros. I desperately hope they stay true to the book. If so, it will be a phenomenal movie.




On the Beach by Neville Shute

“Following the war, a radioactive cloud begins to sweep southwards poisoning everything in its path. An American submarine captain is among the survivors left sheltering in Australia, preparing with the locals for the inevitable. Despite his memories of his wife, he becomes close to a young woman struggling to accept the harsh realities of their situation. Then a Morse code signal is picked up and the submarine must set sail through the bleak ocean to search for signs of life.”

I think really this book is mostly about how people deal with impending death, and discovering what’s most important to you. Unlike the other books on the list, this is the most civilized end of the world scenario ever. Maybe it’s an Australian thing. There’s not a lot of societal breakdown. No one’s really fighting to survive; it’s more of a philosophical look at how one might spend the last few months of life. I’m not sure if I find it to be realistic. I just don’t think people would actually handle “the end” this well. But I think this comes from the time period in which the book was written. Published in 1957, and set 5 years in the future, I think the values of society then were in a much better place than they are today. On the Beach was written during the Cold War when nuclear holocaust was a legitimate worldwide concern, and the author did research into what the effects of a nuclear war would actually be. Despite the lack of crazy, the characters are all very realistic and you will have no trouble relating to them 50 years later.

Did I Cry? – Yes. This book certainly isn’t happy. But it is a great book.

Recommend? – Absolutely. This book was a best seller and a critical success. Shute is considered by some to be the father of apocalyptic fiction. Neville Shute is referenced by characters in Cell. Way to honour your predecessors King, that was a nice touch.

Interesting Notes – In 1959 it was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. It was the first full-length American movie to premiere in the Soviet Union. That’s kind of a big deal considering the plot content.

It was remade in 2000 as a made-for-TV movie starring people I’ve never heard of, and set in the present day.




The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy sets his new novel, The Road, in a post-apocalyptic blight of gray skies that drizzle ash, a world in which all matter of wildlife is extinct, starvation is not only prevalent but nearly all-encompassing, and marauding bands of cannibals roam the environment with pieces of human flesh stuck between their teeth. If this sounds oppressive and dispiriting, it is. McCarthy may have just set to paper the definitive vision of the world after nuclear war, and in this recent age of relentless saber-rattling by the global powers, it’s not much of a leap to feel his vision could be not far off the mark nor, sadly, right around the corner.”

This was just released as a movie starring the amazing Viggo Mortenson. I saw it, and having read the book, was not really that impressed. The cinematography is great (albeit bleak) and the acting is top notch. But there’s something about Cormac McCarthy’s writing style in this book – the limited dialogue somehow pulls you in with the characters even though you’d think it would be the opposite, and the lack of punctuation and bare-bones writing style really make you feel like you’re experiencing a bleak and sparse world. The movie doesn’t really accomplish it with the same success. I’d say watch the movie, enjoy it, and then read the book. When there are two options, always opt for the better of the two last. This usually means reading the book after watching the movie. If anyone can come up with an example of a movie that was better than the book, let me know.

Did I Cry? – Not really. It’s sort of bleak and dramatic the whole way through, so you’re sort of all emotional all the time. Usually when I cry in a book it’s because something happens that I’m not expecting. With this book you expect things to be bleak and awful, and things are bleak and awful. But the book is also about the hope that remains when everything else seems lost, and that’s one of the reasons this book really touches you, despite its content.

Recommend? – This book is really, really good. It’s an absolute must read. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner! I also give major kudos to Oprah for making this one of her Oprah Book Club selections. She’s introducing a lot of people to a book I think they normally would never have read otherwise.

Interesting Notes – I firmly believe that Robert Duvall will get an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the old man in the film adaptation. He wouldn’t win, but he deserves to be nominated. Also, a particularly hellish scene was cut from the movie, but still offers one actor an IMDB listing I’m not sure he should be altogether proud of. Picture him calling mom and dad to tell them the good news about this role..





Cell by Stephen King

WHERE WERE YOU ON OCTOBER 1ST AT 3:03 P.M.? Graphic artist Clay Riddell was in the heart of Boston on that brilliant autumn afternoon when hell was unleashed before his eyes. Without warning, carnage and chaos reigned. Ordinary people fell victim to the basest, most animalistic destruction. And the apocalypse began with the ring of a cell phone….”

That about sums it up. I’m throwing Cell in here because I read it around the same time as the others, and I really did enjoy it. I’m a little ashamed of it though because the tagline on the paperback edition is “Your Number is Up!” which is just awful. The hardcover cover is slightly less bad. Still bad though.

This book began wonderfully, and then turned into something really strange but also compelling. It’s a good mix of edge of your seat (or page maybe?) feelings of fear and danger, and then a slow creep-up of psychological horror.

Did I cry? – Yes. People die, and it’s sad because King has the magic touch with characters. There’s a reason he’s a rich bastard after all.

Recommend? – For sure, if you’ve got the time. This would be the last book on the list I would recommend, however. If you’ve got to read some King, also read The Long Walk because it’s actually fantastic, likely owing to the fact that it was published before King got famous, rich, and lazy.

Interesting Notes – Was almost a movie directed by Eli Roth, but he dropped out of the project. Now it’s rumoured to be a mini-series directed by John Harrison. Could be good. Could be terrible. Like most King adaptations, it won’t be mediocre but will be either really good (Shawshank Redemption, The Shining) or just plain awful (Dreamcatcher).



Up next, my sojourn into the best of mountaineering non-fiction, including Into Thin Air and Alive.


17 Comments leave one →
  1. Monday, December 7, 2009 12:25 am

    Interesting that you included a Cry-o-Meter — I don’t think I’ve ever cried at a book, and I rarely have much of an emotional reaction to a book; for me I mostly stay on the cerebral level, thinking about how the author is constructing the story as opposed to feeling bad about the characters.

    The Long Walk is one of my favourite of King’s.

    I haven’t read any of these books, but one problem I might say they — or, at least, the genre — encounter(s) is repetitiveness. Cell is like The Happening is like I Am Legend is like Dollhouse is like etc.

    So maybe the ones that go for a more philosophical/emotional take on it would be the better ones to read/watch. Because otherwise it’s just ‘kill or be killed’ basically all the time.

    • tgjkennedy permalink
      Monday, December 7, 2009 12:33 am

      I’m a big marshmallow, and judge books based on whether they can make me care enough to cry. Good books usually do.

      The Road is totally kill or be killed, but the others not so much. On the Beach is completely the opposite of what you’d expect in the apocalyptic genre. I think One Second After also focuses on things differently… Most movies I’ve seen in the genre are basically the same, though. There are not a lot that spring to mind that really stand out…

      • Monday, December 7, 2009 12:42 am

        I will add One Second After to my mental list. And my Facebook list.

        • Tuesday, December 8, 2009 1:13 pm

          I guess I’m in the same camp as Tanya on the whole crying thing. And that would be Camp Marshmellow. The last few pages of To Kill A Mockingbird left tears streaming down my face. Same with A Prayer for Owen Meany. And there’s a story we read to Zoe about a grandmother pig who dies, but not before passing on her pearls of wisdom to her young, grandaughter pig. That one is difficult to soldier through without wimpering.

          Of the books on this list, I have read On the Beach, only after I saw the movie. I can’t remember if I cried reading the book (I probably did), but the movie definitely leaves me a blubbering fool.

          • tgjkennedy permalink
            Tuesday, December 8, 2009 7:49 pm

            It’s definitely on my “to rent” list… Hope it’s as good as the book!

  2. Tuesday, December 8, 2009 12:02 am

    The only one I’ve read on this list is The Road, and I concur: damn fine. I don’t think I’ve ever busted a tear at a book, though I choked up a might at the end of this one, despite the fact that its wall-to-wall bleak from page one on should have numbed my already-pretty-darn-numb emotional core.

    I liked the movie, too — choked up at the same part — and the Carpathian and Duvall were both A+. Not as good as the book, but I definitely did not go in expecting it to be; actually, considering its release had been delayed by a good year or so, I was prepared for disaster. I got disaster, ’cause that’s what the story’s all about, you know, but it was good disaster. Its voice over was not at all needed, however.

    And just last night I finished the last book (number 10 of 10) of the comic series Y: The Last Man. Very interesting, original post-apocalypse fiction. Spontaneously, every mammalian male on Earth dies, save for Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand. The series spans years as he tries to survive and women try to rebuild the world.

    Its very on-the-nose dialogue was hard to take at first, and its goofy sense of humour needed a few issues to grab me, and its plotting is not always 100% sensible, but as a whole, and in certain places, it’s pretty great. And it sticks the landing it had been building up to in the five-plus years of its monthly comic publication (late 2002 – early 2008), which was a really nice relief.

    I bought the 10 books at a semi-relaxed pace over the last year-and-a-bit (according to my Amazon history, I bought book 2 in the same order that I bought The Road), and now that I’m done, I’ve got that I’m-gonna-miss-these-guys feeling you get when one of your favorite TV or film franchises comes to an end.

    And movies that were better than the book. One at a time, people. I’ll start:

    Fight Club is a good, smart, fast & fun book that became a surprisingly faithful movie, and also a better movie.

    • Tuesday, December 8, 2009 3:18 am

      Movies better than the book — collaborative post?

      Or on-going comments discussion?

      • tgjkennedy permalink
        Tuesday, December 8, 2009 7:50 pm

        Collaborative post for sure! But it might have to be Movies vs. Books, since I think the worst and the best deserve equal coverage.

        • Tuesday, December 8, 2009 10:32 pm

          But that’s probably been done before, no? If we focus specifically on movies that were better than the books they were based on, that might be more unique?

          Just positing.

          • tgjkennedy permalink
            Wednesday, December 9, 2009 2:08 pm

            I’m just worried I won’t be able to come up with examples…

  3. Wednesday, December 9, 2009 9:50 pm

    ^ I’ve already thought of a few.

    • tgjkennedy permalink
      Thursday, December 10, 2009 12:25 am

      Alright, let’s go for it then. I’ll have to look at my bookshelf for a while, followed by a long look at my dvd shelves.

      • tgjkennedy permalink
        Thursday, December 10, 2009 12:25 am

        Ooh I already have two examples! :)

  4. Thursday, December 10, 2009 10:10 am

    Does Harry and the Hendersons count even if it was never a book?

    • Thursday, December 10, 2009 10:52 am

      No — but I’m going to want you to tackle The English Patient.

  5. Thursday, December 10, 2009 12:43 pm

    But he’s so weak, and frail…

    And I also see the AV Club has made a list of the top 50 films of the 00’s…and you all know what that means! Oh yes, my friends…the ever popular deconstruct a list made by people far cooler and who actually get paid to write about movies, er, list.

  6. Friday, March 5, 2010 11:51 am

    Just saw The Road. Decent. Actually more ‘other people’ and more gruesome than I was expecting. And yeah, there’s definitely something wrong with it — having not read the book I’m not sure what, but it just seemed a bit too — ‘just so,’ if you know what I mean.

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