Sometimes we need the novelist to provide us with alternative visions of the future. Often it’s the science fiction writer who does this. But there is a odd genre of books that I would call “doomsday” or “post-apocalyptic.” These books stretch our imagination and ask us to envision a world gone haywire. They are certainly entertaining, often enlightening, frequently motivating. Here are five that I’ve read in the last few years. Each plot has a different disaster that precipitates the action: Peak Oil, nuclear holocaust, electromagnetic pulse, economic collapse or pandemic. In each story, not unlike Cuba and Peak oil, communities reform and come together to solve the problems of survival and sustainability.
Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
A highly recommended book in the post-Apocalyptic genre tells the story of a small group of people in a rural Florida town before and after a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. It’s well-written, believable and engaging. I found this book through Survivalblog and the poster claimed that this was the best in its category. Not the best, in my opinion, but a page turner. Focuses on a multi-racial neighborhood group who have the right stuff to survive and prosper. Alas, Babylon was published in 1959 and has sold millions of copies.
Down to a Sunless Sea by David Graham
Following the crash of the US due to Peak Oil and a nuclear holocaust, which is so bad it tilts the earth’s axis, our hero—a British Airlines 797 (sic) pilot—has to fly his crew and passengers out of trouble, finding love and a tropical future in the bargain. This is almost a procedural for pilots and rings with authenticity. A very fun read with a happy ending.
One Second After by William Forstchen
An electromagnetic pulse caused by suspected nuclear explosions high in the atmosphere fries everything electrical. Cars stop. Airplanes fall from the sky. Society unravels. Our hero, a retired Army colonel, now a history professor in a small North Carolina town attempts to cope with the apocalyptic events that follow. The denouement is not particularly original and there’s lots of flag waving and emotional singing, rationing, starving, executions, battle, tears shed over the family dog and love affairs. One Second After, though readable, tries too hard to be a film candidate. As with all the others in this genre is based on the resiliency of community and is generally optimistic about the ability of humans to cope. (Written by a history professor at a small North Carolina college).
World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler
From Publishers Weekly “In this novel, his 10th, (Kunstler) visits a future posited on his signature idea: when the oil wells start to run dry, the world economy will collapse and society as we know it will cease. Robert Earle has lost his job (he was a software executive) and family in the chaos following the breakdown. Elected mayor of Union Grove, N.Y., in the wake of a town crisis, Earle must rebuild civil society out of squabbling factions, including a cultish community of newcomers, an established group of Congregationalists and a plantation kept by the wealthy Stephen Bullock. Re-establishing basic infrastructure is a big enough challenge, but major tension comes from a crew of neighboring rednecks led by warlord Wayne Karp. Kunstler is most engaged when discussing the fate of the status quo and in divulging the particulars of daily life. Kunstler’s world is convincing if didactic: Union Grove exists solely to illustrate Kunstler’s doomsday vision. Readers willing to go for the ride will see a frightening and bleak future.” And, yet, at the end of the book even Kunstler has a positive vision of a community that pulls together.
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
From inside the flap: “A disease of unparalleled destructive force has sprung up almost simultaneously in every corner of the globe, all but destroying the human race. One survivor, strangely immune to the effects of the epidemic, ventures forward to experience a world without man. What he ultimately discovers will prove far more astonishing than anything he’d either dreaded or hoped for.”
This is my all time favorite disaster novel and, actually, would make the list of my all-time favorite books. Some may know Mr. Stewart as the writer of the seminal book on the Donner Party, Ordeal by Hunger. Earth Abides is in a class of its own. Again, it’s all about forming a strong community that works together to pull through.