Wars, pandemic, alien attacks, ecocatastrophe–whatever the cause, apocalypse can be the result, and although I wouldn’t want to live through any of the above, reading a good disaster story always appeals to me. (What does that say about me? Suggestions welcome.) For those of you whose tastes align with mine, here is my personal list of favorites from the book and film world:
The Gate to Women’s Country, Sheri S. Tepper
Set in a post-holocaust world in which the female survivors have taken over most functions of society, essentially banning men from any participation in the rebuilding of civilization. Beautifully written and a powerful message.
Earth Abides, George Stewart
An early (1949) example of the genre. A devastating plague claims most of the world’s population. A survivor in Northern California–young Isherwood Williams–lives through the slow crumbling of civilization that follows. An introspective, thought-provoking tale.
On the Beach, Nevil Shute
If I had to pick one top favorite, this would be it. Shute’s quiet drama of a young Australian naval officer and his family facing the slow but inevitable approach of a radioactive cloud is unforgettable. The movie version is fine, but don’t consider it a substitute.
Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban
Read this years ago and was captivated by the regressive English used by the first-person narrator: “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wild boar he parbly been the last wyld pig on the Bundel Downs…” The novel is set in a Dark Age in which the nuclear war that led to it took place so long ago that the details have passed into mythology. “Adam,” for example, has become “Atom” in this strange new world.
A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Another post-nuclear war story, winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel. The monks of the Order of Leibowitz preserve the surviving remnants of man’s scientific knowledge.
Without Warning, John Birmingham
This stunning disaster novel imagines what would happen to the rest of the world if the United States were essentially wiped off the world map. Told from the points of view of characters such as a combat journalist, a U.S. general stationed in Guantanamo, a covert agent on the trail of terrorists in Paris, and others, the book “merges the gritty realism of Tom Clancy with the raw speculation of Michael Crichton,” says James Rollins. Here’s one part of a video interview with the author (conducted by yours truly) at the 2009 New York City ComicCon.
The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner
In the near future, eco-collapse is well underway. Humanity has irretrievably fouled its own nest. A bleak and despairing book with a powerful message to those who have ears to hear.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
The book I often use to prove to “mainstream readers” that they do, too, have the ability to understand and enjoy science fiction. A theocratic government formed after nuclear/biological attack has killed much of the population and rendered much of the female population infertile.
And two examples from TV and film:
Threads, 1984 BBC television play written by Barry Hines and directed by Mick Jackson depicting the effect of nuclear war on two British familes. Extremely bleak, but extremely powerful.
Miracle Mile, a 1988 film written and directed by Steve De Jarnatt. William Gibson turned me on to this little gem. A young man living in LA picks up a ringing pay phone and learns that a nuclear war has started and he has perhaps 70 minutes before missiles land. Starring Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham.