Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Why I Love Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

I'm having a little blog identity crisis. So many people review each book they read, but I already do that over in GoodReads and don't want to repeat myself. Besides that, I like to write little blurby reviews, and blogs seem to demand a lot more of me. (If you read this, I'd like to know if you think posting individual book reviews both places is redundant).

On to the subject at hand - post-apocalyptic fiction. I am actually a pretty upbeat, optimistic person, but one of my favorite sub-genres of literature is full of death and destruction, bloating bodies and decay, war and sickness, and so on. But hold on - I specify post-apocalyptic because to me that refers to stories told about the "after." I love all the ideas that authors have come up with as to how society would be recreated once it is destroyed. It can be an interesting commentary on what really matters, what could arguably need to be disposed of anyway, and the danger of returning ourselves right back to where we were before. I know the line is slim sometimes between post-apocalyptic and dystopian literature, but then again, not really. Most post-apocalyptic fiction revolves around a specific event - it can be nuclear, it can be medical, it can be political, but definitely something that happened that can be pinpointed and marked with a before and after.

I wouldn't say I've read everything in this genre, but practically. I most recently finished The Stand by Stephen King. It often tops post-apocalyptic lists, but I was avoiding it because of a previous bad reading experience with him (Insomnia not being the best place to start). I finally buckled down and read it in a few days when I was home sick with a cold. Of course, since the virus in The Stand that kills almost everyone in the world manifests just like a cold, you could argue that this may not have been the best reading material. And I've had dreams inspired by the book every night since I started reading it. To me, that just speaks to how good it is. The characters are interesting, his descriptive power is obvious (to a fault, as I can still pretty much smell rotting bodies in my head, ugh), and the twist of the battle of good and evil makes for a slightly supernatural bent. I'm happy to take back what I said about King before, and say that this belongs on the list of the best of post-apocalyptic writing. I read the revised and expanded edition, but honestly it could have been even longer. I wanted to know more about what happened after the end.

So if The Stand is on my list, what else would be? I definitely have opinions on this.

First, a collection of short stories called The Wastelands, compiled and edited by John Joseph Adams. I was actually pointed toward this when I was the (lucky) librarian for a course called Apocalypse and Unrest in Contemporary Media, and it fueled the fire. Not only are the stories fantastic and varied, there is a great list in the back of post-apocalyptic novels that I added to my reading list. The stories that have stuck with me even two years later are Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels by George R. R. Martin and When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth by Cory Doctorow. Not to mention the ending of Bread and Bombs by M. Rickert.

Short stories are a great way to explore an idea, but they lack the world development that I enjoy so much in the longer form of a novel. My favorites include Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, which has a fascinating story of a woman who ends up leading a new religion in the aftermath. It is followed by the sequel of Parable of the Talents. The reason these so captured me was the re-creation of society. I would love to re-read these sometime soon.

My other favorites have to be the MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood, even though the third book isn't out yet. Oryx and Crake entertwines with The Year of the Flood and portray a post genetic engineering, post environmental destruction, post sweeping plague nation. It isn't quite to the rebuilding stage, as the wacky cult of God's Gardener's predates the "flood" and tries to survive past it, but you definitely get a sense that the time might be past for humanity, even though some still survive. I love Atwood's humor, her criticism of society, and her unethical characters. It somehow translates to a believability that doesn't come across many other places.

I'm sure some people reading this are shocked I don't include some other titles on my list. I've read Alas, Babylon but you could argue that it is more of a pre-apocalypse book, they just know it is coming. Earth Abides didn't capture me as much as some of the others, but I like how it portrays the earth-as-champion, over the destructive temporary humanity. I read the first of the S. M. Stirling series, Dies the Fire, but it came across to me as the fantasy of every D&D player, to prove that there was always a reason to study medieval weaponry... I found it tiring. I wouldn't even include The Road on my list, just because I thought the sparseness left too much to be desired. I know most would disagree with me on that one.

There are still some left I haven't read and have been saving for a rainy day - A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I've heard has some humor in it, and the graphic novel series Y: The Last Man.


  1. I didn't really enjoy the Stand, but then I read the unabridged version on the recommendation of a big fan and for me it could have been edited down a bit. I do find post-apocalyptic ideas interesting though.

    I only post reviews on my blog, not goodreads/library thing. I personally would not want to do both.

  2. You already know how much I also love this genre. Y the Last Man is great, though I need to reread the series to figure out how I feel about the end. I'm glad for the recs since so much of what I read is ya dystopia/post-apocalypse.

  3. In answer to your question regarding book reviews, I think a good solution could be to give a list of new reviews (if any) you have written at the beginning or end of your blog posts with links leading back to your reviews at goodreads.

  4. Jeff has a good solution. I think The Stand was the first Stephen King book I read, and I enjoyed it. I've always had a tough time with his dialogue. I think he suffers from the same thing that ills George Lucas. He writes like nobody talks. Getting back to the topic... Y: The Last Man to me was a little over-rated, but them I'm not really a post-apocalyptic fiction fan. So maybe I'm just not the target audience. I also happened to love The Road, which I guess makes perfect sense. ;)


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