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A dystopia — a oppressive, totalitarian, or otherwise undesirable society — represents an end as well, an end to the type of society we have envisioned and tried to create in the so-called real world. In that sense, dystopias represent a type of apocalypse, an end of the world as we know it. (Here’s a longer analysis of the differences among the sub-genres.)
I will be listing individual books with notes, but to get started, here are the most essential dystopian reads. It represents a cross-section of types of dystopias aimed at children, teens, and adult readers. If you’ve never tried this genre, this a good place to start.
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
- A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
- Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding
- The Children of Men by P.D. James
I will be listing books individually with notes, but first here is a list of just the essential reads. If you’re new to the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction, this is where to start. This list gives a good cross-section of types of post-apocalyptic books, with examples from science fiction, horror, and mainstream writers.
- A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
- The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
- Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
- The Postman by David Brin
- On the Beach by Nevil Shute
- World War Z by Max Brooks
- The Stand by Stephen King
- Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
- The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
- Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
- Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
- Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler
Here’s a playlist for the end of the world:
- David Bowie, “Five Years”
- Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction”
- Blue Oyster Cult, “Don’t Fear the Reaper”
- Bob Dylan, “All Along the Watchtower”
- Coldplay, “A Rush of Blood to the Head”
- Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Bad Moon Rising”
- Crosby, Stills and Nash, “Wooden Ships”
- Crowded House, “Don’t Dream It’s Over”(because of that scene in The Stand miniseries)
- Morrissey, “Everyday Is Like Sunday”
- Neil Young, “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “The Weeping Song”
- Nick Drake, “Pink Moon”
- Peter Gabriel, “Here Comes the Flood”
- Pink Floyd, “Two Suns in the Sunset”
- Prince, “1999”
- Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter”
- Ryan Adams, “Afraid Not Scared”
- Sisters of Mercy, “Black Planet”
- Steeley Dan, “King of the World”
- Talking Heads, “Swamp”
- TV on the Radio, “Staring at the Sun”
- White Stripes, “Seven Nation Army”
Why do we enjoy imagining such a horrific event as the demise of most of humankind? We never seem to tire of books, movies, TV shows and music about the post-apocalypse. While not many of us would like actually experiencing the apocalypse, imagining it is a cathartic fantasy.
Who hasn’t fantasized about starting all over again from a completely clean slate? Walking away from your family, friends and stuff, moving to a new place, perhaps even changing your identity. Just starting from zero. The post-apocalypse is that fantasy writ large. It’s not just you starting over, it’s the whole human race.
Also, the apocalypse provides a neat solution to the overwhelming problems that face us today. Such issues as climate change, overpopulation, scarce resources, poverty, epidemics and never-ending violence are overwhelming to us as individuals, when we feel we can’t do much about these global problems. The apocalypse — usually caused in some way by these problems — is also the universal solution to them. In one fell swoop, the number of people is reduced to a manageable number. No more climate change because no more pollution. And unless they were destroyed in the event, resources become plentiful. Depending on who is killed off, such pervasive problems as violence and even disease might be ended. Humanity gets the chance to start over and not make the same mistakes this time.
Finally, the post-apocalypse is an individual fantasy of the ultimate challenge. What would I do if the world ended and I survived? How would I react? How would I deal with the new problems I would have? Would raising my own food be a better deal than having to go to a soul-sucking job at an office every day? (Perhaps.) It’s the greatest “what if” situation, one we may never get tired of contemplating.
As is the norm, I’m sure that if the apocalypse actually did occur, it would be both nothing like and very similar to what we’ve already imagined it to be.
The Boston Globe also has an article wondering why we are so fascinated with the apocalypse in books and movies. It gives a bit of a retrospective of the apocalypse envisioned in film over the years.
We have so many ways to end civilization now that we’ve had to break them down into sub-categories. Here are the types of apocalypses we might expect:
- hard apocalypse — “The living will envy the dead” (The Road, Mad Max, Terminator)
- soft apocalypse — It’s over, but it still goes on (Alas, Babylon, World Made by Hand, Earth Abides)
- happy apocalypse — It might be over, but now we’ve got something better (Always Coming Home, Ecotopia, and various other utopias)
- cozy catastrophe, where apparently you get to ride out the apocalypse in a comfortable country house (The Day of the Triffids)
“Welcome to the Soft Apocalypse” lists media that you might enjoy if you favor the middle ground.