Sunday, February 7, 2016

A short review of every post-apocalyptic novel I've ever read.

The other day I was thinking about post-apocalyptic novels, and how many of them I'd read. So I sat down and created a list of as many of them that I've read that I could think of. Then I decided to write a review for them all. Here is that list. I hope people find it interesting. If you think there are any novels that I might have missed, please ask in the comments and I'll add them! And if you think I'm wrong about any of these reviews, let me know, I love arguing about books :-).


The Greats

These are my favorite post-apocalyptic novels. They are not quite in order of very best to best, but rather in the order in which I want to talk about them.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This is, in my mind, the single greatest story about the apocalypse ever written. It's told in three long stories, each following a monk from the same Catholic monestary after the world has all but ended due to nuclear war. The Church is one of the only institutions that wants to keep scientific knowledge alive. Each story follows a different monk, and showcases a struggle they go through to keep some knowledge alive. There are post-apocalyptic politics, strange meldings of Jewish and Catholic mysticism, and one of the most "real" post-apocalyptic worlds you'll read about.

Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson

This is a strange, experimental novel. It's narrated by a woman who is the last woman on Earth for unknown reasons. Having no one to talk to, she goes slowly mad. The book takes the form of her highly literate but definitely crazy first-person ramblings. It's a meditation on how our relationships make us who we are, on art and literature, on loss, on what it is to be human. I highly recommend it to anyone with the stomach for postmodern and/or experimental novels.

Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh

Nearly perfect. Rather than ending with a bang, Will McIntosh (an academic sociologist) shows how the world could slowly turn apocalyptic. Throw in a dash of climate change, a pinch of economic slowdown, and enough time, and before you know it former members of the middle class are wandering the countryside while the richest people live in hyper-futurist enclaves. It's a punk rock story about the world ending with a whimper, following one young man as he tries to make a living and find love in this strange new world. To me, the best insight of the novel was that no matter how bad and strange things get, people are versatile enough to just think of the "now" as normal, as long as change happens slowly enough.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

This is one of those places where I've interpreted "post-apocalypse" broadly. Set on a wandering planet, a world of forever night, after a space ship crash-lands, it tells the tale of the 500 or so 5th generation descendents of the two people on the space ship. They have formed a small tribal community which is pushing against the natural resource limits of the small warm forrest that the live in. While the main character's plot is at times predictable, the setting is incredible and the story of a matriarchal tribe tearing itself apart and becoming a patriarchy was fascinating.

1491 by Charles Mann

"Isn't that non-fiction?" I hear you say. Yes it is. 1491 is a wonderful history book about what the Americas were like before Columbus "discovered" them. One of the most striking elements of the book is how our conception of Indians as "nomadic tribal hunter-gatherers" was not actually true: they were largely civilized, agricultural, stationary polities, even in North America, until Europeans brought diseases that ravaged the native communities in advance of the Europeans themselves. It's estimated that somewhere in the range of 50% to 90% natives died before Europeans even saw them, so in truth the "nomadic hunter-gatherers" lifestyle had more in common with the folks on _The Walking Dead_ than they did with their parents' or grandparents' lifestyles.

Blindness by Jose Saramago

Oh boy, this novel. Blindness is perhaps the most depraved thing I've ever read, which is exactly what it's trying to be. In a small town, people start going blind. First one or two, and soon hundreds of people at a time. The blind are rounded up and put in prison to try to quarantine them. Within days, as more and more people (even outside of the prisons) go blind, society completely breaks down and a brute sort of anarchy reigns supreme. The animal in man is brought out. Rape, murder, and torture become everyday activities. The story is told through the eyes of a woman who doesn't go blind but follows her husband to prison anyway, and who bears witness to the depths that humanity falls to as soon as society ceases to hold power over us. A terrifying novel.

The War Against the Chtorr by David Gerrold

So War Agains the Chtorr is what happens when you cross Soft Apocalypse with Blindness and add plenty of man-eating wormlike aliens and a gonzo, heavy metal attitude. I read this still-unfinished series 15 years ago, and just re-read them, and they hold up just as well. An alien ecology is infesting an Earth reeling from losing 1/2 the population due to massive plagues, and it's up to elite teams of scientist/soldiers to figure out what the fuck is going on. While it sounds like old school scifi fun and games, the books delve into a lot of philosophy and cover a lot of the same ground that _Blindness_ does, asking where our humanity lies and whether we can still keep it as the world around us goes to shit, and the answer probably isn't what we want to hear.

10:04 by Ben Lerner

What is contemporary lit-fic written by a Brooklyn hipster poet doing on this list? Being one of the best-written stories about the modern apocalypse we're currently going through as a species, that's what. A large part of the book is about New York City after hurricanes Irene and Sandy, the reeling feelings we all had after these super-storms straight out of a scifi novel put the city on hold for days and weeks. The sense of "anything is normal while it's happening" comes through strongly. It's also beautifully written and includes some of the best writing on art that I've ever read.

Stand Still. Stay Silent. by Minna Sundberg

A beautifully drawn and lovingly written science fantasy story about a world where the only survivors from a harrowing world-wide plague are small groups of people living in Scandinavia. It's a forever-winter world of the arctic crossed with pagan folk wizards. It's both twee and heavy metal at the same time. Definitely the best web comic I've ever read, up there with the best comics, period.

The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin

A man beats his son to death, and a woman comes home to find his body. Across the world, a powerful mage sick of the enslavement of other mages creates a super-volcano which splits the world's only continent in two. Years before, a young girl is taken from her family to be taught how to wield her power which lets her cause and dampen earthquakes, and another young mage is sent on a month-long mission with a senior mage with whom her mage's society tells her she must procreate, against both their will. These are the four stories that start The Fifth Season, a story of the end of society in a world-ending cataclysm. In a genre which loves its "plucky female protagonists", the lead female character is a human instead of a caricature, a loving mother with revenge in her heart, seeking her husband and remaining daughter across an ash-blown landscape as society reels in the aftermath of the worst earthquake in recorded history. I just finished this novel and loved it so much. I am afraid I don't have many intelligent things to say about it because it's so fresh, but read it read it read it. You'll be glad you did and angry that the next book in the trilogy is not out yet.


The Good

These are all post-apocalyptic novels that I think are worth reading. None of them is a favorite of the genre, but neither do any of them hold fatal flaws that keep me from recommending them. Alphabetical order by last name.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I enjoyed this book, but find I have very little to say about it. The worldbuilding was fantastic if a bit heavy handed, and the story was totally engrossing. I've never really had any desire to pick up the sequels. A solid SF novel written by a literary author, although she does fall into the traps that literary authors tend to when writing SF.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

I don't normally think of this novel as a "post-apocalyptic" story, but as I was compiling this list it became apparent that it actually contains three apocalypses: the first, and the most moving to me, is the death of the Martians themselves, followed by the nuclear war on Earth and the desolation on Mars after. The first apocalypse is, to me, the best explored. "—And the Moon be Still as Bright" + "The Settlers" combined makes one of my favorite short stories of all time, the story of a man who realizes he is complicit in the genocide of a native race and who can't take that realization. The Martian Chronicles is one of the few novels on this list to have internalized the lessons that 1491 teaches: that apocalypse has already happened on this planet, it's just that we don't know it because we were the cause. Other stories set on Mars after most people have gone back to Earth are also good, especially "There Will Come Soft Rains" which is perhaps one of the best stories ever written to feature no characters at all.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The main story in this novel is about an evangelical priest who goes on a missionary trip to a strange new planet. It's a weird book, one that I 100% loved. One of the sub-plots is that the wife of the main character is left on Earth, and he and she can only communicate through faster-than-light emails to one another. As he has a wonderful if strange time on the planet proselytizing to his alien flock, climate change and political unrest get worse and worse back home, leading to some of the emails from her being harrowing stories of her times in a post-apocalyptic world which seemed normal just weeks or months ago (harkening to the themes in Soft Apocalypse). This book is amazing for so many reasons, and only doesn't make the "greats" because it's only the email stories within the story that contain post-apocalyptic elements.

Afterlife by Simon Funk

This is a free, online novel (of which there are several on this list). A man wakes up in a strange world where people are happy and never sick, but from which they can't leave. He dreams of a past life where he was a computer researcher. As time goes on, he realizes that these dreams are more than just nightmares, and that the Earth he knows is long gone, replaced by (spoiler alert!) self-replicating machines which cover the face of the Earth, doing inscrutable tasks—machines which as an AI researcher he laid the foundation for. Really fascinating novel, definitely worth reading.

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

I loved this book, as weird as it was. 1/3rd kung-fu coming of age story, 1/3rd corporate thriller, 1/3rd military apocalypse novel. Harkaway writes an incredibly fast, tight, and entertaining plot, but the speed and entertainment don't hide a lack of intellectualism. Instead, you get great ideas on every page. Great read and lots of fun.

Fine Structure by Sam Hughes

Ultra-dimensional beings fighting to the death take out Earth as a casualty of their conflict. This is the story of what that looks like from our lowly 4-dimensional sight. Strange scientific experiments, super-heros being born stronger and stronger each year, and a series of dystopias and apocalypses. Fun, smart book which was written as a serialized novel and is available for free online.

A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

The 4th of GRRM's A Song of Ice and Fire novels. It takes place after wars have ravaged the countryside of Westeros, and many of the chapters involve the fallout that the average person of this world deals with as a result of the wars that up until now you've only seen through the eyes of the nobles who caused them. While an interesting book from that perspective, it's the weakest of the ASoIaF novels over-all, and would be in the "meh" category if this were just a ranking of Martin's fantasy novels.

Cloud Atlas & The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

These are two very different novels, except each contains one story set in the same post-apocalyptic world (a setting which Mitchell has also visited in some short stories). These books are absolutely wonderful, and deserve to be read. They are only not in the "great" category because the so little of them actually focuses on the post-apocalyptic setting. But seriously, read Cloud Atlas, an experimental postmodern novel which follows six stories in six genres and has some of the best prose work you'll see this side of Nabokov.

Apocalypsopolis by Ran Prieur

I liked this novel, but you could tell the author lost interest part-way through, and the story just sort of trails off rather than ending well. It's in some ways an experiment by the author to write a story of the apocalypse, rather than a post-apocalyptic story, and as he said: that's really hard to do well. However, the novel gets definite points for trying, for having some really creative ideas, and for having some awesome weird Native American shadowlands chapters. Plus, it's free online so the price is right.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

I loved this novel, but based on feedback from my book club, it was a polarizing one. The moon explodes and we realize we have only 3 years before the shards rain hellfire down on Earth, so the whole Earth pitches in building structures in space and sending people up. After the Earth dies, the several hundred people in space slowly whittle themselves down to fewer and fewer due to accidents and politics gone crazy. I really enjoyed the near-future hard science of getting everyone into space and the politics that played out amongst the spacers.

Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance

Fantasy stories sent on a far-future Earth where technology is so advanced that it's actually become magic. These are fantastic adventure stories which don't get nearly enough love amongst genre fans. Vance's prose is astounding and the world he built, of techno-wizards and rogues, is a blast to read about.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

What is easily one of the great 20th Century American novels contained some definitely apocalyptic elements. A "concavity" where Northern New England used to sit where giant babies and herds of feral hamsters run wild. Wheelchair-bound French-Canadian assassins. And a video so wildly entertaining, that anyone who watches it loses all will to do anything else. The novel is dense and rich and rewarding, and Wallace cares about his characters like no other novelist has. It's only here instead of in the "greats" because it's light in terms of being a post-apocalyptic novel.

The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect by Roger Williams

Another free internet novel about AI run amok, although one in which the AI is all-loving, all-caring and still causes the apocalypse. It's short and fun to read (although _really_ gruesome at points), so rather than review it I'm just going to say that you ought to read it, it's fun and totally worth the price.

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Another far-future, Dying Earth book. This, instead of being short stories, is four novels which form a single narrative (not unlike The Lord of the Rings trilogy). The Earth is falling apart under the weight of its own history, and a torturer is kicked out of his guild for showing compassion to a woman under his "care". This book is one of the densest I've ever read, full of puzzles and unreliable narrators. You really have to read between the lines to get what's going on. I had the strange sensation of actively disliking the books while I read all 1000 pages of their intensely dense prose, but loved it in hindsight.


The Meh

Some of these are books I love but which have fatal flaws. Some of them are good books, but not very good post-apocalypse tales. And some of them are awful and shouldn't be read. Happily, I've already figured out which is which for you. Although be forewarned, some of these reviews are not going to be very popular. In alphabetical order by last name.

Nightfall by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg

A novelization of Asimov's wonderful short story by Silverberg. It adds a lot of new content to the end, after the stars come out, which when I read it in high school wasn't all that gripping and created somewhat of an anti-climax after the great reveal that ends the original story. I haven't read it in 15+ years, and am unlikely to again.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

I found the world just too unbelievable here. I have no problem with fantasy or mystical settings, but this was presented as straight SF inside the novel itself. The conceit of "energy is expensive, so we'll use human and animal energy and store it in springs" just doesn't make any sense: it's more expensive for animals to create energy than for an engine to do so, even out of the same fuel. In addition, the plot meandered too much and the only sympathetic character was killed off early on. I know it won the Hugo, but I just didn't like this one.

Nod by Adrian Barnes

A cheap knock-off of Blindness. I wanted this to be so much better than it actually was, as the conceit ("suddenly no one can sleep") was so good. The insomnia, the waking dreams, the slow insanity that not sleeping causes. Such ripe territory to explore! But it just didn't come through, instead going over the same ground that Blindness did while being less well written and less well thought through.

The Painted Man & The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett

I enjoyed The Painted Man well enough, until a graphic and unnecessary rape scene was directly followed by the raped character working out her emotions by having graphic and unnecessary sex with the protagonist. Just a little too close to "wank fantasy" territory for my tastes, and one that is pretty sexist at that. Then The Desert Spear just wasn't as well written or interesting as The Painted Man, so I gave up on the series. I really wanted to love it though, as the setting was great: every night, demons come out of the Earth itself and so humanity only survives huddled in small villages and cities with anti-demon wards painted around them. Really great fantasy setting and world-building but really disappointing characters and story. Happily. The Fifth Season ended up being everything that I wanted The Painted Man to be, and so much more.

World War Z by Max Brooks

I'm pretty so-so on zombies. I love a good b-movie zombie film, but whenever they get taken too seriously I start to yawn and lose interest. Some of the stories here were good, some of them were so-so, but too many of them were just boring. In addition, I'd hoped to see some of the characters show up in multiple stories so you'd see how they changed over time, and that never happened—even with the world changing so much, the characters were all remarkably flat. I know this isn't a character-driven novel, but that's just not something that I enjoy.

The Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher

I read these as a kid and loved them. I have almost no memory of them now, and doubt I'll ever bother reading them again. But hey, I said "every book" and some I'm leaving this shitty review here goddamn it.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Meh. Politicians make kids fight for... reasons? A "strong female protagonist" with no agency, a badass fighter who doesn't actually do any fighting and whose only meaningful choice is which boy she likes (spoiler alert, she doesn't make up her mind). Not my cup of tea.

Wool by Hugh Howey

This is a novel fully based on a twist ending, a twist which was telegraphed from the very beginning and wasn't very well executed even then. Also, the setting is totally unoriginal, why do people harp on about how original it was? Fine Structure lampooned the setting and came up with the same twist, and was published years earlier, and is 100x better writing. Read that instead. Also, Howey is a misogynistic douchebag who treats people horribly. I don't understand why these novels are popular.

Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Another novel I know I read and just don't remember at all. Aliens destroy Earth with kinetic weapons, I think? That was pretty bad-ass. And some people fight back and stuff? I don't know, but The Mote in God's Eye by the same authors was fucking phenomenal so this can't be all that bad right? That's my review, "I don't remember it but it can't be all that bad, right?"

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Yup, I read this whole thing. All 800 pages, 60 of which were a single fucking monologue. That monologue took me almost a week to read, it was so boring. Honestly, I really enjoyed some parts of the novel and Rand had a knack for straw-manning people in a way that really made you hate them, but even in high school I found her philosophy repugnant (still do!) and the novel has too many flaws to be worth reading as literature.

Endymion & Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

These read like bad fan-fiction of the Hyperion novels, which is strange since they were written by the same author.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

I love Vonnegut, and I used to love this novel, but the truth is that it suffers from a number of internal inconsistencies that take me out of the story. In addition, while Bokononism seemed profound to 15-year-old angry atheist me, to 30-year-old Buddhist me it's a little... trite as far as philosophies go. Slaughterhouse 5 is still amazing though.

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

I'm pretty sure I read this one too. I know I listened to the radio play on tape as a kid, because my grandfather would send me a bunch of old scifi radio plays every year. I loved that shit, Dimension X especially. You can find a bunch of them, including Dimension X, on these days. They're a treat to listen to. But I don't actually remember much about this novel that isn't filter through the radio play and the two different movie adaptations that I've seen, so this final review is going to be a little bit anti-climactic.