I’ve just finished watching the HBO adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s wonderful novel Station Eleven. I thought it was quite good, although—typically, for me—I thought the book was much better.
In both book and TV series, a pandemic that wipes out nearly all humans on earth happens in midwinter, and that’s a smart artistic choice, since winter can be so stark and forbidding but also makes us appreciate spring when it comes. I’m a fan of postapocalyptic fiction, and I think that’s one reason why: it helps me appreciate the gifts I have now—both major ones like family and friends and minor ones like hot coffee and hot baths!—and it reminds me that hope can endure even after tragedy and hardship. A good thing to remember as we continue to navigate Covid-19; a good thing to remember in general.
For this reason, I like the kind of postapocalyptic story that features some hope and even some joy. (I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a few years ago, and while like all of McCarthy’s books it’s well written, it was so desperately dark that reading it, for me, was like some kind of punishment!) Here are a few I have enjoyed and can recommend:
The Stand, by Stephen King: I like King's early work much more than his recent work. (The Shining, for instance, I consider to be a literary masterpiece.) The Stand is an early one, and it’s full of fascinating themes and strong character development. Usually I think King tends to use ten words when three would do, but in this case, I recommend the unabridged version, which adds immeasurably to King’s clever world-building.
World War Z, by Max Brooks: Zombie novel? Sure. But it’s so much more than that. At its heart is a profound meditation on culture, geopolitics, and what we, as humans, owe one another. If you saw the silly adaptation with Brad Pitt, don’t let that deter you from reading the novel; the only similarity is the title. (Brooks must have been bemused at what Hollywood did to his book!)
I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson: Here’s another book that didn’t fare too well in its Hollywood adaptation. Matheson’s modern vampire tale is more morally ambiguous than the recent film, and because of that, it's much more emotionally involving. It’s also a lot scarier than the movie! Nobody’s ever been better at creating a deep feeling of unease in the reader than Matheson was. (He often wrote for The Twilight Zone, and his submissions, including “Little Girl Lost,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” and “The Invaders,” were some of the series' best.)
The Plague, by Albert Camus: Though set (and published) in the 1940s, The Plague was based on a nineteenth-century epidemic in the Middle East. It’s interesting to see the many striking parallels between the history, Camus’s take on it, and the course of the Covid-19 epidemic today.
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler: This is the first book of Butler’s Earthseed series, and it features a winning young protagonist and a lot of great, detailed world-building. Butler’s books are challenging, in the best way; during and after the reading of one, your thoughts will linger on the story, the characters, and the lessons learned. (While we’re on the subject of Octavia E. Butler, try the absolutely searing Kindred; it’s short, but it really packs a punch.)
Any books in this genre you’d like to suggest, let me know; I’m always looking for ideas!
Stay warm, everybody. Spring will be here soon.