M.R. Carey Recommends 5 Apocalyptic Novels
Mike Carey, author of The Girl with All the Gifts and The Boy on The Bridge, knows a thing or two about creating gripping dystopian fiction. Here he rounds up some of his favourite apocalyptic reads exclusively for Waterstones.
All genres grow and change along with their readers. A small sub-set of those readers, after all, will go on to become writers. Having grown up avidly reading a certain type of story, they’ll inevitably have a sensitivity to its lexicon and furniture, an awareness of its history and its masterpieces.
'Best Of…' lists may be arbitrary and superficial, but in compiling them you visit your own mental storehouse of beloved stories through a different door, with a different mission. Sometimes it makes you ask yourself what you really love, and what you pay lip-service to because so many other people have loved it before you.
The following list contains a selection of books I love, and they’re all very different. The differences are perhaps – just a little bit, anyway – indicative of a broader shift in the genre as we exited the twentieth century and crashed, spectacularly, into the none-too-sunny uplands of the twenty-first. Do we look for apocalypses when our own world is bleak and uncertain? Maybe we do. But not all apocalypses are equal, and in any case, when was the world anything else?
1950s: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
John Wyndham sets the bar high. I could just as easily have picked The Day Of the Triffids or The Kraken Wakes, but I went for The Chrysalids because it was the very first post-apocalyptic novel I ever read. It was a set book at my school when I was twelve. What I loved, and still love, about Wyndham’s vision is its focus on communities and how they behave under stress. Also, the way he shows us his apocalypse at second-hand, refracted through the imperfect memories of his characters and the stories they tell each other to make sense of a senseless world. Despite its very modest length, it’s a book you can read countless times and still find something new and affecting in it.
1960s: Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.
Like Wyndham, Vonnegut went back to the apocalyptic well many times. Cat’s Cradle is an early work, but it stands out as a masterpiece because of the astonishing virtuosity of its storytelling and the sneaky indirections of its plot. We know the world is going to end, we just don’t know exactly how or when, and the book jeeps us waiting all the way to an insane, bravura climax. Also, if you read this book you’ll be exposed to the teachings of Bokonon. Wampeters, foma and granfalloons will change your life.
1990s: The Children Of Men by P.D.James.
It’s hard to believe that this astonishing novel is almost thirty years old. It still has a contemporary feel, with its vision of a society turned inside out by an irrevocable shift in the way the world works. As in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, written seven years earlier, the declining fertility of humankind changes everything. Society folds in on itself like an origami sculpture and opens out in a different shape entirely, terrifyingly alien and familiar at the same time. As with Wyndham, we’re looking at people and civilisations under existential threat, with the ever-present awareness that the cure can be worse than the disease.
2000s: Shades Of Grey by Jasper Fforde.
Okay, I know, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road dates from this decade too, and it screams out to be chosen. The Road is incredible because of the double vision it forces on you: the bleakness of the world is perfectly counter-balanced by the beauty of the prose (“If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke”). But I want to give a shout-out to Fforde’s lovely, slightly psychedelic fantasia because fewer people know it and because I’m still hoping, most of a decade later, that he’ll write a sequel. Shades Of Grey (a title Fforde must regret every day of his life) takes place many centuries after its sundering apocalypse, which is referred to only as “the something that happened”. The new society that has risen up is profoundly ignorant of its own past, and so is the reader. We see the end product, but we don’t see the process, so we’re false-footed again and again by the novel’s brilliant reveals. Brave new worlds don’t come any stranger than this.
2010s (ie now): The End Of the Day by Claire North.
Some novels don’t announce themselves as apocalyptic at all, but are still suffused with the elegiac sense of an era, a way of life, a civilisation winding to its close. Foremost among these implicit apocalypses is Claire North’s wonderful The End Of the Day, whose point-of-view character, Charlie, acts as the harbinger of death. When death is coming, Charlie is sent before, sometimes as a courtesy and sometimes as a warning. But the deaths he is sent to mark aren’t always the deaths of individuals, and as the book progresses we start to see patterns and correspondences that foreshadow a bigger, more profound death. The personal, the global and the cosmic overlap and interpenetrate, as they do in Cat’s Cradle.
When you reach the end of a list like this, the negative image (all the books you didn’t choose) sticks to the inside of your eyelids. What good is an apocalyptic 'Best Of…' that leaves out Ray Bradbury, John Christopher, Arthur C. Clarke, Richard Matheson, Ursula Le Guin, Philip Dick, Angela Carter, Stephen King, Emily St. John Mandel and N.K.Jemisin? Absolutely none, is the answer. Go make your own list, and make it better.