One of my favorite settings in fiction is the post-apocalyptic future; a world where the sins of humanity have come back to haunt them, creating a new “wild west” where only the strong and the smart survive, living off scarce resources and trying to build a new world. It’s generally a tale of rebirth and renewal where the evils of the world are cleansed, a story much like Noah and his ark. And just like the cowboy tales of the 1950s, the bad guys always lose, the good guys always win, and the hero always gets the girl. Getting there, however, tends to be a little messier than the old westerns.
Aside from the standard appeal, post-apocalyptic fiction has a certain draw from people in my line of work. As a risk analyst, I spend most of my days thinking about possible disaster scenarios and every horrible consequence that could stem from any given initiating event. We create worlds in our heads where everything goes wrong and blows up, examine it for a couple of minutes, then reset and start again. But every once in a while it’s nice to delve a little deeper into a world of our imagining and try to see what it would be like to live in such a world, have “adventures in [...] a million could-be years on a thousand may-be worlds.”
I just wanted to take the time and tell you (you one reader I have left) about my favorite post-apocalyptic novels. I’ve read (or re-read) all of these books in the past two months, and wanted to write this down while it was still semi-fresh in my memory. We’ll save the zombies for last.
One Second After [Amazon] (9/10)
William R. Forstchen
Forstchen’s point in writing this novel was to convey the massive consequences possible from an Electro- Magnetic Pulse attack on the United States. And he’s absolutely right, the consequences are in fact massive. Imagine what would happen if every electrical device with a processor suddenly stopped working. Your TV, car, radio, cell phone, even the medical equipment keeping some people alive needs a processor to function. Even the airplanes we fly on rely on computers to do much of the actual flying. The entire communications network and economic engine of the United States would immediately grind to a halt. It’s in this world, a United States suddenly thrown back into the pre-industrial era with no warning, that we get to watch a single father try to keep his daughters alive and keep his town safe.
While the consequences are dire for an EMP attack, the probability that such an attack will occur are… Well, let me put it to you like this. Imagine the materials you need for an EMP of any significant size (a nuclear bomb, essentially). Now imagine how many you would need to cover the entire United States with an EMP (according to the book, only a handful). And imagine the coordination and planning it takes to maneuver those things into place and initiate the attack. You’d think someone would notice, and it seems a bit spendy for your average goon (or even Al Quaeda these days). So I’m not losing any sleep over it, but the plausibility and the realism with which the situation is presented still makes for a great read.
This was one of those books that I picked up in the morning and couldn’t put it down until I finished it the next day. The book is just so well written, and has such an engaging storyline that it sucks you straight into the pages. All of my friends who I’ve recommended it to have later cursed me because the book either made them miss class or kept them up late into the night reading. I highly recommend this book, but buyer beware that you should probably read it over a long weekend because you won’t be able to put it down.
Daemon [Daemon website] (10/10)
Your typical apocalypse-class event doesn’t include a computer program that tries to kill people and is hell-bent on the destruction of society. Well, this time it’s a little different.
I swear if I say anything more I’ll ruin it, so all I’ll say is that I pity the fool who doesn’t read these books.
Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse [Amazon] (6.5/10)
James Wesley Rawles
I’ll put the caveats up front. The author of this book is also the author of www.SurvivalBlog.com, a survivalist website. So right off the bat you know this book is going to be big on equipment lists and military jargon; a very technical book. Also, the author is a born-again Christian, so it seems like his characters can’t change a light bulb without praising Jesus for the stepladder and asking his help with the toenail clippers later. But then again, if I had just survived the end of the world I guess I’d pray a lot more too.
Once you get past the caveats, this book is a fantastic read. The premise is that an economic disaster (much like the one we narrowly avoided) brings down the entire United States and devolves into a complete societal collapse. A group of friends retreat to a survivalist’s wet dream of a hideout that they had prepared, occasionally venturing out into the apocalypse for various reasons. The author does have a little bit of the Glenn Beck crazies and it gets very pronounced at times, so beware and keep your tinfoil hat handy.
I enjoyed this book not so much for the plot or the characters or really anything the author intended it to be enjoyed for. Instead, I enjoyed this book as a springboard for my own imagination. I took every scenario the author placed his characters into and used it as a case study, thinking about how I would react to the same stimulus, if the steps his characters took were the right ones, and basically writing my own story to fit the events. It did, however, tell me a lot about the equipment I’d need after the end of the world and the locations I’d want to be. Not exactly the fast paced page turner that One Second After or the other books on the list are, but definitely a stimulating read. So the book gets a 6.5/10, but my imagination based on the events of the book gets a 10/10.
The Foundation Series [Wikiepdia] (10/10)
This series of books fits so perfectly with what I was looking for that it’s beyond belief that it actually exists. It’s like Douglas Adams’ “Babel Fish” in his Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, so improbably useful that logically it shouldn’t exist.
My framework for reading post-apocalyptic fiction, as I’ve said, is based on risk analysis. I like looking at what the results might be of a catastrophic incident. Asimov in his Foundation novels gives us not one but two ends of the world, first the end of Earth and then the end of the Galactic Empire of which Earth was the long forgotten seed. And to top it off, we get Hari Seldon, a “psychohistorian” (which is more or less a modern Risk Analyst) who attempts to logic out the course of history and quickly end the post-apocalyptic galaxy and re-instate some galactic order. It’s the end of the world, IN SPAAAAAAACE!
Asimov’s view of the ability of man to predict the future based on scientific observation is brilliant (if not slightly prophetic). Plus, the writing is superb, and everything is better in space. Even the end of the world.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War [Amazon] (9/10)
Here we start the zombie books, and we start it off with my favorite book to date.
Before WWZ, zombie stories seem to have been relegated to a single storyline. A group of normal people are minding their own business when they’re caught off guard by the zombie apocalypse, blah blah blah chainsaw and shotgun blah blah shopping mall yadda yadda love interest something something moral dilemma. Boring, stagnant, predictable.
Then World War Z came along. Suddenly, the zombie outbreak idea has been taken from its standard very limited first person perspective focusing on a single individual or group and it has exploded into an entire world, with a whole cast of characters each with their own point of view and story to tell, seeing different sides of the same event. It gives the zombie outbreak a whole new dimension.
Not only does WWZ give the reader a more complete view of the zombie apocalypse unfolding in their universe, it does so through their eyes. The book is written as if it were a collection of firsthand accounts given by the survivors themselves after the zombie outbreak had been beaten back. So while the omnipotent narrator is still firmly in place (in the form of the character’s own monologue), the author sometimes interjects little snippets about their behavior as they’re recounting their tale, like cringing at a description or weeping a the loss of someone they love.
Another one of those books you won’t want to put down.
Day By Day Armageddon [Amazon] (9/10)
J. L. Bourne
With Max Brooks we dropped the narrow focus of the typical zombie story and instead went global and multi-viewpoint, but still kept the authoritative storytelling. What happened was what happened; the “survivor” consciously slips in some foreshadowing here and there and knows where the story is going. DBDA is the complete opposite.
Day By Day Armageddon is written in the style of a personal journal of a survivor living in the zombie apocalypse. His accounts are extremely narrow, focusing only on himself and his band of travelers, but what we lose in breadth we gain in depth. The character makes almost daily entries, detailing his position, his hopes, his desires, his fears, the events of the day, everything he’s thinking. But even with this constant stream of information, there are some things he never tells us and leaves our imaginations to fill in, like a war veteran refraining from retelling their most scarring stories. The character feels so real, so understandable, so human; much unlike the typical “macho” super hero style main characters so prevalent in this genre.
Also lost is the authoritative narrator. The character has no idea what’s going to happen next, and that’s the way the story is written. Each new entry really could be the last one. And that mystery, wanting to know if the main character makes it out of this one, is what keeps driving the reader forward and kept me from putting the book down.
Another interesting thing the author does is incorporate every “standard” zombie survival scenario somewhere along the character’s journey. From a walled-off house to an airport control tower, islands, marinas, ships and even a heavy metal school bus, somewhere along the way he passes it, uses it, or hears about it. It’s like the author is saying “yeah, that might have worked, but here’s the problem…” and then illustrates it. From my perspective it’s wonderful to see someone else’s ideas about how the standard zombie situations can turn to a hell of their own.
One small warning, however. When book one ends, book two picks up and the “voice” of the character has changed a little. I’m guessing the author wanted to speak with a little better grammar for his second novel compared to the first, but it’s a little out of character for someone to suddenly start speaking far too properly in the middle of the apocalypse. The “voice” eventually straightens itself out, but it can be a little strange and noticeable at first.