In times like these, we should all consume more post-apocalyptic literature. This thought has been circling my mind the last few weeks and in examining its origin, I found it rooted in my lack of immediate concern surrounding the current situation. As street and foot traffic slow significantly, store-shelves are emptied, and panic sweeps from media to ear to mouth, I realize that I’ve seen this all before. And so I’m not only mentally more prepared, but can cope with the strangeness of these times.
Literature shows us the world. It exposes us to stories, places, characters that are different from ourselves. Particularly speculative fiction has the quality of estrangement, distancing the reader from their own world, showing them another world, and then allowing them back. And on that return journey, many of us carry back lessons, ideas, themes, feelings, and even hopes into our own realities.
I’ve brought a lot of those back with me from my post-apocalyptic wanderings and find that they help to focus and direct my thoughts now.
In rereading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a few months ago, I had no idea what was coming. The sparse punctuation, the bleak landscape, and almost purposeless plodding stood in stark contrast to my own vibrant surroundings. Yet as this father and son journey, as they continue to have the same conversations over again, each assuring the other that there is purpose, I took away the importance of having something to live for. Having purpose, future, a plan, a goal, and even a potentially impossible destination make life worth living.
The other morning I finished rereading Richard Matheson’s novella I am Legend. I tend to disregard the film (the recent one—haven’t seen the older ones) as it upends Matheson’s narrative goals entirely. Feeling with Robert Neville as he combats the loneliness of being the last man alive is a haunting experience. He too leans into purpose, but ultimately he is left to reflect on the source of his motivations and why he allows his convictions to drive him. He is forced to reexamine his beliefs about societal structure and his realization at the end is powerful and poignant in a way that only Matheson can deliver.
Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, having come out only a few years ago, is eerily prescient now. Yet the beauty of not only her writing but the descriptions and interactions overshadow the horrific events. There is beauty beyond catastrophe. Eventually, there are new norms that begin to congeal into a new reality. And those things that make us human, those live on as well.
Parable of the Sower by the sadly departed Octavia Butler is similarly insightful and forward looking. No plague, no war, just the slow decay of decent values and the ever tightening vise of corporatism slowly devolve the world around Lauren Olamina into chaos and ever greater change. And as she goes out from what used to be a safe community on the journey of growth and discovery, she continually affirms the value of compassion, of sticking together, of caring for others in community, and embracing change when it comes.
In rewatching ‘The Book of Eli’ the other night, I was reminded of why I love the film so much. It went beyond the tropes of bleak, dilapidated towns, blighted landscape, and anarchistic struggle. Eli walked by faith, not by sight; his determination not to let religion be used as a way to control people but instead as a daily light, to be lived out in each moment, is inspiring and humbling. May we all see the world as he does.
So what will our rainbow be? When the floodwaters subside and we step out of our cocoons, what will remind us to have hope? How do we hold onto our greatest values, the power of compassion, and the beautiful parts of humanity? Reading or watching post-apocalyptic fiction shows us the way. The real struggle is within us, and if we win that war, we’ll come out the better for it.