The Post Apocalyptic Book Club

Sharon June 11th, 2008

Ok, back in my end-of-days (end of book, actually ;-) ) mode, I mentioned the idea of a post-apocalyptic novel reading group, and there was much rejoicing (ok, maybe not rejoicing, but at least some enthusiasm).  This sort of things warms my Lit-Geek heart, so I thought I’d put together the beginnings of a reading list.  What fun!   And yes, I know I’m stealing Crunchy Chicken’s eco-book club idea – I promise, Crunch, I’ll pay royalties.

So in order for you to have time to have a life, but also to cover the range of things, I thought we’d do two a month.  That doesn’t mean you have to read two of them, but I know a lot of people have already read these, a lot of them are, shall we say, light reading, and you don’t have to read both – or any – you can follow along and decide whether you’d like to read them later. 

I’m also going to go all Professorial on y’all and offer up the option of discussing a third text, an older, literary piece that I think has something to say about the idea of post-apocalyptic novels, and I’ll offer some recommended reading as well if you want to follow the month’s theme out further.  This is really mostly about me – I want to think about these things together, so I’m throwing them out.  I’m still working it out, but here’s what I’m thinking.

July - Month One: The Classic Guy’s Apocalypse: Cannibalism, Cannons and Doom!

Books: _The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress_ by Robert Heinlein and _Lucifer’s Hammer_ by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Supplemental High Culture Piece: “The Wasteland” by TS Eliot

I could have picked a lot of books to start this off, but I wanted to go to books that I think are “classic” versions of the post-apocalyptic science fiction story (the really classic 20th century ones are nuclear holocaust novels, but I think we’ll do those seperately, as their own theme later on).  These aren’t the earliest science fiction books, but they are very representative of a particular genre.

The Heinlein book is, I think, flat out his best, and I used to teach it in a class on political fiction.  It is not, in fact, a post-apocalyptic novel, but a novel about narrowly averted apocalypse.  Heinlein has a couple of actual post-apocalyptic novels, most notably the transcendently awful _Farnham’s Freehold_, but TMIAHM has two advantages – it doesn’t suck and it also is a meditation on what is required to avert an impending environmental apocalypse.

I’m going to say upfront that I don’t think highly of _Lucifer’s Hammer_ but I include it for two reasons – one, it gets a lot of airplay.  It comes up in PO discussions fairly often.  The other reason is that it does a very good job of exploring the survivalist vision – something I think we’re going to end up talking about a lot.

Again, nobody has to read both, and you certainly don’t have to read “The Wasteland” – I include it because I think both Heinlein and Niven/Pournelle, both technocrats, are in some ways dancing around the self-destructiveness of modernity – both believe in technological destinies, and fundamentally dismiss the idea that self-limitation is mandatory.  But neither can finally get away from what I see as an underlying unease about this idea – an unease that Eliot expresses so beautifully.  So I’ll probably write a post about the links between the three texts, and if you want to read Eliot, I’d love to hear what you think.

Here’s a tentative schedule of my plan for the rest of the year, including months in which I’ll take a poll and do the books you folks want.  Most of these books should be available from your local library, or through inter-library loan.

 1. July - Classic Guy Apocalypses:  Cannibalism, Guns and Doom: Heinlein and Niven/Pournelle, with Eliot as an option.

2. August - The Girl’s Guide to Apocalypse : Sherri Tepper’s _The Gate to Women’s Country_ and _Life as We Knew It_ by Susan Beth Pfeiffer.  Optional: _The Handmaid’s Tale_ by Margaret Atwood.

I probably should have included Atwood as a primary text, but I’m assuming a lot of us read it at some point, and I think Tepper’s for all that it is very troubling, is a more creative approach to the question of gender and apocalypse.  If you aren’t familiar with _Life as We Knew It_ it has been a very popular book among teenagers – including lots of teenage girls (it is a Young Adult book) and is shaping the discourse a bit.  I think it is important to read popular fiction. 

3. September – Energy Crash Month!  Caryl Johnston’s _After the Crash_ and SM Stirling’s _Dies the Fire_.  Optional Supplement: Selected poems and essays from Thoreau, Emerson and Berry

I haven’t read Johnston’s book yet, but am looking forward to it.  I have kind of a love-hate relationship with Stirling, who I think is a weak writer, but who I enjoy nonetheless.  I want to talk about differing visions of life without much or any fossil fueled energies.

I haven’t picked the texts for each month yet, and I welcome suggestions, and votes.  Here’s what I’m thinking.

4. October: Reader Choice Month – I’ll take a poll and select your faves, and put together a theme.  Will it be “Zombies?”  “Time Travel?” “Reversion to Hunter-Gatherer Society?” or something completely different.  And how shall we choose?

5. November: Nuclear Holocaust Month! (Don’t I have the best, most cheerful titles? ;-) )

I definitely want to do _Alas Babylon_ and am considering _On the Beach_ but if someone has a suggestion for a less-obvious choice than OTB, I’d welcome it.  I can’t remember is _The Postman_ explicitly post nuke?  I want to get that one in somewhere.  I’m probably going to suggest that instead of a novel, we all watch “Dr. Strangelove” one more time, but maybe I’ll come up with something more literary.  The fun is in the juxtaposition, isn’t it ;-) ?

6. December: Ecological Doom Month!: Still mulling over the choices on this one – got a fave?  There are so many options! Perhaps something by Kim Stanley Robinson?  Suggestions?  I’m almost tempted to include the horrible Michael Crichton climate-denial novel, because again, I do think it is enormously important to read and discuss the books that alter our culture, but I’ll only do it if everyone swears they will not buy it ;-) .

7. January: High Culture Month – I’ll be reversing the order of things, and offering literary primary texts and a trashy supplement.  Hey, it is January, right? You’ve got time to read.  Maybe McCarthy’s _The Road_ and selections from _The Canterbury Tales_ (I bet you didn’t know they were post-apocalyptic – but several are plague narrative) and Boccacio’s _Decameron_ or maybe Ben Jonson’s very funny and very sad play “The Alchemist” or Mary Shelley’s _The Last Man_. Or maybe you have a suggestion?  For a supplement, I’m going to to find the trashiest, worst post-apocalyptic novel ever.  Suggestions?

8. February: Horrible Disease Month! – Stephen King’s _The Stand_  and Jose’ Saramago’s _Blindness_.  High Culture Text: Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” – a classic plague text.

9.  March – Religion and Apocalypse: Ok, this is going to generate some controversy.  I’m going to suggest we read Butler’s _The Parable of the Sower_ alongside the first of the _Left Behind Novels_.  The reason for the latter is that they are the single most frequently read and influential apocalyptic novels in history – and most of us ought to know what they say.  One of my lit profs once observed that there has never been a time in history where what we treated as literature was so deeply disconnected to what most people are actually reading.  That’s a disconnect that shouldn’t exist - because it is shaping the popular perception of apocalypse.   Literary Supplement: I’m torn between _The Swiss Family Robinson_, or the Book of Revelations. 

10.  April -  The Collapse of States: If we don’t do _The Postman_ elsewhere, certainly this.  Roth’s _The Plot Against America_ is a good option.  What Else?   High Culture options: _Things Fall Apart_ or Narudin Farah’s _Close Sesame_

11. May – Internet Fiction Month – This month I want to showcase some of what’s out there that isn’t being formally published.  I’ll put up a range of short stories and online novels that we can explore.  There’s a lot of fascinating stuff being written out there.  If I can get my act together, I’ll also put up a short story or two of my own, and encourage you all to do some fiction writing.

12. June - Population Apocalypses: Too Many? Too Few?  Certainly PD James’ _The Children of Men_, and again, so many choices, so little time.  Suggestions? 

Ok, obviously, I need your input.  And you might want to get reading – I’ll start with the Heinlein in the second week of July (I’m out of town the first).

Cheers – and what fun!  Doom, doom and more doom!


139 Responses to “The Post Apocalyptic Book Club”

  1. Padriac says:

    Two words: Riddley Walker.

  2. Rosa says:

    Oh, Ani, there have got to be much trashier apocalyptic novels than World Made By Hand. I mean, there was a whole post-nuclear fake-primitivism subgenre on the shelves of the used bookstores I spent my pre-teens in. Usually with women in big hoop earrings and sometimes metal bikinis on the cover.

    Frost Flower & Thorn. That Spider Robinson one about America having a race-based Civil War (that one is not so great, but it’s actually not trashy at all). Um…damn. There are more titles in my brain somewhere, under the dirty laundry and weedy flower beds. Maybe Sharon will find them under her couch.

    Maybe we should all have a party and screen Escape from New York, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and The Mayor of Frog Town. I’ll host, if people don’t mind airplane noise drowning out the dialogue.

  3. Susan Buhr says:

    If I read Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear” again I’ll go postal. Why do some people treat his work as if it’s true because he misused some citations? He’s a fiction writer, not a sooth-sayer! It’s not as if we have dinosaurs running around post-Jurassic Park because he called that one so astutely.

    It will be easiest for me to participate if the book descriptions include a sense of how depressing the book is. Maybe a one to five nuclear holocaust doom rating. Or, better, which has the most positive rebuilding content, say one to five plowshares.

  4. Bill says:

    The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess is a pretty wonderful novel about population overshoot, crash, and restructuring.

  5. Terry says:

    Have to second Rosa’s comment – Ursula Le Guin’s “Always Coming Home” is my favorite post-apoc.

  6. Christy O says:

    Oh what a great idea! This is going to be fun. I’ve read some pretty good online novel length stories if you need any suggestions for that part. There are many of these books I haven’t read yet, so I’m excited to get so many ideas. I’m getting ready to start The Road.

  7. Mailman says:

    How about Ward Moore`s
    “Bring The Jubilee”- set 70 years after the North`s defeat
    in the Civil War.The USA is a rural slum, poor and inward looking.New York (the largest
    “city” ) is largely a shanty town.
    (Strictly Alternative S/F, but
    may be a prediction more likely than Kunstler`s novel).
    Oh, and “O-Zone” by Paul Theroux (ecological diaster)-
    No technology in Mid-West,
    small-town, arigcultural Amierica to East, 21st century
    technology in New York.

  8. BerryBird says:

    I’m new here, followed the link over from Crunchy’s place, but I just want to say what a great idea this is. I am a big fan of apocalyptic literature, and love many of the books mentioned. I won’t be able to keep up with three books a month, but I will definitely follow along. I’m excited by all the recommended books I haven’t read.

    I have a few additional suggestion I haven’t seen mentioned yet:

    Where Late the Sweet Bird Sang by Kate Wilhelm is a twist on the horrible disease genre, where survivors are (mostly) rendered sterile and cloning becomes the primary means of reproduction. It was the winner of the 1977 Hugo Award, and a great read.

    A Friend of the Earth by T.C. Boyle is a near future story of global warming apocalypse. Boyle is a magnificent writer, with sentences that make you simply marvel at their beauty.

  9. Laura says:

    One that I often recommend for nuclear holocaust novels is David Graham’s Down to a Sunless Sea – which looks like it was reprinted last year (though possibly with a slightly changed ending).

  10. rdheather says:

    Thanks to everyone who recommended Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing. I really liked it all the way through the end. And so many books fizzle at the end.

    So now I have another book to buy for my overloaded bookshelves….

  11. Nettle says:

    Ooh, the mention of Le Guin’s “Always Coming Home” (a favorite of mine) reminded me of one of her early works, “City of Illusions” – part of the Hainish cycle. In a way the whole Hainish cycle is “post collapse” but most of it is so far from our Earth as not to really fit the genre. “City of Illusions” is set on a far future Earth that has been conquered by an alien race – the hero of the story makes a long journey through a North American landscape that retains vestiges of our civilization. In a way, it almost seems like a precursor to “Always Coming Home.”

  12. nika says:

    Sheep Look Up, Stand on Zanzibar, Soylent Green (gotta love the meat-easy)

    Just anything by Brunner and you should be all set.

    Will check back!

    Nika – living the peak

  13. Patrick says:

    May I suggest “The PestHouse” by Jim Crace, recent novel takes place about a hundred or two hundred years in the future. Fairly well written, and interesting themes.

  14. Peter says:

    don’t have time to go through all 113 comments, but if it hasn’t been recommended, Davy by Edgar Pangborn was recently mentioned to me by JMGreer on his Archdruid Blog. From what I’ve read about it, sounds very good.

  15. Pat Meadows says:

    Hi Sharon and all,

    No thanks, I’m not into post-apocalyptic fiction these days.

    I need to maintain my optimism to keep working at measures that will (hopefully) alleviate the general screwed-up-ness-of-everything – even if only a tiny little bit. Post-apocalpytic fiction isn’t helpful to maintaining even a little degree of optimism.

    I’m struggling already to keep on thinking that anything I do might make a difference.

    I haven’t read the entire ‘Wasteland’ but will remedy that. I don’t regard that as post-apocalyptic, although maybe I will when I’ve read the whole thing. The bits I’ve read so far seem true already.



  16. Pat Meadows says:

    PS – Scratch the part of my prior comment about ‘The Wasteland’ – it isn’t the Eliot poem I thought it was.

    I was thinking of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Which is nothing like ‘The Wasteland’. Never mind. :)


  17. Ailsa Ek says:

    I just started Riddley Walker because of this thread.

  18. nika says:

    I am not so sure I would go out and even read my favs (sheep, zanzibar, soylent green) for the first time, right now myself. Those books are fantastically intense on a good pre-awakened day.

    I can say tho that reading Brunner really helps “understand” or process the news of random acts of extreme violence by we monkeys – think muckers. Brunner was just so right on.

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    maybe will be interesting:

    Global catastrophic risks and human extinction library

  21. katie says:

    Jose saramago’s “blindness”, while an amazing novel, is not post-apocalyptic.

  22. The Killing Moon by Rod Glenn is a post-apocalyptic novel set in northern England. It is being described as The Road meets Mad Max.

  23. science fiction books is the thing that i always read because it stirs my imagination “”

  24. Steve Williams says:

    My all time favorite post-apocalyptic book: Daybreak 2250 A.D. by Andre Norton. An old book that i read as a kid and never forgot. Years later, thanks to the internet, I found and read this book again. Wow! Even better as an adult.

  25. reading science fiction books is the stuff that i am always into. science fiction really widens my imagination ;”.

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