Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created and hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, in which we all talk about a bookish topic and have fun making lists. This week we’re each explaining our reasons for loving something – and I’m going with the end of the world as we know it!
I’ve said for a long time that I love apocalypse fiction, but I’ve never sat down and asked why. After all, the end of the world and the megadeath of mankind shouldn’t be a good thing, so what’s the appeal?
The end of the world as we know it
Who doesn’t like a good disaster movie? I can’t resist them. Hell, I didn’t even really mind being dragged to see San Andreas, although I do usually have limits (and *whispers* I quite enjoyed it even though it was TERRIBLE *shhh*). So there’s always some fun in a book that tears down everything we take for granted, even if modern apocalypse tends to take TS Eliot’s approach of killing the world ‘not with a bang but a whimper’. The Kraken Wakes with its scenes of flooded London captured my imagination long before I moved here.
I never liked you anyway
…right alongside the glee of seeing our world dismantled is the traditional game of trying to pick who is going to die, which can be just as much fun with books as with movies. The real prize goes to authors who write a book where I don’t give a damn about the characters and yet still get me engaged with the story – The Ice People is a fascinating dystopian apocalypse, but its most sympathetic character is a feathered robot that may have eaten its owner’s cat. A far more common outcome is to decide I just WANT ALL THE CHARACTERS TO DIE ALREADY (The Dog Stars, for example) and to cheer as they do.
Levelling the playing field
On the flip side, apoc fic is probably the closest we can get to farm-boy heroes in the modern world (unless you like military fiction or corporate success stories – I don’t). Once the infrastructure goes down, anybody stands a chance. This shamelessly plays to my dissatisfaction with our reality of class, race, sexual, gender and religious prejudice. In apocalypse fiction, we’re all buggered – and anyone can become a hero (hallo Carol. You are my favourite. Always).
Heroism and sacrifice
…of course, being a hero can be a short-lived thing in an apocalypse. This isn’t actually a trope I particularly enjoy – for all my whinging about The Passage, I liked that those who fell behind didn’t necessarily die – but it’s insanely dominant in movies, because Hollywood seems to believe that death is the only way of raising the stakes. Silly Hollywood. Read more novels and learn a thing or two – you’ll also learn a few things about what can be heroic.
Does your moral compass point north?
At its core, so much apocalypse fiction comes down to ‘what would you be willing to do to survive?’. This is a hard question with many different answers – whether you look at it from a personal or social perspective – and one that provokes strong emotional responses, setting up amazing human stories of struggle and survival. Ever encouraged Rick to the pull the trigger early in The Walking Dead? I love a bit of subversion, me. This is one of the reasons I enjoyed World War Z – the ruthless tactics eventually applied to slow the onslaught. Well played, Mr Brooks. You embraced the unthinkable (I also liked it for telling a zombie story through interviews with survivors. It’s inspired, and unexpectedly effective).
Hope and compassion
That said, I’m always relieved when apoc fic looks hard into the mirror, then realises that it still has a heart. I was once called a pragmatic idealist: I recognise what we’re capable of and hope for the best anyway. That no matter how awful the situation, we’re social animals wired to care for one another. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife was pretty relentlessly bleak, but the midwife herself was driven by the desire to help other women. This is one of the reasons I’ve hesitated to pick up The Road, even though as an apoc fic junkie it’s a must-read. But but but I don’t want my belief in humanity destroyed…
Okay, having said I love the human stories (I do!), I also love to see a fresh, juicy take on what might take Man down. Much as I adored Station Eleven, there’s almost as many flupocalypse novels as zombie stories. I hated Extinction Point, but I liked its original vector for death and destruction: alien rain and body-grafting plants. I also liked the heroine’s response: I shall cycle across America! – it was just a shame about the execution, really.
What can possibly go wrong?
I don’t like stories that demonise science / scientists (my only real bugbear with The Girl With All The Gifts), but I do like stories about hubris. So I do rather like stories in which we bring it all down on our own heads. I like that The Day of the Triffids implies heavily that both the comets, the disease and the triffids were political paranoia and corporate greed run out of hand; The Passage is another good example of ‘well nobody saw THAT going wrong, right? Right? Guys? You… you did? DAMMIT’.
I read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen at an impressionable age, so I’ve never been shy of an unhappy ending. I’m coming back round to needing a light at the end of the tunnel as I get older, but for years I liked storytelling as bleak as it gets, so I really enjoyed The Brief History of the Dead, which has an almost Shakespearean inevitability about its double-barrelled apocalypse (even the dead finally die once the last person who remembers them dies).
A lot of apoc fic is US-centric: the dynamics of cultural disintegration factored by distance between population centres and access to guns. I’d like to see a lot more apocalypse fiction set elsewhere. Here in Europe, we’re all so tightly-packed you don’t even want to think about a zombie apocalypse, and if the plumbing went down we’d probably all get cholera. But what would apocalypse mean in India? Or Nigeria? Or Fiji? My next challenge is seeking out non-US apoc fic.
What’s your favourite corner of your favourite genre (and why)? Any recommendations for non-US apocalypse fiction?