Among the sixty-some end-of-the-world books on my shelves you will find titles both famous (Cormac McCarthy's The Road) and obscure (Geoff Ryman's The Child Garden), classic (H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds), and recent (Steven Amsterdam's Things We Didn't See Coming), disturbingly plausible (James Howard Kunstler's World Made by Hand), and gorgeously unlikely (Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital). The following selections, arranged alphabetically by author, are the ten novels whose visions of apocalypse I found the hardest to cast aside:
1. The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard (apocalypse by supersaturation): Ballard was the twentieth century's premier poet of the apocalypse—the writer who brought the greatest density of vision and the most disquieting beauty to the subject. His short stories represent his finest work, and there are many haunting tales of destruction among them, but no single volume collects them to the exclusion of all the others. Each of his first four novels, though, is a dedicated investigation of planetary disaster, laying waste to the world by wind, water, drought, and—in this, the most poised and beguiling of the four—a strange process of crystallization that armors everything in dazzling transparent gems.
2. War With the Newts by Karel Capek (apocalypse by salamander): Capek is best known in science-fiction circles for coining the word "robot" in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), but this book is the Czech novelist's masterpiece, a story about man's exploitation of a race of intelligent amphibian sea-dwellers for purposes of pearl mining and hydroengineering. The satirical tone of the novel's early pages takes on a darker edge as the so-called "newts" discover their own humanity—and, through it, the capacity to turn our cruelty against us.
3. The Genocides by Thomas M. Disch (apocalypse by agriculture): This might be the single most pessimistic novel I know, but, my God, is it powerful: a slim, astringent story of extinction and religious fanaticism following the Earth's seeding with a thick carpet of colossal plants by alien monoculturists. The book's mood of grim extinction is perfectly exemplified by its epigraph, from Jeremiah 8:20, "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved."
4. The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway (apocalypse by informationlessness): For my money, Harkaway's first novel is the most purely entertaining book of the past few years: an epic apocalyptic romp that tumbles through a world in which "Go Away" bombs have stripped most of the planet's matter of its information and left in its place a floating plasmic soup that can be shaped by human thought. There's a touch of Douglas Adams here, and also of Thomas Pynchon, but the book's gamesomeness and invention call to mind first and foremost the early novels of Neal Stephenson.
5. Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson (apocalypse by loneliness): Novelists as diverse as David Foster Wallace, Ann Beattie, and Lauren Groff have celebrated Markson as one of their bellwethers, pointing to his wit, adventuresomeness, and sneaky compassion. Wittgenstein's Mistress is the most celebrated of his books, the most mournful, and also—in my judgment—the most satisfying, a monologue narrated in flashbulb-like bursts of trivia and reminiscence by a woman who believes she is the lone remaining person on earth.
6. The Inverted World by Christopher Priest (apocalypse by mathematics): From the distance of a quarter-century, Priest seems the most surprising name on Granta's inaugural "Best Young British Novelists" list—the famous one, from 1983, that included Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, and Ian McEwan—since most of his earliest work was science fiction. In this adeptly crafted hard-SF novel, Armageddon is confined to a single community, Earth city, which is trapped within an inside-out sphere and must be winched over the landscape on rails lest it attenuate in the gravity field that creeps along behind it.
7. Blindness by José Saramago (apocalypse by ablepsia): Saramago's account of the moral collapse that follows an epidemic of "white blindness" casts a thin mist of fantasy over the world's many actual chronicles of social degeneration in the wake of disaster, from the floods in Bangladesh to the earthquakes in Haiti. At times, the pages seem to roll forward in an unrelenting cascade of cruelty, degradation, and abuse, but the story is salvaged by the clarity with which Saramago sees into the hearts of his characters and the mounting tension of the events.
8. Meanwhile by Jason Shiga (apocalypse by Killitron 2000): This graphic novel for young readers takes the form of a choose-your-own-adventure story, with panels that convolve and travel in all directions, following hooked tabs onto later or earlier pages. The tale Shiga presents, one of time travel, memory transfer, ice cream, and quantum mechanics, is unlike anything else I've seen in the form: great wacko fun until you realize what's going on, when it becomes rather melancholy and disconcerting.
9. Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (apocalypse by human stupidity): The 1960s marked an artistic pinnacle for Vonnegut: four of the five books he published were charming, cynical, tragicomic masterpieces—God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater being the odd man way, way out. Included among these diamonds is Cat's Cradle, my favorite of all his novels, which relates the story of how the world ends following the invention of "ice-nine,"
a substance that causes water to solidify at 114° F. The book's other great contribution to the Vonnegut corpus is Bokononism, a religion that preaches the holiness of harmless lies.
10. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (apocalypse by botany): Wyndham's classic catastrophe novel, which prefigures everything from Stephen King's The Stand to the movie 28 Days Later, begins, "When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere." The story that follows asks which will bring the human race to a quicker end: their own savagery after all but a lucky few have been blinded by a meteor shower or an invasive species of poisonous plants, the Triffids, as lethal as they are ambulatory.
And here, for good measure, is one last book, which missed the above list only because it is not a novel: National Anthem by Kevin Prufer (apocalypse by enjambment): This is the one (good) post-apocalyptic poetry collection I know. There are no hands rising from the soil here, no horror-movie contrivances, but even the most naturalistic poems seem touched with a terrible wreckage, as if everything were occurring after the world had been torn to pieces. The opening lines of "We Wanted to Find America" are representative of the book's tone of frightening moss-lit elegy:
We wanted to find America through the gasps of snow that fell like last century's angels—
And the starving horses, their shanks brittled over with ice—
And the moon atop its brilliant derrick, and the poor burning so beautifully in the oilfields.
As we drove, their cries lit the wind with wailing
and you said, This isn't America into the truck's dark cab and turned the radio loud.
ART: “A Want to Believe” by Eric Fortune.