It’s the End of the World as We Know It

It’s the End of the World as We Know It: 6 Post-Apocalyptic Reads
By David Phethean

What happens when it seems like the world is coming to an end, when the population has been reduced to a small fraction of its former size, and when everything once taken for granted is now gone? The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, takes place several years after disease has wiped out ninety-eight percent of the population of North America and made survivors distrustful of outsiders who might bring contagion (or worse) to their communities.

Hig, the narrator, is a man who has lost his wife to the virus, and who lives on an isolated airfield with his dog, Jasper, and one other person -- a heavily armed survivalist with whom he has created an uneasy peace. Hig is also a pilot, and he flies his single-engine plane on reconnaissance flights, checking the security of their perimeter, occasionally landing near an abandoned Coca-Cola truck to bring home treats, but always staying within fuel range of returning home safely.

After he is attacked by outsiders while returning home one day, he assesses his life and decides to risk a longer flight -- one from which he may never return, if he cannot find fuel -- to try to locate the source of a radio message he has heard. What he finds when he risks all is what gives this novel its staying power.

I have always been fascinated by stories like this, not because I am interested in how (or why) the world ends, but because of the way the characters react to what is happening around them. Everyone in these novels starts from essentially the same place, yet the choices that they make can be so wildly different, and the retention -- or loss -- of humanity that follows those choices is what fascinates me. And when there is grace, and hope, and faith, in the face of destruction and savagery, it serves as a reminder of how I want to live my own life.

Here is a short list of a few other titles that deal with similar themes, each in its own unique way:

The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier
The City is inhabited by those who have departed Earth but are still remembered by the living. They will reside in this afterlife until they are completely forgotten. Brockmeier creates a lyrical and haunting story about love, loss, and the power of memory.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
A father and son walk alone through a burned America. They have nothing but a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, a cart of scavenged food — and each other. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is destined to be McCarthy’s masterpiece.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, struggles to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourns the loss of his friend, Crake, and the beautiful Oryx, whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a remarkable journey.

World War Z, by Max Brooks
The Zombie War came close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched firsthand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled the world to record their testimony of encountering the undead. Here are his findings.

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker
On a seemingly ordinary day, Julia awakens to discover that the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow. The days and nights grow longer and longer, gravity is affected, and the environment is thrown into disarray, as she struggles to navigate the new normal.