Novels from the end of the world

I have always been an anxious person. I’ve worried about school, work, relationships, politics, death – all the usual things. So I guess it was inevitable that over the last year, environmental anxiety has taken over large chunks of my life.

Sometimes I can redirect my focus for weeks, thinking about projects at work or wondering what haircut I should get. But then I see an article – climate change projections, biodiversity warnings, plastic, dead coral reefs – that hits me like a truck and completely trashes my mental health, at least until I manage to repress the fear again. And one of the things I do to distract myself is read.

Last year I read The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell (some spoilers ahead). I wanted to like this book, but for the first 500 or so pages, I really struggled to get on with it. Its characters were interesting, but I wasn’t thrilled by the novel’s fantasy subplots or seemingly endless in-jokes about the Hay Festival.

Then I got to the last segment of the novel, which takes place in 2043. Climate change has devastated the planet and civilisation is breaking down. The chapter’s protagonist, last spotted in the pleasantly futuristic 2025, is now living in a part of rural Ireland where civilisation is teetering on the line between “trading parsnips for petrol in the market” and “armed gangs murdering you for your stuff”.

At first, I was extremely irritated by the implications this had for the novel’s narrative – this unrelated apocalypse really makes all other conflicts in the book sound trivial. Considering how powerful some of the characters should be, it felt ridiculous that none of them had thought to sort this out. Instead, they’ve spent the rest of the book waging cosmic warfare over an issue which has been killing maybe four innocent people a year. In comparison to this ending, who cares?

Maybe this is actually the point Mitchell was making – that we’re all too distracted by our literary festivals and psychic duels to deal with the one problem we all should really, really be dealing with – and I completely missed it. If so, I welcome this plot device and wish more books would adopt it. Imagine a romantic comedy: boy meets girl, they fall in love, they fight, they make up, they have three beautiful children who think bees are mythical creatures, and then they all die in the Great Famine.

But mostly I was just overwhelmed by Mitchell’s portrayal of what it could actually be like to live through this crisis. Most of civilisation appears to have broken down. Food is scarce, and so is everything else. There’s an unfathomably big refugee crisis. It’s impossible to keep in touch with anyone who doesn’t live in your village, so say goodbye to those relatives who live in a different country. You can’t count on your personal safety, or the safety of your loved ones. Life is dangerous, miserable, and increasingly hopeless. Some of the novel’s characters get a blip of hope at the end, but for the rest of the world, the outlook is incredibly bleak. It’s too late. Humanity has missed its shot.

This ending properly freaked me out and continues to do so now. However, it took me a while to work out why. At first I thought that The Bone Clocks had lingered on my mind because I felt it had wasted my time, dragging me through 500 meandering pages only to pull the rug out from under me in the final 100. That frustration still stands. But now I think there are bigger reasons why this ending stuck with me.

First, because this scenario – watching the world collapse around you, feeling hopeless and afraid – is where I worry I’ll be in 2043. So that hit me hard, the same way those scary articles hit me hard. But what really struck me is that of all the fictional apocalypses I’ve read about, this was the first one brought about by man-made climate change. And yet of all those fictional apocalypses, this is the one seems the most likely. So why does this the first time I’m reading it?

A few months before, I’d finished the third book in Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years trilogy, Golden Age, which dipped its toes into an imminent climate apocalypse. The story’s final chapters, set in the decade after its publication in 2015, make it clear that bad times are coming. However, any impact this might have had on me was overridden by the distracting inaccuracies of its other predictions – in a series that has otherwise been so historically faithful, it’s bizarre to read an account of 2018 that includes roving packs of feral children but has no mention of a certain president.

Margaret Atwood’s Madaddam trilogy features an end-of-the-world scenario and plenty of environmental themes – the title characters in Oryx and Crake are named for extinct species. But the actual cause of the apocalypse isn’t the ecological devastation itself. And while there is an environmental apocalypse in The Death of Grass, by John Christopher, it’s not a man-made one. I’ve also seen a number of films about climate armageddons, although unfortunately the only ones that spring to mind are silly disaster movies like The Day After TomorrowGeostorm and even Waterworld.

I considered other books I’d recently read with apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic themes, and what had brought an end to those fictional worlds.

  • Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson – the moon explodes and its fragmenting debris cause a rapidly escalating rain of meteors
  • The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham – nuclear war
  • Blindness, by Jose Saramago – everyone loses the ability to see
  • Nod, by Adrian Barnes – everyone loses the ability to sleep
  • The Stand, by Stephen King – pandemic
  • The Book of the Unknown Midwife and The Book of Etta, by Meg Elison – pandemic
  • Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel – pandemic

With one exception, none of these civilisation-destroying disasters are brought about by humans. Instead, they come out of the blue and there’s nothing anyone can do to prevent them. Disease apocalypses seem to be the most common, and the most gentle for the planet as a whole – while the death of 99.9% of humanity is certainly a downer, it is inevitably followed by poetic descriptions of nature reclaiming the built environment. (Seveneves is less generous, incinerating the entire surface of the Earth in spectacular fashion.)

So that leaves The Chrysalids as the only book in which the setting’s apocalypse was brought about by humanity. (If I was currently living in the 1950s instead of the 2010s, you can bet my nuclear angst levels would be through the roof.) Nuclear apocalypse scenarios have a lot of similarities to climate ones – they’re brought on by human foolishness, and have a terrible impact on the planet as a whole, not just humans. But in The Chrysalids, those bombs fell so long ago that the characters don’t fully understand what happened. As readers, we can guess what went down, but we can’t be sure.

My point here is: where are all the novels about people living through a climate apocalypse, and why haven’t I read them? We’ve got non-fiction titles like The Uninhabitable Earth making headlines (a book I intentionally haven’t read as I’m already anxious enough). But where’s the fiction?

The last book I read on my apoca-list was Station Eleven, which I found really beautiful. The narrative skips between three phases, showing life before, during and after a devastating flu outbreak that wipes out most of the planet. There’s plenty of darkness and misery in the novel. But in the face of all this horror, the characters are determined to preserve their humanity. They cling on to kindness, and to the unifying power of art. Despite it all, they have reason to hope.

I think that’s what I’m looking for, in these climate apocalypse novels I’ve never read – a bit of hope. Hope that even if the worst happens, humans and the other species who share this planet will somehow be OK in the end.

So now my hunt begins. I’m sure these books do exist, and while writing this post I found a few leads for climate-centric novels – including J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World and multiple works by Kim Stanley Robinson. But please, hit me with your recommendations! I’m not sure if they’ll make me happy or not. But it’s got to be better than looking at the news.

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