Fiction and the Apocalypse

Station 11 bookshelfSpoiler Alert: There are some brief mentions of major plot points in James Dashner’s Maze Runner series in this post. Proceed with caution if you have not yet read the books.

If you look at popular fiction, movies and TV shows, it would appear that we are fascinated with our own global demise. And if I have learned anything from the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic genre, it’s that civilization is going to be destroyed in grand ways that involve some combination of the flu, environmental catastrophe, mutating viruses, financial collapse, solar flares, famine and of course zombies. It is a grim future for sure, yet it is a topic I can spend pages and hours absorbed in. What is it about the fictional end of the world that fascinates us so?

Going back to the days when people feared an eclipse or a comet was a sign that the world was ending, it seems that our fascination with the apocalypse is rooted in the human psyche. For all the predictions that the world was going to end on a specific day, we are still here plugging away at jobs and lives and fighting the ebb and flow of traffic as we make our way through our daily lives. Is it that we find the challenge of a global catastrophe more interesting than the sea of brake lights on the 405?

I recently finished James Dashner’s Maze Runner series. Dashner’s world is one devastated by solar flares and shortly thereafter a mutating virus that wreaks havoc on the survivors. I had seen the first movie and thought the premise was interesting, so I decided to pick up the series. What started off as an interesting read became tedious for me by the end. Dasher leaves unanswered questions, and there are parts of the story that seem unnecessary—especially by the fourth book, which is a prequel. Most of it has the main characters going from fight scene to fight scene in an effort to outrun a virus mutating beyond the expectations of those who released it in an effort to control population due to a scarcity of resources.

I liked the premise of Dashner’s series; I just was not a fan of the execution. The first three books revolve around Thomas and others who are immune to the virus. The organization in power puts them through a series of trials in order to map their brains in an effort to find a cure for the virus. The fourth book gives us a glance at how the apocalypse unfolded. We really have an apocalypse that strikes twice. First, the world is hit by major solar flares that cause wide scale death and destruction, radiation and surges of water from melting ice that destroy coastal towns. Those that survive this first plague must then contend with a population control virus that rapidly gets out of hand and mutates beyond the expectations of those who released it. It is a combination of environmental catastrophe and manmade destruction via virus, and interestingly the virus causes people to behave in a somewhat zombielike state as their brains are slowly destroyed by the disease. It’s quite the apocalypse cocktail.

While I was disappointed in the execution of an interesting idea in Dashner’s series, I appreciated how it got me thinking about this genre. My favorite part of Stephen King’s The Stand was the first part of the book where we watch the outbreak evolve and see how survivors begin to piece together some kind of existence. These are the parts I liked of Dashner’s books too—how do characters try to survive? Maybe we get a certain thrill out of seeing the possibility of survival in the most grim of circumstances. Or perhaps it is a way for us to acknowledge just how easily this system we live in and take for granted could easily fall apart.

I also enjoy watching the version of the post-apocalyptic world in the TV show The Walking Dead, which is based on a graphic novel. I am regularly drawn into the stories of the survivors as they struggle with one basic thing: stay alive. It is a huge task for sure, but it is simple in that every other responsibility and demand seems stripped away. And as the reader or viewer, we can focus our energy on that one storyline. Whether it is finding a cure, rebuilding civilization or stockpiling supplies, it is all done with the goal of staying alive in the face of zombies or whatever the global threat may be.

I recently asked friends on Facebook to share their favorite fiction in this genre, so I want to close this post with a list of the responses I got and some of my thoughts on the books on this list I have already read. I want to note here some of these could probably be classified with dystopian, but most deal with some kind of major societal collapse, so I think they have apocalyptic qualities and are interesting reads nonetheless.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
I had a hard time forgiving one of my good friends for recommending I read Twilight until she got me hooked on The Hunger Games. These books are a fast and intense read that are perfect for all-night reading. Warning: these books may result in horrible dreams about being in the arena, but they are still worth multiple readings.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
While not really apocalyptic, this books gives us a glimpse into a version of the future where life is so miserable that people spend most of their time inside a virtual world. Cline does a good job at crafting this world that seems on the verge of apocalypse, and I highly recommend this to anyone who grew up in the ‘80s because Cline throws in lots of good pop culture references from the era.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
This is another book that is not really apocalyptic. It fits better in the dystopia category. Atwood’s story shows us a terrifying version of the future where fundamentalism has taken over, and women are subjugated to the point where they are little more than their ability to bear children. When looking at U.S. and global politics, this book is just as relevant now as when it was published in 1985.

The Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth
I shared my reflections on this series last year. These are fun reads with a lot to think about in terms of how we organize and classify others, but it is not particularly memorable. I wanted Roth to go deeper into the story and felt she only grazed the surface of what was an interesting concept. I found that by the third book, the two main characters sounded the same, and I had a hard time keeping track of them as the chapters alternated between each of them speaking in the first person. Read the books for some good escape fiction, but avoid the movies.

And here are some recommendations I have not yet read but hope to get to soon:
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Akira series by Katsuhiro Otomo
Renewal by J.F. Perkins
The Wool series by Hugh Howey
The Unwind Dystology series by Neal Shusterman
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The World Made by Hand series by James Howard Kunstler
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
The Postman by David Brin

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A Look at Veronica Roth’s Divergent Trilogy

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Before I get too far, I want to point out that this post contains spoilers. If you plan to read the Divergent trilogy and want to be surprised, stop reading this and come back when you are finished. I’m assuming that most of you reading this will have read the books, so I will keep my plot summaries short.

Like the Hunger Games trilogy, Divergent is first person, present tense. This works well for this story in that it gives a certain urgency to the narrative. I found myself cursing Veronica Roth for keeping me up much later than I should have been with her page-turning writing style. Although the story was predictable at times, I thought it was a fun read.

While Divergent lacks the depth of YA series like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, it is still worth the read. It raises a lot of questions about what makes us who we are. In Divergent, we come to find out that people are valued based on their genetic purity. Tris, Tobias and their friends find out the truth of their existence in the third book. In the past, the government attempted to eradicate violent tendencies in the population by manipulating characteristics on a genetic level. This backfired and led to experiments being set up in cities like Chicago where people could be brought back to a more genetically pure state after several generations.

Roth sets this up in a way that makes the reader ask why we are the way we are. Is it socialization? Is it genetic? I suppose it’s the old nature vs. nurture debate. But it got me to thinking about the eugenics movement, which started in the late 19th century. The basic idea of eugenics was encouraging people with desired traits to reproduce thereby creating more people with desired traits. Conversely, this meant discouraging those seen with “less desirable” traits from reproducing. Who determines what is considered a less desirable trait? The eugenics movement considered race a trait, and this idea was used as part of the Nazi belief that Jews were inferior. You can probably see that it’s quite problematic when we start judging people in this way. Such modes of thought can be used as the basis for oppressing and even killing people.

In Roth’s world, those who are not genetically pure are seen as more expendable than those who are. Ultimately Roth’s main characters succeed in creating a world where genetics don’t determine one’s destiny. In fact, we learn that the notion of genetic purity is flawed. In Roth’s world, we see that our destiny is shaped by the choices we make about what to do and how we treat others. Teens are given limited agency in our society, yet here they are in this trilogy ripping apart the theory those in control operate under.

My biggest issue with the books is that it all wrapped up too nicely. Yes, it was a bold decision to kill of the main character at the end of the third book, but things seemed to smooth out too easily with the release of memory serum at the bureau and a rebuilt society. Tobias seems a bit unsettled at the end, but it still seems like things have calmed down with the rest of society. Unlike many readers, I liked the way Suzanne Collins ended the Hunger Games trilogy, and I guess I wanted something as unsettling as that for Roth’s books. I wanted things to still be uncertain. In Mockingjay, the third book in Collins’s trilogy, we feel like things could get messy again a few years down the road. At the end of Allegiant, it feels like the world could go on happily ever after.

Toward the end of Mockingjay, Katniss asks Plutarch, “Are you preparing for another war, Plutarch?” He responds, “Oh, not now. Now we’re in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated … But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction” (379). Although a moment later he leaves her with the idea that we could be “witnessing the evolution of the human race,” and maybe things will be better, we are still left with this idea that society could slide back into its old ways. I guess this is what I was looking for in Roth’s books. I don’t think recovery happens as easily and neatly as things end in Allegiant.

Aside from being dissatisfied with the ending, I quite enjoyed the trilogy. My only other complaint was how the third book was narrated by both Tris and Tobias. At times it was hard to differentiate between their voices because they sounded so similar. I had to keep flipping back to the start of the chapter to see who was narrating.

Even though I was disappointed in the third book, this trilogy is a good summer read and probably something you could get through in a couple weeks. I have not seen the movie yet, but I am looking forward to watching it when it comes out on DVD soon.

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. I welcome the opportunity to discuss these books.

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If you want to read the books mentioned in this post, click on the titles to be taken to Powells.com to order them, or visit your local independent bookstore. Because I was an English major and can’t resist a good bibliography entry, here’s the one work I quoted from in this post:

Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. New York: Scholastic Press, 2010. Print.