As a kid growing up in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, it seemed like the end of the world was not only inevitable but imminent. The Vietnam War (and all of its related protests) was in full swing, the steaming pile of political defecation that was Watergate hit the rotating oscillator forcing Nixon’s resignation, more than 900 People's Temple followers inexplicably committed mass suicide in Jonestown, the energy crisis and economic recession were making daily existence for most an ulcer-inducing nightmare,  disco was – strangely  enough – at its height (cue the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack!), and let’s not forget the elephant in the room, the Cold War. As a kid, the specifics of these historically momentous events were mostly lost on me. (I do, however, vividly remember my attractive – and much older – next-door neighbor, Tina, frequently going braless while wearing a red, white and blue “Spirit of ‘76” t-shirt. I always thought she was making some kind of cool political statement but looking back on it now, I realize it probably had absolutely nothing to do with her opinion of government policy.)

The lack of female undergarments in my neighborhood during the Bicentennial notwithstanding, Armageddon was everywhere –  on the news, in the papers, and it inevitably became a popular motif in movies, books, and television shows. Some of my most beloved movies growing up were post-apocalyptic – Planet of the Apes (based on the Pierre Boulle’s 1963 classic La Planète des Singes), THX 1138, Damnation Alley (based on Roger Zelazny’s 1969 novel), Mad Max, and Logan’s Run, to name a few… And the books! This era was arguably one of the most prolific for landmark apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels and stories: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1960), A Clockwork Orange  by Anthony Burgess (1962), "A Boy and His Dog" by Harlan Ellison (1969), Lucifer's Hammer  by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1977),  The Stand  by Stephen King (1978), Colony  by Ben Bova (1978), the list goes on and on…

Is it any wonder that now, as a middle-aged man, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction is one of my favorite genre fiction categories? And as a longtime fan of end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it novels, I couldn’t be happier than I am in 2009: the last few years have produced a wildly unique bumper-crop of post-apocalyptic works. Victor Gischler’s sardonic Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse (2008) envisions humanity’s rise from the ashes after a confluence of disasters – a worldwide flu epidemic, an earthquake of unparalleled magnitude, a devastating terrorist attack and an ensuing world war – brings about the global destruction of civilization. And what does the remnants of humankind eventually found its new world upon? Religion? No. Government? No. Try Jack Daniels and dancing girls! And then there’s David Oppegaard’s brilliant debut novel The Suicide Collectors   (2009), which is set in a world where 90 percent of the Earth’s population has inexplicably fallen into a deadly depression and committed suicide and the few survivors are slowly succumbing to the growing darkness and killing themselves as well. (It’s a real “feel good” read...)       :smileywink:

But, thus far, the post-apocalyptic masterwork of the 21st century – and, in my opinion, one the very best post-apocalyptic novels of all time – has to be Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). And although this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has been out for years, I had been reluctant to read it. Numerous friends and family members have had major difficulties with this book. One family member, who reads just as much as I do, said that reading The Road made her want to slit her wrists. Another stopped reading after a particularly gruesome scene involving cannibalism. One regular to BarnesandNoble.com’s SF/Fantasy forum said simply that he abhorred it. It was comments like those that made me hesitant to pick up this obviously divisive novel. But with the much-anticipated motion picture starring Viggo Mortensen coming out this fall, curiosity got the best of me and I finally read it last week…

...and I absolutely loved it. I think that I will cherish this book until the day I die – and hopefully read it several times again before that moment comes. Reading The Road was like digesting profoundly moving, unfathomably dark poetry from a master wordsmith. McCarthy’s stark yet lyrical description of the wasteland that the nameless man and his son have to travel through was nothing short of brilliant: “cauterized terrain,” “cold, autistic dark,” “ashen scabland,” etc. And there is no wasted language in The Road. Every single word, every single image, is significant in some way. Here’s just one example: “He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

Granted, The Road didn’t necessarily bring anything new thematically to the apocalyptic fiction canon but what it did do was create a deeply disturbing, intensely intimate – and downright unforgettable – story not so much about survival at world’s end but of courage and hope and, most of all, the tremendous power of love. Yes, McCarthy envisions humanity at its very worst but amidst all of that darkness and depravity, there is the faintest of light – that glorious, beautiful potential inside of us all to transcend, to positively affect those around us, to fight back against adversity, to Dream. McCarthy’s nameless protagonist says it best: “You have to carry the fire… It’s inside you.”

So, with (American) society clearly still dealing with the repercussions of the Bush administration, the conflicts in the Middle East, 9/11, global warming, the automobile industry bailout, etc. it seems apparent to me that – like the '60's and '70's – we’re entering another era of stellar end-of-the-world novels. And if McCarthy’s The Road is any indication, this could be a new Golden Age of post-apocalyptic literature: except without the disco music.
 
Comments
by on ‎07-06-2009 09:08 AM

Paul,

 

As usual your article was great even though I don't plan on reading the Road I have read some of the books you mentioned and I think you are right about the number of post-apocalyptic books that we will see.  Thanks again for the great article.

 

Toni

by Sensitivemuse on ‎07-06-2009 09:41 AM
Great article! I actually picked up The Road a few months ago, because I've heard about the movie also. It's one of my recommended reads of 2009. It is a great book albeit bleak and depressing. However nowadays where we have any kind of weapon to kill and maim..it's rather...realistic. Scary, but true.
by DSaff on ‎07-08-2009 08:14 AM
I enjoyed your article very much. While I found the book dark and depressing (grew up in the same time period you did), I did finish it and pass it on to others.
by on ‎07-08-2009 10:35 PM
Great article. I need to go back and read some of those books again.  The Road is a book to recommend. It is too bad the subject of the book scares people away from it.
by Moderator dhaupt on ‎07-14-2009 02:19 PM

Paul, your article here is great and I can see where and why you think like you do. Now this is from an glass is half full kind of gal so it is with great respect for you that I disagree or maybe it's just that I have to see a little more light then Mr. McCarthy gave me, but from the very small village the boy finds and where the majority of humanity or I should say inhumanity was so despicable that it makes me cringe to think about it. 

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