spacer End of the World Books

When civilization crumbles we get a chance to see what endures and what is ephemeral. What meaning do words like right, just and moral have when survival is at stake? Too few of us question the moral codes by which we live, acting as though they are physical law rather than societal convention. Sometimes it takes the end of the world to open people's eyes. I offer no answers. I will tell you no lies. Read some of these books and make up your own mind. In the end, only your opinion counts.



After the Rain John Bowen

It was a fine clear day in a part of Texas that had not seen rain in 9 years. In a balloon tethered high above an expectant crowd, Mr. Uppingham, inventor and rain maker, was about to demonstrate his techniques. With a final wave to the crowd he threw the switch and disintegrated. At 7 that evening, long after the crowds had dissipated and gone home, the rain started. So begins the odyssey of John Clarke, a journalist who was present to chronicle the fateful event.

In After the Rain, Bowen presents a study of society undone and reborn. In his journeys, Mr. Clarke and his companion, Sonya, witness the dissolution of the old society and world we know. The rain washes and cleanses until nothing of the old world remains except scattered survivors floating on a formless ocean.

Near death, Clarke and Sonya are rescued from their small row boat by an eccentric group afloat on a sturdy raft. The self-appointed leader, Arthur, declares that this group has been spared by Natural Selection to form a new society when the rains subside and land is reached. The raft is a novel laboratory in which Bowen examines people who have been plucked from their defining contexts. As time passes, each character undergoes a metamorphosis now that the regulating effects of society have been removed. Arthur even becomes a god, as he declares the every society needs a creation mythos.

Bowen weaves a skillful story and manages something many authors cannot ; a satisfying conclusion.

 

A Canticle for Leibowitz Walter M. Miller, Jr.

It was a time of madness when rulers, succumbing to the whispers of Lucifer and the false counsel of scientists, caused atomic fire to rain from the sky and deadly fallout to sweep the land. For the survivors, it was the time of the great simplification as mobs destroyed all vestiges of the knowledge that had led to the conflagration. Everywhere, men and women of knowledge fell before the self-proclaimed "simpletons", no matter their sins.

Amidst this chaos, a nuclear engineer named Leibowitz, seeking to avoid the mobs and repent his deeds, took refuge with the Holy Church. As a result of his proposals and urgings, New Rome granted permission to found a new religious order whose mission was to preserve history until such time as mankind was again ready to receive it. Thus was born the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, gatherers and preservers of knowledge against the gathering darkness.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, though laced liberally with dry humour, tackles serious questions as it traces the history of the followers of Leibowitz in three periods occurring 600, 1200 and 1800 years after the order's founding. In the beginning the gathering and preservation of knowledge, "The Memorabilia", was sufficient purpose unto itself. With the passage of centuries and the slow rediscovery of technology there arise the questions of what role the Memorabilia should play and whether mankind is ready for what it contains. Will mankind fare better the second time around?

Winner of the 1960 Hugo Award for best SF Novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, is a darkly amusing yet serious look at the double edged blade called knowledge. In a world besieged with new inventions and discoveries daily, this tale makes clear the responsibilities of those who create knowledge and those who wield it.


Colossus D.F. Jones

This is perhaps Jones' best known book because of the movie it spawned; Colossus: The Forbin Project. It underlines, via a chilling story, the difficulty in predicting the consequences of new technologies, and explores the meaning of freedom.

In Colossus, the world has been teetering on the brink of nuclear destruction for decades. Bertrand Russell is quoted; "You may reasonably expect a man to walk a tightrope safely for ten minutes; it would be unreasonable to do so without accident for 200 years". While everyone fears the madman who in his insanity begins the holocaust, many might agree that simple error is our greatest threat. As a species, we are known for our fallibility.

Brainchild of Dr. Forbin and a team of thousands, Colossus is born, a monumental computer complex charged with the sole and irrevocable responsibility to maintain the defense of the United States. Privy to a vast flood of intelligence, it guards against attack; vigilant, unemotional, single-minded. It is a vast thinking engine, devoid of creativity yet capable of swift analysis and deadly action. That is, until Guardian the Russian counterpart to Colossus is activated. What do you do when your creation becomes just a little too smart?

This is the exact problem faced by Forbin as Colossus links with Guardian in the "interests" of humanity. Seems Colossus has decided that the best way to protect humans is to take away their pointed sticks.


Damnation Alley Roger Zelazny

Hell Tanner is the scum of the Earth, a rapist, a murderer, and just as likely to gouge out your eyes as give you the time of day. The last surviving member of his motorcycle gang, he is also the unlikely hero of this book.

In the 25 years since the war, the world has gone to shit. The U.S. is dotted with radioactive pockets, and raging winds circle the Earth only hundreds of feet off the ground. Air travel has become impossible as whole mountain tops are scoured away by the wind and dropped again on the lucky survivors. The uninhabitable regions are now populated by giant gila monsters, and other unimaginable mutations. Only the coastal regions hang on.

Amidst this hell, a driver, barely alive, staggers into California from Boston carrying a message. Boston is in the grip of a deadly plague and only California has the Haffikine antiserum they need. A mercy mission is organized but who can possibly make the trip to Boston. Enter Hell Tanner, veteran smuggler, one time race car driver, and ex-gang member. A man born to drive with the reflexes of a cat and tougher than a cheap steak.

Damnation Alley is a thrill ride. If you are looking for a profound, philosophical treatise look elsewhere. This book is just plain fun. I enjoyed it a lot. The ending is also a lot more fitting than that of the movie this book spawned.


The Death of Grass John Christopher

Appearing first in China, the Chung-Li virus attacks only rice, causing it to brown and die. Despite international efforts, millions died from starvation and rioting before an apparent solution is found that kills all known phases of the virus. Unwittingly, however, this very action unleashes a fifth phase, held dormant by the presence of the other phases. This last phase is not so particular in its diet and attacks ALL grasses, including wheat, oats, rye, and barley.

For Europeans and Americans, the famine in the east is a matter to cause concern, pity and charity but no outright worry. The virus after all attacks only rice, a minor component of western food supplies. With the arrival of phase five the disaster strikes home.

Death of Grass follows the lives of John Custance and a small group as they fight their way north from London towards Blind Gill, an isolated, defensible valley owned by his brother David. The harsh conditions they encounter en route transform the group as civilized morals and ethics fall by the wayside. Will they reach Blind Gill? Who will they be when they arrive there? Agree or not, starvation tends to reorder one's priorities.


Denver Is Missing D.F. Jones

I enjoy it when an author finds a novel way to destroy or shake up the Earth. D.F. Jones is a favourite of mine for his original ideas. Best known for his novel Colossus which spawned a movie Colossus: The Forbin Project, Jones also has many other excellent books to his name.

The Earth's molten mantle is believed to lie between 25 miles below our feet to as little as 3 miles in regions of the ocean. Sampling the mantle is the goal of a drilling team stationed on the east-pacific ridge, off the west coast of the States. Disaster strikes, however, as the team's drill hits an undetected reservoir of gas at a depth of 4000 feet. Soon a vigorous bubbling is observed as the gas, identified as nitrogen, reaches surface. Since nitrogen gas makes up nearly 70 percent of the atmosphere, the team members pronounce the strike harmless and head for home.

Soon it becomes apparent that the reservoir is much larger than expected and under extreme pressure allowing the gas jet to burrow its way through the overlying water virtually unobstructed. Worse, the gas jet is blasting the bore hole larger by the hour and when navy teams reach the site the jet is already 30 feet across and growing steadily. As the jet grows in spurts and leaps, tidal waves sweep the western coast and clouds of the suffocating gas make whole sections of the continent uninhabitable. Laced with hard science and believable characters, this book adds up to a fast paced and enthralling read.


The Drowned World J.G. Ballard

The equator has become an inferno and even England swelters in a continuous heat wave rarely dipping below 100. Over the last seventy years the Sun's increasing output has driven whole populations ever northward. Melting glaciers and mountains of silt have changed the shape of the world. Fertility has dropped and now barely more than 5 million people inhabit the polar regions. This is the drowned world.

For arctic-born Kerans, member of an ecological sweep team, the cities are meaningless remnants of the past. Instead, the steaming swamps and lagoons of the new world, hold his fascination; a world which seems intent on moving back down the evolutionary tree. Giant iguanas and basilisks flourish under the burning sun. Insects of prehistoric dimensions dart to and fro.

Ballard's novels are radical departures from typical end of the world novels. Rather than fleeing, his characters, each in their own strange way, embrace the changes. His characters become transformed. A fascinating read.


Earth Abides George R. Stewart

This is perhaps my favourite post-apocalypse book. Written in 1949, it still reads well today. My biggest complaint is that Stewart never wrote more SciFi. This one book is all there is so savour it. If I'm wrong PLEASE tell me.

The story follows Ish who, while hiking in northern California, is bitten by a rattle snake. Following a period of fever and delirium, Ish awakes in a world horribly gone wrong. A world wide pandemic, like those that scientists have been warning of for years, has decimated the human population. While some survivors remain many are suffering from shock and many more who cannot adapt to the new world will die in a secondary kill.

Partly as a means to preserve his sanity, and partly to satisfy his curiosity, Ish sets out on a journey across the continent and back. The world and people he finds are thought provoking. Finding no major population centers, Ish returns to his childhood home in California. The remaining 80% of the book chronicle his attempts to make a new life culminating with him as an old man.

Stewart's writing style is steady and fascinating to read. The characters are believable and one reads their stories with genuine interest. The narrative is punctuated sparsely with small asides detailing events that provide background, mood, and explanation. I recommend this book highly.


Implosion D.F. Jones

Many things in life seem static but are really "steady states"; Systems were creation and destruction are in balance. Alter one or the other and the balance can change quickly and dramatically. Population is an example of a near steady state. While it tends overall to grow slowly, the actual turnover of individual members occurs at a much higher rate. Alter the birth or death rates and you have got trouble with a capital T.

Implosion takes place in a world where the USSR still exists. An unknown agriculture scientist, working in a backwater satellite state of the USSR, has discovered a chemical agent that dramatically reduces a rat's fertility leading to dramatic reductions in the rat population. By coincidence the agent is also, with slight modification, effective on humans.

In England, some time later, Dr. Bart is alarmed by reports that birth rates are dropping rapidly. Reports to parliament and public leaks soon lead to a public outcry. In the state of emergency that arises, it becomes apparent that England is under an insidious attack and that within 50 years its population will have all but dwindled away.

For me, the most interesting issue in this book is "What is a nation's survival worth"? What sacrifices are you willing make or impose on others in order to preserve a nation? Does the answer change if it is the survival of the species? These are the issues that Dr. Bart, promoted to Minister of Health, must struggle with as England's remaining fertile women are pressed (willing or not) into the service of repopulating England. The issue is made more personal when he discovers that, against all odds, his new wife is pregnant.

Soon a problem that was England's alone begins to grow as knowledge of the chemical agent spreads. Soon world rulers, goaded by fear and/or ancient rivalries begin to deploy the "agent" to sterilize their enemies.

Although the society comes across as a bit dated the book is still a good read and sure to stimulate a few discussions on morals and ethics.


The Inferno Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle

Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle are a father & son writing duo. Their style, like many British authors, is subdued yet compelling. No Hollywood glitz, just solid character and story development.

In this story, Cameron, an internationally respected physicist serendipitously discovers a new supernova that threatens the Earth. Drawn back to the Scottish highlands and the legacy of his chieftain ancestors, Cameron shoulders the responsibility of leadership when the local community is thrown into chaos. In the end, the old ways of mutual responsibility reassert themselves as all struggle to survive. Along the way, Cameron encounters myopic governments, shrewd bureaucrats, quixotic dreamers, petty tyrants and a madman or two.

Overall, the book works well except for the very end, where the authors become a bit mystical.


The Long Winter John Christopher

With threats of global warming, ozone-holes, and El Nino currents disrupting weather patterns, The Long Winter is especially appropriate these days. In this book a small fluctuation in the sun's solar output causes temperatures on Earth to plunge and temperate regions to become virtually arctic.

In the ensuing chaos, "fortunate" individuals take refuge in Africa and other warm countries. As the temperate countries collapse under the economic strain of unending and exceedingly harsh winter, national banks dissolve, foreign borders close and many a refugee finds himself penniless. This book follows the lives of two couples who's paths have become intertwined. The personal relations are exaggerated but in light of the backdrop work well enough.

In recent past we've experienced unusual weather patterns due to volcanoes such as Mount Pinatubo, and ocean currents like El Nino. The Long Winter presents a disturbingly plausible scenario. A thought provoking read. For fun you might contrast this book with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Fallen Angels.


On the Beach Nevil Shute

This book is a classic and you have probably already read it. If not, then it is worth a serious look. Just make sure you aren't depressed before you start because you surely will be when you finish.

Nuclear war has broken out due to a mistake. Within a short time life in the northern hemisphere is all but extinguished. Because, however, the air masses of the northern and southern hemispheres mix only slowly, people living south of the equator are spared, for a time. The radiation will come.

On the Beach explores the lives of the people of a small community as they deal with their impending but certain doom. One normally associates quick and violent death with nuclear war but, as was seen in Japan, the death continues for many years as people succumb to the lingering death that radiation promises. This is a chilling book.


The Postman David Brin

If all you have seen is the movie adaptation of this book then you might not realize how truly excellent it is. This is one of the few books I reread from time to time.

Gordon Krantz is a drifter driven west to escape the radiation pockets in the eastern states. A limited nuclear war followed by a three year nuclear winter has pushed the world to the edge. The U.S., even as it struggles to recover, is being torn apart by anarchists who have flourished in the aftermath.

After a disastrous encounter with some bandits, Gordon takes refuge in the hidden remains of a wrecked Postal Service truck. Later, Gordon dons the mummified driver's leather jacket for warmth; a jacket emblazoned with the U.S. Postal Service emblem. During his travels, Gordon is mistaken for a real postman, an error which he encourages in order to survive. Later, he discovers that his lie has given the people he encounters something they had all but lost; hope.

The Postman is an exploration of truth, ideals, dreams and hope. Above all, however, it is an exploration of responsibility. Who will care if we do not care ourselves? If you have not read this book, what are you waiting for.


Rings of Ice Piers Anthony

An experiment in solar energy gone awry results in four deluges of biblical proportions. Torrential rains raise water levels hundreds of feet in only weeks and wash away entire cities. Death tolls stand at 60 to 90 percent mortality in coastal areas and even higher ground is not immune to the rivers of water falling from the sky.

Against this backdrop, Gus and Thatch, an oddly symbiotic pair of neurotics, are leaving Florida in their Winnebago and heading for high ground. As the waters rise, Gus, certain that civilization is at an end, dreams of creating a new order and repopulating the Earth. Motivated by this scheme they pick up seemingly likely candidates en route; Zena a female meteorologist, a bombshell named Gloria, Karen, and clumsy Flo and her cat, dust devil. The new order is in some danger, however, as each person's secrets come to light.

This book is quite a departure from Anthony's better known books like the sweet pun filled Xanth novels. During the journey the characters in this book undergo experiences and ordeals that help them confront and conquer their respective demons. In my opinion this is certainly one of Anthony's better books.