Friday, October 7, 2011

The End of the World as We Know It: The Latest in Apocalyptic Fiction

When I was in high school, I was convinced I would never make it out. Maybe all teens have a touch of this fatalistic sense—that they can’t possibly ever grow old, that no way can the world keep spinning, especially as you begin to look around and notice what a big mess things are. Wars, natural disasters, disease, never mind the cruddy way people generally treat each other. And teens are very stuck in the moment, thinking that things can never be so horrible as they are NOW, for THEM. When I was a teen, the Soviets shot down an airliner that had strayed into their airspace and the news was talking about how it might be the start of World War Three. The nuclear war disaster flick The Day After came out on TV, and I stayed up late to watch it. I believed that it was only a matter of time before some loony warmonger pushed the wrong button. The signs were everywhere…

But here I am. Older than I ever thought I’d be, raising two teens who are noticing the sometimes sad state of the world and wondering how it can possibly go on like this. My son read Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic nightmare The Road a few months ago and asked me if we should start stockpiling canned goods. I’ve read that book too and halfway through found myself scrolling around on Mormon websites. (They have really good tips on rotating your pantry, in case anyone’s wondering.)

Last week I read the new novel everyone is buzzing about, a YA version of The Road that has the added element of zombies. Like the poor survivors of the apocalypse need anything else to worry about. The book is Ashes by Ilsa Bick and it’s brilliant. I’m giving you fair warning here. If you get your hands on it, clear your schedule. You won’t be able to put it down. Having a well-stocked pantry will help too, so you won’t have to worry about that while you’re reading. Also, you might want to reconsider your squeamishness about guns. Guns are big in this book. You need them to fight off the freaking zombies.

Before I sell you on Ashes, I want to say a word about dystopian fiction (a fancy way of describing End of the World books). This is the latest trend in YA fiction. I don’t know if it’s ever not been a trend. But it’s very big right now and kind of bleeding into other genres such as fantasy and science fiction. These books all have their own take on the apocalypse and/or its aftermath. Here are a few of the really good ones I’ve read lately, in no particular order:

1. The new classic that all of these are measured against is the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. If you’ve been living under a rock, here's the rundown: a sick, gritty society emerges after the end of the world in which kids compete in real-life, Survivor-style games for the entertainment of the privileged. The “lucky” selected boy/girl pairs are thrown onto a nightmare TV show set where they literally must kill each other. It’s horrifying, addictive, thought provoking and masterfully written. And there’s a movie coming out soon. Added bonus: all three books have been written so you can read them all without waiting.

2. Dark Inside by Jeyn Roberts (official release date is November 2011) is a teen twist on Stephen King’s The Stand. The narrative alternates between the points of view of various kids across the country as the end of the world begins. There’s an added pressure of townspeople turning on each other in zombie-like rage. And there will be sequels. In fact all of the books on my list are part of a series. Something that sort of ticks me off. Can’t a book just END anymore? Give the reader a satisfying conclusion? Tie up all the loose ends in one neat volume? Apparently not.

3. Matched and Crossed by Ally Condie. I’ve blogged about these before because they are SO good. They take place well after the apocalypse and society has evolved and/or degenerated to the point that nearly everything is decided for its members, including who they will marry. One girl buys into all of this until she’s mistakenly given two “matches,” which gets her questioning the system and wondering what else the powers that be have gotten wrong.

4. Across the Universe by Beth Revis is dystopian on a space ship. The world is so messed up a few scientists volunteer to be cryogenically frozen and put on a ship for hundreds of years to start anew on another planet. A larger number of volunteers have been running the ship and their descendants grow up not knowing exactly how it all started. One girl who is frozen with her parents wakes up to find that someone has (inadvertently/purposely?) pulled the plug on her. And the ship she’s trapped on is VERY unlike the world she left behind.

5. Ashfall by Mike Mullin. More realistic and therefore more disturbing. The super volcano lying (supposedly) dormant under Yellowstone erupts and destroys half the country. A fifteen year old boy has the bad luck to have been left home alone for the weekend while his parents visit relatives he doesn’t particularly feel like visiting. The book is his horrifying journey to find his family.

6. Delirium by Lauren Oliver. Long after the apocalypse we find ourselves in a world where love is defined as a disease. The solution is some kind of surgery to take away desire. Our heroine is all set for her cure when she falls in love. Teen girls LOVE this book. And adults (okay, just women, let’s be honest here) will read it and remember those crazed romantic feelings churned up when they first fell.

And now to Ashes.

The author Ilsa Bick (and let me just pause to say that I love the name Ilsa) throws her heroine Alex into a non-stop, heart-pounding, terrifying adventure. At the beginning, ironically, Alex's world already feels like it’s over. She has a brain tumor and knows she’s dying. Her parents died years before and because the tumor robbed Alex of her sense of smell, she can hardly remember them anymore (funny how closely our memories and sense of smell are intertwined). On a final trip to say goodbye—Alex is hiking in the mountains to scatter her parents’ ashes—BAM—comes the end of the world. In this case it’s an electromagnetic pulse which destroys all electronic devices and causes most people to drop dead. (Sheesh, do we need another fear?) Throw in a bratty kid and a marine on the run/possible romantic interest. Also add flesh-eating zombies. And a cliffhanger at the end of EVERY chapter that amps up the tension to heights you can’t imagine. Ilsa isn’t totally heartless. SPOILER ALERT: Alex gets her sense of smell back. And possibly a super power. Another warning: there will be sequels. That you will have to wait for.

Not sure what it is exactly that attracts me to these end of the world books. My son, after his class read The Road and his classmates dragged around depressed for weeks, has a theory that these novels aren’t as dark as they appear on the surface. Sure, they take the negative elements of our world to their extreme and terrifying conclusions, but in the end, there is always at least one person standing. See, these books are really about the resiliency of the human spirit. If that volcano explodes or we poison ourselves or blow the planet to smithereens, someone’s going to be left to carry on.

Let’s hope it’s a couple of kids.

With possibly a gun. And some nonperishable food.

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