End of the World, as We Know It

Why is it that the beginning of a new year often stirs up predictions of catastrophe and end-of-world scenarios? A recent posting on News Notes  reminded me of post-apocalyptic novels and movies. I enjoy them, but it's hard to say why. Is it schadenfreude? I'd like to think I'm not the kind of person who takes joy in other people's sorrows. Maybe it's more about the 'what would you do?' possibilities. While the world is crumbling and everyone is fleeing, no doubt you would have the presence of mind to jump on your bike and find the less traveled way out of town. No doubt you would know how to produce flour from cattails and create shelter from a tree stump, thanks to your keen memory of My Side of the Mountain.

There's no dearth of such novels. Many readers enjoyed the bleak vision presented in Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Around the time Oprah was promoting   The Road  , I was reading Jim Crace's The Pesthouse, the story of a world that has reverted to a  sort of medieval dark ages following a super-plague. A man falls in love with an outcast woman, and they journey across a ravaged landscape in an effort to leave the U.S. for the new promised land - Europe. Crace's book ends more optimistically than McCarthy's, if you need a bit of redemption in your reading.

Another, more hopeful version of the tale is  World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler. A small community tries to maintain justice and order while surrounded by a corrupt and decaying world. The book is populated by a cast of characters often found in such dystopias - the charismatic cult leader, the plundering villains, the benevolent dictator, and the reluctant hero. The townspeople have become models of self-reliance, with everything, as the title suggests, made by hand. The DIY ethic would probably be onerous if you were forced to engage in canning, hunting and gardening, but it's fun to imagine such a life from your armchair, with the furnace pumping and the electric lights blazing.

The library has a wealth of stories that explore a world gone awry. You might try  Brave New World, The Gone Away World, The Children of Men  and Life as We Knew It. It was fun to watch Will Smith navigate the deserte d (except for the zombies!) streets of New York in I am Legend, based on the book by Richard Matheson. And if it all gets to be a bit too much, take a look at the humorous side of zombie chaos with Shaun of the Dead.

Have a favorite post-apocalyptic book or movie? Tell us about it in the comments section.