Richard Jefferies’ After London (1885)
Gothic and Romantic writers — like Cousin de Grainville, Lord Byron, Edgar Allen Poe, and most significantly, Mary Shelley — wrote the first important End of the World fiction early in the 19th century. But as Romanticism waned, the nascent genre languished for half a century, until it came roaring back with a new wave of future fiction that occurred during the last few decades of the century. Alongside various utopias (Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887), dystopias (Caesar’s Column), and future war stories (Battle of Dorking), post-apocalyptic fiction became popular among writers in Britain, France, and America. The familiar genre images of the primitive society, the wasted city, the ruined Statue of Liberty, the cataclysmic new ice age, and the barren, Dying Earth, was all there in the best-selling, futuristic fiction at the end of the 19th century. The genre has been popular ever since.
The first post-apocalyptic novel of this new wave of future fiction was Richard Jefferies’ 1885 After London. As we all know, End of the World fiction is most often about the end of the world as we know it and its aftermath — not about the utter extinction of humans or the complete destruction of life on earth. Earlier Romantic writers were an exception; they really did deal with the utter end of the world. But After London is about the survivors and the transformed world they’ve inherited. Continue reading
Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826)
Not all post-apocalyptic fiction is about death. That might seem odd, given the high death toll in this genre. But most of it is about something else, like nature, war, technology, civilization, or even religion. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is an exception: it is a book about death.
And death is what saves it from being just another 19th century door-stopper, doomed to bore contemporary readers. Shelley did what, as far as I know, no other writer in the genre has done. She turned her personal grief into the End of the World. In the Last Man, the deaths of her husband, her children, and her friends are transformed into the complete extinction of the human species. Continue reading
Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville’s The Last Man (1805)
Long-time readers know I’m a fan of post-apocalyptic science fiction, because it reveals so much about our feelings toward science and its place in civilization. Science mediates between us and nature; in modern civilization, we rarely encounter the raw power of nature without science’s buffering effects.
But are we like the sorcerer’s apprentice, putting the world at risk by playing with powers that are out of our league? Have we used science to truly transcend nature’s casual brutality, or are we just kidding ourselves? How much does our own human nature depend on the scientific underpinnings of civilization, and what happens when science’s support is yanked away — will it be Mad Max-style battling warlords, or pastoral communities in tune with nature’s rhythms, as in Earth Abides?
In End of the World fiction, the answers to these questions are all over the map, and that’s why this genre is so awesome.
I’ve already covered post-apocalyptic SF from the 40’s and 50’s, but it’s time to go back to the beginning of the genre, with the very first book that you could call a Dying Earth science fiction novel: The Last Man, by the French priest Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville. Published in 1805, it’s a bizarre rewrite of the Book of Revelations as futuristic Gothic novel, filled with temples, spirits, visions, and trans-Atlantic airships. Continue reading
Ben Lillie, of well-justified The Story Collider fame, pointed us to a relatively new website – Call Me Ishmael. The idea is that you call (774.325.0503) and leave a voicemail talking about a book and how it connected with your life:
Leave a voicemail about a book you love and a story you’ve lived.
While “Ishmael” does, helpfully, provide a transcript of the call, it is the layers of emotion in the voice of the reviewer telling the story that really brings the reviews to life. This is probably not an accident.
And, in case you are wondering, I will not be calling in to leave a voicemail reviewing Valdez is Coming by Elmore Leonard, because I hate talking on the phone.
The Extreme Life of the Sea by father-son team Stephen R Palumbi (marine biologist) and Anthony R Palumbi (science writer & novelist) was, to me, like a grown-up version of some of my favorite childhood books – books of interesting animal facts, like how high a mountain lion can jump or how fast a house fly can fly.
The Extreme Life of the Sea is less narrative and more an enthusiastic sharing of cool things in the sea, which are loosely tied together in thematic sections. It is not, however, just a collection of “gee whiz” facts. The compelling vignettes help to convey broader concepts of science and nature with excitement and enthusiasm.
Most of all, the Palumbis remind the reader that science and nature are not just important, they are fun. Continue reading