We stood outside under blazing Venetian skies, a small group of us on a tour, looking at several massive modular rectangles, painted in bright yellow and lined up side by side. Soon, they would be assembled as part of Project MOSE, a series of mobile gates designed to rise and fall at Venice’s inlets, protecting the lagoon and the city from the high tides of the Adriatic Sea. This was the summer of 2019 as a heat wave boiled Europe. Now MOSE is operational, pushing back against the sea, as Europe faces more heat waves and a historically wretched drought.
A sense of the apocalypse filled that trip to Project MOSE. The modular flood barrier was one instance of pushing back. It felt as massive as it was remarkable. But our collective efforts felt insufficient. They still do. By the spring of 2020, a global pandemic joined the roster of our present and impending crises. Then another war and talk of nuclear annihilation. Next, an affordability crisis – a worse iteration of the sort that’s always present for so many.
None of these crises heralded the dawn of the apocalypse. But some days it felt like they might. And we aren’t out of the woods yet. So while turning to apocalyptic novels to process the moment might not seem like the most comforting decision, such reaching encourages valuable reflection about how we live our lives today – and how we might choose to live them tomorrow.
Apocalyptic fiction has long been a draw for curious readers who want to approach the study of scenarios that seemed just out of the realm of immediate plausibility but close enough to warrant attention. As a way of studying and reflecting human behaviour, the genre excels when didactic bits are carried to us through good storytelling and compelling characters. In Moon of the Crusted Snow (ECW Press, 2018), Waubgeshig Rice has done just that. The novel tells the story of life on a Northern reserve at the outbreak of widespread, presumably global, collapse. The characters are written in three dimensions, with dialogue reminiscent of Stephen King’s – a master of the art. The conversations read real, and thus so do the people in them. The book’s tension-building is expert, a slow burn that gives just enough oxygen to keep the flame alight and the pages turning in this study of community spirit and power.
A critique of colonialism and the Church is implicit in the arrival of outside interlopers who upset the balance on the reserve. Trauma is a theme of the book, but it meets a counterpoint in resistance and new beginnings. In one scene, Aileen, an elder, speaks to protagonist Evan Whitesky. “The world isn’t ending,” she says. “Our world isn’t ending. It already ended. It ended when the Zhaaganaash came into our original home down south on that bay and took it from us. That was our world.” She recognizes the theft as apocalypse but concludes “We’ve had that over and over. But we always survived. We’re still here. And we’ll still be here, even if the power and the radios don’t come back on and we never see any white people ever again.”
Moon of the Crusted Snow carries on a tradition in apocalyptic fiction writing in which certain people are as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than the environment or whatever ghastly beasts the end times spawn. In Severance (Picador, 2018), Ling Ma draws on that same tradition. As a disease known as “Shen fever” infects the world, Candace Chen connects with a group of survivors led by an overbearing religious zealot. The lot is headed to the Facility to find safety. Candace soon realizes that while there may be safety in numbers, it comes at a cost – and it might not last.
The novel pivots back and forth between their present-day struggle and the months and days leading up to collapse. It reads as a satire and critique of work culture. The “fevered,” as the infected are known, slip into a brainless state in which they carry out mundane tasks by rote as they wait to die. Driving a taxi. Folding clothes at a retail shop. Proceeding through decline, the fevered continue to “live” their lives without conscious choice or reflection, attached to labour to the end. Even Candace, unfevered, chooses to work her logistics job long after everyone else has abandoned it and currency has become worthless.
Late in the story Candace reflects on routine and city life, each of which are central to maintain the economic relations that shape our world. “To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?” Who indeed.
Thinking back on apocalyptic fiction as a study of human behaviour, Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach (Vintage International, 2010) follows the lives of a community in southern Australia who await incoming radiation clouds from the aftermath of a global nuclear war. As Australian naval officer Peter Holmes liaises with American submariner Dwight Towers, they search for remaining life in the war zone, clinging to the faint hope that their own lives may be spared. Few believe they will be. But life goes on nonetheless. Early in the book, scientist John Osborne, who has joined the naval crew, is speaking with Towers. “‘It’s not the end of the world at all,’ he said. ‘It’s only the end of us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it.’”
Their certain deaths approach, and while a handful are hesitant to accept that the end is coming, most wait for the inevitable with a kind of resigned grace and calm, save for the occasional bouts of denial, as if they are going through the stages of grief. Contrary to the usual mass panic and chaos of apocalyptic fare, On the Beach offers a slower, stoic acceptance of the end as it explores community life, family connections and budding romance in the end days. The novel documents six months of waiting as people go about their business gardening, attending the club, sailing, visiting an art museum, farming, worrying about pets, carrying out surgeries and even sewing on a button. That everyone will die is never in doubt for the reader. Knowing that death is coming, the strength and brilliance of the book is that the focus isn’t much on how the characters die, but how they choose to live in the time they have left.
Other distractions at the end of the world
Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is an instant classic in the apocalypse genre. It wasn’t long after publication that the book was adapted into a television series, now streaming on Crave by way of HBO Max. The series diverts from the book, changing up certain stories, adding new lines of exploration and switching the opening city from Toronto to Chicago. Nonetheless, the series is a chilling, fascinating and occasionally hilarious exploration of postapocalyptic life and the human drive to express ourselves creatively.
Only a handful of video games manage to stand the test of time. Fallout: New Vegas is one of them – and probably the best postapocalyptic video game ever. As a courier who wakes up after being shot and tended to, you set out across the wastelands of the Mojave to discover your would-be killer and unravel the mystery of the package that nearly cost you your life. Originally released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, you can stream the game on PlayStation 4 and 5 or play an old copy on Xbox One. The game is also available on PC.
Sure, it may be too soon, but Pandemic: Legacy Season 1 (released in 2016) is a well-balanced, intense journey into managing – and perhaps curing – overlapping global pandemics. For those who wish a little distance from the present, Season 2 of the game takes players to a postapocalyptic world while Season 0, the prequel, is a spy thriller set during the Cold War. For those who can enjoy it, the game is almost cathartic in its familiarity.
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