The Best Fiction Books

The Best Apocalyptic Novels

recommended by James Miller

British novelist James Miller recommends his choice of the best apocalyptic novels

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Your first book is The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

I am a huge Cormac McCarthy fan. I would go so far as to say that I consider him the best living writer. The Road isn’t actually my all-time favourite McCarthy book. That would be Blood Meridian which is an apocalyptic Western in which a band of desperados are hired to go to Mexico to kill Indians and they become this rampaging massacring army and it is scene after scene of surreal and endless violence.

But The Road is such a powerful story. You have this utterly bleak scenario and it is incredible how he draws on this limited palette of blackness and ash and coldness and snow. There is virtually nothing to hold on to. But then against this situation you have the father and the son, and the novel builds up this incredibly emotive relationship. Not least because you see the sacrifices the father has to make in terms of what it means to be human to protect his son. He has to be ruthless because everything has regressed back to a brutal kill or be killed state of nature. But the son retains some humanity.

There is a bit where someone tries to steal their cart full of stuff and they stop him and the father makes this man take off all his clothes and confiscates the guy’s clothes and they walk off and leave him, knowing he will obviously die. And the son is saying, ‘Why did we have to do that?’ And the dad explains, ‘We had to, otherwise he would have done it to us by taking our things.’

But the love the father has for the son and the son’s innate humanity are the two glimmers of hope which endure through the book. It is one of those devastating books which by the time you finish it leaves you numb and changed. I think McCarthy has looked very hard and honestly at the most difficult questions anyone can face about the meaning of life and he has extracted this kind, wonderful, powerful, unforgettable story from it.

What about Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban?

I read this book when I was around 15 years old. It is set in a Kentish area after a nuclear war and it is as if the world has regressed. There is an element of religious totalitarianism going on. And everyone is speaking in a kind of eccentric, quasi-Chaucerian idiom. That is what I really liked about it – the unfamiliarity of the language because it is set in this post-apocalyptic world, and he goes one stage further than most sci-fi writers. I always have this slight love/hate relationship with sci-fi writers in that they can imagine a very wonderful kind of world but the language that they use to describe this world is often conventional and pedestrian. But, what Hoban does is show that it is not only a world that has been made strange by an apocalypse but a world in which the language itself has been re-invented. This is so is clever because the very fact that you struggle with the words to understand what is happening dramatises the level of language itself. I had never encountered a writer doing that with words before. I embarked on it thinking, post-apocalyptic novel – quite exciting, and then, a little bit like with A Clockwork Orange, you think, hang on a minute, this is something quite different, something I hadn’t thought of before.

And you say that, with The Book of Dave, Will Self actually acknowledged his debt to Hoban.

That’s right and a similar logic is at play in the conceit behind this novel. I have to say I am not a huge Will Self fan. I always want to like him a bit more than I end up liking him. But I think there is a genius idea in this book. Again it is a post-apocalyptic scenario. I think there was flooding from global warming. But what I find very funny about his central conceit is that you have this misogynistic taxi driver called Dave who rants away and his kids have been taken into custody. He is like one of those cabbies we have all had who sound off these ignorant, opinionated views as you are stuck in the back as a captive audience. And, in the book, Dave writes out his rant on metal so it survives in the post-apocalyptic world.

And it is found, a bit like a Dead Sea scroll, and society has organised itself around these mad opinions. So, essentially, it is a big satire on religion, the way in which religious authorities seek to impose absolute meaning on ancient texts even though society is drastically different from the context in which those texts were written. So he is sticking two fingers up to fundamentalists of any creed really! It’s a hilarious idea and one that rightly pokes fun at how religious dogma, conjoined with ignorance and fear, will always seek to impose a fixed meaning on something all writers know to be true – the impossibility of single interpretation and the inherent instability of all textual meaning.

Your next choice is the comic Judge Dredd by John Wagner, Alan Grant and Carlos Ezquerra. I am a child of the 80s and this was definitely very popular with my two brothers!

Well, I was the same. As a teenager I used to love Judge Dredd. I bought the comics for years and I’m not ashamed! The great thing about it is that it’s actually quite a subversive comic. It took a while, reading it as a kid, to realise this.

The scenario is that there has been a nuclear war and most of the world has been destroyed. Everybody now lives in these mega cities. It is interesting that mega cities now exist. I was reading that Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou have recently become one, with a population of 120 million people. And so everyone lives in these huge mega cities with hundreds of millions of people and they are ruled by the judges who represent absolute fascist law in themselves. They can sentence people on the spot. They can execute people on the spot. They are judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one. But it is a grotesque society of rampant consumerism and total unemployment. And everyone has become a bit of a moron, needing to be governed by this ruthless authoritarian law because there is no meaningful society any more.

The stories would often play with concepts that were going on in the media at the time. So, for example, Cold War anxieties were very much to the fore and in this storyline from the early 1980s the Soviet-controlled East Meg One (formerly Moscow) takes advantage of social unrest in Mega-City One (a conurbation of 800 million covering the eastern seaboard of the USA) to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike that annihilates half the population. Judge Dredd leads the resistance and turns East Meg’s nukes against itself, wiping out another 500 million people in the process.

There are all these crazy drawings of hundreds of missiles zooming in on the city and a massive body count. What you see is that the West and East were both reflections of each other. Both are ruthless totalitarian regimes. One of them is more consumerist than the other but that is the only difference.

So what the comics were all about is great art, non-stop action and a bruising satirical comment about the madness of the Cold War stand-off – this was pulp sci-fi at its best.

Your final book is the thoroughly depressing When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs.

Yes, it is very sad and depressing. But it is so tender, isn’t it? You have this totally domestic scenario between two sweet old people, Jim and Hilda Bloggs, who are still caught up in the nostalgia of World War II. It exposes the ridiculousness of the government’s ideas about how to survive a nuclear war. They survive the initial attack and then die of radiation sickness.

So for me this haunting graphic novel was a tender and tragic counterpart to the epic battles of Judge Dredd, and all the more memorable as a result. Reading this during the 1980s, with the threat of nuclear war hanging over my childhood as a sort of omnipresent background hum of anxiety, I couldn’t help but think of the possible fate of my own grandparents. I must have been about ten when I found it in the school library and it was quite a sobering thing to read. There are no heroics in it, none of the action-packed adventures of Judge Dredd. Instead, you see that there is no chance of survival so it made you reflect more profoundly on what a nuclear war would mean.

I remember that my parents had this Reaganish book, which they got when we lived in America for a couple of years when I was quite young, called something like How to Survive a Nuclear War, and it was an American survivalist handbook which I was quite fascinated by. It had all these techniques about how to defend your house should you be attacked. I took great comfort from this book – it made me believe that if I had clean water, tinned food, medical equipment and a rifle I could survive nuclear war. But Briggs’s book smashed that belief. We lived just outside London and I would often sit there thinking, are we just far enough away not to be vaporised when they vaporise London?

May 18, 2010

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James Miller

James Miller

Dr James Miller has published a number of academic articles about African-American literature, Civil Rights and the 1960s counter-culture. He lectured in American literature at King’s College London and currently teaches creative writing at London’s South Bank University. He has been fascinated by apocalyptic novels from an early age. His book, Sunshine State, is set in a futuristic world destroyed by climate change and the resulting economic breakdown.

James Miller

James Miller

Dr James Miller has published a number of academic articles about African-American literature, Civil Rights and the 1960s counter-culture. He lectured in American literature at King’s College London and currently teaches creative writing at London’s South Bank University. He has been fascinated by apocalyptic novels from an early age. His book, Sunshine State, is set in a futuristic world destroyed by climate change and the resulting economic breakdown.