9 books to read ahead of dystopian times

March 21, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

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Postapocalyptic books have been a mainstay of literature since The Book of Revelation. Dystopian fiction has risen in pop culture almost hand in hand with the rise of technology over the past century, as if these authors were trying to warn us about something. And while dystopian books are almost synonymous with Young Adult franchises like Divergent and The Hunger Games, there is both entertainment and education for us all in these books.

Whether it be technology, authoritarian governments, or climate change (none are mutually exclusive), the following titles might offer some amusement or comfort (or additional anxiety—sorry!) over the next few weeks and months of social distancing to come.

Severance by Ling Ma

Perhaps the most eerily close to our present dilemma, the catalyst is a mysterious plague that emerges from a factory in Shenzhen, China. This disease, however, is far more deadly, leaving New York City a ghost town to the point where the heroine of the book—a Chinese-American millennial working in a humdrum job in book publishing—wanders the empty city streets from day to day while living in her empty corporate offices.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Don’t read this at an airport or before going to the airport—unless that airport is nice enough that you’d be comfortable living there for the rest of your life. Also involving an even more mysterious and far deadlier disease (the survival rate is basically zero for those who contract it), the book is split between two timelines: before and after the spread. It’s hard to say much more about this book without spoiling it, but you don’t have to wait long once you start—I promise by page three, you’ll be hooked.

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin

Never judge book by its cover because this one is a subtle—and perhaps more realistic—take on a dire future headed our way. The book centers around a quartet of siblings, following them from childhood in the 1980s and 1990s through adulthood, examining their relationships with both romantic partners and also one another. But based on some of the harrowing and cataclysmic natural disasters referenced by the main character, it’s clear climate change has inflicted its expected wrath by the book’s end (roughly 50 years from now), forcing New York City residents to either hide in weather-resistant bunkers or move far into “the mountains” for survival.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

There might not be a more lauded postapocalyptic novel than this one, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. It also details all the defining qualities of life after the end of the world: few survivors, extinct wildlife, and a lot of poor weather conditions. But what keeps the reader engaged are the two main characters, a father and son, and their fiercely close bond, demonstrating how humanity will do whatever it can to survive, even when familial love is the only thing left.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Once again a pandemic strikes, seemingly in the present day, and civilization is gone as we know it. It’s hard to discern how many survivors there are as the protagonist—a pilot, which is key to his survival—lives in an abandoned airport (always a favorite setting among writers after the apocalypse) in a more rural part of Colorado. The narrative structure, however, might be hard to follow and off-putting for some, but the poetic style does instill heartbreaking empathy for the hero—and his loyal dog.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

If you haven’t noticed by now, authors seem to love to ruminate about an apocalyptic New York. Perhaps that’s because as a heavily populated city and the economic capital of the U.S. (if not the world), it’s jarring to consider all of that wiped away and/or abandoned. Zone One refers to a new, erm, neighborhood of sorts in Manhattan, and yes, there is a plague that infects people—but you have to read it to know what it does to them. And what keeps the reader going just as much as the plot is Whitehead’s writing style—descriptive to the point where the scenes come alive in the mind’s eye, but always just the right amount; it’s never flowery.

The Thousandth Floor by Katharine McGee

Another futuristic version of New York—but this one is set exactly 100 years in the future. Parts of the city are recognizable, but there is one setting that is almost unfathomable to imagine. The Thousandth Floor itself refers to the top floor of a skyscraper that is really scraping the atmosphere at 1,000 stories high. (According to one of the book’s characters, he can see the structure from Montauk on Long Island from 120 miles away.)

And the top floors are basically the exorbitantly rich Upper East Side of tomorrow. (Thus, there are a lot of comparisons referring to this series as the Gossip Girl of the future.) The farther you go down, the lower the income level—to the point where the people living on the bottom floors are literally serving the people upstairs. The structure itself seems to span most of Manhattan, with exits referenced at north and south ends of the island, and while the book’s characters do occasionally leave the building, it is clear they don’t make a habit of it, fuzzily inferring at problems with air quality.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Regardless of comparisons to the (brilliant) Japanese movie Battle Royale, the setting of The Hunger Games is unique and reflects how adept Collins is at world-building. The country of Panem is a future version of the United States, but it is unrecognizable in both governing and geography.

It has been surmised that catastrophic natural disasters have altered the shape of North America, essentially drowning the coasts, followed by another civil war in a grasp for power. The Hunger Games, as an annual event, is a result of the war’s end—the Capitol inflicting its wrath on 13 districts with a televised contest slaughtering their children. The future is bleak, but the books are entertaining. And now would be a good time to read (or reread) the entire trilogy as Collins will be publishing the highly anticipated prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, on May 19.

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

The OG plague novel. Written in 1353 and set a few years prior in 1348, 10 young adults from Florence, Italy, decamp to the countryside while the Plague (yes, that plague, the Black Death) ravages their city. To pass the time, each of them tells a story over the course of 10 days, each more imaginative and more biting (and yet perceptive) than the last. The Decameron has been said to be a great influence on the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare, but even today, it’s a valuable record of not only the physical but also the mental and social effects in the wake of a pandemic.

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