March 2024: Apocalypse Special

This month we begin a series of themed reading lists, with suggestions covering fiction, nonfiction, children’s, YA and poetry alike. And we decided to begin at the end – with the apocalypse.

Regardless of who we are or how we choose to act, it’s fundamental we keep in mind what’s at stake and how much there is to lose. Imagined futures and dystopias can be spine-chilling in their proximity to reality, but they offer an opportunity to embrace and move beyond fear and into action. Whether we read them for pleasure or as warnings, let these stories act as bad dreams from which we wake and build a more beautiful tomorrow.

Beginning in non-fiction, Peter Brannan’s exploration of past apocalyptic events and mass extinctions is both illuminating and nowhere near as depressing as it sounds.

In fiction, we move seamlessly between classics and modern novels, retold myths and desperate parables: Tobias S. Buckell’s eco-terrorist adventure set in post-oil Detroit may surprise with its unexpectedly hopeful tone, while Wright’s novel interweaves Aboriginal legend and hard reality in a post-apocalyptic Australia. J.G. Ballard’s dystopian tale of a drowned world seems terrifyingly more possible now than when when he wrote it over half a century ago, and Ursula Le Guin’s novella has a similar chilling familiarity which makes them both all the more urgent. Octavia E. Butler’s story is a must-read for anyone interested in the crossover between climate justice, social injustice and corporate greed. And Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy is both entertaining and terrifying, another must-read for our modern times.

In YA, we have a brace of light-hearted novels for younger readers: Okorafor offers a future where technology and West African mythology blend together in a comforting quest to save a loved one; while Steffan Ros brings us a gentle journey through tenderness and hope.

Non-Fiction

The Ends of the World - Peter Brannen

The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand the Earths’s Past Mass Extinctions by Peter Brannen

When we talk about ‘saving the planet,’ we forget that the planet is perfectly capable of saving itself. In the last half billion years there have been five major Earth catastrophes resulting in mass extinction, but each time, life has bounced back, often more glorious and incredible than before.

Journalist Peter Brannen takes us on a wild ride through these mass extinctions and in the process, offers us a glimpse of our increasingly dangerous future. There are many analogs with present-day climate shifts and Brannen introduces us to the researchers on the front lines who are piecing together what really happened.

Part road trip, part history, and part cautionary tale, The Ends of the World takes a deep-time tour of the ways that our planet has clawed itself back from the grave, and casts our future in a completely new light. A fascinating and compelling read.

Fiction

Stochasticity

Stochasticity: A Metatropolis Story by Tobias S. Buckell

Reg Stratton is a bouncer eking a life out in the decaying wilds just outside a dystopian post-oil Detroit – a city in collapse. But when he gets sucked into making a little money on the side by tasking out his time via an anonymous app, he finds himself tangled up with eco-terrorists who have a creative and fast-moving plan. Reg ends up in the middle of a riot that could change his life, the city, maybe even the world… as long as he keeps cool and makes the right choice. It’s a fun adventure that takes an unexpectedly hopeful turn.

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

The Swan Book is set in the future, with Aboriginal people still living under the Intervention in the north, in an environment fundamentally altered by climate change.

It follows the life of a mute teenager called Oblivia, the victim of gang-rape by petrol-sniffing youths, from the displaced community where she lives in a hulk, in a swamp filled with rusting boats, and thousands of black swans driven from other parts of the country, to her marriage to Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia, and her elevation to the position of First Lady, confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city. The Swan Book has all the qualities which made Wright’s previous novel, Carpentaria, a prize-winning bestseller.

It offers an intimate awareness of the realities facing Aboriginal people; the wild energy and humour in her writing finds hope in the bleakest situations; and the remarkable combination of storytelling elements, drawn from myth and legend and fairy tale, has Oblivia Ethylene in the company of amazing characters like Aunty Bella Donna of the Champions, the Harbour Master, Big Red and the Mechanic, a talking monkey called Rigoletto, three genies with doctorates, and throughout, the guiding presence of swans.

The Drowned World by JG Ballard

When London is lost beneath the rising tides, unconscious desires rush to the surface in this apocalyptic tale from the author of Crash and Cocaine Nights. Fluctuations in solar radiation have melted the ice caps, sending the planet into a new Triassic Age of unendurable heat.

London is a swamp; lush tropical vegetation grows up the walls of the Ritz and primeval reptiles are sighted, swimming through the newly-formed lagoons. Some flee the capital; others remain to pursue reckless schemes, either in the name of science or profit.

While the submerged streets of London are drained in search of treasure, Dr Robert Kerans – part of a group of intrepid scientists – comes to accept this submarine city and finds himself strangely resistant to the idea of saving it. First published in 1962, Ballard’s mesmerising and ferociously imaginative novel gained him widespread critical acclaim and established his reputation as one of Britain’s finest writers of science fiction.

The New Atlantis

The New Atlantis by Ursula K. Le Guin

You can’t go wrong with anything by Le Guin, but this novella is a remarkably prescient prediction of the climactic and geological upheaval wrought by a warming world. Set in the near-future in an America paralysed by corporate control of government, global warming is causing continents to sink, submerging much of the world under water. The people keep the dream alive that a new Atlantis will rise up out of the ocean. Written over forty years ago, this vision of hope sinking and hope rising is closer today than ever and Ursula Le Guin’s grim tale appears prophetic.

Parable of the Sower

Parable Of The Sower by Octavia E. Butler

America is a place of chaos, where violence rules and only the rich and powerful are safe. Lauren Olamina, a young woman with the extraordinary power to feel the pain of others as her own, records everything she sees of this broken world in her journal. Then, one terrible night, everything alters beyond recognition, and Lauren must make her voice heard for the sake of those she loves. Soon, her vision becomes reality and her dreams of a better way to live gain the power to change humanity forever. This seminal cli-fi novel addresses climate change, social injustice, and corporate greed in a world that has, in the years since its publication, become chillingly recognisable.

Oryx And Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake is the first book in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian trilogy MaddAddam. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future around the year 2050 and centres on the main character called Snowman. As the only human left on earth, Snowman is tasked with teaching a group of humanoids known as Crakers. All the while he is dwelling on the past, his lost-love Oryx and the devastating set of events that brought him to this place.

Young Adult

Zahrah and the Windseeker

Zahrah And The Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor

A coming of age tale where a young 13 year-old girl discovers her unusual power and embarks on a dangerous quest to save her best friend’s life. Okorafor combines West African mythology with a fantastical world where people live in massive trees and where most objects are grown from seeds. This is world building at its best.

Suitable for young adults 10-12 years.

The Blue Book of Nebo

The Blue Book of Nebo by Manon Steffan Ros

Dylan was six when The End came, back in 2018; when the electricity went off for good, and the ‘normal’ 21st-century world he knew disappeared. Now he’s 14 and he and his Mum have survived in their isolated hilltop house above the village of Nebo in north-west Wales, learning new skills, and returning to old ways of living. Despite their close understanding, the relationship between mother and son changes subtly as Dylan must take on adult responsibilities. And they each have their own secrets, which emerge as, in turn, they jot down their thoughts and memories in a found notebook – the Blue Book of Nebo.

Poetry

Poem of the Month

A Song on the End of the World
By Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Anthony Milosz

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.

Warsaw, 1944

Czeslaw Milosz is a highly respected 20th century Polish writer awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. Born under an oppressive regime he developed an ironic style and while his poems deal with loss and despair, blending the personal and political he never lost sight of the value of human life.

He was associated with the catastrophist school of poets before the Second World War and the author of many collections including Poem of the Frozen Time, Unattainable Earth and The Witness of Poetry in which he argues that poetry is “the passionate pursuit of the real.” In this poem from The Collected Poems 1931-1987, he weaves the fate of human life with the non-human in beautiful images, striking line breaks and despite translation the words offer seductive sound patterning. It presents a vision of hope while simultaneously evoking the threats faced to both in an unsentimental tone.

He died in Krakow in 2004 yet as Terrance Des Pres argues, “Milosz deals in his poetry with the central issues of this time: the impact of history on moral being, the search for ways to survive spiritual ruin in a ruined world.”

Contact our Librarian if you would like themed book lists to support teaching about climate change.

We’re always looking for contributors to our growing collection of literature to explain and explore the climate and biodiversity emergency. If you’re a writer or poet and would like to share your work or ideas, please get in touch! Contact mattroselibrary@gmail.com for prose or poetsrebelxr@gmail.com for poetry.