Survival of the Fittest

Reading dystopian novels during a pandemic? Maybe that’s the last thing you’d want to do right now, or maybe you find courage and inspiration in reading about how people survive harrowing situations. Dystopian is defined in the Oxford Dictionary:

relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice

Personally, I love survival stories of all kinds, and a favorite book of 2020 renewed my interest in the genre.

“I love building worlds – I think it’s one of my favorite parts of writing.” So says author Diane Cook, author of The New Wilderness. Cook certainly succeeded in building a fascinating world and a gripping story about survival, sacrifice, and relationships challenged by this tough world. I was thrilled to find out the book was a finalist for The Booker Prize. (The prize was awarded to another book, Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart.) I agree completely with what Roxana Gay says about Cook’s debut novel “I was entirely engrossed in this novel. I didn’t want to leave it…” Learn more about the book by watching this video.

What is it about The New Wilderness that really stuck with me? I checked Novelist (featured in this blog post) to see how they describe it:

Genre: Dystopian fiction; Literary fiction; Multiple perspectives
Character: Complex
Storyline: issue-oriented
Tone: Darkly humorous; Suspenseful; Thought-provoking
Writing style: Compelling; Descriptive

If these descriptors sound good to you, take a look at these dystopian/survival favorites of mine from over the years. All of these titles, like The New Wilderness, left a lasting memory in my mind of their worlds.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood must be at the top of the list because it sparked my fascination with this genre (plus Atwood is just amazing overall). In the Republic of Gilead, male dominance has returned with a vengeance and women are relegated to a handful of truly horrible roles from Commanders’ wives to colony slaves. Don’t miss the Hulu series, which you can check out from the library!

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
The world has been devastated by a pandemic, and outdoorsman Hig is surviving in an abandoned airport. He loves his dog, misses his wife, and has conversations with his weapons hoarding neighbor, while fighting off marauding bands of desperate savages. He also occasionally takes his small plane out to search for more survivors, and one day hears a voice on the radio. Library Journal describes the book: “In spare, poetic prose, [Heller] portrays a soaring spirit of hope that triumphs over heartbreak, trauma, and insurmountable struggles.”

After the Flood by Kassandra Montag is another climate change related book in which the ice caps have melted, raising the sea level so high that only mountains are left above water. Most of life is spent traveling by boat, trying to find enough to eat, and hoping to find some place on land not under the control of ruthless gangs of pirate types. Myra and her 7 year old daughter, barely making a living by fishing, hear a rumor that Myra’s oldest daughter, stolen by her ex and presumed dead, may be living in an encampment in the far north. The two embark on a perilous journey. Booklist describes it thus: “Anchored by a complicated, compelling heroine, this gripping, speculative, high-seas adventure is impossible to put down.”

Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer is the first in a four part young adult series which, despite being published 14 years ago, stays with me to this day. The moon has been knocked off course by a meteor and an extreme winter sets in. As the situation gets more and more dire, 16 year old Miranda and her family tries everything they can think of to stay alive. Publisher’s Weekly wrote in 2006: “…readers will find it absorbing from first page to last. This survival tale…celebrates the fortitude and resourcefulness of human beings during critical times.”

Gold, Fame, Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
The California drought turns the landscape into mountains of sand, and a mass exodus ensues, with only a few hearty, pioneering types left behind. Former model Luz and AWOL Ray are squatting in an abandoned mansion when they encounter a strange little orphan girl. They take to the hills in search of a safer place to raise her. BookList describes their trek: “Their journey across the vast, ever-changing dunes is cosmic and terrifying as Watkins conjures eerily beautiful and deadly sandscapes and a cult leader’s renegade colony.”

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, does not fit perfectly into this genre, but definitely involves survival. Eight year old Peggy has been taken to the woods by her survivalist dad who claims the world has ended and they are the only two people left. Library Journal, in its Starred Review of the book concludes, “Though not always easy reading, Fuller’s emotionally intense novel comes to an unexpected but rewarding conclusion. Don’t let this gripping story pass you by.”

But this is just a beginning – there are so many other good dystopian and survival books out there. Our librarians have created a few collections you may enjoy: If You Liked The Handmaid’s Tale, and Pandemic Apocalypse Fiction. If you prefer nonfiction, check out this list of true survival stories.


It’s getting close to Dec. 21, 2012, so naturally everyone’s interested in the end of the world and its aftermath, the post-apocalypse. “Post-apo” has become sort of a hip shorthand for such end-of-the-world themes. Sensing this interest (or maybe sharing it), quite a few authors have set novels in some kind of post-apo world. There are dozens of such books in the library. Below is a quick survey.

I’ve purposely left out post-apo vampire novels, with the sole exception of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, written in 1954, well before the Twilight series. And zombie books are strictly eschewed, as are alternative histories.

Generally, the post-apocalpyse looks pretty depressing. Most aren’t  as dark as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but bleak enough.

Nuclear apocalypse is a very popular end-of-the-world scenario, whether by major exchange, by tactical nukes or by suitcase bombs. In some cases, nearly everyone is killed. In other scenarios only a few million are killed, but the economy melts down and so does society, as in Whitley Strieber’s War Day. Sometimes radiation causes weird and dangerous genetic mutations, as in Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx.

Technology running amok is another common theme in post-apo literature. Malignant nanotech chews its way through the organic community in Jeff Carlson’s Plague Year. Genetically altered organisms are featured in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. But even such simple tech as a cell phone might end the world, as in Stephen King’s The Cell.

Environmental disaster is also a biggie, featuring soil-destroying  toxins, massive storms, genetic mutations, loss of human fertility, and rising oceans. In Steven Baxter’s Flood, the ocean rises until your favorite Starbucks is about five miles under water.

Since the old ways haven’t worked out so well, the end of the world offers some neat plans for reorganizing what’s left of society. Fascism figures big, of course, as in Bernard Beckett’s Genesis. Some post-apo governments are based on ecological, egalitarian principles, as in S.M. Stirling’s Change Saga series. Women-dominated societies are fairly common, as in Pamela Sargent’s Shore of Women and Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country. Rupert Thompson’s Divided Kingdom separates people by their attitudes, angry, hopeful, etc. and fences them in together. In Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, cloning replaces sexual reproduction. How boring is that future?

Humorists find humor even in the end of the world. See Victor Gischler’s Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse, in which the highest form of civilization is found in Joey Armageddon’s Sassy A-Go-Go strip clubs. In Will Self’s Book of Dave, society’s holy scripture turns out to be the rantings of a long-dead, psychotic London cab driver who buried his “manifesto” in his garden. Not even the late, great Kurt Vonnegut Jr. could resist this genre, with Galapagos.

By the way, if you’re interested in all the dates on which the world was supposed to end, check out the website A Brief History of the Apocalypse . For a user guide to the prophesied 2012 apocalypse, see the book 2012: Science or Superstition by Alexandra Bruce.


And I Feel Fine

Most books and movies that deal with the end of humanity like to present a dramatic and well defined reason for our demise. Perhaps a deadly plague, an environmental calamity or even an invasion by aliens will do us in. Imagine a different scenario. What if things just started to slowly fall apart and, much like the decline of ancient Rome, future generations, if there were any, would look back and argue over just what caused “the decline and fall”?

This intriguing idea is the background for the excellent book Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam.  The book is a series of interconnected stories set over the lifetime of the unnamed narrator as he makes his way through an increasingly inhospitable world. Each story finds him at a different stage in his life and offers up a host of calamities he has to cope with (massive computer failure, floods, and disease) but never states exactly what is causing all the damage. 

In fact, one of the great accomplishments of Things We Didn’t See Coming is that you stop asking yourself why things are going so wrong and become more concerned with the characters and the choices they make.  The author’s spare prose encourages this perception and he carefully crafts each character and situation so they are memorable.    

In the end, it takes a pretty good writer to make you ignore the apocalypse.