Welcome To The Soft Apocalypse

By now, the apocalypse story – which goes back at least as far as the ancient Hebrews – has fractured into numerous sub-genres. Our favorite, these days, is the soft apocalypse, where the end has come but life goes on.

Sometimes, things are rough. Not everybody plays fair. Nobody drives Beemers any more. The style of the soft apocalypse fits somewhere between the uber-violent "hard apocalypse" (The Book of Revelation, The Clash's "London Calling," Cormac McCarthy's The Road) and the "happy apocalypse" (Noah's Arc, Asimov's Foundation books, or the '70s novel Ecotopia), where civilization falls but is replaced by something better. Sometimes, of course, it's just a matter of tone: Road Warrior shows us humanity surviving after devastation, but it's hard to call anything there "soft."


Soft apocalypse — the phrase has already lent itself to a story, a song, and a book of poems and it should have been a William S. Burroughs novel – is typically more dreary, more Dark Ages, more… poignant. (It's not Highway 61 Revisited, but John Wesley Harding.) If the first years after 9/11 and during the earliest, scariest phases of the Iraq War were dedicated to brutal stories where the earth and its life were abruptly destroyed, these years of interminable recession, slow-born conflicts and melting ice-caps seem suited to generate songs in a different key.

Margaret Atwood has returned to the form repeatedly, and Robert Charles Wilson's recent Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America is one recent sign that the movement has begun to flourish. Peter Miller, who runs a post-apocalyptic book group at his Brooklyn bookstore, Freebird Books & Goods, already misses a time when apocalyptic fires were more definitive: "What happened to the good old days," he asks, "when there was no exit strategy?"

Here are some of our favorite examples of novels in the soft apocalypse subgenre.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller, Jr.: A stone-cold classic. This cautionary novel about humanity's appetite for self-destruction marks its 50th anniversary this year: It takes place in a monastery in the southwestern U.S. and looks at the attempt of a monk to rebuild civilization during a "New Dark Age of Man," as the cover proclaims. Much of their faith and "blessed documents" are come from the fragments of the old world that survived nuclear war. A Hugo winner and arguably one of the dozen or so greatest sf novels ever.


Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. Depending how "soft" you want to go, either of two sections of this astounding multi-voiced, multi-genre novel. One of them looks at a world of clones and their messiah in future Korea, and the other at a post-nuclear, post-apocalyptic world in the Hawaiian islands. (In that second section, which uses an odd, phonetic English based on Hoban's Riddley Walker, Mitchell's humanism burns brightest.) In a sense, the whole book, which spans many centuries, is about the urge to apocalypse in every age. Mitchell, an Englishman who spent almost a decade in Japan, writes especially well about Asia: This is simply one of the finest novels of recent years.

Lost City Radio, Daniel Alarcon: This novel, by a young, Peruvian-born author living in California, is set in an unnamed Latin American country ruled by a military dictatorship; the rest of the history comes through rumor. Much of the population is poor, mountain-dwelling Indians, who revere a show about the missing by a troubled woman, called Lost City Radio.

Golden Days, Carolyn See: The critic David Fine has written that Los Angeles has spawned many writers for whom the apocalypse is just another bad hair day. (This may be caused by the city's long tendency for natural disasters, or perhaps the spectacle of seeing itself gleefully destroyed time after time on movie screens, as Mike Davis has noted.) One of the best is See's Golden Days, in which a nuclear war takes out the country but actually gives these Topanga Canyon residents a sense of direction. "Finally," see writes, "it was the city that held us, the city they said had no center."


The Novels of Steve Erickson: Hard to know where to start, but Erickson's novels, which include Days Between Stations and Rubicon Beach – often see environmental catastrophe, such as sandstorms or endless winters, entering the picture in oddly matter-of-fact ways. (The author has said his early work was inspired by Pynchon and South American magical realism.) His last, Zeroville, in set in a more or less realistic post-Manson, film-crazed Los Angeles, but still feels softly apocalyptic.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman: Among other things, Gaiman is a master of the soft apocalypse. This book tracks a man released from prison into a landscape of dwarves, leprechauns and other spirits brought by immigrants to America. A compulsively readable Hugo and Nebula winner, it's one of the author's best.

A World Made By Hand, James Howard Kunstler: Written by a left-leaning New Urbanist social critic, this novel looks at life in an upstate New York community whose the residents – after the power grid has collapsed and the federal government has faded away – trying to get along in a humane, low-tech way with each other. A group of Christian evangelicals show up and complications ensue. It's not simple-minded enough to be called optimistic, but there's a real faith in the human spirit here.


The work of J.G. Ballard and Thomas Disch: Hard to leave these recently departed sf titans off any list. Disch's 334 isn't strictly post-apocalyptic, but over-population can make it feel that way; the book's title is in part a reference to a year in the decline of the Roman Empire. And Ballard's early novels – The Drowned World, The Drought — took a particularly cool-headed and clinical look at environmental disaster.

We asked some friends to pick their favorite examples of the subgenre, too:

Samuel Cohen, author of After the End of History: American Fiction in the 90s

Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins imagines a barely pre-apocalyptic future (from a barely post-1960s point of view) in which America the centripetal has begun to really fly apart, but it imagines it with some really funny satire (for example, the protagonist, a fallen Catholic named Dr. Thomas More, has invented a kind of spiritual stethoscope called a Lapsometer).


Scott Slovic, professor of literature and environment, University of Nevada at Reno:

Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, first published in 1993, takes up an apocalyptic scenario in which a future California is faced with a Cormac McCarthyesque situation of environmental change (global warming) and social collapse, except that Butler's vision includes a kind of New Age element, in which one of the surviving humans, a young girl named Lauren, develops a new religion called Earthseed, which seems to offer the promise of enabling survivors to accept and respond to their changing social and environmental reality. Quite a few environmental scholars in recent years have been writing about how religious institutions and communities need to play a role in reorienting industrialized societies so that we might function in a more sustainable way.


Robert Silverberg, author of Dying Inside, The Majipoor series and many other novels:

The archetypal one would be George R. Stewart's Earth Abides. There's been a catastrophe but they somehow rebuild a society. The human element, the characters – the small group of people who rebuild society – are really interesting.


Justin Taylor, editor, The Apocalypse Reader and author of the new story collection, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever :

Stephen King's The Stand starts with an apocalyptic plague, and it ends with an apocalyptic battle, but then there's this kind of extra double ending that speaks to the persistence and survival of both good and evil. Imagine if after 1100 pages he'd just left a barren landscape with no life at all. You'd go to his book-signing and brain him with his own hardback.


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