After the End of the World
2022's Best Books for Apocalyptic Living
Driving home, I passed a tractor in a snowstorm. The white-out conditions that encased us spun to a cotton-candy-pink, as above--beyond the winter storm--a 4:15 sunset sugared the sky. Our whole world was frozen in cherry-blossom flurry, and the distance between us was nearly impossible to gauge since the road and ditch and storm all blurred together. The only solid objects were my car and the looming green tractor, alone in the pink. It was magic, a miracle edged in danger.
Twenty miles east, ambulances arrived to a thirty-vehicle collision, which involved twelve semis. At the scene of the accident, dozens of worlds collapsed.
I suppose that ended up being my accidental book theme this year: living through and alongside apocalypses, both shared and private. Feeling disasters steal every future we’d imagined, and imaging new ones. This year, I spent so many evenings sobbing after yet another mass shooting, another climate disaster--after another friend lost loved ones, lost their health. In May, I wrote in my journal: “How can we be happy with the world’s grief at our fingertips?” These books, my favorite I read this year, all respond to that question. Maybe that’s why they became my favorite. Maybe you’ll like them, too.
Short Stories of Apocalypse, from Emergence Magazine (2021)
Short Story Collection
The four stories in this book, written by Lydia Millet, Sjón, Paul Kingsnorth, and Ben Okri, examine “apocalypse” across scale and subject. The first story, “Thylacine,” which made me cry (twice!!), is about the last living Tasmanian tiger and about the man, grieving his own mother, who rebuilds his life around a being doomed to extinction. Millet’s ability to encapsulate the devastation of an entire extinction event in the loss of a single life left me in awe, and the rest of the stories continued on her precedent, distressing, delighting, and enlightening me. The revolving casts of Short Stories of Apocalypse include time-traveling ghosts, virtual reality fae-folk, and archeologist aliens, who are unraveling the complacent end of our world twenty thousand years after our demise. Okri writes that this projected end to our world “is perhaps the most unheroic tragedy of all the vanished species we have encountered across the immeasurable galaxies.” Seeing the future this way, we are called to change it.
Great Cities Duology, N.K. Jemisin (2020, 2022)
The City We Became and The World We Make tell the multiverse story no one else is brave enough, or smart enough, to pull off. The idea is that across the world, across time, if a city gathers enough metaphysical weight--enough stories and reputation and personality--that weight punches through the multiverse, collapses upon itself, and births an avatar (the city’s soul). New York City isn’t born with one soul, though; she’s born with six--a primary and one for each borough--and all of them are being hunted.
Fitting for a story about New York City’s souls, these books have what’s probably the most diverse set of characters I’ve ever seen in a sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction novel. The first reviews I read for The City We Became all accused Jemisin of creating a “too perfect” Lovecraftian horror--they called it racist against white people (can’t be Lovecraftian without some racism). While this duology does depict racism, it’s not because all the white characters are rendered evil in one-dimension; instead, it’s because they’re racist. Their cooperation with an extradimensional exterminator isn’t rooted in lazy writing. It’s rooted in the all-too-real reality that many white people value their own comfort over other people’s lives. These books don’t flinch away from that fact, and they also show us how to fight it.
The Great Cities Duology is a dazzling account of the people and cultures who make New York City come alive, the forces who would kill what makes a place unique, and the un-collapsing of a billion universes.
Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, Chen Chen (2022)
Speaking of multiverses (and dazzling), earlier this year, one of the writers for Everything Everywhere All at Once wrote that he took inspiration from Chen Chen’s first book of poems, When I Grow Up I Want to be a List of Further Possibilities. While so many poets cling to the idea that poems must be sparse and refined, Chen is a maximalist. He is silly, and extravagant, and tender, and sad, and--sometimes--delectably gross. In his words: “I am trying to be marvelous. / & to make my enemies throw up.”
If you want to cry happy tears over a poem about pooping the bed, laugh about depression naps and their ability to tackle geopolitics, or sit with someone who also knows the pain of a mother who “would rather miss me / than listen to me,” then this book is for you. Chen understands the way white supremacy and homophobia are simultaneously rooted in US culture, and are its roots, and in response to this understanding he offers us a gazillion little gifts: imaginings of alternate possibilities. When you are faced with a world that wants to eradicate you, Chen instructs: “suppose
otherwise. Suppose a life so long & gorgeously
silly, viewers will complain
left out from your biopic,
which will star an actor so handsome
every audience member will gasp,
in unison, upon first seeing him on screen--but
despite that, yes, the fans
will cry: Not enough about that time
he robbed a crêperie!
Not enough about his years spent painting
hippos! Never enough [...]
Time is a Mother, Ocean Vuong (2022)
In Vuong’s second book of poems, grief is not a feeling so much as a complete reconstitution. Each of his poems exists because death does, yet each also serves as an example of how we can survive anew. “I will not dance alone in the municipal graveyard at / midnight, blasting sad songs on my phone, for nothing,’ Vuong writes, “I promise you, I was here. I felt things that made death so / large it was indistinguishable from air…”
Personal and shared grief infuse this collection: car wrecks, war, and books read by the light of riot fire smudge the pages. But with such devastating proof of all life’s ephemerality, Vuong posits that maybe death is ephemeral too. “Maybe extinction / is temporary,” he writes. There’s hope that even crossing to this side of apocalypse, we can flare to life, that “our present tense / was not too late.”
Disorientation, Elaine Hsieh Chou (2022)
On the weekend that I read Disorientation I was attending a two-day Wilderness First Aid course in Bellingham with my boss. We drove there together and shared a hotel room. It was also the weekend immediately following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe Vs. Wade. It seemed that what I’d assumed to be foundational truths about how our country was supposed to work had been flipped. It felt unreal. In that aspect, Disorientation was the perfect companion. As I read Hsieh Chou’s novel, I broke our long rainy drive and quiet evenings with gasps, and I read whole passages aloud.
This satire, following eighth-year doctoral candidate Ingrid Yang, is an uproarious academia whodunnit that spirals through the conspiracies of an unreliable narrator as she unveils just how unreliable white narratives about the US really are. The characters in this reflection on identity and race in the US are messy, and horrid, and charming, and the ending is incredible. It doesn’t lie about the realities of power and (un)accountability here, but it still gives hope.
The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On, Franny Choi (2022)
It’s tempting to think that permacrisis, the Collins Dictionary 2022 word of the year, is something new. Choi’s poems, though, remind us that living through daily disaster is something people have been doing for a long time. The speakers in her poems are positioned “Sixty-six million years after the last / great extinction, six to eight business days before the next one.” This collection navigates protests, martial law, nuclear apocalypse, and the people who survive them--the comfort women and refugees, the survivors. Several poems are about how Korean War refugees used partially detonated napalm canisters as cooking fuel. “Somewhere in a world that didn’t quite / end, a woman like me is foraging for that which failed to kill her…” Choi writes, “Every day an extinction misfires, and I put it to work.”
In The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On, readers see that each dystopia has an intermingling mirror universe, that if “it’s true, the cops are shooting rubber bullets at even the blonde / journalists now…
…the opposite must also
be true: the so-called opposite world of food drop-off stations,
of phone trees, of bailouts and carry an extra mask, the world of kneeling
for a stranger’s gift of milk to flush the tear gas, the world
of saying a thing in unison so clear it drills a hole through to the other
side of what’s possible, so clear and wholly inverted, we realize it’s been here
Rather than demanding a binary world where we have either hope or mourning, Choi shows us that mourning is its own type of hope--it’s a belief that things could have been, and still could be, better.
Clementine: Book One, Tillie Walden (2022)
Tillie Walden is one of my favorite artists, and her book On a Sunbeam (think queer people on a restoration crew, in space) is one of my favorite books, so I was beyond excited to see that she had a new graphic novel when it showed up on the shelves of a local bookstore. Clementine tells the story of a teenage girl trying to survive in the world of The Walking Dead (Robert Kirkman called Walden “the future” after reading it). Whereas On a Sunbeam employs color gorgeously, Clementine is completely in black-and-white. The pages, the world, the characters, are all stark. When surviving each day is a challenge, when life is a string of killings and amputations--these teenagers ask--is it worth trusting and loving each other, and trying to build a future? Walden does not disappoint, though I’d be remiss not to warn you to pack tissues, because she does devastate.
The Marrow Thieves, Cherie Dimaline (2017)
Since we’re on the theme of books that made me cry, now seems as good a time as ever to recommend The Marrow Thieves. Like most near-future dystopian novels, The Marrow Thieves tells of a speculated future by retelling what’s happened in the past. I remember reading, once, an excerpt from the work of an Indigenous theorist; she wrote that people in the US talk about apocalypse as if it hasn’t already happened, as if the disease and genocide and residential schools haven’t already come for an entire continent’s peoples. The Marrow Thieves is steeped in that history, but a different future is brewing.
In Dimaline’s world, an unforeseen consequence of the climate crisis has left most people without the ability to dream, leading to insanity. Indigenous North Americans, though, retain their ability, and the answer to how they do so is hidden in their bones. On the run from the marrow thieves, the multi-generational cast of this book must discover not only their path toward each new day, but also how to defeat those who would steal their lives, and their dreams.
Postcolonial Love Poem, Natalie Diaz (2020)
In Postcolonial Love Poem, Diaz welcomes readers into her own post-apocalyptic dreamscape. She writes some of the most beautiful, and tender, love poems I’ve ever read: “In the tourmaline dusk I go a same wilding path, / pulled by night’s map into the forests and dunes of your hips, // divining you from rivers… I confuse instinct for desire--isn’t bite also touch?”
She writes that “In Mojave thinking, body and land are the same,” and the images of Postcolonial Love Poem reflect that. Thus, love poems are dedicated to a lover’s body and also to the land that they are and are in. These odes to survival and survivors never forget the circumstances that needed to be survived: they are a response to them. “Trust your anger,” Diaz instructs us, “It is a demand for love.”
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay (2015)
Hopefully at some point in your life, you’ve felt joy, and at some other point (same point?) you’ve smelled a garden--because the best way I can summarize Gay’s collection is this: joy in a garden. The poems (sprawling, gaudy, grody) in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude are lush with life, without flinching from the sorrows and confusion that life brings. Walking through a garden gets you dirty and bug-bit, and the fertilizer stinks of rot and shit, but Gay’s poems rejoice in what flourishes simultaneously--in figs shared with strangers and with ants, juice dripping down the chin: “there is a fig tree taller than you in Indiana,” he writes, “it will make you gasp. / It might make you want to stay alive even.”
In my favorite poem in this book, Gay writes “I swore when I got into this poem I would convert / this sorrow in to some kind of honey with the little musics // I can sometimes make with these artifacts of our desolation.” He recognizes the futility of this promise, but I think he comes close to keeping it nonetheless.
Monk and Robot Books, Becky Chambers (2021, 2022, ?)
I’ll leave you with these final two books: A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. The eleven books I’ve recommended so far all take place amid apocalypse and dystopia. The Monk and Robot series offers an alternative. Chambers writes of a moon where people saw their doomed direction and decided to reorient themselves. They built a sustainable society, and the main characters of her books are inheritors of that society. The story is about a tea monk, Sibling Dex--whose occupation is biking town-to-town, listening to folks’ worries, and offering them a cup of tea--and their encounter with a robot named Mosscap that walked out of the wilderness centuries after robots gained sentience and left the cities en masse. Reading these books feels as if you’ve been offered a mug of tea by someone who loves you. They are sweet, thoughtful, and certain of a future where everyone is cared for and supported. If you, like so many this year, are desperate for a moment of stillness and comfort, please read the Monk and Robot books. Then, together, let’s imagine a better future.
Note: If any of these books struck your fancy, let me know! I’ll loan them to you, and I’d love to discuss them over tea/cocoa/a hike.