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Disaster and dystopia

Some summer reading suggestions for the catastrophic convergence

by Greg Klein | June 12, 2020

Some summer reading suggestions for the catastrophic convergence


The fact that the graph after its long rising curve had flattened out seemed to many, Dr. Richard for example, reassuring. “The graph’s good today,” he would remark, rubbing his hands. To his mind the disease had reached what he called high-water mark. Thereafter it could but ebb.

Some summer reading suggestions for the catastrophic convergence

The flattened curve, that keenly sought goal of Canada’s televised health czars, had been achieved in Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague. Following our profile of Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles, and now that recent events emphasize the danger of catastrophes converging, we look at some other literary interpretations of—not to put too fine a point on it—the end of the world as we knew it.

From a strictly medical point of view, Richard’s optimism was justified. Still, his comment smacked of complacency. Black Death had taken over, sealed off and imprisoned a city. Separating lovers and eventually suppressing the ability to express or even feel love, the new regime overcame opposition to induce apathy, acquiescence and despair.

The new regime: Camus expressed the plague as a force with a will of its own.

A metaphor for evil manifested in human nature, in those who hold power over life and death, in political fanaticism and in totalitarianism, this depiction of an epidemic might be especially pertinent to our extraordinary times. Those mobs who consider themselves on the side of the angels might benefit from meeting Tarrou, a former revolutionary. Long before the pestilence hit that city, he lost any illusions about being plague-free.


To get this out of the way, Stephen King’s The Stand relates a killer virus threatening humanity. But it’s an end times story that’ll make you yearn for an immediate end.


Some summer reading suggestions for the catastrophic convergence

Poor guy didn’t have Greta to explain it—MP Oliver Brand is as much confused as discomfited by the unnatural heat and weirdly tinted sky that’s overtaken England. He actually hopes one of the recurring earthquakes smashing North America will somehow relieve pressure on his part of the planet.

That’s a minor backdrop in Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 book Lord of the World, which chronicles the rapid rise of an obscure individual, someone who’s—if the suggestion isn’t blasphemous—even more wonderful than Justin and Obama combined. But the setting might make readers wonder about phenomena we witness ourselves or learn about from media. Have meteor showers, comets, unusual sun and moon alignments, weird supermoons, weirder unexplained signals and other unworldly phenomena been happening with unprecedented frequency?


What can this planet have come to but something inexplicably cruel and arbitrary?

The sole family in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road constitutes a man and his boy trudging across the U.S., desperately pushing their shopping cart towards a warmer climate many, many miles ahead. En route they witness, and sometimes barely escape, one horror after another. It seems that nothing lives, except people. Therefore there’s almost nothing to eat, except…


What might happen if the West’s self-hatred becomes a species-wide affliction? In The Elementary Particles, Michel Houellebecq suggests a possibility that seems surprising, at first.

Houellebecq could learn a lot from Shriver about expressing ideas through dialogue, and the sex seems to come out of a technical manual. Still, he’s considered one of Europe’s most interesting writers. In Submission, lust for power drives the French left into a pact with Islam. But when the two groups win victory and divide responsibilities, the soixante-huitards and their allies latch onto the economy. Muslims understand where the real power lies.


Things can really get scary when a dystopia becomes dated. Published in 1973, Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints has largely come to pass. Raspail shares Houellebecq’s essay-as-dialogue problem, but still brings out the frightening aspects of what’s now familiar.


William R. Forstchen’s One Second After begins with an electromagnetic pulse attack that destroys American infrastructure instantly and civilization soon after. An historian who’s considered an expert on terrorism, Forstchen researched what he believed to be the “single greatest danger to the survival of America.” Yet the story could be considered overly optimistic for focusing on an unimaginably cohesive town that fends off the surrounding barbarity.

Some summer reading suggestions for the catastrophic convergence

Shriver implied that a similar EMP attack caused the first dramatic stage of America’s collapse in The Mandibles. But the country was due to collapse anyway.


A novel that deserves far more attention that it gets, Derek Turner’s Sea Changes contrasts the lot of a lower class guy falsely accused of racism with the opportunists who manipulate PC hysteria. Turner builds his story on real events and recognizable characters. The result is highly disturbing for two reasons especially: It’s set in the present, and very accurately so.


Relating vaguely similar events much more simplistically, the anonymously written You Can’t Say That lets readers judge whether this depiction of institutionalized flakery is too harsh, whether the unfathomably stupid Mackenzie Taylor Mitchell does justice to Canadian journalists and whether this is, finally, a genuinely funny Canadian novel.


A question for our time is how much crisis and chaos a society can take before repression sets in. The possibility remains that something roughly similar to Orwell’s 1984 will take full control, as opposed to the partial measures already in place.


Some summer reading suggestions for the catastrophic convergence

But in Boualem Sansal’s 2084: The End of the World, Abistan took over where Ingsoc left off, having conquered Winston Smith’s former home and taken up Big Brother’s methodology. There is no past, just the totalitarian present. No other countries or societies either, notwithstanding rumours too absurd to acknowledge.

Citizens revel in mass public executions, the holy word transforms wastrels into jihadists and people live in constant fear that their frequent attestations of total submission to their demigod leader might be deemed inadequate. It’s in this world that two almost unbelievably naive individuals embark on a perilous quest, searching for a possible border to a world unlike their own.

The object of this satire is clear enough and might explain why Sansal’s work gets censored in his native Algeria. But before Canadians follow his country’s example, they might consider this passage that describes:

… an ancient religion which had once brought honor and happiness to many great tribes of the deserts and plains; but its inner workings had been broken by the violent, discordant use that had been made of it over the centuries, and this had been aggravated by the absence of competent repairmen or attentive guides.

Might that in any way parallel Western liberalism? The question might be debated by future historians.

If there are any.

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