When I list my favorite books, many follow a common theme: Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Gilead, Persuasion — fairly light, fairly sweet. But there’s a thread that runs against this theme because, since I was about 12 and first read Alas, Babylon, I also have a deep and abiding love for post apocalyptic and dystopian stories.
I’ve read so many over the years, especially while I was a teen librarian and The Hunger Games reigned supreme, that my dreams are often combinations of survival scenarios and, depressingly, packing. But it’s hard to tell, chicken or egg, whether I dream of conflagration because I’ve read so much of it, or I read so many stories of utter destruction because these images have always haunted my dreams.
What I do suspect is that for me, post apocalyptic stories—the good ones—satisfy something deep inside. I am not, it’s perhaps worth noting, the kind of person with a bug-out bag and survivalist dreams — however, I am an anxious person, always worried about small impending catastrophes. For me, to read Alas, Babylon is to enter a world where my fear is confirmed, the worst occurs, and, in the books I especially love, the worst is overcome.
Because I’m not a fangirl of depths-of-despair forebodings like On the Beach, where literally everyone dies, slowly and inexorably. The stories I find myself drawn to have their darkness, but also their hope. Sure, most of the world is obliterated by nuclear war in Alas, Babylon, but the surviving citizens of a small central Florida town rebuild a better world. Some of these novels are darker than others: salvation is sparing in The Road and The Dog Stars, and life is hardscrabble in Station Eleven, though beauty and art endure. In A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Children of Men, the margin of hope is a downright sliver.
Maybe that’s why, then, readers are flocking to George Orwell’s 1984 these days. Maybe these dystopian worlds, these after-the-disaster premises, allow us to feel safer: Sure, it’s bad now, but it could be much, much worse. Or maybe, when you’re scared, living out the worst-case scenario between the pages of a book can feel like an escape — or even preparation.