In my very first job out of college, I was an editorial assistant for an educational publishing company. We imported reading programs from New Zealand (which, I was told, had the highest literacy rates in the world), and my job was to “Americanize” the texts for the US market.
That meant the obvious–changing “colour” to “color,” and the like. It also meant sanitizing stories that would be considered too dark or grim or scary for US schoolchildren. I learned that in New Zealand, schools didn’t shy away from sad or hard things in their reading program stories because they believed children needed to learn about fear and how to address it. They felt that facing it and working through it was the way to build strength and resiliency.
I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, but especially lately. As I watched Greta Thurnberg address the United Nations last week, it was awfully hard not to feel as if we are all now living through the plot line of an apocalyptic (probably YA) novel. Because, let’s face it: We probably are. We are aren’t too far past the exposition stage of the narrative, I suppose, and it’s hard to know exactly how this story will play out, but the action is rising quickly. You know shit’s getting real when the birds start dying and the oceans start warming. In those narratives, that’s always a portent of worse to come.
Like the New Zealanders, I’ve never shied away from stories about hard things. I’ve needed those works to help me through them. If anything is my religion, it’s probably literature. So, today, I thought I’d share some of my favorites from a genre I think of as Extinction Lit, stories about people facing and living through mass extinction events. Because–and this is important–in these stories there are always people who live through.
Feed isn’t quite an extinction novel, but it’s the next-closest thing. (Technically, it’s cyberpunk.) In 2002 M.T. Anderson pretty much imagined a world with smart phones embedded into our bodies–before smartphones were even a thing. I haven’t read it since the early 2000s, so I don’t know how it might have aged, but I’ve thought of it often since 2008ish. This is YA, so steer clear if you don’t like teen-age protagonists.
I picked up Station Eleven in an airport, before it became kind of a phenomenon. I thought it would be a fluffy airplane read, but it wasn’t. This one isn’t quite an extinction story, either, but it is about the collapse of civilization via disease that takes out almost everyone. This is my favorite one on the list, crushing in all the right ways because it shows you how beautiful we are. Or at least, can be.
The Age of Miracles is the book that prompted this post; I read it last week. I picked it up because during the summer I read the author’s latest novel (The Dreamers). Both are about inexplicable events that tear at the fabric of society, but I’m linking to Age of Miracles because it is more extinction-y that The Dreamers. (But I thought The Dreamers was a better book.) As Goodreads reviews note, this isn’t a book for the hardcore sci-fi fan (which I’m not). This is an adult title that skews YA; the narrator is a young woman in her 20s looking back at what happened to the world when she was 11 and the earth’s rotation began slowing.
Life As We Knew It is another one (YA) I haven’t read in years, but unlike a lot of other books it hasn’t faded from my memory. Like Age of Miracles, what intrigues me about this one is watching the relatively gradual change that comes to the characters’ way of life. Things change in a pretty big way all at once, but in many ways life keeps going on as it had before the big change event. It reminds me that even in the midst of calamity, things can seem almost normal–can actually be almost normal. It was the first in what became a series, but I tried and couldn’t stick with the second book.
Pretty sure I’ve mentioned Wanderers in passing here before. It’s a big, sprawly, Stephen King-like tale of near-extinction, with lots of bad guys and biohazards and mystery. Honestly, I got a bit lost near the end, but that might be because I was listening to it rather than reading it. It was in some ways the airplane read I thought Station Eleven would be, but it is definitely a novel that nods hard at current people and situations, so it’s more than just dystopian horror. (Maybe there’s no such thing as “just dystopian horror” right now? )
To be honest, after some responses to my last post I feel a little hesitant to publish this one. Some part of me is always, constantly alarmed about what’s happening in our world (just as some part of me is always carrying low-grade stress about work), but another part of me is just fine, thank you. For real. Some days I’d give anything to feel a little pre-2016, and if I project too far into the future I can feel panicked, but right now, today, everything’s mostly fine, especially for someone like me (and probably many of you who are reading here). Although these books are about hard, dark, very grim circumstances, they help me see that even in the midst of those (far worse than most things happening in our world right now), there’s still joy and light and hope. People still want to–fight to–live. These dystopian tales help us understand why, which is probably the real point of them.
Thinking about what to write in this post, I searched out articles on toxic positivity, a concept that seemed to be everywhere for a hot minute last spring. Pretty much every article I found talked about the negative effects on an individual’s mental health from insisting on a positive attitude about everything, but I think there’s another (maybe greater) collective danger in relentlessly turning our gaze only to the bright side, or insisting that reality is only a matter of attitude: It keeps us from seeing things we need to see about larger systems and causes of suffering that exist outside of individuals.
As James Baldwin famously told us, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Extinction Lit–and all the youth activists begging us to pay attention to climate scientists–can help us face what’s in front of us and what’s coming at us. If nothing else, it can help us prepare for it, even if we can’t change it.
14 thoughts on “It’s the end of the world as we know it…”
Brilliant—thank you for this—
You are welcome.
Hello, Rita. I have been reading all of your posts despite my lack of commenting (I am carrying my rule to “stay out of the comments section” a little too far. 🙂 and they always make me think. I really feel as you do on this topic, and find it hard to avoid being overwhelmed at times. My partner wonders why the heck, then, I am always reading THESE kind of books because doesn’t that make me feel even worse?? But weirdly, not. Station Eleven is one of my all-time favourite books, and what I love about it is that in the face of extinction and suffering people still find beauty in music and theatre and kindness. This is hopeful.
I also gain hope from all of the youth stepping up and speaking out, including my own children who dragged me to my very first demonstration last week, the climate strike. Surrounded by so many others feeling the same anxiety, I felt hope. And I felt unexpectedly moved to tears.
I wanted to suggest a couple of other “extinction lit” books that I have read lately, as I try to broaden my reading to include Indigenous authors. The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline is amazing, as is Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice. There is a lot of poetic justice in there, along with really gripping tales.
Speaking of youth, here is another amazing young person speaking to the UN last week: https://youtu.be/OusN4mWmDKQ . I find myself paying more attention to these stories because it really does give me hope that some day, our world will be more balanced in power, with someone other than more old white men in leadership. x
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It is always so good to hear from you. I am glad you joined our little conversation here. And thank you for the book recommendations! I meant to ask for them at the end of the post, and I just forgot to. I will be putting your suggestions on my hold list at the library. I think we’ve always used story to help us face things. I think reading a book like Station Eleven is almost a way of practicing for what might be. And there’s more comfort in the known than the unknown, I think.
Thank you for the book recommendations!
You’re welcome! You give us so many good things to read. It’s only fair that I give a little back.
And look what turned up in my inbox this morning: https://www.readitforward.com/essay/article/books-like-station-eleven/
For those who loved Station Eleven–Two of the titles in the article are ones I’ve talked about above, but there are a few new ones I’m going to check out.
Thank you for including the link on toxic positivity as I missed this hot topic, yet grapple with its essence on my own.
I agree with this thought of yours, Rita. “I think there’s another (maybe greater) collective danger in relentlessly turning our gaze only to the bright side, or insisting that reality is only a matter of attitude: It keeps us from seeing things we need to see about larger systems and causes of suffering that exist outside of individuals.”
I am glad that you held to courage to push publish weighing in on your fears of comments that may lie with it. This post is a gorgeous display of your talent of writing.
As I watched the so young, highly publicized, child address the United Nations, I felt saddened by the theatrical approach, the acting to reading the script, that I (and how many other people) lost the attention to the very important topic. For me, the YA address was, sadly enough, a debit as my thoughts drifted into the absent of the human authenticity. I heard words of blame, driving guilt, little of anything else. If there were words to offer of solutions, I completely missed the solutions in all the theatrical display.
Reading the actual words in a written approach may have captured attention this topic merits.
I was glad to read your post to offer a perspective that other people may not have been distracted by the theatrical performance.
I love how you pulled together your personal youth work experience, the selection list of books, the positivity bubble verses realism (pessimism), and especially your closing choice of the famous quote of James Baldwin.
I hope that you don’t mind me sharing how I felt in that particular moment as I watched on TV. I’m glad I have you to open my perspective and to talk about hard stuff and uncomfortable feelings, at times.
I think it is interesting, how different people can see such different things in the same events or works of art. I did not find her speech theatrical. I thought it was sincere. If I were 15, I think I, too, would be very angry with those older than me. And I would not feel it is my job to figure out the solutions; she is, after all, still a child.
Yes, yes. It is wonderful to be capable of listening and witnessing all perspectives of events, similar to views of works in the arts as humans have such a variety of experiences that they bring with them while experiencing that particular moment in time. I love to learn all perspectives which enriches ones life. And…that is a fact: this particular address is still a child.
I hope that you heard that I love how you pulled these components all together with your thoughts and personal experiences. I enjoy your writing!
I love this post, Rita. I’m a huge fan of dystopian fiction! (The word “fiction” in that sentence has just reminded me that a commenter on IG recently—brilliantly—said, “Who knew that Wall-E would turn out to be a documentary?”) I LOVED Station Eleven; it’s a book that has stayed with me. My husband recently suggested that I *could* look into CBD oil for anxiety, and my first thought—spoiler alert for anyone who has not read Station Eleven!—was of the character who left the airport and wandered off into the woods because she could no longer get her anti-depressant meds.
Another book that has stuck with me through the years is the middle-grade novel The City of Ember. Have you read it? The writing isn’t great, but the concept and the attention to detail kind of blew me away. Similarly: The Host, by Stephenie Meyer. Once again, the writing wasn’t great, but the concept is one that resonated with me. Oh, and The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. LeGuin!
I am (of course) 100% with you on the toxic positivity. I recently heard someone say “incrementalism is the new form of denialism” (referring to climate change and what to do about it) and this, I think, is basically a branch of toxic positivity: the inability to face reality head on and to REALLY see what it is that we must do if we want to have any hope of solving this crisis.
Thank you for more reading suggestions! I haven’t read City of Ember, but I’m familiar with it. And I haven’t tried the Host; the writing in the Twilight books was so tedious, I doubt I will ever try anything written by her. I should try the LeGuin; I hate to admit that I’ve never read her fiction. I’m not much of a sci-fi reader.
As for solving the crisis, well…I don’t think that attempting to do that is going to be a good use of my energy. I am reading a different book this week: Making Home by Sharon Astyk. The Amazon description is more marketing than an accurate description of the book. It’s not a simple “embrace the simple life” tome. I think you might like it, if you haven’t come across it yet. It is helping me face what’s coming (what’s already here) from a different stance. One that feels more powerful than hopeless and helpless.
I’m not much of a sci-fi reader either—I cannot seem to get into stories that take place in entirely made-up worlds. The Lathe of Heaven is set on Earth, and although there is a bit of a sci-fi component to it, it really is a human story. It’s the only one of her books that I’ve read.
I looked up the Making Home book, and I may get to it sometime. To be honest, I feel like the past 23 years of my life have been spent in homesteading-lite mode. (Making, making, making. With electricity (mostly), but still…) I know I’m just one person (who can often barely manage to speak) and I know (because I told a friend just yesterday) that my attempts at “solving the crisis” are taking an enormous toll on me, and yet I can’t not keep trying 🙁 .
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In one of our district’s libraries, we have a genre we call Light Fantasy–which is the kind you’re describing, and really the only kind I’ve ever liked much. Although Harry Potter isn’t technically light fantasy, as Hogwarts is a place that doesn’t exist, earth and humans are so much part of those stories that I was able to enter into those books. Now I’m really interested in Lathe of Heaven.