The apocalypse is an event usually rendered in lurid shades of deep despair. It’s only natural—the extermination of all life on earth is bound to be a black affair, even when treated with an, er, lighthearted touch. But just because the apocalypse is going to be all doom and destruction doesn’t necessarily mean our fiction has to take on the same airs. In fact, there’s a lot of merit to the idea that one should find beauty even in the absolute worst of circumstances. With our extinction as a species seeming to loom closer with every inch of melting glacier, speculative fiction of the recent past has seen an explosion in this kind of fiction, a surfeit of books that emphasize the elegance inherent in everything falling apart. Here are 5 books that give us hope that our apocalyptic future will, at least, be beautiful.
Night of the Animals, by Bill Broun
Night of the Animals may take place in an oppressive dystopia where the newly restored King of England rules with an iron fist and a suicide cult runs rampant as a comet looms in the sky, but it’s one of the most aesthetically pleasing end-of-everything scenarios I’ve ever encountered. Broun uses bold color, light, and contrast choices paired with vivid descriptions to create a book that feels utterly, gorgeously magical, even when depicting citywide riots, or a standoff between the King’s forces and the hero in the middle of the London Zoo. Add a bunch of hallucinatory sequences involving possibly magic animals, and the result is a pretty, pretty apocalyptic dystopian fantasia that stays with you long after the book’s close.
The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins
There’s a disquieting beauty to Hawkins’s debut, a novel that slowly piles on the apocalyptic events as it plays with the premise of a god abandoning the world and his children trying to figure out what to do in the aftermath. But what makes it unique isn’t just the utterly outlandish plot, or the mysterious library at its center—it’s the unusual imagery that litters every page. Hawkins’s prose has a kind of poetic tone, and the surrealist images (a man whose head slowly turns into a sun, an infinite color-coded library) create an odd kind of grace even amid scenes of tectonic destruction and violence—or rather, with stark contrast to those sequences.
Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins
Watkins’s novel, about two people living in an abandoned post-collapse Los Angeles slowly being reclaimed by the desert, is another novel that derives beauty from contrast—in this case, that between the glamour of expensive abandoned homes and gaudy billboards, and the shabby market where the pitiful surviving denizens and traders do their business. The divergence is emphasized by the vast expanse of desert slowly closing in on the city, and those who have decided to remain there, whatever their reasons. There’s a desolate feel to the glamorous surroundings of Los Angeles, but in a certain light, as protagonists Ray and Luz squat in a luxurious mansion home, there’s also a odd and shabby opulence to its speeding decline.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
There’s is a certain haunting beauty to the depopulated spaces and desperate people you encounter in Mandel’s heartbreaking novel, about a troupe of performers struggling to survive after a pandemic wipes out most of the people on Earth. A list of all the things that no longer exist after the disaster takes on a kind of poetic melancholy, as do vivid descriptions of the world as it collapses, creating a kind of “beautiful void” effect; the prose is vivid and thoughtful, bringing a near-tactile sense of place and color to an otherwise bleak world. At one point, even a 404 error screen takes on new significance, as the internet and electricity are so far gone, it’s impossible to imagine what they were even like, back in the glory days.
The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters
While not as on-the-surface beautiful as the other entries on this list, The Last Policeman slowly settles into a linguistic rhythm that creates its own kind of poetry. As the asteroid Maia hurtles closer and closer to a collision with Earth, Hank Palace plugs away at civilization’s last, futile murder investigation. It might not be pretty, but his internal monologue, and the way he looks at the world, finds the wonder in a planet very quickly going mad as its destruction hurtles ever closer. There’s a desolate beauty to Hank Palace’s New England, a place called “Hangertown” by the locals, where even the belongings of a dead murder suspect can take on a certain cadence and light. Winters makes you feel every bit of it.
What’s your favorite example of a beautiful apocalypse in SFF lit?