When I wrote the post ‘Preparing for Disaster: Reading Post-Apocalyptic Fiction‘ in 2015, Covid-19 was still almost five years away into the future (the virus broke out in China’s city of Wuhan in December 2019, hence its name, but it spread worldwide in early 2020, with a three-month state of alarm and lockdown being declared on 14 March in Spain). I’d like to comment today on how it feels to read post-apocalyptic fiction in 2023, basically to stress how lucky we have been that Covid-19 is only moderately lethal and to remind myself and whatever readers I have that we might suffer at any moment a much worse pandemic. The Spanish authorities have more or less declared the official end of the Covid-19 disaster by allowing us to stop using facemasks on public transport on 7 February. This will put an end to the last restriction still enforced (health centres and pharmacist’s shops are the only exception). Yet, my impression is that this is just the end of one stage on a long road towards a distressing future.

            Those who were surprised by the outbreak must have lived on an alternative universe, for Anglophone science-fiction had been narrating a post-plague apocalyptic scenario for many decades, if not centuries (Mary Shelley’s apocalyptic novel The Last Man was published in 1826). The post-apocalyptic novels I recommended in my 2015 post are not, however, all post-plague; some blame the loss of civilization on nuclear holocaust, climate change or other factors. Here they are again: After London (Richard Jefferies, 1885), The Scarlet Plague (Jack London, 1912), Earth Abides (George R. Stewart, 1949), I am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954), The Chrysalids (John Wyndham, 1955), The Death of Grass/No Blade of Grass (John Christopher, 1956), On the Beach (Nevil Shute, 1957), Alas, Babylon (Pat Frank, 1959), A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, Jr., 1960), The Drowned World (J.G. Ballard, 1962), Lucifer’s Hammer (Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, 1977), The Stand (Stephen King, 1978), Riddley Walker (Russell Hoban, 1980), The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1985), The Children of Men (PD James, 1992), The Road (Cormac McCarthy, 2006), World War Z (Max Brooks, 2006), The Passage (Justin Cronin, 2010), Wool (Hugh Howey, 2011) and Seveneves (Neal Stephenson, 2014).

            There are other, far more complete lists like the one at LitHub, with fifty novels, including one of the two I want to comment on today: Emily St. John Mandel’s acclaimed Station Eleven (2014, a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award). The other is Paul Kingsnorth’s Alexandria (2020). Whereas Mandel narrates the consequences of the deadly onslaught of a swine flu virus, originating in the Republic of Georgia, which kills more than 99% of humankind, Kingsnorth mixes an ecological catastrophe with the rise of artificial intelligence. Mandel narrates what life is like twenty years after the collapse, with glimpses into the past of the characters and into the onset of the pandemic, whereas Kingsnorth focuses on a time nine hundred years after an apocalypse that his characters can’t recall and treat as a legend associated with Atlantis.

            To be honest, I have enjoyed neither novel. I attended Paul Kingsnorth’s interview with Karen Madrid in Festival 42 last November, and although the author came across as a likeable guy, I didn’t rush to buy his Buckmaster trilogy (The Wake 2014, longlisted for The Man Booker Prize; Beast 2016, and Alexandria 2020) because I mistrust writers who want to give ultra-realistic approaches to the distant past (The Wake is set after the Norman invasion) and the distant future. I also mistrust people who, like Kingsnorth, have escaped to the country and cut off themselves from e-mail, the internet, and cellphones. He is in fact co-author of Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto (2019) with Dougald Hine, which inspired the Dark Mountain Project, that type of post-hippie utopia that can easily veer into fascism.

            I read Alexandria eventually because it has been selected as the first novel for El Biblionauta’s new book club focused on SF translated into Catalan, Club Fahrenheit 451; except for Karen Madrid, the guest in charge of defending the novel, the rest of us were satisfied to have read Alexandria but most noted they would have abandoned it if it were not for the book club because it reads as an anti-AI pamphlet rather than fiction. As for Mandel’s novel, I have finished it after four attempts, having abandoned it the last time half way into the book. I have actually made the effort because the next novel in the club is Mandel’s newest book, The Sea of Tranquility (2022), and I really wanted to be done with Station Eleven. Both writers, I must note, are literary authors (he is English, she is Canadian) who use science-fictional, dystopian elements, as it is fashionable to do today, rather than genre authors.

            As I have noted, in Mandel’s novel (the inspiration for an HBO-Max mini-series of 2021) a virus kills off almost all of humankind. Since the incubation period is just a few hours and most patients die in under two days, the collapse of civilization is fast and sudden. Kirsten, the twenty-eight-year-old protagonist, has very conveniently for Mandel forgotten what happened in the Great Lakes area where the novel is set while she was on the road with her brother in year one. Mandel mentions that humans abandoned cities to survive in small towns, saying little about how exactly they managed that miracle; later in the novel she narrates how an international community of stranded passengers survived in an airport… apparently living off hunting deer. I have never believed for a moment that civilization could survive the brutal collapse Station Eleven narrates even though Mandel’s novel is, in fact, a sort of softer version of McCarthy’s far grittier The Road.

            As of today (29 January 2023) a total of 6,804,491 Covid-related deaths have been reported to WHO. Even supposing that figure is ten times higher, there are (since November 2022) 8 billion persons on the planet. If a virus caused 7.2 billion deaths (that’s 90% of the population) there is no way at all civilization could continue, not even if only 25% of the population died. With Covid-19 work was quickly reorganized between those who still had to provide in-person services and those who could work from home. Even though many died, the provision of essential supplies (power, water, gas, oil) was never halted. If some supermarkets were emptied this was due to panic rather than a failure in the supply chain. Thinking of this while reading Mandel, who seems above all concerned by the disappearance of the Internet following the loss of power, I was overcome by two simultaneous feelings: we were bloody lucky that Covid-19 is not really very lethal and life could go on more or less normally even in lockdown, yet we stupidly forget that the Internet was commercialized around 1995, less than thirty years ago, and that the British managed to build their astonishing Victorian civilization with no electricity except in the last years. So, what collapse are we talking about?

            This is more or less the point that Kingsnorth is making with the notion of ‘uncivilization’: that we could gradually shed superfluous habits and in this way reach a stage which, while not necessarily primitive, might stop climate change. In his novel, set in the Fens of East England, people live a tribal existence in a sub-tropical land (Britain used to be tropical in prehistory), following matriarchal lines and the cult of the Lady. This life, however, is being eroded by Wayland, an artificial intelligence that, apparently, emancipated itself and has become a sort of digital Gaia. Wayland’s emissaries, like the post-human K., have the mission of luring tribespeople to Alexandria, a virtual domain where they are promised that immortality awaits. In fact, if I understood the rather vague end correctly, Wayland’s plans for the humans are far more sinister, though possibly liberating for the planet.

            It’s funny how novels like Mandel’s annoy me because how poorly they understand life before electricity (and the Internet!) whereas novels like Kingsnorth’s irritate me for how they tend to forget how much people suffered before modern medicine emerged. I can very well imagine living an ‘uncivilized’ life with no cell phones, no Internet, no low-cost international flying, and eating only local food because that was life not too long ago, in the 1980s. But even though Mandel has one of her minor characters act as a doctor when he is only a medic, and worry about the loss of medical schools, only very minor characters suffer pain or die for causes that could be cured today. One of Kingsnorth’s characters dies of old age (though it is unclear how old he is), but fear of disease is not a key factor in his novel. This is very important for, after all, modern medicine has managed the feat of producing an anti-Covid-19 vaccine in under one year that has saved many lives, whatever the anti-vaxxers say. If civilization collapses that would be the greatest loss. Not the Internet…

            I’ll stress my main argument once more: I may not have enjoyed Mandel’s Station Eleven, but reading it has been a most relevant experience, a reminder that we got lucky with Covid-19 but might not get lucky again. In Kingsnorth’s novel the effects of climate change are rounded off by Wayland’s devious intervention to, possibly, reboot the planet with no humans on it. Together, both novels spell out a similar message: civilization as we know it is too fragile to survive catastrophe, whether man-made or not. I never thought back in 2015 that I would actually see a pandemic in my lifetime, perhaps because the 1918 flu seemed so long ago. My impression now is that I will probably see a much worse pandemic and even perhaps an end to current civilization. If this is sudden, as in Mandel’s novel, we will not survive. If it is gradual, we might ‘uncivilize’ and adapt, but, as the news we are seeing these recent weeks suggests, the predecessor of an AI like Wayland might be already waiting for our apocalypse.            

I’ll re-read this post in eight years (remember I started by referring to a post of 2015?), and, if you and I are still here, I will write an update. I wonder what it will contain. How scary.