Three more books about the end of civilization

Last August I made a list of fascinating fiction about major societal collapse and how writers have imagined that survivors would deal with it. Here are three additions I’ve read more recently.

  1. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. This is a book I’ve enjoyed, but not loved. The protagonist’s quest to understand the scientific underpinnings of vampirism, in my opinion, detracts from the well-developed haunting atmosphere (the boarded-up house, the lonely stray dog) and the exploration of the psychology of long-term isolation. Yet, the idea is powerful and cinematographically gifted. The movie adaptation currently on the screen, with the charming Will Smith, seems to take quite a few liberties with the story: in the original, Robert Neville is stuck in suburbia hell and never even thinks of getting to Manhattan. There have been at least two other movies: The Last Man on Earth (1964), directed in Italy by Ubaldo Ragona and starring Vincent Price in the main role and Giacomo Rossi Stuart as his vampire neighbor (I bet the scenes around the fascist-era buildings in the Roman EUR suburb must be something to watch); and The Omega Man (1971), by Boris Sagal, starring Charlton Heston. Richard Matheson was a hugely influential horror and sci-fi writer and screenwriter; one of his stories was the basis for Spielberg’s Duel (1971).
  2. On The Beach by Nevil Shute. (Readers, thanks for your recommendations! You know who you are). Excellent story about a radioactive holocaust spreading from the Northern Hemisphere to the survivors in Australia, who know it’s coming. Some of them run submarine missions to explore the wastelands across the ocean, some race fast cars, some drink up the fine wines in their cellars: but it is an overwhelmingly civilized end of history, made more humane by the provision of little white pills by the Australian government.
  3. Finally, a short story: “Fish” in Michel Faber’s collection Some Rain Must Fall and Other Stories. The survivor is a mother protecting her child from the horrors of marine life invading the air. Beautiful.

Civilization is a fine thing we’ve got – let’s protect it, because it ain’t pretty out there without it.

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