I love jogging around Stanford campus. While I train my body, the beautiful architecture, Rodin sculptures, cactus garden, rolling hills, classic buildings, modern buildings, fountains, towers, tombs and churches provide a workout for my mind. It’s especially fun on summer nights: the semester is over, so most students have left, and the few stragglers usually clear off campus once the sun has set. On many occasions, I’ve gone for miles without seeing a single person. I run through the hallways of the central quad with only my thoughts, the sound of my footsteps, and the moonlight beams pouring through the archways. It is a serene experience.
It is also a time when my imagination begins to stir. Sometimes, strange or even dark thoughts emerge. The sensation that I’m the only human in such a large, magnificent place makes me wonder what would happen if I really was the only human left—on earth. Imagine all of the great works of humanity lying abandoned; supermarkets full of untouched, rotting food; house after house in suburban neighborhoods being overtaken by their own lawns; masterpieces of art hanging in museums, with no one to see them.
I’m not sure why, but I thoroughly enjoy thinking about this disturbing future and what it would take to survive. There is a dark and haunting beauty to it and you walk away with an appreciation of the life we have now. And I’m not the only one to think so. I’ve come across many books and movies that deal with this apocalyptic future. If you’re a fan of similar stories, I’ve listed some of my favorites from this genre below; if you know of other good ones, leave a comment!
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
A father and son travel on foot along a highway in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Virtually all of humanity has been wiped out by some unspecified event—perhaps some nuclear war. The whole world is bleak, cold, ashen and largely devoid of life. The father/son duo spend much of the novel scavenging for food, supplies and shelter. The few encounters they have with other human survivors are deeply disturbing: civilization has collapsed and humans have returned to savage and barbaric ways. The tale is gritty and haunting; I couldn’t put it down. While writing this blog post, I found out that a movie version came out in 2009; it is now high atop my “to see” list.
Update: watched the movie version on 07/18/11. You definitely lose something without McCarthy’s prose and some of the really disturbing scenes from the book are omitted, but the movie is definitely still worth seeing for fans of this genre. It’s dark, haunting, and at times hard & painful to watch, just as the book could be hard to read. For the most part, it’s beautifully shot, and the acting is top notch.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Some sort of disease has ravaged the land, killing the vast majority of humanity and turning the rest into creatures that resemble vampires. The sole survivor is Robert Neville, who seems to be immune to the disease. The novel follows his day to day life, living totally alone, scavenging abandoned towns during the day and barricading himself in his house at night. The sense of loneliness and despair that Matheson conveys is unlike anything I’ve ever read. The storytelling is gripping, horryfing, and unrelenting; you will be depressed, but you will not be disappointed. The same cannot be said of the 2007 movie version with Will Smith; while not a bad movie as far as vampire/monster flicks go—I especially liked the scenes of an empty NYC—it just cannot hold a candle to the book.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Another story where civilization has collapsed, leaving only the main character, “Snowman”, and a number of very strange creatures - Crakers, wolvogs, pigoons, rakunks—roaming the earth. Most of this book is spent in flashbacks that explain how the world got into this post-apocalyptic state. A tale fascinating for its numerous discussions of genetic engineering, transgenic animals, and the commercialization of life.
The Book of Eli
The only “pure movie” to make my list. It seems to borrow heavily from The Road, featuring a post-war world, a man traveling along a highway to the west, and the collapse and resulting depravity of civilization. The movie can be a bit too “religious” for my tastes, but it’s well made, suitably dark, and features some superb actors (Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman).