The best doomsday books to read in isolation

Doomsday literature
Doomsday Literature: the 10 dystopian novels you should read in isolation

With the 2011 film Contagion creeping its way up the iTunes charts in the last few weeks, it seems people are turning to pop culture to help them make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whether this is a good, comforting idea or not, there is plenty out there that speculates on what the world might come to if coronavirus is signalling ‘the end’ (spoiler alert, it’s really not, and everyone needs to chill).

If you, like myself, are more of a book than a movie and TV person, you can still deep-dive on this theme through various classic novels.

Here are some of Hatch’s favourites if you’re looking for a topical read while stuck in self-isolation. We’ve also linked to where to buy them from Better Read than Dead, an independent bookstore local to our Sydney campus that takes online orders.

The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham

John Wyndham’s 1951 sci-fi novel sees most of the human race blinded by a meteor shower, leading to a species of plant – the Triffid, which is tall, venomous and carnivorous – beginning to kill people. It was the inspiration behind the zombie film 28 Days Later. Although bearing no resemblance to our current situation, it’s still a fun read.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

This critically acclaimed novel has seen a resurgence in the last couple of years after the making of a television show of the same name, starring the terrifying yet captivating Elisabeth Moss as Offred. The book follows Offred, a ‘Handmaid’, forced to have babies for the rich and powerful in a religious, post-apocalyptic society where women are completely subordinate to men, and have lost the right to work, study, and even read. If the end of the book leaves you wanting more (as it did for most), Margaret Atwood’s sequel, The Testaments, came out just last year, and was a joint winner of the Man Booker Prize.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell

Written in 1949, this novel contained Orwell’s speculations of the future. His vague accuracies make it a slightly unnerving read. He coined the phrase ‘Big Brother is watching’, which encapsulated the government over-reach, totalitarianism and mass-surveillance in the novel. And yes, the phrase does spring to mind every time I video-call my friends on House Party, or see a targeted ad on Facebook. Get me a tinfoil hat to match my surgical mask, please.

Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

This might be a weirdly intriguing one for journalists, as Bradbury once described the book as a commentary on how mass media reduces interest in reading literature. The novel shows us a dystopian American society where books are outlawed, and burned by ‘firemen’. The firemen are also responsible for burning the possessions of those who read books – intense! This is one of the shorter reads on the list, so a good place to start your foray into doomsday lit. Also, its been made into two different movies – one from 1966, the other as recent as 2018.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick

Who knows if this is really classic doomsday literature, but it was the inspiration for the cult-classic film, Blade Runner, which you probably watched as part of the Year 12 HSC and either love or hate with a burning passion. Another short novel, it’ll probably take you less time to read the book than to watch that goddamn movie.

Tomorrow When the War Began, by John Marsden

Now for some Australian nostalgia, the Tomorrow When the War Began series was a favourite among teens a couple of years back. Following a group of teenagers who miss the invasion of Australia while away on a camping trip, we see the premature aging and toughening of main character Ellie, as she and her friends realise they are the only people in their town who haven’t been captured by enemy forces. There was a movie and a TV series made, too – featuring some very familiar NSW scenery.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

If you’re a millennial, you definitely read this series in your teens and learned to braid your hair in order to emulate heroine Katniss Everdeen. Collins’ trilogy makes for an interesting read – the writing is light and easy to follow while also dealing with some deep and dark content. In a dystopian version of the US called Panem, where society is sorted via profession and class, a yearly tournament sees 24 children enter an arena to fight to the death, a feat that is televised for the nation to watch (so, kind of like MAFS!). Katniss takes the place of her younger sister and enters the arena for a series of events that alter the course of Panem. Also, four really good movies were born out of this franchise. Ultimate bingeing ahead.

War of the Worlds, by HG Wells

If you feel like kickin’ it old-school, War of the Worlds was published in 1898 and is still a classic to this day. When a bunch of Martians on Mars find their resources depleting, they plan to invade Earth for the goods. They land their little spaceship in Woking, Surrey, which seems unrealistic, but that’s okay. Events transpire, as described by an unnamed narrator, and lead into Book Two, which goes into what Earth is like under Martian rule. This story has been told and re-told over the years, via radio drama and various films. The most recent was a 2005 film starring Tom Cruise.

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

When a plane crashes off the coast of a deserted island, a group of very young (like, 11-year-olds) schoolboys attempt to build their own little world and find a way to survive and self-govern until they are rescued. However, it goes terribly. This is critically a really good book – exploring dualities like groupthink versus individuality, rational versus emotional reactions and morality versus immorality, but I was never able to get past the fact that these were little kids brutally fighting each other, as the very ending does well to point out. The Simpsons adaptation was good, though.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

It wouldn’t be a proper literary list without at least one Pulitzer Prize Winner. Rounding off our list is Cormac McCarthy’s classic, The Road. In classic dystopian style, we don’t really know what decimated Earth when we launch into this book, we just follow a man and his young son as they make their way through what is left of America. Something particularly poignant about this novel is the father convincing his young son that they are the ‘good guys’ – how else would you communicate the severity of an anarchical society to someone so young? The 2009 movie adaptation is also one for your list.