The best books about the end of the world and how we handle big change

The Books I Picked & Why

1984

By George Orwell

Book cover of 1984

Why this book?

Winston Smith lives in London, Airstrip One, Oceania. The citizens are continually monitored by the Thought Police and the face of Big Brother looks down on them wherever they are. On every wall of every building, Big Brother is Watching You! 

The people have only the barest necessities and they live in fear of inadvertently attracting the attention of the authorities. They put up with it because Oceania is at war – perpetually. The enemy changes but the war goes on. And now Winston Smith is about to engage in something so dangerous that if he is caught he may face the death penalty. He has started to keep a diary!

There can be few books as downright terrifying as Orwell’s postulation of a system by which a government might keep a people in perpetual and submissive slavery. It is all too believable. It certainly shook me out of my comfortable belief that the government existed to serve the people and protect them.


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Good Omens

By Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman

Book cover of Good Omens

Why this book?

If you want an antidote to 1984, this is the book for you – Pratchett and Gaiman’s biblical end of the world scenario. The prophecies have all come true, the Antichrist has been born and the four horsemen of the apocalypse are riding the earth. Everything is going horribly wrong!

As you might expect from these two authors, this is a very amusing book. But behind the jokes, there are some thought-provoking reflections on the truly weird world we live in. Did you know, for instance, that the route of the M25 motorway was redesigned by demons? That’s why it’s so hellish. 

I laughed all the way through the story, but every so often stopped dead at a trenchant observation of our civilization. Of course there aren’t really any demons out there, determined to make our world a misery. At least, I don’t think so. Probably not.


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The Stand

By Stephen King

Book cover of The Stand

Why this book?

Stephen King’s classic dystopian novel, written by the true master of storytelling.

A terrible plague ravages America and civilization collapses. The few survivors all have the same two dreams, one is of an ancient black woman in Nebraska, who plays the guitar and sings gospel songs. The other is of the Dark Man, the Walking Dude – a terrifying nightmare figure. Soon, the people realise that they are going to be called upon to take sides. To choose between Good and Evil.

It’s a long book and I made the mistake of beginning to read it at tea time. By midnight I was still reading it, telling myself I’d just read one more chapter before bed. Luckily it was the weekend, so it didn’t matter too much that I didn’t stop till I got to the end – well after sunrise. And, would you believe? I still wanted more.


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The Chrysalids

By John Wyndham

Book cover of The Chrysalids

Why this book?

This is the story of a young boy growing up in a post-apocalyptic world. Nuclear war has all but destroyed the Earth but, bit by bit, it is recovering. The animals and plants are often mutated but they are coming back. And human beings are forming societies again. 

David Strorm’s community is dominated by legends of the Old People, who could fly through the air and talk to each other even over vast distances. The Old People were destroyed by Tribulation, sent down upon them by God. Now the important thing is to obey the rules and, most importantly, keep the image pure. No mutation should be allowed to live and breed. 

As he grows older David becomes more and more afraid because he is beginning to realise that he, himself, is a mutant. He can communicate telepathically with his cousin Rosalind. And he knows what they do to mutants. 

This book has been my companion since I first read it in the early 1960s. It thrilled me when I was a teenager and it thrills me still. Every so often I read it again and marvel at Wyndham’s grasp of how society forms its mores and religious beliefs. And how he creates characters that seem to live and breathe.


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Surveillance

By Alexander Sofras, Lynette Sofras

Book cover of Surveillance

Why this book?

Claire and Brandon Avery live in a world pretty much like ours but with surveillance notched up to a point where there is very little privacy. It is also a world in which the government is very suspicious of high intelligence, and the Averys’ son Harrison is very intelligent indeed. But how do you teach a six-year-old child, who hasn’t learnt how to lie, that he must hide his genius?

It’s amazing how much is packed into this short story. I was weak with apprehension when I realised what was at stake. If the man from the government discovers just how clever Harrison is, he will be taken away from his parents and neutralised. The Averys’ agony as they make plans to escape is palpable. And the ending knocks you sideways.

I came upon this little gem relatively recently and just read it again to check that it was as good as I remembered. It’s even better the second time around.


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