The Biblioracle: Heed the warnings from dystopian literature

Postapocalyptic lit

The Biblioracle says we should pay closer attention to the message in dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature, such as Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." (Macall Polay photo)

I am not sure what this says about me, but if the apocalypse comes, and it's of the nuclear variety, I'm hoping to be atomized in a blinding flash of light.

If it's flesh-eating zombies, I'll run jugular-first into their teeth-gnashing embrace. If I somehow find myself participating in The Hunger Games, I'll plunge myself onto another tribute's trident at the opening siren.

What I'm saying is that if the apocalypse comes, or our worst fears of a future dystopia come true, I'm not inclined to stick around. I don't know if my stance is rooted in bravery (not afraid of dying), or cowardice (not willing to live in depredation).

Despite — or maybe because of — my fear of societal collapse, it seems I read a lot of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. Right now, it's Edan Lepucki's "California."

The first thing I should straighten out, for myself above all, is the difference between a post-apocalyptic novel and a dystopian novel. The handiest rule of thumb is that post-apocalyptic novels are usually triggered by a single, traumatic event — nuclear holocaust, super virus, a Kardashian becoming president — that wipes out huge swaths of the population in one fell swoop, with the resulting narrative focusing on character survival. Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" is a perfect recent example.

A dystopian novel also may focus on survival, but usually describes a kind of gradual decay that has given rise to a dysfunctional society, as in the creeping totalitarianism of George Orwell's "1984."

Some novels can be hard to pin down. Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy contains a world that's apparently been spoiled by some kind of biological/environmental disaster, but it also describes a kind of dystopia of corporatism run amok that led to destruction of governmental oversight, which paved the way for the disaster.

That Atwood wrote the first installment, "Oryx and Crake," in 2003, long before the U.S. Supreme Court declared corporations to be people, speaks to her brilliance.

Edan Lepucki's "California" is also hard to pin down. The main characters, a young husband and wife, are living in a dystopia where unchecked wealth inequality and privatization has left only the richest able to afford housing or public services, but they're doing so in a remote stretch of woods, apart from just about anyone else.

It's tempting to say that the recent recession has triggered a wave of dystopian literature. It's for sure a hot category in Y.A. – "The Hunger Games," "Divergent," Ally Condie's "Matched" series, Scott Westerfeld's "Uglies" series are just the most popular.

But dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction has been a staple of the American reading diet since World War II, once it became clear we could exterminate ourselves in a hail of nukes — "1984," "Cat's Cradle," "Fahrenheit 451," "The Stand," "A Clockwork Orange," "I Am Legend," "Cloud Atlas," and on and on and on.

Many of these books are warnings, warnings we should maybe take seriously. One of my recent favorites, Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story," is a darkly comedic dystopian novel in which everyone is judged on their credit score and carries around a smart phone-like device called an "äppärät" that, among other things, broadcasts the attractiveness rating of the user relative to others in his proximity.

Even scarier, the nebbishy protagonist, Lenny Abramov, is one of the few people to still own physical books. When the object of Lenny's intense affections, Eunice, sees them, she wrinkles her nose in disgust and declares that they smell like urine.

The best dystopian novels are all too believable, which is probably why I keep gravitating to them.

Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "The Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.

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The Biblioracle offers readers recommendations

1. "Split Image" by Robert B. Parker

2. "Still Missing" by Chevy Stevens

3. "The Vessel" by Taylor Stevens

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