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Last Days: Five Dystopian Reads for Your Lenten Uplift

March 10, 2021


While the world seems to be doing its best to hurtle humanity over the brink, most of us are probably not looking for anything extra penitential this Lent. It might be useful to remember, though, that Christian abnegation, whatever else it is, is also a preparation to enjoy.

From this perspective, there is a perhaps surprising convergence between Lenten renunciations and the literary aims of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. These stories immerse their readers into dark and undesirable circumstances precisely with an eye to escorting them back out into a freshly lit and, by comparison, astonishingly beautiful world.

In other words, while these stories might seem really pessimistic and focused on all the ways we might collectively destroy our lives, the best of them (like the best penances) are not motivated by self-flagellation, schadenfreude, or any other perversity, but by the aim of renewing gratitude.

In this spirit, the following bleak-future fictions offer us visions that are not simply bleak but encourage some sort of regenerated perspective as well.

Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson

A novel little known these days outside Catholic circles, Msgr. Benson’s speculative portrayal of the last days has been spoken of with approval by both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI. It tells the story of an Antichrist who is nothing so crude as a sacrilegious tyrant, but is instead a polished politician who rises to power as a public advocate for an archly humanistic “religion of man.”

Published in 1907, the book is in style and speculation clearly the work of an earlier era—consider the elaborate then-science-fiction description of airplanes powered by wound-up rubber bands. Yet it offers a perennially relevant depiction of how the good can sometimes be the enemy of the best, resulting, for instance, in a society where “friendliness took the place of charity, contentment the place of hope, and knowledge the place of faith.”

We may have come a long way since its publication, but Lord of the World still offers a tonic reminder of the allurements of a certain kind of worldly humaneness, as well as the fundamental wholesomeness of the faith amidst seemingly more reasonable alternatives.

Mockingbird by Walter Tevis

Probably the most obscure entry on the list, Mockingbird was nominated for a Nebula Award for Best Novel at its release in 1980. Envisioning a dystopic post-scarcity society that has been almost entirely emptied of humanity, it offers a cautionary tale about the perils of pursuing individual happiness and material affluence unchecked by any balancing imperatives.

The story follows a sentient robot that is, ironically, both the symbol and concrete remnant of all that is left of humanity after they have chased individualistic luxuries to their logical limit: from automobiles and televisions to robots like him and finally refined narcotics that numb all disturbing sensations (including emotional interest in other persons).

A haunting portrayal of a society built around self-centeredness, Mockingbird launches us far along the trajectory pursued by a culture of persons who may still desire to love and be loved, yet have forgotten the meaning of the word.

Children of Men by P. D. James

Perhaps the best example where a film radically alters its source material (though both work well), the novel Children of Men (1992) imagines a dystopian near-future in which humanity has lost the ability to beget children.

Set in the UK several decades after the birth of the last child, the story follows Dr. Theodore Faron, fellow of Merton College, Oxford, “divorced, childless, solitary,” through his escalating entanglement with an underground revolutionary group.

Threaded throughout with political hot-button issues, the story weaves a nimble tale while subtly yet inexorably mounting a kind of narrative manifesto on the consequences of a society that subordinates the sanctity of life to utilitarian purposes.

An engaging, tautly told tale, the novel’s prevalent biblical tropes and overt religious symbolism dispel any suspicion of the incompatibility between a dystopian social outlook and positive Christian conviction.

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

The best-selling novel (2010) behind the Certified Fresh “zom rom com,” this post-apocalyptic love story centers upon the unlikely relationship between a zombie and one of humanity’s few surviving young adults.

It is a rare story in which the undead can recover some degree of humanity. In this world, the genre’s symbolic conflict between forces of disaster and regenerative hope translates into the protagonist’s interior struggle between opposing desires toward the living, both romantic and gastronomic.

Somehow simultaneously sweet and gory, winsome and repulsive, the novel includes a layer of religious interest not included in the film. The zombies’ characteristic appetite, for instance, is depicted in more-than-merely-material terms, a “new hunger” that grudgingly accepts flesh and blood when “what it craves is closeness.”

Probing the urgent question of whether anything in the world—love, life, a principle of integrity or hope—is more powerful than its all-but-overwhelming appearances of disaster, disintegration, and death, Warm Bodies makes a passionate appeal to “peel off these dusty wool blankets of apathy and antipathy and cynical desiccation,” and choose life “in all its stupid sticky rawness.”

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Last but not least, a winner of the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science-fiction novel, this sensitive and beautifully written post-apocalyptic work offers a fresh glimpse of the wonder of familiar things mediated through their imagined loss.

Drawing together a chain of associations between apocalypse, trauma, and the sublime, the novel’s several storylines jump back and forth between the periods before and after society’s collapse, cleverly comparing the two periods and suggesting they might be more similar than first believed.

Following the cataclysm, for instance, one character reflects upon the precariousness of civilized existence and the many things he took for granted, surprised by “how human everything is.”

“We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world,” he observes, “but that was a lie. . . . It had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt. . . . Trucks remain at their points of origin. . . . Grocery stores close. Businesses are locked and then looted.”

Eerily prescient, the point here (as in the best bleak-future fictions) is not simply to invite readers into strange experiences of imaginary grief, but to come away with a sense of how the pre-disaster world was “incredible in retrospect, all of it.”

Put another way, the point is not so much to immediately thrill at such a Lent-like reading experience, but to look up at the end and ask with renewed conviction, like another character in Station Eleven who watches with tears on his face what may be the last airplane runway takeoff in his lifetime: “Why in his life of frequent travel, had he never recognized the beauty of flight?”