According to the adherents of the 2012 apocalypse theory, rooted in a controversial reading of ancient Mayan numerology, Earth is going to break into pieces and/or be consumed by a solar flare and/or disappear into a black hole on Dec. 21, right before Christmas.
Literature offers us many, many visions of post-apocalyptic life. In books like Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker and Cormac McCarthy's brilliant and brutal The Road, we learn how we shall comport ourselves in the ravaged, dystopian days to come: There will be a lot of fighting, a lot of woeful remembrance of things past and the occasional touch of cannibalism. Rarer, however, are books that offer advice on the ethics and etiquette of the pre-apocalyptic period. What should we do and how should we exist, knowing that our days are literally numbered?
A 14th century allegory about 10 Florentines who hole up in a secluded villa to flee the Black Death, entertaining each other with endless stories, the Decameron offers literature's first and perhaps best answer to the question of what to do while waiting to die. Boccaccio's answer? Stay up all night, tell stories, make jokes and ignore what's coming. If you are, for whatever reason, not interested in reading a 14th century Italian masterpiece, you might try Jane Smiley's loose adaptation from 2007, Ten Days in the Hills, which changes the setting to contemporary Los Angeles, and the characters to debauched Hollywood lowlifes.
The Children Of Men
Here the British author P.D. James imagines the world in 2021, when mankind has lost the ability to reproduce. With no new generations being born, civilization is in a long holding pattern, waiting to die off, and James examines what happens to government, to the art of medicine and to human relationships. It's one of the master detective writer's rare forays outside her genre; it's also rare how successfully the movie version adapts, and even deepens, the book's tone of simmering violence and melancholy. (It may just be the casting of Clive Owen, who radiates those two qualities).
On The Beach
Standing tall among classics of Cold War nuclear-paranoia literature is this deeply felt portrait of an ensemble of heroes in southern Australia, waiting for the radiation cloud unleashed by a nuclear exchange to reach their shores. Stubbornly, heroically, they cling to their humanity — to politeness and small talk, to hunting and fishing and car racing, to family and friends and the possibility of love. The moral center is Cmdr. Dwight Towers, an American submarine captain — and now the de facto admiral of the U.S. Navy — who refuses to abandon his post, and refuses even a sexual liaison out of fealty to his wife, back home in Connecticut and certainly dead.
There is a connection among all these books, a theme running through great end-times literature, from the Book of Revelations to The Hunger Games. The real subject is moral behavior; that is, how to remain human even in — especially in — the worst circumstances. These doom-soaked narratives aren't telling you how to prepare to die: They're telling you how to live.
Ben H. Winters is the author of The Last Policeman: A Novel.
Three Books... is produced and edited by the team at NPR Books.