After the crisis, what kind of world do we want? Post-apocalyptic novels hold lessons — and warnings

"Art gives me hope. Will we take those values, that hope, and use them to imagine a better collective future?"

'Art gives me hope. Will we take those values, that hope, and use them to imagine a better collective future?'

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road. (Dimension Films)

Shelfies is a column by writer Alicia Elliott that looks at arts and culture through the prism of the books on her shelf.

I had planned to write a totally different column this month. I had the idea, the books. I'd started doing the research. Due to COVID-19 forcing me and so many others to stay at home and inside, I had the time.

But, also due to COVID-19, I didn't have the inclination to continue doing any of it. For over a week now I've felt paralyzed, as though I've been watching my friends and family members move through a slow motion horror movie. I imagine a lot of people have felt that way over the past few days, weeks and/or months, depending on how deep into this global pandemic they are. With each passing day it has become clearer that life as we'd once known it is ending before our very eyes. Each day I've scrolled mindlessly through social media, waiting for the latest news story that might give some sort of discernible shape to our increasingly uncertain collective future.

There have been daily news conferences and updates. There has been emergency legislation introduced and passed. There have been restrictions on how many people can gather in one place, which businesses are allowed to remain open, and how they must operate if they do. It's suggested that everyone stay in their homes, provided they have homes; that if you do have to go outside, you remain a certain distance away from others. While all of this gives us a pretty clear idea of what our individual, immediate futures will look like — more social distancing, more sickness — we still don't have any idea what our collective future will look like. What's going to happen when this global pandemic opens our eyes to the cruelty of our priorities, the callousness of our society? Can we really go back to the way things were before? Can we really close our eyes again and pretend we haven't seen what's been right in front of us all along?

Crop of the cover art for Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road. (Alfred A. Knopf)

Society didn't prepare us for this. Politicians didn't prepare us for this. But as I've watched more and more uncertain people turning to movies like Steven Soderbergh's 2011 film Contagion, or TV shows like HBO's Westworld or Netflix's Kingdom, it has occurred to me that maybe art — particularly post-apocalyptic art — in some ways has prepared us for this. By showing us fictional worst case scenarios, artists have been holding up a sort of funhouse mirror for us to peer into, reflecting back at us our strangest, scariest, most distorted selves. Ultimately, as we observe these artists' visions/versions of ourselves, squirming and shivering and staying awake at night, haunted, the question hangs over us: do we like what we see? And if not, what will we do to change it?

Seeing ourselves at this moment, at the edge of what is most certainly a historical precipice, we have many different paths before us. One was sketched by Cormac McCarthy in his 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road. In McCarthy's grim, bloody vision of post-apocalypse, an unnamed father and his son — referred to only as "the man" and "the boy" — wander south through ash-covered lands in search of food and a warmer climate. Society has entirely deteriorated; food supplies have collapsed to the point that cannibal gangs are a serious concern. On the surface, that world looks entirely different from the one we all occupied before COVID-19. But if we look deeper, the me-first, trust-no-one mentality the man relies on to get by is exactly the sort of behaviour our society has pushed all along.

After all, one does not become a millionaire by sharing the means of production with the people. What's interesting is while most mainstream discourse has painted socialism as the "evil" inversion of "good" capitalism, this crisis has questioned that premise, laying bare the inherent cruelty of a system that values profits over people. We've believed politicians when they've told us that we need to wait for the things we need: more housing to help the homeless, or universal drug plans, or funding to ensure reserves have access to, and infrastructure for, clean water. This moment — when governments are finding billions, even trillions of dollars to distribute — is teaching us that was never really the case. It's always been a matter of priorities. And as we now dwell on the precarious state capitalism has left many of us in, unsure how we're going to pay our bills in the months ahead, we must ask ourselves: will we allow ourselves and our neighbours to fall victim to profiteering, carelessness, even outright disdain? Unethical corporations and callous, inhumane politicians are the metaphorical cannibal gangs we're faced with right now. Will we join those cannibal gangs? Or will we demand they stop eating the flesh of our families and neighbours?

Crop of the cover art for Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven. (Harper Avenue)

Another possible path before us was envisioned by Emily St. John Mandel in the 2014 Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novel Station Eleven. Unlike McCarthy, Mandel gives us a reason for her post-apocalyptic society: a pandemic of the fictitious Georgian Flu. The pandemic hits in what the survivors have since referred to as "Year Zero"; the bulk of the book takes place 20 years after. Interestingly, the survival of humanity is not the main concern of this novel. Instead, Mandel looks at the ways that culture endures, even in the ruins of civilization. For example, there is still a travelling acting troupe called the Travelling Symphony in this society, which performs for small towns around the Great Lakes on a two-year circuit. A man settles in at a big city airport, collects iPhones and laptops and displays them in what he now refers to as the "Museum of Civilization"; he is its curator. A woman holds onto Dr. Eleven, a pair of graphic novels she'd been given before the apocalypse, so that she can also hold onto the kindness of that gesture.

Judging by the ways that people have been relying on art right now, it's clear that Mandel's hunch about cultural survival was pretty accurate. I can't help but wonder how successful recommendations to voluntarily practice social distancing would be if we didn't have movies, TV shows, video games, music and books to keep us inside and occupied. I know that I've personally been relying on all of those things to distract me; without art, I'd be in a constant state of stress and anxiety. Art reminds me what's good, what matters, what's worth saving. Art gives me hope. Will we take those values, that hope and use them to imagine a better collective future? Or will we remain in a holding pattern, helplessly watching ourselves make the same mistakes over and over?

As we read and watch post-apocalyptic art, meditating on what our collective future could look like after all of this, I hope we take a very long look in that funhouse mirror and reflect on what moral, compassionate choices we can make to avoid the paths those writers have laid before us.- Alicia Elliott

Yet another possible path before us can be found in Waubgeshig Rice's award-winning 2018 novel Moon of the Crusted Snow. Rice's post-apocalypse is set in a northern Anishinaabe community, where colonialism has made electricity blackouts so common that, at first, the community doesn't even realize the apocalypse has come. And that's where Rice's vision of post-apocalypse differs wildly from both McCarthy and Mantel: Rice is Anishinaabe, which means he comes from a nation that has already survived a sort of apocalypse. In fact, most Indigenous people have already dealt with apocalyptic illnesses; that's one of the ways this country was colonized. So when the Anishinaabe people on Rice's fictional reserve realize the electricity might not be coming back, it makes sense that they immediately prioritize the safety of the entire community. After all, this is how they have survived all this time — by relying on one another. Will we prioritize our elders, our children, our most vulnerable right now? Will we continue to show care and kindness in the face of fear, death, tragedy?

The authors of each of these post-apocalyptic novels thought our society would take a specific path at this exact moment. The question is: which one will we choose?

Crop of the cover art for Waubgeshig Rice's novel Moon of the Crusted Snow. (ECW Press/Painting by David Caesar)

Are we going to take this moment to stand up for the most vulnerable among us and ensure their needs are met? What about ourselves, in our everyday lives? So many grocery stores have had their stock almost entirely depleted as customers think about themselves and only themselves while under quarantine. So many people have continued to go out unnecessarily. Is that the kind of community we want to create right now — the sort where everyone continues to care for themselves above all else, putting other peoples' lives at risk without a second thought? The kind that values the market over the lives of the people who make up that market?

I hope not. Ultimately, the beating heart of all post-apocalyptic art is hope: hope for the future, hope that we can change, hope that care and compassion for one another will prevail even in the most dire of circumstances. As we read and watch post-apocalyptic art, meditating on what our collective future could look like after all of this, I hope we take a very long look in that funhouse mirror and reflect on what moral, compassionate choices we can make to avoid the paths those writers have laid before us.

Kai Cheng Thom said it best in her 2019 book of the same name: I hope we choose love.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at See more of our COVID-related coverage here.


Alicia Elliott is a Mohawk writer living in Brantford, Ontario. She’s had essays nominated for National Magazine Awards for three straight years, winning Gold in 2017, while this very column earned her a Digital Publishing Award nomination in 2023. She is the author of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground (Penguin Random House, 2019) as well as the upcoming novel, And Then She Fell (Penguin Random House, 2023).

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now