Chad Robertson, of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, begins a recipe for bread in the latest issue of food magazine Lucky Peach by invoking a time “long before the invasion, before the werebeavers took over.” The bread looks inedible, but that’s beside the point. Robertson hits the balance between meticulous detail (grinding flour by hand, building an oven from castoff bricks) and sarcasm to write a dystopian, post-apocalyptic recipe.
That such a thing now exists isn’t surprising — or, at least, no more so than the entire apocalypse-themed issue of Lucky Peach that includes the recipe. The end of the world as we know it is the backdrop of a decent proportion of young-adult books and movies, and predictions of doom dominate our fictions about the future.
But apocalypse isn’t just for kids, as three recent and upcoming releases demonstrate in exactly 320 pages apiece. Nathaniel Rich’s quirky, well-crafted Odds Against Tomorrow (April 2, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 320 pp.) extrapolates a near future of environmental catastrophe, beginning with an earthquake that eats Seattle and catapults Odds’ hero, Mitchell, into a career predicting the probability of disaster. By the time a hurricane floods Manhattan, Mitchell’s more outlandish scenarios (nanobot invasion) give way to plausible FEMA-brokered fears. You can’t help but wonder whether Rich greeted factual Sandy with the same anticipation his fictional disaster consultants brought to their Hurricane Tammy, but you also can’t deny the chill that comes with offhand mentions of flooded subway tunnels.
By being so immediately relatable — and by starting Odds with a healthy sense of humor — Rich stands a little to the side of the apocalyptic mainstream. America-Five, in Ariel Djanikian’s The Office of Mercy (Feb. 21, Viking Adult, 320 pp.), is much more typical — a communal underground utopia without hunger, desire or fear of death, inhabited by survivors of “the Storm,” a man-made catastrophe that all but decimated the world population. America-Five is technologically advanced, but isolated and precarious; its inhabitants rely on an Ethical Code that prohibits empathy and protects them from the above-ground world, populated by primitive “tribes” left behind by the Storm.
Djanikian is careful in building a consistent world for her characters, down to the elaborate ethical justification for the Office of Mercy, which exterminates the tribes to minimize their future suffering. She’s less careful in taking that world apart after her heroine — Natasha Wiley, 24 years old but with the whipsawing emotions of a teenager — gives in to her curiosity about the outside world and starts to doubt the Code. But Djanikian’s seriousness allows her to pack a lot into Office: not just Natasha’s rebellion, but a love story complicated by hints of incest and adoption; not just a dystopia, but a parallel dismantling of the myth of the noble savage.
Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds (Feb. 12, Del Rey, 320 pp.) likewise begins with a planet’s destruction, but it’s calm and measured where Office leans more frantic and overheated. This is partially a matter of character: Worlds is structured around a love story, too, but a reserved adult courtship rather than an intense first flush. More importantly, though, Lord is working at a different scale, fitting her characters into a full-scale, old-fashioned episodic space opera, with a polymorphous, multiracial universe drawn from Lord’s native Caribbean.
The breadth of Lord’s world and her stately pace give her license to do things very earnestly that sharper novelists (which Rich and Djanikian both are) cannot: exploring unabashedly geeky stuff like telepathy, but also pursuing a range of thought experiments about creolization and social structure. Hard science fiction, with its emphasis on a logical, understandable universe, is essentially optimistic, and Lord might have strayed from the hard sciences by assembling, essentially, an anthropological space opera. But Worlds retains the genre’s optimism, fighting against the foregone conclusion of a dark, difficult future full of inedible whole-grain bread.