7 Women at the end of the world in apocalyptic fiction

Sally Blackburn

Entwined with humankind’s search for its beginnings is its desire to understand its fate. Many authors have attempted to speculate on both ends of the spectrum, but it could only be Mary Shelley’s magnificently underrated novel The Last Man that could have inspired this list.

The Last Woman Standing 

Shelley’s novel is an allegory for her own incredible life as the last woman standing (of Romanticism). She is all that remains to carry the torch of the literary movement after the death of her husband Percy, close friend Byron and the Cockney Keats. It is with a respectful nod to this last woman standing - who forged forth regardless into new and unseen futures - that I will consider some last women standing in apocalyptic and science-fiction works.

 

Judith Merril: Shadow on the Hearth (1950)

Judith Merril’s novel Shadow on the Hearth explores female experience and relationships after a nuclear attack. Merril plays with the genre morphology of the post-apocalyptic novel by situating the action in the suburban peripheries of New York. Her heroine – Gladys Mitchell, a domestic housewife – is busy doing her families laundry as the bombs strike the city. Merril’s original and oblique novel considers the minutiae of life when confronted with such catastrophic events: something which seems rather like a science-fiction Jane Austen ignoring the equivalent of the French Revolution. Yet this does not detract from the impact of Merril’s work. Taking Mitchell on a journey to find her daughters and to care for those she loves in the shadow of the mushroom cloud, Merril produces what she considered to be her most political work. Shadow on the Hearth imagines how ordinary women will work as one to construct both a peaceful and rational future after a nuclear holocaust.  

 

Raymond Briggs: When the Wind Blows (1982)

when the wind blows raymond briggs

When Jim and Hilda Bloggs hear that the UK is to be bombed by the Russians, Jim sets to and builds a solid little nuclear bunker for the pair, which keeps them safe as the bombs fall. A simple mistake (giving it two days instead of two weeks for the radiation to clear) causes the pair to venture outside and become poisoned by radiation.  Despite her and Jim’s ongoing sickness, Hilda’s devotion and fondness for her husband remains. With events based on the real-life bombing of Hiroshima, the pathos of Briggs’ graphic novel is at odds with Hilda’s devotion and optimism. Briggs leaves it unclear as to whether the couple (or indeed anyone at all) survives.

 

M. P. Shiel: The Purple Cloud (1901)

the purple cloud

Shiel’s The Purple Cloud is a fin de siècle pioneer of apocalypse fiction. After reaching the North Pole on a scientific expedition a purple cloud of gas is released which kills off all but Adam Jeffson. On returning to London he figures he is the last human on earth. But during his travels, Adam finds companionship in the form of the delightfully exotic Leda with whom he struggles to control his temper and desire. Mixing classical and Biblical references to foreshadow the plot, Shiel hints at a new origin for the human race. But this now de-populated Earth is no Eden. Strewn with bodies, decaying and ruinous, Adam sees the newly decimated planet Earth as no place for offspring. But Leda has her own ideas. Mirroring her goddess namesake Leda is graceful, intelligent, strong, and will be a mother of great importance. 

 

J. G. Ballard: The Drowned World (1962)

The Drowned World

Beatrice is a beautiful recluse. She inhabits a dilapidated penthouse in a flooded London of the future, and refuses anyone’s attempt to rescue her from the marshy capital city. Beatrice knows her own mind. When London becomes awash with looting pirates aiming to drain the waters, she becomes an object of worship for the rancid (all male) crew. Beatrice becomes a strange symbol for femininity, dressed in eveningwear, jewels and tiaras ‘like a mad queen in a horror drama’. When the natural world has kicked back and drowned the city-scape, Beatrice’s unnatural, adorned and fake image becomes a representation of the falsity of mankind’s adoration.    

 

Stephen King: The Stand (1978)

the stand

The Stand is about the flu, which doesn’t sound too serious does it? Yet it is a particular weaponised strain of influenza which eradicates over 99% of the Earth’s population in King’s post-apocalyptic horror novel. After unwittingly releasing the disease, the military attempt - and fail - to maintain some kind of control; some kind of rule. King’s concern about tinkering with nature for commercial and military gains is hammered home in this novel. Thankfully, Mother Abigail, a 108-year-old from Nebraska, becomes a leader for the remaining ‘good’ survivors against the army rule. The good Mother sets up a democratic society called the ‘Free Zone’ in spite of the chaos. In The Stand Abigail comes to represent the spiritual and the benevolent that can still exist within humankind during such catastrophic times.

 

Robert C. O’Brien: Z for Zachariah (1974)

z for zachariah

Z for Zachariah was published posthumously in 1974, finished from O’Brien’s notes by his wife and daughter after his death. The novel is in diary format, using the perspective of sixteen-year-old Ann Burden. Rather like Shiel’s Adam, Ann manages to avoid a toxic gas attack through sheer luck (well, living in a small valley with a self-contained weather system) and begins to look for other signs of human life. Ann meets the protectively suited John Loomis who domineers and attempts to manipulate the young survivor. Unlike Shiel’s protagonist Adam, Ann refuses to get mankind’s ball rolling again with the horrifically creepy Loomis (not even if he was the last man on earth!)

 

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland (1915)

herland

The isolated population of Gilman’s novel live simple and efficient lives. Their architecture is astounding, agriculture is sufficient to keep the whole number well-fed, there is no crime, disease or war and society is egalitarian. Everything is functional, and the raising of offspring is done by the best educated and the most sensitive to the children’s needs. When Gilman’s narrator and two companions encounter this far-flung paradise on an expedition, they are dumbfounded to find that the whole of its society are women. Gilman’s novel intelligently posits a society that is free from patriarchy. So when the narrator and his male friends arrive to conquer, it soon becomes a case of (rather conversely) who will be the last man standing.