Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell follows his Wellcome Prize-winning exploration of transhumanism To Be a Machine with another book about the future, this time looking at the ways in which people prepare for ecological and societal collapse. O’Connell travels to South Dakota to visit underground survival bunkers, attends a Mars convention in California, visits New Zealand to find out why it is the favoured location for billionaires to ride out the end of the world, and goes to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in which the post-apocalyptic scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster has become a popular tourist attraction in recent years.
In the paperback edition, O’Connell notes in a new foreword that the timing of the hardback publication in April 2020 was “impeccable”. Nevertheless, it does mean that certain parts read a bit differently from how they would have done without a global pandemic. For example, the actions of the “preppers” who stockpile supplies to live on in the event of a possible worst-case scenario now seem a lot less extreme these days. O’Connell’s writing is dense and cerebral and ‘Notes from an Apocalypse’ contains as much food for thought as his first book, albeit with an even larger dose of anxiety about the future this time round.
Published this month, Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason is one of the novels currently generating the most buzz in the UK this summer. Martha Friel has recently turned 40 and her eight-year marriage to Patrick has just ended. The novel looks back on her life, growing up with a dysfunctional extended family, followed by a short-lived first marriage to Jonathan. She has struggled with mental illness since she was 17, but Mason deliberately doesn’t name the specific condition Martha is eventually diagnosed with, and notes in the afterword that it is a fictional illness in any case, thus preventing the reader from making assumptions or holding certain biases about her behaviour. Martha has a very dry sense of humour and Mason balances the light and shade of her perspective very well without trivialising her health. ‘Sorrow and Bliss’ could be a strong contender on this year’s Booker Prize longlist which will be announced later this month. Many thanks to Weidenfeld & Nicolson for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.
I tend to seek out travel writing set in remote locations – some favourites over the last few years include Names For the Sea by Sarah Moss on her year living in Iceland, Bleaker House by Nell Stevens about her stay in the Falkland Islands while trying to write a novel and Empire Antarctica by Gavin Francis which is an account of life as a base-camp doctor at the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley research station on the Caird Coast. The most niche yet though is probably The Not-Quite States of America by Doug Mack which documents the author’s travels to the five American territories and commonwealths: the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico. Before reading this book, I knew virtually nothing about them. Reassuringly, neither did Mack until he set off on a 30,000 mile journey to explore them himself. He explains how these places ended up as US territories rather than states, and highlights what this means in practice for people living there, such as how American Samoans are recognised as American nationals but not citizens meaning they cannot vote in presidential elections. The historical background ends up outweighing the actual travel in some parts, but overall this is still an engaging and enlightening piece of non-fiction.