Here are some of the novels I've enjoyed most during the last few months, in no particular order:
1. Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel
Written by a Canadian author who now lives in New York, Station Eleven has been universally praised by critics and readers alike. Set 20 years after a devastating pandemic, the novel follows the fortunes of a band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony, as they move around the post-apocalyptic settlements of the Great Lakes. The initial premise didn't immediately grab me, but I was quickly won over by the compelling plot, a clever narrative structure and some hauntingly beautiful prose. I stayed up until a ridiculously late hour because I had to know how the book ended. It was well worth the sleep deprivation.
2. The Book of Strange New Things - Michel Faber
A novel about a Christian missionary on an alien planet might not be everyone's cup of tea, but this is one of the most humane and poignant novels I've read for a long time. Written in the shadow of Faber's wife's terminal illness, the interstellar distance between the main character and his wife, trapped in a future Britain that is facing societal collapse, feels like a metaphor for the author's own sense of impending loss. In a recent edition of the radio programme Start the Week, Michel Faber stated that he wouldn't be writing any more novels. I hope that it was just the grief speaking.
3. The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell
If Christian missionaries on alien planets is beyond the pale, then this novel probably isn't for you, as the plot is utterly bonkers. However, David Mitchell writes with such brio that it's more than worth going along for the ride. Spanning half a century between the early 1980s and the 2030s, I found the novel's coda surprisingly moving and a very satisfying conclusion to the literary pyrotechnics of the main plot. The Bone Clocks is a confident riposte to anyone who thinks that the novel is dead. You'll either love it or hate it.
4. A Lovely Way to Burn - Louise Welsh
The first book in a trilogy (the other two parts haven't been published yet), this is a crime novel set in a London that is being ravaged by a pandemic. Welsh has been highly praised for her earlier novels and although this book reads as if it has been aimed at a more mass-market readership, with an emphasis on plot rather than character, its depiction of a city in crisis is powerful and evocative.
5. The Southern Reach Trilogy - Jeff VanderMeer
Actually three separate novels - Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance - this was a revelation. VanderMeer is classed as a science fiction writer, but with influences as disparate as Iris Murdoch and Rachel Carson, this is a beautifully-written, astoundingly imaginative series that transcends the limitations of genre fiction. It's dangerous to try and second-guess a novel's influences, but the plot reminded me of the shortlived 2005 television series Invasion, the Body Snatchers films and the recent low budget (but high concept) independent film Monsters. However, the science fiction elements almost feel incidental and the central question is always the same: what is it to be human? Imagine Lost written by Margaret Atwood and you'll have some idea what to expect.
It has been said that it is the conceit of every generation to feel as if it's at the end of the line, whether the threatened annihilation is deistic, nuclear, biological, economic or environmental. However, the number of mainstream writers tackling this theme seems to be growing by the year. Is there something in the air? Have we finally grown out of the Enlightenment belief in perpetual progress?
The answer presumably lies in the combination of a growing awareness of potential threats - global warming, the end of oil, pandemics, economic stagnation and overpopulation - with the increasing willingness of 'serious' writers to flirt with other genres. And after all, the post-apocalyptic scenario is a gift to any writer of fiction.
In the meantime, I will be busy forming the Lewes Militia, just in case. I've already designed the epaulettes for the uniform and started drafting the new laws. Anyone who begins their sentences with "So" will be in trouble.