I've read two great novels of the Age of Mutually Assured Destruction. There was Neville Shute's On the Beach, which I consumed in a single sitting as a terrified 12-year-old with the old "torch under the blankets when I was supposed to be asleep", finishing at about 4am, when the Australian suburbs were deathly, terrifyingly quietly. John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids I read about the same time, but what I remember was being shown the film at school. In retrospect it was a laughably amateurish piece of you-can-see-the-strings Fifties sci-fi, but being film-naive I found it terrifying.
Neither of these tales is, perhaps, great literature, but they deserve, I would argue, the label of great for their ability to capture the fears of an age in a manner that spoke to the common man, woman and child.
So what will be the "great" books of the Age of Climate Change? Its too early to tell for sure, of course, but I've been reading two of the serious candidates: Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army.
And oddly, they can be seen in parallel with the earlier world destruction novels. The Road is the story of a man and a boy alone in this hostile, dangerous environment raw in every tooth and claw, as Wyndham follows a couple through a similar collapsed world. The Carhullan Army meanwhile is a "community" novel; as Shute followed an Australia left alone and isolated as the last continent waiting for the wave of radiation to reach it, so Hall follows a feminist commune that's trying to stand up alone against a desperate Britain reduced to something like 1984 without oil and with climate turbulence.
That is not to say that in style these two novels have much in common. "Spare" is the adjective that attaches itself irresistibly to The Road, (winner of the 2007 Pullitzer) and it is a text with serious literary pretentions, beautifully structured in illustrative flashback, its characters speaking in elaborately simple monosyllables, as one well might at the end of the world.
The Carhullen Army is a more traditionally structured novel, with traces of thriller in its largely linear structure. It is also an explicitly feminist novel, which means you can pretty well rule out any major popular success, but it might perhaps one day be a manifesto, an inspiration, for a holdout of a route on the way to McCarthy's absolute hell.
In another way these novels too run in structural parallel – McCarthy posits one sudden, overwhelming disaster, never explained, in the old tradition of the nuclear novel. Hall more closely follows the path down to near-destruction that a scientist today might well posit.
Their purposes are also different: McCarthy is painting a picture, making a psychological exploration – there is a kind of hope here, but it is very much placed in the interior of the human race. Hall by contrast is intensely political – her hope lies in the creation of a new, separatist feminist structure, in which every participant has been wiped clean by past suffering and is starting again in what is still a highly realistic society for an age that has lost hope in utopia.
Yet despite their differences, these are two novels that we need as a world to read — as we will need many more: for while scientists can tell us and tell us the dangers, we live in the West in a world that believes in continuity, safety, certainty, its people incapable of imagining themselves as desperate refugees. That this is a real danger is something novelists are uniquely equipped to bring home to us, as these two novels, in their own powerful ways, certainly do.