Book Review

Notes From an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell

From the prize-winning author of To Be a Machine – meet  the men and women preparing for the end of the world.

In the remote mountains of Scotland, in high-tech bunkers in South Dakota and in the lush valleys of New Zealand, small groups of determined men and women are getting ready.

They are environmentalists who fear the ravages of climate change; billionaire entrepreneurs dreaming of life on Mars; and right-wing conspiracists yearning for a lost American idyll. One thing unites them: their certainty that we are only years away from the end of civilization as we know it.

Not unconcerned himself by the possibility of the end of days, Mark O’Connell set out to meet them.


My non-fiction choice for February is Notes From an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell.  It was published in April 2020 with what may be excellent or horrendous timing, I can’t decide which. 

I’m a long-time fan of post-apocalyptic fiction – I like to see how ordinary people act in extraordinary situations.  As such, my interest was immediately piqued by this book which sees O’Connell travelling to meet those who are preparing for an end of world event.  O’Connell’s focus on this topic was prompted by his growing concerns for the future of the planet and the world that his young son might grow up in – concerns that are shared by many.  And yet, the author is also very honest and admits to a certain fatigue from doom-scrolling social media, the seemingly constant stream of bad news, and the way in which he has become somewhat inured to it all.  This isn’t a book exploring the ways in which the apocalypse might come about, but rather one that looks at the preparations that some individuals are taking for whatever flavour of apocalypse we might face.  

The collapse of civilization means a return to modes of masculinity our culture no longer has much use for

The book is split into eight chapters, each with a slightly different focus.  In one, O’Connell meets “preppers” – those that have a kit bag ready to go in the event of an emergency, the ones that stockpile food, and even some who have gone as far as to purchase property and / or land in an out of the way location that they can escape to if the worst happens.  I struggled a little with this chapter, as the group he spoke to seemed to be biased towards a certain type, and not the type I’d want on my side should an end of world event come to pass.  They aren’t survival experts, learning the skills that would enable them to live off the land or to build a shelter from scratch should they need to.  Rather, they seem to be (sorry, fellas!) predominantly men who are more concerned with the kit and gadgets they can buy and who seem to desire a return to “traditional” ways of living – those who don’t have much time for ideas of equality.  I’m sure that both kinds exist, although I can appreciate that the former group may be less likely to advertise themselves than the latter, but I couldn’t help but wonder if this was truly representative.  

even in the most dire projections of Earth’s future, there was no suggestion it might ever become as hostile to life on Mars, a planet with essentially no atmosphere, and on which the surface radiation levels were one hundred times that of Earth

One particularly interesting chapter looks at the desire establish a colony of Mars. It’s something we hear more about with SpaceX etc. and O’Connell draws attention to some of the practicalities of establishing a base on Mars that is fit for habitation, including the higher surface radiation levels that mean that anyone living there would likely do so underground.  For a colony to work, children would need to be born there, but the first-generation “Martians” would be poorly suited to the lower gravity planet, and while it’s hard to know exactly what psychological toll this would take, it’s unlikely to be plain sailing.  And of course, the use of the word “colony” when talking about such ideas has negative connotations.  To be honest, it doesn’t sound at all appealing – not that it ever did – and O’Connell argues that it’s a similar fantasy being played out by the preppers mentioned above.

Overall, I would say that this is an interesting read, although it seems to be very focussed on a particular type of end of world prep. I don’t believe that it’s all fantasists and rich white guys doing it as an excuse to buy gadgets and kit, but that seems to be the focus. Surely there are those who see the benefit in trying to maintain some kind of community and learning and passing on the skills that would enable survival, rather than going at it lone wolf / macho man style?  

Notes From an Apocalypse is published by Granta and is available now in hardback, digital, and audio versions.  The paperback is currently scheduled for release in March.

11 comments

    1. Thank you, Nicki! With hindsight, I wonder if it that’s the people learning survival skills don’t do it for that reason – it’s a hobby for them that happens to be useful rather than specifically preparing for the worst… 🤔

  1. I’ve read a couple of novels in the past year in which people have “escape packs” or whatever they’re called in case everything goes wrong. They had them in The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah and Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. I tried listening to Deevolution by Max Brooks, but it seemed like the elderly woman who was helping the narrator doom prepare after the volcano erupted had knowledge suddenly out of no where, and I didn’t end up finishing. However, people take doom prep seriously. I work in a public library and am surprised by how many books we have on homesteading and survivalist preparation (and most of these books have dudes with beards on the cover, so the branding seems to be purposeful…).

    1. That’s really interesting – thank you. I get that people take it seriously, and can understand why – I think that I wasn’t expecting it to be all one kind of person which it seemed to be in this book. Hard to cover all angles in what is a relatively slim volume though 🙂

      1. I wonder if it’s white men who are more afraid that something catastrophic will happen to them because they feel threatened in a less literal way. The rest of us are just navigating every day with hand sanitizer and good judgment, lol.

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