When it comes to the end of the world, there are a number of things humanity has predicted. Climate crises and extreme weather. Aliens and zombies. Even killer plants and machines. All of these are physical threats to humanity. But what if the apocalypse takes a different form? What if the apocalypse ended up being more… psychological in nature?
This is the prediction Adrian Barnes made, or at least speculated about, with the apocalypse described in his novel ‘Nod.’ Here, the apocalypse is caused not by something external that affects humanity, but by something inside of humanity. Last night, the majority of the human race did not sleep for even a second.
Despite this manifestation of the end times being more psychological than your usual apocalyptic fare, the book ends up taking on a lot of the conventions typical to the genre. But just by approaching the concept from this new angle, it takes on an original, subversive form.
So let’s dive into some common themes of apocalyptic fiction, and explore the ways that ‘Nod’ both embraces and diverges from these tropes.
The first thing to bear in mind is that it’s not an apocalyptic novel if it doesn’t feature the downfall and breaking apart of not only humanity themselves, but also fundamental and important components of society like government and the economy.
Sleeplessness causes this much more easily than you might expect. If you’ve ever had a bad night’s sleep then you know how easily it can affect your state of mind. In the fictional society of ‘Nod,’ people very quickly become much more intolerant and hostile, and it takes a surprisingly short amount of time before they also become significantly more irrational. This decay of the mind is directly caused by the continued lack of sleep, and while the symptoms are at first relatively mild, and likely to subside over time… the continuous number of days without any sleep is going to take a devastating toll, leading to more adverse symptoms, and a reduced chance of recovery.
One of the earliest scenes of the book depicts a series of news broadcasts and Google searches the characters become briefly obsessed by, which allows for a bout of exposition we the readers need in order to really understand what lack of sleep can do to a person. Psychosis will kick in after six days without sleep, and from thirty two days onward it could be fatal. This is the kind of frightening information that the characters will have at the forefront of their minds for as long as this apocalypse goes on.
As for us, it’s information we’ll be keeping in mind throughout the book, but equally it’s worth bearing in mind throughout this essay. People often ask how long they think they can last without sleep, but really it isn’t even a question of how long your body will last. Much more pressing, and much more frightening, is how long your mind will last. Because I think we all realise that not sleeping for too long will be fatal, just as we all on some level realise that no food or no water will be fatal. But that’s never really the part that scares us, right? What scares us is the interim – the more immediate effects of this deprivation. Pain. Mental torment. Fatigue. And yes, psychosis and neurosis – both of which play a huge role in ‘Nod.’
It's all well and good for our POV character to try to shut down the news, say it’s not helpful to become so obsessed with it, point out how obvious it is that no one knows what’s causing this lack of sleep as we’re sat here watching speakers on television blame microwaves, and God, and terrorism – but he isn’t affected. He, through sheer luck, was still able to sleep. So for one thing, he doesn’t fully comprehend the torment everyone else is going through, the desperation to know why they’re suffering and how to stop it, but also, it will make everyone else distrustful of him. Because why should he get to sleep when no one else can?
And that’s the really scary thing about a total deprivation of sleep – you can’t think straight anymore. Your decision making, as well as both your logical and emotional thought processes, are totally failing you.
This is where the psychosis and neurosis kick in, and it’s also the reason for the downfall of society. Not only in structural and societal failings, but in the permeating degeneracy of humanity. Our society, our compassion, our sense of order. These always break down in a story like this. And while we can always understand and believe in this happening during any apocalyptic scenario, basing these collapses on the premise of the book – the fact that no one is sleeping – makes things so much more interconnected, and the downfall itself so much more credible.
Besides, it’s not arbitrary chaos and violence. It’s things we can already comprehend. The rioting in supermarkets for food and supplies. The bigotry and discrimination. The sense of us vs them. The distrust leading to physical violence. The inability to process either. Things that are even more grounded since the pandemic we’ve been experiencing.
It’s never just humanity degenerating, either. It’s also our abstract concepts like money that break down, and it’s the inability to contact public services, and the loss of technology. While none of these are directly caused by sleeplessness in ‘Nod,’ it is still causal, with phones and internet being shut down, and credit cards being disused, not because the authority is gone, but in an attempt to cull microwaves, just in case they are the reason for all this. And that’s only one of the many things people attempt in ‘Nod’ in order to bring back sleep. There end up being so many different explanations for why this is happening, and people will try anything. None of it works. Sleep is basically, a thing of the past.
Fundamentally, all this is caused by the increasing sense of broken mindedness that permeates this new era of society as a result of the death of sleep. That way when the violence starts it’s all the more disturbing and unsettling because we’ve been given the breadcrumbs leading up to it – and been holding onto our dread. Not to mention the timebomb effect sitting in the backs of the minds of both characters and readers alike, with both of us knowing how few days are left until full psychosis and eventually, death.
Of course, after the downfall of society, there’s something else that comes to the apocalyptic setting. The people, having lost their past sense of order and normality, attempt to resurrect these things by splitting up into groups and clans. There are those who are proud, zealous of the fact they do not sleep. There are those who do still sleep, but stop themselves from sleeping just so they can fit in. Then there are those who can’t sleep but pretend that they do, so they can cling to some sense of past normality as they eradicate the growing cult. But most people are exhausted and fatigued as a result of getting no sleep – and they simply struggle along with this, barely aware of the cultish behaviour growing around them.
Apocalypse stories always have people splitting into groups and then fighting each other. In this case, just like with the downfall of society element, it’s all sleep related. Everything about this apocalypse, about this fictional setting, all comes back to that one core concept, the idea that no one can sleep. Of course, many apocalypse stories, perhaps even all of the best ones, bring every element together as much as they can. But the obsessive attention to sleeplessness and its effects make ‘Nod’ feel more focused – and the psychological nature of this core premise makes ‘Nod’ feel unique.
Of course, every apocalyptic story has a psychological element. That’s what the downfall of society ultimately is – psychological. But to my knowledge this is the only apocalyptic story that has no real physical threat. It’s the only one where every single horrific and cynical plot point stems from something purely psychological.
In the end, what you’re left with is an entire civilisation of people who cannot sleep. Since even those few remaining adults who do have the ability to sleep on a physical level, are still left unable to for other reasons, whether it’s hunger, or sickness, or fear. In any case, sleep and restfulness feel ancient, arbitrary. No longer real. Which in itself, might be a strand of that psychosis.
Of course, I said that it’s the adults who can’t sleep, because you see, there’s another element to ‘Nod.’ The children, for the most part, are still sleeping. But they’ve stopped speaking.
This is one of the main ways ‘Nod’ brings in the final element of the apocalyptic story, and once again subverts it in its own original way – the philosophical discussions that go hand in hand with any good apocalyptic setting.
In the case of ‘Nod,’ the philosophical discussions are only partly linked to that sleeplessness. They’re usually the same kinds of fascinating philosophical discussions you get from much of apocalyptic fiction. Speculation on the ways people would act in terrible situations of torment, discussions of identity through the gangs, or explorations of how people change and whether they can ever be trusted.
There are some discussions relating to sleeplessness, for instance, analogy between the sleepless and sufferers of Alzheimer’s. There’s an idea in the book I really liked, which stated that we know others exist because we feel looked at – but this becomes increasingly lost as the apocalypse develops.
But the most prominent philosophical discussion in ‘Nod’ is language, constantly slipping back into the main character’s narration, and exploring ideas such as the way in which language evolves as our situation evolves, the way new names and concepts are born from language even in the apocalypse – and the fear our main character has knowing that the only sleepers left are children, who have stopped speaking, and what that means for the future once all the sleepless adults have finally died of fatigue.
In the end, we’re left with an original apocalyptic tale that still manages to strike all the most important chords of the genre. Let’s take a look at the three most important elements of an apocalyptic story, and consider the ways ‘Nod’ subverts them through its psychological focus on the lack of sleep.
It's not an apocalypse without the downfall of society, both humans themselves, and the conceptual ideas that hold civilisation together. In 'Nod,' the people fall because they can no longer sleep, becoming psychotic, neurotic, and irrational. And societal pillars collapse because people attempt to rectify any and all possible causes of the issue, no matter how ridiculous.
Apocalyptic stories always involve the splitting up of people into gangs or clans as they try to restore the sense of order they lost in the beginning. In 'Nod,' these clans are made up of people who differ from one another in terms of their philosophy to sleep - whether they think it good, or bad... and whether they sleep or not regardless.
The very best of the apocalyptic genre involves philosophical discussions about humanity, society, our place within the world, and what it means to be alive. In 'Nod,' these are all present, but they also relate to sleep more directly as well thanks to the recurring strands of language and identity, and how sleeplessness is starting to change them both.
‘Nod’ is not the best apocalyptic book ever written, but it is unique from a conceptual standpoint, and feels somewhat more focused thanks to the way its every genre convention is tied to this one idea – the lack of sleep, and what it does to people. The book does draw from some of the more physical apocalyptic stories, but it stays in its psychological realm, and never goes fully into the kind of fantastical end of the world seen from my favourite apocalyptic story… but that’s something for a future essay, I think.
For now, make sure you get some sleep. I don’t want to see technology getting banned because millions of people stayed awake for a full month. If that happened, how the hell would I write and upload my next essay? See you then!