We had postapocalyptic literature even before we realized that our species might actually destroy itself. Writers (and readers) evidently find it more interesting to imagine human beings facing extinction than bumbling along for a few millennia still without major improvement or decline. And the structure of stories–whether told through film or words–asks that we empathize with the few living characters who might continue the story. We can imagine ourselves as one of the few survivors rather than as one of the billions who died.

My generation of readers has been lucky enough to survive the nuclear holocaust novels, one of the last and most effective being Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. We’ve moved into the fiction of a world destroyed by disease, like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, where a group of actors wanders through isolated villages of survivors along the Lake Michigan coastline. We’ve previously arrived at apocalypse by genetic engineering in Margaret Atwood’s monumental Maddaddam trilogy. But Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, might be even more frightening. Civilization has ended from a combination of climate change, disease, and what might be worst of all, inattention, fatigue, collapsing “not with a bang but a whimper.”

Stephen Colbert helped make Lepucki’s book famous last year when he chose it as the centerpiece for the economic battle between Amazon and the Hachette publishing group. Luckily, California survived and found its readers. In the book a young couple, Cal and Frida, flee a Los Angeles almost ungoverned and with rapidly dwindling resources. The privileged have already retreated into isolated, walled communities protected by their own security services. A few outliers and outlaws have headed for the deserts and the forests, trying to figure out their own ways to survive as the grid crumbles around them. Of course, they are surrounded by violent thieves (here called the Pirates), and Cal and Frida look to find their own place as far as possible from any other human beings who might complicate their survival. This works well enough until Frida becomes pregnant.

This is the point where California transforms from an intriguing take on the post-apocalyptic theme to a much more troubling dystopian novel. Cal and Frida find a small community whose residents first frighten them and then convince them of their idealism. Until, that is, the couple realize that there are no children there. Lepucki does a masterful job making us believe that her protagonists are brave and different from the various and fragile communities they find–until they too must sink into an obviously doomed conformity. The author doesn’t allow for the foolish possibility of heroism as humanity rushes to its oblivion. It’s a devastating vision.

Edan Lepucki reads at Literati Bookstore on July 10.