Things can always be worse and you can rely on novelists to put that phrase into cold, hard words on the page. Noah’s ark and the flood that wiped Earth clean of wicked mankind is an early example of post-apocalyptic writing but the modern genre of end of the world literature can be traced back two centuries to Mary Shelley’s The Last Man published in 1826.
Even though Shelley, famous for Frankenstein, and a few other writers were able to imagine doomsday scenarios in Victorian times, the genre blossomed - if that’s the right word and it probably isn’t - after World War II. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed humanity had the tools for global self-destruction. The 1950s was a decade where the end of world could be found on the end of our bookshelves.
The enduring Cold War tensions ensured these novels kept on coming but the last 10 years has also seen notable novels like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the popular City of Ember young adult series by Jeanne DuPrau. Even Oprah Winfrey turned her legion of followers on to post-apocalyptic fiction when she named The Road as a book club pick in 2007. An odd match indeed.
The method of worldwide destruction varies. Readers could encounter a plague, global nuclear war, biological weaponry, a comet collision, or a blinding meteor shower followed by flesh-eating plants. Many authors don’t explain in detail the nature of their book’s catastrophe but, in many ways, it’s unimportant – the thoughts and actions of the survivors are what counts. How do they survive? Do they attempt to hold civilization together? Do they adopt new values? What do they reject and what do they retain?
The concept of the apocalypse and what comes after is not limited to make-believe and pretend, either - several non-fiction books predicted a global catastrophe in December 2012 when the Mayan calendar came to an end. There always seems to be someone somewhere sure that these are the end times. Might as well settle in with a good book.
The Last Man
More apocalyptic than post-apocalyptic, this catastrophe novel is so significant because it was written in a world lacking nuclear power, atomic bombs and other man-made methods of mass destruction. Shelley used a deadly plague. In three volumes, Lionel Verney becomes Shelley’s last man on Earth. Critics slammed the book on its release.
Richard Jefferies (1885)
Famous for his nature writing, Jefferies penned this early science fiction novel where an unknown disaster has decimated England’s population and nature reclaims the land amid the chaos and conflict. Domesticated animals turn feral, towns and infrastructure break down. It’s almost Gaia-like in its foresight.
George R. Stewart
Stewart was an English professor at Berkeley. Set in the 1940s, the Earth’s population falls to an airborne pandemic. Isherwood Williams, an ecologist, is one of the survivors and the novel examines how several generations adapt. Reading and writing disappears. Hunter-gathering and tribes return. This is an extremely influential book.
The Day of the Triffids
Wyndham’s novel has two strands of catastrophe. Firstly, lights from a meteor shower blind anyone who watches it (and that’s most people) and the visionless society completely breaks down. Then the triffids – walking, killing, meat-eating plants – take advantage of the whole situation and go on the rampage.
Daybreak - 2250 AD (Star Man's Son)
Originally titled Star Man’s Son
, this science fiction classic is set 200 years after a nuclear war in a radioactive world with a handful of humans. Mutants and mutations abound. This is an upbeat novel with hope for the future even though Norton is spot on in terms of understanding the horror of radiation.
I Am Legend
This novel crosses into several genres (including zombies and vampires) but its protagonist, Robert Neville, appears to be the sole survivor of a viral pandemic that turns humans into vampires. Holed up in his Los Angeles hideout, Neville fights for his survival at night while trying to find a cure during the day. There have been three movie
On the Beach
World War III has devastated the Northern Hemisphere with nuclear warheads. The fallout is advancing toward Australia but a Morse code signal emerges from the United States. A submarine heads north in a search for survivors. The characters exhibit acceptance of their fate – suicide is preferred to the desperate bid for survival seen in most post-apocalyptic fiction.
Fifty years old and still going strong, Alas Babylon is a post-nuclear war novel about the struggle for survival in a small Florida town called Fort Repose. The disintegration of everyday society is clearly detailed. Written before radiation sickness was properly understood, the book does show a functioning government attempting to help survivors.
A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter M. Miller Jr.
A nuclear war has devastated the world. The monks in a Catholic monastery in an American desert are attempting to preserve books that could save humanity. Miller was part of a bomber crew that helped destroy the Monte Cassino monastery in Italy during World War II and that experienced served as an inspiration. A Canticle for Leibowitz
won a Hugo Award
The Devil’s Children
The Devil’s Children
is the third book in a trilogy where a strange noise causes humanity to hate and destroy machinery and technology with society reverting to pre-industrial times. The Weathermonger
(1968) and Heartsease
(1969) complete the trilogy, which was written in reverse chronological order. BBC TV turned the books into The Changes
serial in the mid-1970s.
Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle
Disaster comes from the sky, the ‘Hammer’ is a comet that collides with Earth sparking a series of earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods and climate change. Civilization falls apart. Small enclaves of survivors are established – some seeking to hold civilized society together and others completely abandoning it for mayhem.
This novel is based upon an earlier King short story, Night Surf
. A biological weapon inflicts a virus on the world, killing the vast majority of humans. The survivors make a number of cross-country journeys, and camps of good and evil are established. The book is divided into three parts – the virus which is called Captain Trips, the journeys and the final confrontation.
In a post-apocalyptic world, a drifter called Gordon Krantz discovers and starts wearing a US Postal worker uniform. Unlike Cliff Clavin from Cheers
, Krantz becomes a symbol of hope for those surviving in the ruined world. The plot does not paint a heroic picture of the survivors and even blames them for preventing recovery from the disaster.
The Last Ship
The vessel is USS Nathan James, a warship on patrol in the Barents Sea, and the catastrophe is a full-scale worldwide nuclear war. Left without a home, the ship and its crew explore the world’s devastation and encounter a nuclear winter, but they also struggle with internal strife as the pressure builds upon the sailors.
A Gift Upon the Shore
This novel has a strong theme about fundamentalism. A nuclear holocaust destroys life and two female survivors in Oregon struggle on amid the nuclear winter and plagues. The book asks what’s really important – a devotion to books and knowledge conflicts with the single-minded drive of fundamentalism.
This novel is worthy of consideration even though it doesn’t detail a global disaster. Saramago’s acclaimed story deals with an epidemic of blindness, like Day of the Triffids
, in a single unknown city and how everything swiftly falls to pieces. Turned into a movie in 2008, Blindness helped earn Saramago the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.
Walter J. Williams
This lengthy novel concerns a huge earthquake that hits America causing widespread destruction and misery. Plenty of social commentary about rifts in humanity. The inspiration for the book was the 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquakes that rocked Louisiana with a so-called Mega Quake. If you live on the Mississippi’s banks then you may want to skip this one.
is one of Russia’s leading authors. Written in Russian, an English translation was published in 2003. This is a dystopian fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic world. Civilization came to an abrupt halt 200 years earlier thanks to something called the Blast. The new society is cruel, mutations are commonplace and free thinking is a very bad thing.
The City of Ember
Ember is the only city in a world of complete darkness and Ember’s power supplies are running low. The world as we know it has been destroyed by humans several centuries earlier. Two 12-year-olds lead the search for a solution. The City of Ember
, which became a movie in 2008, was followed by three more novels in this popular young adult series.
Bizarrely, an Oprah Book Club pick in 2007, this novel describes the journey of a father and son after some unknown disaster has destroyed the majority of life on this planet. Won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007. Very, very, very downbeat – cannibalism, rape and much horror. What on Earth did Oprah’s followers make of this remarkable book? The black cover is very apt.
The Dog Stars
Set in the years following a terrible global flu outbreak, this novel centers around the survival homestead of two men, and a dog named Jasper. The two men, Hig and Bangley, are an unlikely pair, certain to never mix in the world before the pandemic. They may not see eye to eye or even like each other much, but they've come to an understanding designed to keep them both alive at all costs.
Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood (2004)
Oryx and Crake seems at first to be a record of one man's descent into madness. But it turns out to be at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future. Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the elusive Oryx whom they both loved.
World War Z
Max Brooks' genius approach to this book makes it an utterly unusual read. Written in vignettes as a journalistic study of the aftermath of The Great Panic (and zombie war), the book explores every aspect of survival from military tactics via land, air and sea, to personal, intimate stories of escape, to stories of humanity both triumphing and crumbling, to unusual tactics such as using the seasons against the undead.
An epic and gripping tale of catastrophe and survival, The Passage
is the story of Amy—abandoned by her mother at the age of six, pursued and then imprisoned by the shadowy figures behind a government experiment of apocalyptic proportions. But Special Agent Brad Wolgast, the lawman sent to track her down, is disarmed by the curiously quiet girl—and risks everything to save her.
America Pacifica: A Novel
Eighteen-year-old Darcy lives on the island of America Pacifica—one of the last places on earth that is still habitable, after North America has succumbed to a second ice age. Education, food, and basic means of survival are the province of a chosen few, while the majority of the island residents must struggle to stay alive.