Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Doomsday fiction has reigned as a popular sub-genre of science fiction since the dawn of the nuclear age. For many people, reading about how fictional characters deal with the end of civilization as we know it can be strangely comforting.
Perhaps they make us realize that our situation isn’t as bad as we think it is. Or maybe we just like reading about how the human spirit can survive even in the darkest of circumstances.
As we face our current volatile and uncertain times, many readers are revisiting classic post-apocalyptic novels, and others are discovering them for the first time. As the name implies, post-apocalyptic books are set in a world after a devastating catastrophe.
Some of these books involve the aftermath of nuclear war, supernatural phenomena, climate disasters, dysgenics, attack from extraterrestrials, or divine judgment. Some even offer the achingly familiar scenario of a pandemic.
If you’re not getting enough excitement out of our current events and would like to immerse yourself in some fictional disasters and learn how the protagonists deal with them, here is our list of 10 (in no particular order) of the best post-apocalyptic books to read this year.
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1. The Stand by Stephen King
Originally published in 1978, Stephen King’s The Stand describes a world that has been devastated by a mutated strain of influenza. Within just a few weeks, 99 percent of the world’s population is dead. As the few survivors look for a new leader, two people emerge.
They are Mother Abagail, an elderly woman who promotes a peaceful community in Boulder, Colorado. And Randall Flagg, who demonstrates an affinity for utter chaos and violence. As both of them gather support and power, the fate of what remains of humanity hangs in the balance.
2. Swan Song by Robert McCammon
Often compared with The Stand, Swan Song by Robert McCammon is a 1987 novel that describes the gruesome aftermath of a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Only a few people have survived, and they must face a scorched landscape that includes mutated animals, evil warriors, and starvation.
This novel is very dark and not for the faint of heart, but if you’re looking for a creative and engrossing battle between good and evil, this is it.
3. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven, a 2014 novel, hits close to home since it deals with the aftermath of a virus that sweeps throughout the globe, killing 95 percent of the population and bringing civilization to collapse.
As we follow Kirsten and a band of surviving actors and musicians, we go back and forth in time, before and after the pandemic. As it does so, the novel teaches us lessons about—among other things—the value of art and friendship and what it means to be human.
4. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller Jr.
One of the oldest novels on our list, A Canticle for Leibowitz, was first published in 1959. The setting is a Catholic monastery in the Utah desert after a nuclear war. The book spans thousands of years as humankind rebuilds itself from the ashes and learns lessons about truth and love along the way.
5. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Do you want to read another post-apocalyptic book about a pandemic? Only you can answer that. The Dogs Stars, first published in 2012, is a poetic and haunting novel. It is set in tragic circumstances, but it ultimately relays a message of hope and offers a perspective on what it really means to be human.
6. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for this sparsely-written but heartbreaking novel. First published in 2006, The Road is the story of a father and his young son who journey through the devastated landscape of America after an unnamed disaster.
Their destination is the coast, and they are must defend themselves against all kinds of terrors—real and remembered—as they make their way there. The book is disturbing, absorbing, and memorable.
7. The Passage by Justin Cronin
Many post-apocalyptic novels involve long, difficult quests for other survivors, and for good reason. The Passage (2010) is the story of Amy, who, as one of the few to make it through the apocalypse, realizes she has the power to save the devastated world.
This novel is the first of a trilogy of post-apocalyptic novels that begin with the disastrous outcome of a chilling military experiment.
8. Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
Into the Forest, first published in 1996, tells the story of two sisters who live 30 miles away from the closest town and a few miles from any neighbors.
When the power goes out, technology fails, and other resources dwindle as part of a societal collapse, Nell and Eva must figure out how to survive with what they can find and create in the forests near their Northern California home. Mostly they learn to rely on each other.
9. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
One of the earliest post-apocalyptic novels, Earth Abides, was first published in 1949. The protagonist, Isherwood Williams, is able to fend off a deadly disease that is sweeping through the U.S. by fleeing to the mountains. When he leaves his hideaway, however, he returns to a collapsed civilization. Isherwood and another survivor he encounters along his journey must forge a primitive lifestyle in order to remain alive.
Since this book was written before TV was in every home—let alone internet access—it reads as a harsh wake-up call on how dependent we are on technology and all the conveniences of modern life.
10. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
Twelve-year-old Riddley Walker is the narrator of this unusual post-apocalyptic novel, and he tells his story in language that is just as disjointed as his world. The broken language is a little off-putting at first, but if you stay with it, reading it becomes easier and even rewarding. Here’s the first line as an example:
“On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.”
Written in 1980, the novel takes us well into the future after a nuclear holocaust and imagines what it took for humankind to survive and start over.
Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic is not to be confused with fiction that provides visions of a dystopian future. As the antonym of utopia, dystopia is an imagined society that is frightening and dehumanizing and. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), P.D. James’s The Children of Men (2006), and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) are well-known examples of dystopian fiction, not post-apocalyptic fiction.
Post-apocalyptic fiction deals with the people who survive a catastrophe that brings an end to the world as we know it. In fact, “apocalypse” comes from the Greek word “apokalupsis,” meaning the end of the world. So now you know.
What post-apocalyptic books did we forget? Leave a comment and let us know!
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