Ultimate Summer Guide to Apocalypse Novels
As a companion to the piece on apocalyptic summer reads in this week’s SN&R, I offer up my Top 50 (Annotated) List of Apocalyptic Fiction.
Want to start a book club?
1. Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.
In my not-so-humble opinion, this is the best example of an apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic novel, in that the first half of the book is concerned with the lead-up (and it’s scientifically probable). What’s more, much of the apocalypto-destruction (particularly the flooding of L.A. and the damage to agriculture) could be brought about by less-catastrophic means (i.e., climate change), which means that Lucifer’s Hammer remains timely. While their depiction of women isn’t particularly feminist, they do overtly note that, in extremis, we’re likely to revert to the paleolithic social structure pretty quickly.
2. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.
Once you read this, follow it speedily with The Year of the Flood, which is a sort of sequel. Margaret Atwood isn’t generally considered a science fiction writer, which is, I think, why her literary science fiction (and what else are you going to call a novel about the destruction of the world by human hubris and technology?) gets such wide readership. I’ve often heard her work called “speculative fiction,” and that description fits as well as any.
3. Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison
A short novel from which the sci-fi classic Soylent Green was made, Harrison’s novel takes on the consequences of unrestrained human population. This is just as salient a point as ever; the planet simply cannot support humans at the level of consumption we seem determined to maintain. We’ve only got two options: Either we slow reproduction to sustainable levels world-wide, or we start putting resources into expanding into space. I like both options very well.
4. Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Couple this one with Parable of the Talents, its sequel, and you’ve got Butler at her apocalyptic best. Greed, destruction, religious mania and a heroine with super-empathy.
5. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller
Miller’s novel is a classic for many reasons, not the least of which is his demonstration of how problematic scripture can be in the wrong—or even the right—hands. He’s also got a rather pessimistic view of human nature and our ever-cycling urge to self-destruct.
6. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
The atomic bomb, a strange island banana republic with an even stranger religion, and the death of civilization on a frozen planet. Vonnegut always knew how to make hell really, really cold.
7. Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
I loved this book as an eighth grader. When I re-read it now, I recognize its dangers: The idea that we can survive nuclear war makes it inevitable that we will have nuclear war. I suspect the neocons are in love with this book, since the “brave new world” created in a survival pocket in Florida is so traditional and good; still, I’ve got a nostalgic affection for it.
8. The Children of Men by P.D. James
Much better than the film version (which wasn’t bad at all), James’ novel of the anguish of generations who will not have children—coupled with the nihilism of the spoiled last generation of children—is a massive, tragic apocalypse.
9. The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
It’s hard to beat Wells’ novel for sheer energy and fright (unless you happen to have a rare copy of the musical version by Justin Hayward and John Lodge of the Moody Blues). These implacably destructive Martians are the ultimate villains, and Wells’ optimism about humanity’s ability to evolve past our prejudices is refreshing.
10. Blindness by José Saramago
Of course it’s apocalyptic. In a metaphorical, literary way. Seriously, if almost everyone went blind, what do you think would happen?
11. Clay’s Ark by Octavia E Butler
Another good one from Butler, this posits an apocalypse for humans brought about by something we ran across while exploring the universe. If we’re transformed, we’re not human any more, right?
12. The Postman by David Brin
Wipe that horrible Kevin Costner film right out of your mind and meet David Brin’s postman, a survivor who doesn’t intend to resurrect civilization—but you’d be amazed what a uniform and a sense of responsibility will do. Technically, this is post-apocalyptic, since we don’t see the end.
13. Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin’s mystical take on a culture in the “Valley of Na” (Napa Valley). A very touchy-feely book with an anthropological take on the differences between the Kesh, who live in a near-utopian society, and the disease of our society.
14. Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
A graphic novel (now available as a complete volume) in which all but one human male have died from a terrible disease. Whatever will the women do? Well, a lot more than you think. This is one of the best from Vertigo, the adult imprint of DC Comics.
15. This Is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow
Morrow is a freaking genius and you need to read him. That said, this novel deals with nuclear destruction and its creators’ responsibility to those who would have lived. On a more existential plane, Morrow’s “godhead” trilogy (Towing Jehovah, Blameless in Abaddon, and The Eternal Footman) belong on your reading list, too.
16. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The ultimate dystopian society—and from a woman’s perspective, it sure as hell is an apocalypse—from Atwood. Just to take it a step further, try pairing this one with When She Woke by Hilary Jordan. Excellent feminist speculative fiction.
17. Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon
This has elements of science fiction and of horror, which makes it doubly good. There’s nuclear war and violence, followed by an attempt to rebuild civilization.
18. In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
Society has collapsed and they’re burning corpses for fuel. OK, so it’s dystopian. The “last things” aren’t just what they scavenge, but the memories they have of the purposes of those objects. Depressing and literary, Auster never disappoints.
19. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Nuclear holocaust, father and son road-trip, cannibal rapists. McCarthy is never for the weak of heart or stomach.
20. Zone One: A Novel by Colson Whitehead
Best. Zombie. Novel. Ever. Srsly. Whitehead writes a literary zombie novel that has all the important elements, as well as some details that will really turn your stomach.
21. Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle
Boulle’s novel is much more complex than the films (not that all versions of the movies don’t have their own charms); his apes have helicopters and cars, and his humans are much more frustrating. When ordering, make sure you get a translation—my first copy was in the original French (and hence unreadable to moi!).
22. The Stand by Stephen King
I’d be hard-pressed to come up with an apocalyptic novel I’ve enjoyed more—or read more times, since I tend to drag out a copy every time I get the flu. The first third—in which a killer engineered influenza virus takes out 99 percent of the population—is the first apocalypse; the next two-thirds involve the showdown with Satan’s earthly representative, Randall Flagg. Also available as a graphic novel and a fairly good miniseries.
23. On the Beach by Nevil Shute
There are two film versions of this novel; I prefer the first, with Gregory Peck as the American submarine commander (1959). The novel is just as dark and defeatist; turns out, we do go kinda quietly into that good night.
24. The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
This 1955 novel is the source for four movie adaptations, all of which have their merits. But Finney’s sci-fi/speculative fiction (don’t miss Time and Again) is top-shelf. The “pod-people” are the ultimate consumers, using up all a planet’s resources and then moving on. But isn’t that sorta just like us?
25. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K Dick
In a certain sense, all of Philip K. Dick’s work is apocalyptic; he’s constantly inviting us to “look behind the veil.” This novel, the source for Blade Runner, addresses the end of our illusions about being human.
26. Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny
Post-nuclear holocaust, we’ve got isolated police states in what used to be the USA, and one man can deliver the plague vaccine across the country to save what’s left of Boston.
27. The Pesthouse by Jim Crace
Crace is an amazing writer of literary speculative fiction (try Quarantine or Being Dead). This one has a plague that wiped out much of America, with asylum available in England. But does that mean we should leave the sick to die alone?
28. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Confession: I don’t much like this novel. Pynchon’s depiction of young Malcolm X is offensive; it’s an unreconstructed pre-feminist vision. That said, it treats WWII as the apocalypse it was, and it is very well written.
29. Dust by Charles Pellegrino
This is the scariest freakin’ plague-causes-the-end-of-the-world novel I’ve ever read; mix up teeny-tiny buggish things and a particularly virulent strain of prion disease spread by mosquitos with nuclear warheads – yeah, it’s that freaky. I read it in one white-knuckled sitting.
30. Dies the Fire by S. M. Stirling
The apocalypse comes early in this disaster/magic series from Stirling, who writes really strong women and actually seems to like them: some strange “event” causes every piece of technology, from gunpowder to steam engines to electronics, to just stop working. A feudal world—with heroes and villains—quickly emerges. I was hooked immediately. Fits with the same “universe” as Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time trilogy, which is also awesome.
31. The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
An underground city designed by an older civilization is now running out of power. First in a series.
32. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
A vampire plague. The novella is better than any of the movies; I like The Omega Man a lot, even though it takes many liberties with the story.
33. Plague Year by Jeff Carlson
I’ve interviewed and written about NorCal writer Carlson’s series of nanotech plague novels. High tech and military, the first one, Plague Year, includes apocalypse in East Sac.
34. The Forge of God by Greg Bear
Aliens, nanotechnology and mutually-assured destruction, as only Bear could write it. If you’re interested in an evolutionary apocalypse, try his Darwin’s Radio.
35. The White Plague by Frank Herbert
Driven insane when an IRA bomb kills his family, a molecular biologist engineers a genetic apocalypse. From the guy who gave us Dune.
36. Resurrection Day by Brendan Dubois
An alternate universe novel about a post-apocalyptic world in which the Cuban Missile Crisis devolved into an all-out nuclear war.
37. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Those alien overlords who brought peace and prosperity to the human race? Uh, yeah. They don’t expect us to stay human.
38. Malevil by Robert Merle
Nuclear war destroys the world, but a small village (and adjacent villa) in France are spared to re-civilize the world.
39. Earth by David Brin
Environmental disasters, overpopulation, scientific hubris and terrorism: Yeah, the planet may not last long unless we straighten up.
40. Mother of Storms by John Barnes
This one is even more terrifying now than it was when it was first published in 1994: Barnes describes, in very technical meteorology terms, how oceanic warming can lead to hurricanes that make Katrina look like a spring shower. There’s also lots of graphic sex and violence, as well as an indictment of our fascination with voyeuristically living through celebrities.
41. Flood by Stephen Baxter
Along with its sequel, Ark, Flood is the story of trying to find a technical solution to an improbable problem: undersea seismic activity unleashes subterranean water reservoirs, flooding the planet. First book is apocalypse; second is post-apocalyptic and has some interesting stuff about human adaptation to both life on an ocean planet and life in space.
42. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Awesome bio-punk novel about a near future in which global warming has flooded a big chunk of the Earth and the calorie has become the most important measure of energy, with genetic manipulation the norm. This is probably more dystopian than apocalyptic, but it’s still fantastic, and Bacigalupi is a writer to watch.
43. There Will Be Time by Poul Anderson
As much a time-travel story as anything, Anderson’s novel has a host of time-travelers, including a “contemporary” human who is trying to use his skill to avert the apocalypse coming at the end of the 21st century.
44. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
Exactly what it sounds like: A history of the zombie apocalypse. Seriously fun.
45. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Another one that’s more dystopian future than apocalypse, although we learn that something apocalyptic destroyed District 13, and that Panem now has the Hunger Games as punishment for an uprising against the central government. The Hunger Games is surprisingly good, though, despite the hype.
46. Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
The problem with making really great artificial intelligences is that it won’t take them long to figure out that humans are bad for the Earth.
47. Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
A pretty good apocalyptic young adult novel, told in diary entries of a teenage girl, about a meteor that knocks the moon closer to the Earth, thus setting off a series of consequences.
48. Dayworld by Philip Jose Farmer
A solution for dealing with an overpopulated world—letting everyone live only one day out of seven, and spend the rest of their time in suspended animation—has some real drawbacks.
49. Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien
A young adult novel in which a teenage girl is one of a few survivors of the apocalypse; this time, it’s nuclear war and nerve gas.
50. Directive 51 by John Barnes
This book and its sequel, Daybreak Zero, are about a successful plot to destroy technology via a nanotech plague. Of course, the nanotech’s consequences are much worse than imagined. Directive 51 refers to the order by which the U.S. government is maintained during a crisis; this is hard science and politics, and of the two books, the first is far superior.
Crossposted at Bibliolatry.