As I continue to market Wixon’s Day and work on editing the sequel, The Unread, for publication, here’s a look back at the post-apocalyptic novels that helped me shape my writing. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a suggestion of a few books that should satisfy any fan of the post-apocalyptic genre. If you have any more suggestions I’d love to hear them.
1. Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
Pat Frank’s 1959 novel Alas, Babylon follows the exploits of a small community in Florida as they struggle to survive following a nuclear war. It’s dated, but forward-thinking for the time, dealing with prominent issues like race relations and the terrifying consequences of a global arms race. Early in the Cold War, when it looked like humanity might very well commit mass suicide, Alas, Babylon strips back the community and shows what life (or a lack of it!) would be like after the war. For instance the efforts you have to go to to get salt. Find it on Amazon here, or .co.uk here.
An obvious addition to any list of post-apocalyptic novels, The Road popularised the genre for the 21st Century with critical acclaim and a hit movie to follow. Cormac McCarthy’s bleak writing style is perfect for creating a desperately depressing atmosphere in the post-apocalypse, but what really makes The Road stand out is the poignant coming-of-age tale at its centre. Alongside the story of individuals surviving without food or sunlight, beset by raiders and cannibals, is the tale of a father and son, and a boy finding the confidence to become a man. Available on Amazon.com here, and .co.uk here.
This is a graphic novel, rather than a single book, but it’s more powerful for it. Y: The Last Man poses a different post-apocalyptic scenario in which precisely half of humanity has randomly died out, with the exception of Yorick Brown. As the last man on Earth, he is beset by a host of women and a slew of gender issues as the characters struggle to protect him and understand what happened to all the men. It’s a novel tale with a lot of twists and turns, great fun and a considerate study of gender relations and scientific ethics. It’s available in a variety of mediums- to get the whole story you’ll need to track down some 10 books or so – but here’s a good place to start (or on .co.uk).
Stephen King’s stand-out post-apocalyptic novel (oh my the puns!) was made into a popular TV mini-series, and is one of his most popular books. It depicts a group of survivors after a superflu wipes out 99% of the human race, as they do their best to thwart the efforts of a rising villain and his diabolical army. It’s an epic tale of good vs evil, which goes somewhat beyond the usual craziness that a breakdown in society creates. To know exactly why, it’s best to read it yourself. Buy it here from Amazon or from .co.uk here.
Not entirely popular at its release, Canticle for Leibowitz has developed a huge cult following amongst fans of post-apocalyptic novels. Why? Because author Walter Miller gives a vastly ambitious account spanning 1800 years, whose overall message is a bit more complex than the average ‘what individuals must do to survive’ spin. This novel maps a cycle in history, exploring the virtues and threats of technology, demonstrating how the unchecked effects of human ignorance can repeat themselves. Available on Amazon or .co.uk here.
Remade into a number of film and TV efforts, the latest being the 2007 blockbuster starring Will Smith, no one has quite captured the genius of I Am Legend in another medium. What separates it from other post-apocalyptic novels, and stories in general, is the gradual build-up to its haunting twist, the reason for its title that other interpretations have tended to miss. I Am Legend is as much a horror story as a post-apocalypse novel, as Robert Neville, the sole survivor of a disease, is hounded by blood-sucking infected former acquaintances. It’s a fantastic microcosm of genres, as Matheson combines carefully thought-out sci-fi elements and Neville undergoes a range of bleak emotions. Buy it from Amazon here or .co.uk here.
Another tale of survival after the devastating effects of a plague, George R. Stewart’s 1949 novel follows Ish Williams and his haphazard attempts to rebuild Californian society. Like A Canticle for Leibowitz, Earth Abides recognises the long term implications of rebuilding society, covering an era where there are no quick solutions. The book it aptly slow and brooding to suit it, developing in a very calm way that concerns itself more with atmosphere than science and conflict. Available to read (or here in the UK).
If you’ve read around my site at all, you’ve probably seen Riddley Walker mentioned a few times. It’s a monumental work of fiction that so completely imagines its post-apocalyptic setting that the narration itself is a new language, truly placing you in another time and place. Iron-age survivors trying to rebuild society make a mess of understanding the history that led them to this place, and the result is an incredible work of literature, let alone a classic post-apocalyptic novel. Read my full review here, or just go straight to buying it (here in the UK). It’s worth it.
I’m sure you’ve heard of this from AMC’s current hit show, but have you read the books? Another graphic novel, The Walking Dead is still going in monthly comic publications, and it’s an epic sprawling work of post-apocalyptic fiction. It’s a story of survival and disaster that works in vicious cycles, where no loved character is safe. Effectively combining the bleakness of surviving in the post-apocalypse with the action and horror of all your favourite films, to my tastes the comics are even more powerful than the TV show (although the latest season is doing an excellent job of recreating the finest story arch of the comics!). Again, it’ll take some work to find the whole story, which hasn’t finished yet, but you can start here.
If you’ve got more suggestions, please let me know as I’m always on the look out for more post-apocalyptic novels to read! Or if you’d like to try something else, consider reading my novel Wixon’s Day, a slow-burning steampunk apocalypse set far in the future after the world’s been laid to waste. You may also like my article, Why we love the apocalypse in fiction, exploring what it is about post-apocalyptic novels that is so enthralling.