11 stand-out post-apocalyptic novels

Stalker, classic post-apocalypse novels.

If you like this list of the best in post-apocalyptic novels, please check out my new site, Post-Apocalyptic Books, with an archive of information about post-apocalyptic books and their surrounding culture – including massive master-lists of post-apocalyptic films! Otherwise, check this list of 11 of the best books available in the genre:

 

day of the triffids, book review1. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Only read after my first go at this list, this novel is now at the top. In a relatively short novel, Wyndham’s story of a world torn apart by blindness, and killer plants, is a perfectly realised apocalyptic tale. It expertly depicts the rapid decline of society and the threats that the survivors must endure, from the spread of disease to the gradual destruction of unmaintained buildings. Read my full review here. Actually just read the book itself, it’s not long and it’s a brilliant example of an acutely realised societal collapse.

 

the road, book cover2. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

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 here.

 

the stand by stephen king, front cover, dystopian3. The Stand by Stephen King

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. Available here.

 

post-apocalyptic novel, canticle for leibowitz cover4. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller

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. Buy it now.

 

 I Am Legend, horror book,5. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

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. Available here.

 

in the country of last things, book review6. In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster

Not exactly apocalyptic, because whilst the city of the story has faced societal collapse perhaps the whole world hasn’t, but this novel has all the haunting despairing hallmarks of a post-apocalyptic tale. The narrator trudges through a dying society, struggling with homelessness in a lawless world where suicide is an accepted part of life. About as bleak as novels come, and captivating for it. My full review is here.

 

Post-apocalyptic novels, Riddley Walker7. Riddley Walker by Russel Hoban

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. It’s worth it.

 

Wool hugh howey, a book review8. Wool by Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey is an inspiration, both for his incredibly entertaining writing and for his activities as an author. He has rocked the publishing world with his eBook success. And this novel did it with worthy reason: it’s original, gripping has such a strong sense of atmosphere you’ll really get to feel what it’s like to live in an underground silo. Claustrophobic, tragic, brutal and brilliant. Read my full review here, or better yet just read the novel.

 

 

Alas Babylon, post-apocalyptic novels, sci-fi.9. 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.

 

book cover for earth abides10. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

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 LeibowitzEarth 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.

 

graphic novels, y the last man cover11. Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan

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.

 

Honourable Mentions

zombies, the walking dead, book cover, The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman

Another serial comic, rather than a novel per se, 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.

book review, z for zachariah Z for Zachariah by Robert O’Brian

Another bleak look at isolated survivors, Z for Zachariah was a book we studied heavily in school. As any successful post-apocalyptic story should, it deals with the strains of characters lonely and under pressure. As much a look at adolescence and personality clashes as survival. Worth a read, even if it’s not as epic as some of the tales listed here. Read my full review here.

 

Less Honourable Mentions

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Haphazardly mixing genres, I personally can’t see why this novel has received such critical acclaim. The plot is a mess, the characters flat and clichéd and the writing just seemed lazy. A lot of people seem to love it, but I only read 400 pages or so before giving up on it. But that’s enough to judge a book by isn’t it?

Metro 2033 by Dmitri Glukhovsky

Loved the computer game, was rather indifferent to the novel. It’s a good story with some great sequences of action and tension, but it’s bloated and more pulp fiction than literature. In part I’m sure it’s to do with the translation from Russian – that and long sections on rather inconsequential characters hold it back from being a classic.

And a suggestion for something different…

Book cover for post-apocalyptic steampunk adventure novel Wixon's Day.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! And if you’d like to try something you’re unlikely to have heard of, consider reading my novel Wixon’s Day, a slow-burning steampunk post-apocalypse. Described by one reviewer as “Mad Max on a canal boat.”

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.

55 thoughts on “11 stand-out post-apocalyptic novels

  1. Pingback: Why you should read Riddley Walker by Russel Hoban

  2. No Blade of Grass

    Set in England, a family does what they have to do to survive.
    It’s out of print, but it’s unique, worth looking for.

  3. I really like the inclusion of Y. It is definitely one of the best series I have ever read.

    I like to add another one, The Passage for anyone that’s into the zombie/vampire post-apocalyptic genre.

  4. Swan Song-Robert R. McCammon. Horror-ish, but good.
    Malevil-Robert Merle. Survivors of a nuclear war rebuild in a French castle.

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  7. Greetings,
    Great subject;great list
    Here is another stand out work in the genre: “A Friend of the earth?” by the great T. Corragesson Boyle. That one really stayed with me—Give it a try, and you won’t be sorry.

  8. Variable Star by Robert A Heinlein and Spider Robertson. More science fiction with some apocalypse thrown in, but from a different angle. Worth the read either way.

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  13. I work in a small bookstore, one of the few, it would seem, left on this planet. I also read a lot of sci-fi and in particular, post-apocalyptic literature. I read both of Cronin’s Passage books published so far and I have to say, I think you missed the mark. His slightly haphazard narrative lends a lot, I believe, to the nature of the world he created. There is terror, panic, and ultimately, an inordinate amount of sacrifice. The characters were beset by horrors unlike any faced before, even in myth. I felt the visceral nature of each setting, each onset of violence, each character’s own way of living without being able to understand why the world became that way. Perhaps these books are not for you, and you are entitled to that opinion, but please don’t belittle Cronin’s attempt at shucking so much cliche to bring about an end-time scenario that would be truly terrifying, after all, this series is an amazingly far cry from his previous works and should stand out as a monumental effort. Thanks for your time.

    • That’s fair enough and thanks for commenting – I’m happy to hear other opinions on it, as I’m well aware it’s been critically acclaimed (so my opinion is likely in the minority). Personally I just found it very difficult to become engaged in the writing, the quality was very distracting.

  14. I didn’t love it – the Passage (Cronin) that is. This is my favourite genre but whilst the book was ok, it wouldn’t be on any lists I would be generating. I suppose we all enjoy different things. I recently read Lucifer’s Hammer for the first time and whilst it was a pretty good example of the 60-70’s versions of the genre, I just couldn’t get beyond the author’s obvious contempt/fear/lack of knowledge of women. It probably reflects the time but nuanced and complex, it was not.

  15. Thanks for the excellent suggestions. I recently enjoyed America Pacifica by Anna North, and The Dogs Stars by Peter Heller.

  16. Another one you should look for is Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny. It takes place in the United States decades after nuclear war has wiped out most of humanity. Hurricane-force winds above five hundred feet prevent any sort of air travel from one state to the next, and sudden, violent, and unpredictable storms make day-to-day life a mini-hell. Hell Tanner, an imprisoned killer, is offered a full pardon in exchange for taking on a suicide mission—a drive through “Damnation Alley” across a ruined America from Los Angeles to Boston—as one of three vehicles attempting to deliver an urgently needed plague vaccine.
    It was made into a movie with George Peppard and Jan Michael Vincent, however, as is usually the case, the book is far better than the movie.

  17. On The Beach by Nevil Shute. One of the classics of the genre.

    I totally agree with the negative views here on “The Passage.” I found it too silly to finish. And if the only thing that survives the apocalypse is Texas, shoot me now.

  18. Take a look at Paolo Bachigalupi’s short stories in the anthology “Pump Six” and the novel “The Windup Girl”. He paints an overpopulated world with very little energy (wars are being fought over the last of the coal), ruined by genetic manipulation and global warming. My favorite is “The Calorie Man”; every geneticist should be made to read it. A big thumbs up on Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars”!

  19. Into the Forest by Jean Hegland. Was surprised it wasn’t already noted here, but a great book. Seems they’re making a movie as well.

  20. Just read “Grunt Life,” by Weston Ochse. Military sci/fi, aliens and the apocalypse! One of my favorite books. “Swan Song,” Robert McCammon. Excellent book.

  21. I mean there’s just got to be On The Beach by Neville Shute, as one of your readers astutely pointed out. Leaving it off a list of post-apocalyptic fiction is like leaving the tomato sauce off a pizza. I mean, it’s still a pizza, yeah, but…what’s the point?
    Somewhat unsuccessfully made into a movie wwith Gregory Peck, the guy who played Norman Bates, & Fred Astaire (he doesn’t do any dancing what?! Madness. if it was the end of the world and I could dance on the walls like freddy i’d be all over that).
    Otherwise, thankyou for the list. I’m going to hit up The Stand next.

  22. Dies The Fire by S.M. Stirling and all the additional books. I thought these were very good.
    Also The Passage was excellent. I’ll admit that I was lost in the middle because of all the bouncing aroiundbut I stuck with it and it turned out great. The second one (The Twelve) further explains the stpry but has the same style. You must keep going and finish.

  23. Dishonourable mentions ‘Metro 2033’..? Seriously?
    I’m curious, can you list some of the things that you don’t like about the story/characters?
    I personally think it’s one of the better post-apocalyptic novels out there, but I’m not looking to start a flame war. I’m just curious is all 😀

  24. There’s a link to my full thoughts on it here (http://www.writerightnow.co.uk/metro-2033-book-review), but essentially I found it incredibly formulaic in terms of plot, with really uneven pacing and clumsy dialogue (especially with the excessive number of long monologues). There were elements of it I liked – I think the setting is great, and sections such as the scenes in and around the library were excellent; but there was too much filler, and a lot of flat characters.
    What is it about it that you especially liked?

    Re: The Passage, Jack, thanks for the comment – again as I’ve said above I understand that it’s generally been well received, I understand I’m in the minority here. But I just couldn’t press on with it, it felt wholly amateurish to me.

  25. As far as apocalyptic novels go I’m surprised JG Ballard never warrants a mention, as The Crystal World, The Drought & The Drowned World are all excellent entries. Most of his fiction is apocalyptic to a degree, High Rise for example which sees a large apartment community descend into a concrete jungle scenario.

  26. Good point, The Drowned World is the only one of those that I’ve read, but it totally slipped my mind. High Rise sounds interesting, I had an idea to write something like that a long time ago. And got lazy. I guess it’s not a hugely original idea anyway though!

  27. Readers of this post might enjoy this fictional take on a subject on everyone’s mind today:
    Jihad in America travels on the wind. Can the government, dodgy as it is, possibly stand up to a real attack?
    While a nuclear terrorist attack is unlikely, in a bioterror epidemic, the genetically engineered plague is invisible. Our borders are vulnerable, and metal detectors are useless, even as ISIS, the Islamic State, raises its menacing black flag in Syria and Iraq.
    What if the government is helpless, gridlocked in perpetual party conflict and rancor?

    BEYOND TERRORISM: SURVIVAL is the fictional story of two unlikely strangers who found a way to survive the apocalypse, the most deadly terrorist attack in history.
    Read a sample on my website: http://www.sanmiguelallendebooks.com/beyondterrorism.html

  28. Sorry to ask on a forum that has some pretty hardcore survival book fans. I read a book in school about 20 years ago. I am having real trouble finding it online. All i can remember was that it was about a boy in London after a huge apocalyptic tragedy and he finds a green Jaguar car and gets it started. Can anyone help me with this query?

  29. @Jason and Phil – I love Ballard’s writing, especially when he creates little microcosms of post-apocalyptic fiction, like in High Rise! If they interest you, it’s well worth checking out his two epic volumes of short stories – there are dozens of gems hidden in there.

    Huge thanks for the list Phil, you’ve helped me find a few more tales for my bookshelf, and inspired me to create my own round-up post! It’d be great to know what you think:

    The 50 Best Post Apocalyptic Books

    Thanks again! – Ryan

    • Thanks Ryan, glad you found it interesting. I can see you’ve put a lot of work into your list, that’s a great resource! It’s true there’s so much out there, since this post picked up a lot of traffic I’ve learnt about so many more books to read.

  30. A few more that have been enjoyable:
    The Dog Stars – Peter Heller
    Slow Burn – Bobby Adair (a far bit of action in this one)
    Breaking News – NJ Hallard
    The End of the World Running Club – Adrian J Walker

    It’s a shame you couldn’t get into Metro 2033, the translation is poor but I found it to be a good read.

  31. Sorry to see that On the Beach is missing. It my favorite post-apocalyptic novel, and incredibly, incredibly sad. The writing is superb, the characters believable. As others have mentioned, the movie is a waste of time.

    Thanks for including A Canticle for Leibowitz. This is also a beautifully written book, and I thought the plot was intensely interesting

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