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:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
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.
10. 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 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.
11. 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.
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.
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…
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.