It’s called the “COVID-19 pandemic,” but some people prefer to call it, tongue-in-cheek, the “COVID-19 apocalypse.”
No, it’s not the end of the world, but pictures of an empty Times Square in New York kind of make it feel like the end of the world. With economies in freefall, it’s also possible to see it as the end of a lifestyle. Sheltered in our homes, with Amazon our key lifeline to the outside world, it’s easy to get preoccupied by random thoughts–like, for example, the asteroids that might be headed toward the earth right now.
The best post-apocalyptic survival books revel in the literary temptation to just wipe the slate clean and start fresh, to contemplate what it would be like if the world as we know it were swept away in one fell swoop, and what might replace it for the scattered survivors. A brave new world or a dystopian nightmare, worse than what we left behind?
Here are our picks for the 16 best post-apocalyptic books of all time …
1- Eternity Road by Jack McDevitt
Eternity Road asks the unsettling, eternal question—if you and a handful of survivors were the last people on earth, could you reinvent the cell phone? How much do we command our world versus are commanded by it?
McDevitt picks up on the human race 1,700 years after a cataclysmic mass death due to disease, and things aren’t looking rosy. Humans cling to a meager living in stone-age circumstances, huddled in the decayed remains of cities dominated by the crumbling ruins of freeway overpasses—relics of a mythic race of human ancestors called the “Roadmakers,” masters of forgotten technology.
People occasionally launch expeditions to the perilous northern latitudes in search of Haven, a legendary repository of lost technological data—but most of the expeditions meet grim fates. However, the discovery of a novel by Mark Twain prompts Chaka Milana to rally another expedition to try and succeed where her late brother failed. But as it tends to go with the best post-apocalyptic survival books, the dangerous journey will be way more than she bargained for.
2- Bird Box by Josh Malerman
Josh Malerman’s debut novel was eclipsed by the ubiquitous Netflix adaptation, which premiered to mixed reviews and an avalanche of mocking memes. No one quite knew why everyone was talking about Bird Box, but they knew you were supposed to be talking about Bird Box.
It was always going to be difficult to adapt Malerman’s novel for the screen, an inherently visual medium, given that Malerman’s book hinges on the horror of trying to make your way in a dangerous world without the use of your eyes. Narrated in arresting present-tense, Bird Box follows Mallorie as she attempts a harrowing journey through the wilderness of a blasted, depopulated America. Alien creatures roam the streets; the sight of them, inexplicably, drives humans mad. Mallorie must therefore make her way blindfolded. To make matters worse, she is responsible for two small children, whom she has raised from babyhood with an iron fist to resist their childlike instincts to explore the world with their eyes.
Flashbacks take us through the arrival of the maddening creatures, and a pregnant Mallorie’s flight from the ensuing chaos to shelter in a house with a collection of survivors, who may or may not be trustworthy. Forget Netflix—Bird Box is one of the best post-apocalyptic survival books of recent vintage.
3- Blindness by José Saramago
Before there was Bird Box, there was Blindness, José Saramago’s nightmarish tale of eyes betraying their owners and leading to societal breakdown. This novel delivers exactly what it promises. The bugaboo, in this case, is not alien invaders but instead an inexplicable outbreak of mass blindness—scary not only for its randomness, but for its plausibility.
Saramago uses his signature style of long, breathless sentences to convey a claustrophobic lack of control as the early afflicted are quarantined in an asylum, assigned grimly ambiguous descriptive names rather than proper names—”the doctor’s wife,” “the car thief,” “the man with the gun,” “the blind accountant.” As society collapses outside, the asylum becomes a grim descent into animal instincts, with patients banding together and fighting brutally for survival, organized around the wildcard fact that some of them, by a fluke, can still see.
4- Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
Seriously, how dependent are we on technology? If the electricity disappeared and Instagram with it, would we even have pictures of our loved ones? If our worlds shrank to the limit of our physical sentences, how would we react?
Hegland doesn’t come right out and say what caused the lights-out condition of the bleak near future depicted by Into the Forest—world war? Political unrest? Does it matter? Hegland just drops us into the intimate story of two sisters, Ava and Nell, who live deep in the forest with their father as electricity and gas run out, and with it the world as they know it. Stranded in a dangerous world with no police to protect them, where even superficial injuries can be deadly, the sisters struggle to survive in the harsh “new normal,” cut off from the rest of society.
From this fishbowl premise, Hegland uses the trappings of the best post-apocalyptic books to craft an intimate, affecting coming-of-age story, played out against the most dire of circumstances.
5- The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
You would almost think that Hig, the first-person narrator and protagonist of The Dog Stars, is enjoying the apocalypse. Sure, he has to defend his airplane-hanger home from murderous, rape-happy bands of survivors who roam the plague-struck wasteland of the world we knew (the apocalypse, right? What can you do?) Sure, his only human companion is a trigger-happy malcontent named Bangley who threw in with him as a “roommate of convenience.” But Hig has his dog, lakes to fish, a Cessna to fly, and breathtaking Colorado scenery to feed his soul. Give or take a love interest, what better permanent vacation could a guy ask for?
But of course man cannot live on bread alone. An unexpected radio transmission, received when Hig is cruising the sky, reminds him of all that he is missing since his wife and his life were stripped away. He embarks on an airborne journey to discover the source of the sound, a journey that will cross paths with a pair of elderly serial killers, a mysterious woman with violet eyes, and an inevitable date with despair and grace.
6- The Passage by Justin Cronin
The Passage was a phenomenon and a bestseller when it hit the bookshelves—an epic tableau in the traditions of the best post-apocalyptic survival books by Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King (both of whom will turn up on this list). Cronin piles on the suspense in describing a government experiment gone wrong, and a virus loosed on the world that turns almost everyone into unkillable flesh-eaters. With bedlam in the streets, the world degenerates into an unending blood hunt, with scattered outposts of armed militias trying to hold the line against the encroaching chaos.
Cronin follows the decline of civilization over several decades, focuson on a guilt-ridden FBI agent and a six-year-old girl in his care who may hold the key to righting the most horrible wrong in history.
Cronin dives deep into the world-building task ahead of him, adopting inventive slang and populating his world with memorable characters on both sides of the predator-prey relationship, with a cliffhanger ending that all but guaranteed the destiny of The Passage as the first book in a trilogy.
7- The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks
Sure, novels are fun, but how about some nonfiction? Where are the practical tips for survival if and when, for example, the world gets overrun by flesh-eating zombies? Just for example? Max Brooks magnanimously steps up to the plate to fill this pressing need with the hilarious mock-nonfiction Zombie Survival Guide, one of the best post-apocalyptic books that delivers on just what it promises—breezy, can-do advice to survive Solanum, the zombie-making virus that afflicts the alternate reality of Brooks’ enterprising narrator.
So many questions answered: how is zombification spread? If you are bitten, is suicide by headshot the best option? Under what circumstances should you attempt a self-amputation? Under what circumstance is a baseball bat preferable to a gun for self-defense against the zombies? Brooks helpfully includes an appendix of “known” zombie encounters throughout the ages—for instance, the first “verifiable” zombie outbreak recorded in Ancient Egypt, and if you ever wondered what really happened to the Roanoke Colony …
8- Metro 2033 by Dmitri Glukhovsky
Russian author Dmitri Glukhovsky’s novel Metro 2033 is justly celebrated as one of the best post-apocalyptic books in the canon, thanks to its inventive setting. With the surface world blasted by nuclear war, Moscow’s scattered survivors retreat to the nearest available refuge—the subway tunnels. In this subterranean network of passageways, threatened by radiation and carnivorous rats, factions form to defend and conquer the prime real estate of subway stations, including such factions as the freedom-loving “Rangers of the Order,” the Stalinist “Red Line,” and the neo-Nazi “Fourth Reich.”
As if this weren’t already an amazing setup, there are things in the depths—inhuman creatures called “Dark Ones” with whom the human survivors must contend. Born before the bombs but raised in the tunnels, trooper Artyom is recruited to acquire intelligence on the Dark Ones, an underground odyssey to the subway station under the Kremlin that is fraught with danger, headed to a twist ending that will shake Artyom’s assumptions to the core.
9- The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya
A distant relation of Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev, Tatyana Tolstaya’s august literary family set a high bar for her to clear. The Slynx lives up to her pedigree, using the aftermath of a nuclear war as a cipher for the disappointment and ennui that plagued Russian life after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Slynx is one of several novels that established Tolstaya as a leading voice in post-Soviet Russian literature.
The story picks up two hundred years after “The Blast” and follows Benedikt, a scribe who lives a decent life compared to the less-fortunate members of his post-apocalyptic society—namely serfs and half-human mutants exploited for their labor. But Benedikt’s destiny will lead him into the crosshairs of the Saniturians, who aggressively persecute “Freethinking,” as well as a mysterious beast called the Slynx, who haunts the wilderness outside the boundaries of human understanding.
10- The Children of Men by P.D. James
The Children of Men wins the award on this list for the best film adaptation, thanks to Alfonso Cuaron’s justly lauded motion picture. It’s easy to forget, though, that nothing in James’ voluminous bibliography of pulp crime novels prepared anyone for her crack at the post-apocalyptic genre. Her inventive armageddon event is as fiendish as it is ingenious—what would the world be like if the human population became gradually infertile? What if there were no more children?
James’ answer—a hopeless dystopian nightmare, with governments cracking down and rebel factions fighting back for control of the future of a human race that has no future, descending into anarchy, pushing household pets in prams, and hedonistically counting down the meaningless minutes to extinction. In this dreadful milieu, everyman Theo gets pulled into the underground machinations of a rebel group called the Five Fishes, who guard an incendiary secret—the identity of the only known pregnant woman on Earth.
11- Wool by Hugh Howey
The first book in Howey’s “Silo” series is notable not only for its fantastic exercise in immersive post-apocalyptic worldbuilding, but for the phenomenon of fan-fiction it kicked off. Expanded to nine books, the series begins with Wool, actually a collection of three short novels set in the same fictional world—a post-apocalyptic underground city built down instead of up and out, 144 stories deep into the earth.
In fact, it kicks off with a melancholy story of a marriage collapsed under the pressure of isolation from the sunlight, as Silo Sheriff Holston’s wife cracks under the claustrophobia and requests a fate usually reserved for condemned criminals—a one-way trip topside to clean the Silo’s external sensors with the titular cloth. Secrets and surprises run deep in the Silo, but it’s hard to imagine a better hook point than Sheriff Holston’s grief and the shocking revelation it leads him to.
The subsequent stories in Wool follow Sheriff Holston’s potential successors as they vie for the job and plumb the depths of the Silo, with each deeper level revealing different secrets, adding color to a world where down is the new up.
12- The Stand by Stephen King
Stephen King had only one hardcover bestseller to his name when he deposited an 1,100-page manuscript on his publisher’s desk. Horrified, the publisher demanded that 400 pages—an entire novel’s worth—be excised to make it less intimidating. So The Stand hit the bookshelves in shortened but still hefty form and instantly earned its reputation as one of the best post-apocalyptic books. A dozen bestsellers later, it was re-issued in its unshortened form and revealed for what it really was—an epic tableau of unforgettable characters enacting a grand drama across a world denuded of 98% of its population.
Where did 98% of the people go? Dead, at the hands of a government-engineered plague that makes COVID-19 look like seasonal allergies. In loving detail, the first third of the novel depicts the collapse of society in the face of mass death, introducing characters like a jaded rock star, a deaf-mute drifter, a robber-murderer, a pregnant teenager, and a schizoid pyromaniac. The second act sees them wander across the empty American byways before falling into two camps—that of saintly Mother Abigail in Boulder; or that of demonic Randall Flagg in Las Vegas. An epic battle is brewing for the souls of the survivors … but the final stand will be nothing like either side suspected.
13- Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Zombies, nuclear war, viral infections, asteroids–there’s good fun to be had with all of these things in the best post-apocalyptic books. If the title weren’t obvious in its reference to the Jesus quote (“as ye sow, so shall ye also reap”), Butler’s apocalypse comes from much more pedestrian vectors, once familiar to us today—climate change, corporate greed, racism, and income inequality.
In Butler’s near future (which coincides with our present), the elite live in gated communities, sheltered from the pandemonium in the streets. From one such bastion of privilege in Los Angeles, a messianic young woman proposes a different idea—a utopian vision called “Earthseed” to which she rallies followers and braves the hostile in-between terrain to establish a cult-like compound in Northern California. Their goal—leave the planet and give humanity a new start amid the stars.
14- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Have you ever been creeped out by a pharma commercial touting a new drug, the voice-over listing off a horror show of side effects over soothing music and the image of children playing in a park? You probably have a kindred spirit in Margaret Atwood. Oryx and Crake introduces us to a barren world of feral sub-humans, where a lonely character called “Snowman” recalls his former like in a corporate dystopia ruled by “compounds” named after products like “HelthWyzer” and “RejoovenEssence.”
In his childhood, Snowman befriended Crake, a boy who would grow up to destroy human civilization with a viagra-like drug called BlyssPluss, which guarantees a satisfying life, but also secretly sterilizes its users. But the drug has other effects–and Crake may have known this all along.
The “Oryx” with whom Crake shares the title is Crake’s concubine, a woman that Snowman first fell in love with when as a boy he glimpsed her in a pornographic video. The three form a love triangle as twisted as the doomsday plot Crake intends to enact on the flaccid masses.
15- A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
Begun as three short stories inspired by Miller’s experiences as an WWII bomber pilot, A Canticle for Leibowitz is an epic meditation on the most dire predictions of the nuclear age and one of the best post-apocalyptic books ever written. In a world devastated by nuclear war, survivors renounce technology and viciously attack those who might seek to rebuild the society that destroyed itself. Only a Catholic monastery, the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, preserves a collection of technological documents rescued from the mob by an electrical engineer.
Canticle follows the monastery and its inhabitants over a thousand years as society retracts to isolated city-states and the world heals from the catastrophe. The monks preserve the ancient, half-understood knowledge until such a time as humankind is ready for it again. Of course, by the end of the novel humankind has acquired nuclear weapons again and stands on the verge of interplanetary nuclear war, and it falls to the monks of Leibowitz to preserve all knowledge for all time.
16- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
While traveling through El Paso with his young son, McCarthy imagined fires on the nearby hill in some dystopian future and wondered what he would do to protect his son from harm. From this seed grew one of the best post-apocalyptic survival books, bleak even by McCarthy’s standards, about a world in a state of decay. The cause of the extinction is never made clear, but all foliage is dying and the last gasps of humanity exist in a near feral state, scrounging for resources and in many cases resorting to cannibalism like wild dogs.
Across this hopeless landscape, a nameless father and his nameless son make a grim trek in search of safety from the coming winter, avoiding savage bands of lawless humans as they scrounge for food in a world without a future. It’s sad, but eerily beautiful and ultimately honest about the fleeting and fragile nature of the societies and, indeed, the lives we cling to.
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