As long as it’s a story, there isn’t really an end to the world. Because someone must live to tell the story. And what stories they are! Humans have been thinking about the end of the world for as long as we’ve been aware of it. As a result, we have a lot of apocalypse and post-apocalypse literature to read when our planet dies. These books are all about some kind of real apocalypse, and I’ve tried to keep them off of this list, which also includes dystopias and gloomy stories about the future. There are a lot of things we could argue about all day about what a “apocalypse” is, but for the most part, I’ve just gone with my gut.
It’s not like there aren’t other great books about apocalypse and post-apocalypse that didn’t make this list. I haven’t read enough books in translation in this genre, so please add your own favorite books in the comments.
John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids (1951)
To this day, the apocalypse that Wyndham came up with seems a little silly, but it’s still a classic for good reason: it’s great to laugh at! Even Arthur C. Clarke thought it was a story that would live on. So I’ll also throw in his 1955 book The Chrysalids here as a “back-up.”
Richard Matheson, I Am Legend (1954)
Probably because it has so many good ideas, Matheson’s pandemic/vampire/zombie novel is more famous for being a source of ideas than for being a book itself. It is sometimes great and sometimes not so great. The jury is still out on whether it works as a novel, but it has had a big impact on people’s lives. With verve.
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)
Flu pandemic kills civilization in a matter of weeks, and a group of entertainers travel through the land, putting on Shakespeare plays for people who are left. This is your favorite book. It’s as good as stories about the end of the world can be.
Wilson Tucker, The Long Loud Silence (1952)
Everything east of the Mississippi has been wiped out by a nuclear attack. The few survivors have been given a bioweapon that has made them sick with the plague, so they can’t go anywhere (just to be safe, I suppose). In order to keep the sickness from spreading to the west, a military border is set up along the river. This is a border that Gary isn’t going to let go of though. For a country that is in quarantine, this is very sad and weird reading. It shows that breaking quarantine can have very bad consequences.
Ling Ma, Severance (2018)
As soon as you get Shen Fever, you keep going about your daily routine, doing the same things you always do, until you die. This makes the plague in Ma’s first book even scarier because we’re all halfway there. Is Shen Fever just a weaponized form of nostalgia? Other than that, what would you say? It doesn’t matter what it is, Candace is one of the few people who doesn’t seem to be affected by it. She is taking pictures of New York City as it crumbles around her until even she has to leave.
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004)
Cloud Atlas isn’t just a book about the end of the world. Only one of its six storylines could be called post-apocalyptic (one other is squarely dystopian). I think it’s fair to include the post-apocalypse in this list because the novel emphasizes that time and space (and people) are linked together. It also places the post-apocalypse at the top of the novel’s unique structure.
Nevil Shute, On the Beach (1957)
It’s 1963, and most of the world has been wiped out by a nuclear war. At the end of the world, a few survivors are waiting for the winds to bring radiation to their shore. They’re doing things that are both useful and useless, if that’s possible at the end of the world. A classic, even if it isn’t very scientifically sound.
Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)
They become Luddites after the majority of civilization is destroyed by nuclear war. They try to get rid of all knowledge and kill anyone who tries to share or spread it with them. The only people who can be trusted with science are the monks in the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, who have vowed to keep it safe until humanity is ready to use it again, like they were before. The book takes place over a long period of time, and the main point is that no matter how many precautions our ancestors took, we will always destroy the earth. Then, too bad.
Tatyana Tolstaya, tr. Jamey Gambrell, The Slynx (2000)
People in Moscow are always getting snow. It’s been two hundred years since “the Blast.” There are no major changes in Benedikt. He has a job translating the “speech” of the wasteland’s leader, which is actually a copy of an old book that Benedikt hasn’t read. Oldeners will change everything for him until then. They have secret libraries that he can get into.
Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death (2010)
Is it really a fantasy book? If so, it’s set in Sudan, where Onyesonwu is born, the daughter of rapists and genocide, and learns how to use her magical powers until she can fight back against her father. One of the best books ever written. Everyone should read it.
Hanna Jameson, The Last (2019)
There are some people who live in remote places who don’t get hit by apocalypse, but what about those who don’t get hit at all? In this book, the world comes to an end while Jon is at a Swiss hotel, far from everyone he knows and loves. Afterwards, what does he do? When you see a dead body, get to work right away to solve that problem. Certainly.
Colson Whitehead, Zone One (2011)
Our mediocre hero is one of the band sent to get rid of the people who haven’t been killed by the zombies. Everyone else in Manhattan has been turned into a zombie, feral skels, or morose stragglers, or has PASD (post-apocalyptic stress disorder). One for people who don’t read zombie novels and one for people who don’t read literary novels.
J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World (1962)
My favorite Ballard book is set in a future where the entire planet has been turned into a series of sweltering lagoons, a landscape that both terrifies and fascinates the survivors. They are plagued by dreams and strange impulses, and they are haunted by dreams and strange impulses.
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (2003)
In some ways, you might say that The Handmaid’s Tale is just as much of an apocalypse book as Oryx and Crake, and in some ways, I’d agree with you. It’s an apocalypse of mind and morality, not body and planet. But you and I both know what we’re doing here, so don’t worry about it. Plus, Oryx and Crake, which isn’t as well-known, is just as good. It’s a terrifyingly real world that was destroyed by our relentless search for happiness in a bottle. Ooh, and you can’t trust corporations. Certainly.
Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind (2020)
We think Alam’s recent blockbuster hit and favorite book is the quietest on this list, at least from our point of view. All we can see is a few hints about how bad things are going to get. We’re instead drawn in by the increasing anxiety of two families, brought together by chance. It’s likely that most of us will experience the apocalypse in this way, when it does happen: Knowing this makes the book even more scary.
Stephen King, The Stand (1978)
The Lord of the Rings is said to have been a big influence on this book. It’s a huge book with many different threads and characters, all set in a world ravaged by a pandemic caused by a weaponized strain of influenza that kills 99.4% of people who come into contact with it. People may not want to read it right now. This is why.
David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988)
A lot of people don’t think of this as a book about the end of the world. If you believe the narrator, though, she is the last woman alive on Earth, and she’s typing away to keep herself busy with no hope of ever meeting another person again. So, there must have been an event. The question is: can you trust the narrator? When there’s nothing left, what is there? This is a question that many of the novels on this list address, though in a different way. There are people who are still alive. How can they stay alive? To what end did our art or science or civilization serve us in the long run? It didn’t mean anything.
Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)
Post-apocalyptic novels are often thought of as books about a man and his son who travel across an unknown country. In a weird way, this book isn’t like McCarthy’s other books, except for its unyielding bleakness.