Blog – Posted on Friday, Dec 21
The 10 Best Post-Apocalyptic Books to Read Before the World Ends
We’ve all got books on the bedside table we’ve been meaning to read for months — but what if the apocalypse were tomorrow? Luckily for those who’d need some quick survival tips, we at Reedsy have compiled a list of the 10 best post-apocalyptic books to read before the world ends: so that if it does, you’ll find yourself prepared.
We’ve also put them in order of publication, so you can see how the post-apocalyptic genre has evolved over the past seventy years. But don’t worry if you haven’t read most, or indeed any, of the books listed here. There's still time for you to catch up… for now.
If the world ends today, how long will you survive for?
1. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
The 1940s were an extremely popular time for dystopian and post-apocalyptic books, after World War II caused people to start thinking about widespread destruction and societal downfall. One of the gems of this “doomsday renaissance” was George R. Stewart’s novel Earth Abides, which begins with a rampant disease killing off most people in America. A young grad student, the wonderfully named Isherwood Williams, has managed to survive in the mountains — but after he emerges from his “temporary” sabbatical, he finds civilization entirely collapsed.
After a mostly fruitless cross-country road trip searching for fellow human life, Ish agrees to have children with another survivor, Emma. They form a new society of sorts, but without electricity or other modern advantages, they must revert to a semi-primitive lifestyle: hunting and gathering for food and eschewing literacy in favor of survival skills.
As a result, Earth Abides is a frightening yet fascinating glimpse into a world without many resources, and a grippingly realistic portrayal of how society would adapt following such a destructive event.
2. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Though most think of Will Smith's charismatic turn in the 2007 blockbuster, the original post-apocalyptic novel was, well, legend for its time. Like Earth Abides, it also begins with a pandemic. But there’s a twist: the disease doesn’t just decimate the population, it also turns them into vampire-like mutants who want to infect all other humans.
The only remaining hope for civilization appears to be Robert Neville, a lone man driven to discover the scientific cause of the disease and find a cure, before he himself is affected. His wife and daughter have already perished from the disease; even the dog he takes in as a last-ditch companion ends up becoming infected. Neville finds hope in the existence of another survivor, Ruth… but she seems to have her own agenda that doesn’t necessarily align with his.
We won’t spoil the ending for you, especially since it diverges quite a bit from the film. Let’s just say that in a vampire-zombie apocalypse, things are never as they seem.
3. On the Beach by Nevil Shute
On The Beach is the first novel on this list that actually deals with nuclear fallout: an all-too-real concern for many in the wake of WWII. With a title taken from a T.S. Eliot war poem, the "beach" in question lies Melbourne, Australia, one of the last habitable places on Earth — though even the people there will soon die of radiation poisoning.
This book takes on an unusually wide scope for the genre, as a decent number of people are still alive, but must come to terms with their imminent deaths. Everyone has a different coping mechanism: some employ denial, others pure ignorance, while others take practical steps to prepare. (One of the more chilling details of the novel is that Australian government “mercifully” provides its citizens with free suicide pills and injections.)
While many post-apocalyptic books deal in desperate survival, this is certainly not the approach Nevil Shute takes with On the Beach. Yet the human questions and responses that arise from the utter inescapability of death are, in many ways, even more compelling.
4. The Stand by Stephen King
Stephen King’s novel The Stand was an ambitious play by an author who, up until that point, had largely written supernatural horror. The Stand is another post-apocalyptic tale that stems from a deadly virus, but King’s development of it is singular. He terrifyingly describes the initial outbreak of “Project Blue” and the military’s failure to contain it. The deadly sweep of influenza extinguishes 99% of the world’s population, leaving society in tatters.
But this is only the beginning of The Stand. Soon the American survivors of the plague start banding together into groups, one of which becomes aware of an evil (and yes, supernatural) leader of another, evil group. They end up locked in a conflict for the fate of future society: a fairly common trope in dystopian fiction, but no less powerful here, where it’s done so uniquely. The Stand may have been an outlier for King at the time of its publication, but it’s now one of his best-known works — and its impact has only increased over time.
5. Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon
Swan Song actually tied with another Stephen King novel for the 1987 Bram Stoker Award — but it deserves a MacArthur Genius Grant for complexity alone. This labyrinthian novel begins with another nuclear crisis, though this time it’s the result of an all-out conflict between the United States and Russia. The nuclear blasts and radiation storms have caused a ripple effect of destruction, and chaos reigns supreme.
Meanwhile, a young woman nicknamed “Swan” is discovered to have supernatural gifts. But unlike those of Flagg from The Stand, hers are decidedly rejuvenative. Swan is able to connect with plants and nature, accelerating growth and even bringing dead things back to life.
Now herself an anti-apocalyptic weapon, Swan and her comrades fight to restore justice and peace to a land taken over by a violent nationalist group, the “Army of Excellence.” If it sounds like clear commentary on the horrors of WWII, it is! But it’s also chock full of Biblical references, mystical elements, and the horrific yet captivating details of a post-apocalyptic society. In other words: Swan’s Song truly has something for everyone.
6. The Children of Men by P. D. James
For fans of The Handmaid’s Tale, this 1992 novel by P.D. James (which stands for Phyllis Dorothy — amazing female authors for the win!) is definitely one for your reading list. In Children of Men, which takes place in 2021, the population has already suffered through a quarter-century of inexplicable mass infertility. And while the world hasn’t ended quite yet, the ultimate implication is the same: humanity will soon become extinct.
The English government has been overtaken by a tyrant, but few people care, as politics are largely irrelevant when your species is dying. Only our narrator, Theo (who happens to be cousin to the totalitarian leader), and a political group called the Five Fishes actually strive to return to a more democratic society.
One of the more political books on this list, Children of Men will nevertheless keep you biting your nails, willing Theo and the Five Fishes to triumph over their country’s corruption. And even as you find yourself growing in anguish for their hopeless situation, James’ narration and her lifelike characters will keep you riveted to the end.
7. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Road by Cormac McCarthy is an interesting one from a premise perspective: though never find out what happened, we have a front-row seat to its immensely damaging after effects. This novel opens on a boy and his father traveling across an ash-covered, lifeless America, in desperate hopes of making it south before winter.
Food is scarce and many other survivors have resorted to cannibalism, so the pair must remain constantly vigilant — lest they not only be killed, but killed, cooked, and eaten. It’s a sobering tale, epitomized in a scene of the father showing his son how to shoot himself, just in case they run into cannibals and his father can’t protect him.
Yes, it may seem like a simple narrative, especially compared to the convoluted nature of other novels on this list. But McCarthy’s prose, tense yet full of immediacy, thoroughly invests you in the outcome… even when you think it can’t possibly be a good one.
8. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
2006 was a big year for post-apocalyptic fiction. Around the same time as the release of The Road came Max Brooks’ World War Z (both of which were also later made into movies) — but this one’s a completely different take on the apocalypse, written as a series of interviews.
World War Z begins at the ending: an introduction informs us that “The Zombie War” has been over for ten years, but only after a lengthy military and humanitarian crisis. Our narrator is an agent from the UN’s “Postwar Commission,” gathering people’s accounts for posterity, as well as to ensure avoidance of another such disaster.
His expert reporting guides us from the zombie plague’s “patient zero” to the international catastrophe that unfolds in its wake. But what’s really fascinating about this novel is that it doesn’t focus on if humanity will ultimately survive, but rather how. Indeed, Brooks’ exploration of the geopolitical fallout surrounding an apocalyptic scenario may be the most comprehensive and realistic of all those on this list (zombies notwithstanding).
9. One Second After by William R. Forstchen
This novel takes the cake for “most original catalyst” for the apocalypse — namely, a mass electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the United States. Just one second after the attack, anything that depends on electricity is rendered futile: water systems, Internet routers, and all modes of transport that have electronic parts. As a result, many people are stranded with little food, water, or any viable resources whatsoever.
The small southern town of Black Mountain is hit particularly hard. There aren’t enough supplies to help everyone, and people begin to starve, sicken, and succumb to various diseases. Meanwhile, college professor and former Army Colonel John Matherson attempts to maintain order, but ends up leading a battle the likes of which he never could have anticipated.
While it’s not quite as drastic as some of its fellow nuclear works, One Second After is still a shiver-inducing take on a twenty-first century apocalypse, uncomfortably drawing attention to our reliance on modern technology — and what would happen if it were all taken away.
10. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Our final entry is another classic pandemic apocalypse, and one that will seem eerily familiar to anyone who's lived through the COVID-19 epidemic (which is to say, just about everyone). Station Eleven revolves around a woman named Kirsten who grew up in the early years of the “Georgia flu” — a deadly strain of swine that kills most of the population in just two decades. Kirsten, a former child actor, is now part of a traveling theatre troupe in a world largely devoid of any art.
The novel is full of such moving human elements, such as a “Museum of Civilization” that exhibits old iPhones and laptops, and a fictional graphic novel (from which this one takes its name). A good portion of the story also occurs before the epidemic actually starts, detailing the intertwined lives of several characters who impact Kirsten’s life in unexpected ways.
So while Station Eleven is undoubtedly a post-apocalyptic book, the apocalypse isn’t really the point. More than any of the others on this list, it’s a book about humanity and how it perseveres and preserves itself — even in the most trying of times. And that's why it is perhaps one of the best books of all time.
What’s your favorite dystopian or post-apocalyptic book? Did we name it here? Tell us in the comments below!