. . .A young woman huddles behind a counter in the dark of an abandoned supermarket, Pistol in hand. She’s only two miles from solace in the last vestiges of civilization, but hushed voices searching for her echo throughout the warehouse. Two miles might as well be two thousand if she can’t escape from those who would be her captors.
That’s the good stuff. If such rhetoric piques your interest, then run, fly, teleport, burrow your way to your library/bookstore/kindle and get the books on this list. Some people may say that post-apocalyptic fiction is not for everyone. Those people are drunk. But all jokes aside, if survival, the question of human identity, or suspense interests you at all, try reading one of these post-apocalyptic works. You may find yourself hooked into an enthralling genre.
Everyone has traits and beliefs at their core that form who they are. Everyone has an idea of who they think they are. There’s nothing more efficient at unearthing the truth of identity than survival; the struggle to live– Whether it be personal survival, or that of loved ones, or even responsibility to the survival of the human race. That is the canvas on which post-apocalyptic fiction gets to paint: raw, unadulterated humanity.
Maybe it’s a futuristic wasteland, maybe it’s a historical catastrophe, maybe it’s a brand new plight befalling civilization. Regardless of the concept, the spectrum of what apocalyptic fiction can conceptualize is vast. Critics of the genre may say it’s hemmed in, repetitive, or predictable. The reality is it’s just the opposite for a creative mind; you’ve got the platform to write about anything without the constraints of cultural expectation. Groundbreaking novels like H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898) and Mary Shelley’s unheralded work The Last Man (1826) shocked, astounded and excited readers while basically birthing this incredible genre.
The following novels broke ground in different ways– ways that left a lasting impression on the reader about ideas of human life and survival.
Honorable Mention — Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, Various Authors
This short story compilation entitled Wastelands is electrifying, bordering on radioactive. With names like Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, George R.R. Martin, and Gene Wolfe, this comprehensive repertoire of apocalyptic genius is the bomb shelter you find in a basement of an abandoned neighborhood. The leadoff hitter, so to speak, is Stephen King’s “The end of the Whole Mess”. This first-person, emotional diary of one man rips you through an unpredictable journey of an older brother coming to terms with the tragic mistakes of his prodigy of a sibling, and the end of humanity of which they are responsible. Anyone who reads this story and is not shaken by its power and elegance needs to have their pulse checked.
“Salvage” by Orson Scott Card is next up, a fascinating tale of a Salvager diving on the underwater ruins of Mormon Salt Lake City in the hopes of finding fabled treasure. Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag” deserves mentioning, as a chilling venture into the brutal future of biologically immortal humans and the hell it brings down on all other life. And our now famous George R.R. Martin’s “Dark, Dark, Were the Tunnels” will give you newfound appreciation for both life and light.
Truly, this book is a magnificent amalgamation of the creativity of the genre. If you don’t read it, wild dogs will break into your home and eat you.
5. A Canticle for Leibowitz — Walter M. Miller Jr.
This 1961 Hugo Award winner for best science fiction novel is nothing short of a mind-bending look into a post nuclear fallout existence. With nuclear war burning away most of civilization, the survivors are scouring the earth, destroying all technology and knowledge in a crusade against the advent of weaponry that destroyed the earth. The main character is a monk of the Order of Leibowitz, trying to find technology, books and any other forms of knowledge and hiding them away for mankind’s future. It offers a shocking view of the old idea that history cannot be ignored or forgotten, for the sake of the future.
Walter Miller Jr. only published one Novel in his life, but if you’re going to do just one, you’d hope it would be this amazing. He was inspired to write the story from the bombing of the Monte Cassino monastery in World War II, and his part in it. He also published a number of short stories over his lifetime, and the novel following A Canticle for Leibowitz was publish posthumously, entitled Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. Walter M. Miller Jr. died in 1996 at 72 years of age, but left civilization with a unforgettable view into our possible future.
4. The Stand — Stephen King
Stephen King manages to sneak his way into this article again for his 1978 novel The Stand. Everyone knows King for his thrillers, horrors, dramas, and his absolutely flawless storytelling ability. Not many know him for this famous novel in the post-apocalyptic genre.
Battles of good and evil often feel trite or preachy. Stephen King’s application of the most ancient story completely upends the archetype. (Spoiler alert hereafter!) After a computer malfunction unleashes the U.S. Army’s weaponized strain of influenza named Captain Trips, a pandemic of the virus stretches across the globe and kills 99% of humanity. A 108-year-old woman gathers survivors in what would later be the forces of good, and a supernatural psychotic killer named Randall Flagg marshals an army of violent followers in Las Vegas to create the forces of evil. The old woman “Mother Abagail” dies, wishing that her followers dispatch Flagg. They fail, and are captured, but Flagg’s henchman named the Trashcan Man brings a stolen nuke to the executions, which detonates when Flagg touches it, killing them all.
King claims he nearly abandoned writing the story due to writers block. He originally planned on it being a Lord of the Rings-esque epic trilogy except for contemporary America. After seeing a documentary on biological warfare, he was inspired to write The Stand as an epic post-apocalyptic trilogy, but after writing struggles he resolved the book to be one novel broken into three parts, “Captain Trips”, “On the Border” and finally “The Stand”.
Thank you, King, for not letting writer’s block get the better of you. How someone that talented could ever get writer’s block is beyond comprehension.
3. World War Z — Max Brooks
Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is basically the bible for zomb-pocalypse fiction. Written in 2006, Max Brooks said he was inspired by written accounts of World War II and George Romero‘s famous zombie films. The novel is structured as a series of different people’s accounts of the zombie outbreak caused by a ‘zombie plague’ with the “patient zero” being a young boy in China. As the plague spreads from Asia to the rest of the world, chaos, violence, and nuclear war ensues. The novel is largely critical of American overconfidence and isolationism, along with providing a stark view of geopolitical crises in the face of international adversity. Brooks claims to have conducted immense amounts of research involving politics, technology, cultural and military practices. The novel also delves into the fascinating issue of religious differences and conflicts and how they could pervade even in a global disaster like a zombie outbreak.
Despite the fact that Brooks’ previous publication of The Zombie Survival Guide is quite satirical in nature, his next gesture to the literary community is nothing short of a gift. World War Z‘s popularity spread like the plague it portends, and it was made into a film featuring Brad Pitt in 2013.
2. The Road — Cormac McCarthy
It’s easy to use hyperbole when describe the great works of literature you love. But when someone refers to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as groundbreaking and revolutionary, they aren’t kidding. McCarthy delivers a relatively straightforward story of a man and his son, haunted by the memory of his pregnant wife who committed suicide, while they tried to sneak their way South in the wasteland of post-civilization. But what makes this novel truly incredible is the disconnect which the reader is forced to feel; the novel is written without the verb “to be”. That’s right. No am, was, were, nothing. This may seem impossible, but what the writing style creates with the use of sentence fragments is an inevitable feeling of disconnect, death, and hopelessness. It is an absolutely masterful use of writing style. Without names, only referred to as “the man” and “the boy” the two desperate humans trudge on through the ashes. With the skies dark, and vegetation dying off, all food is nearly impossible to come by and the struggle for basic survival towers over the characters and the reader. The story pulls no punches, offering horrific views into cannibalism, and the darkest corners of a survivalist’s mindset. McCarthy’s style and story holds you down and hardly ever lets you up for air. Read it. Read it now.
1. I Am Legend — Richard Matheson
There are very few stories that are so powerful, so artfully directed that when you finish the last page, you close the book, place it next to you, and struggle to understand the state of awe in which you are left. I Am Legend accomplishes that gracefully in only a hundred-something pages. It’s borderline novella size and sometimes lukewarm critical reception can be seen as marks against the story, but all one has to do is open the book and delve into the personal journey of fallible protagonist Robert Neville and his struggles in being a lone survivor.
The story needs no defending. It is unequivocally real. It is actually not a zombie-apocalypse story, and is basically nothing like the film adaptation aside from the fact that there is both a man and a dog somewhere in both stories. It is in reality a vampire apocalypse novel, something of an unorthodox mix by today’s standards. Despite that, his idea of vampires is something of a blend with the classical zomb-pocalypse trend, and is often regarded as the progenitor for all zomb-pocalypse stories of today. Both Stephen King and zombie master George Romero have claimed Matheson’s work were inspirations for them.
Regardless of the literary influence and various legacies of I Am Legend, in a vacuum, the story is unexpected, suspenseful, endearing, and in finality, earth shaking. There is no blurb or synopsis to describe this deftly written story and how it makes you feel. If you get it and start reading it before bed one night, just go ahead and call in sick to work the next day. You’ll be up all night reading it.