When I first started writing, I was really drawn to Post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi. I loved the grittiness, the horror, and the very real threat posed by climate disasters, disease, and warfare.
My own trilogy started off in a Post-Apocalyptic vein with The Timekeepers’ War. It quickly diverged into a dark Science Fantasy inspired by Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman (Think Oryx and Crake meets Neverwhere). Now, as I begin to write book three, it’s evolving ever further into Solarpunk/Moonpunk/Cyberpunk territory. This is why I never bother to plan in too much detail, haha.
Anyway, my point is I used to read a lot of Post-Apoc SF. I still enjoy it from time to time, though I’m beginning to be drawn away from the doom and gloom sub-genre and toward more hopeful futures.
I did want to compile a list of my favourite titles in the Post-Apocalyptic genre, so far. So here it is!
#5 The Stand by Stephen King
I read this book when I was in the hospital waiting for my youngest daughter to be born. Seems like a weird time to dwell on the end of civilization as we know it, but I needed a long read. I was there for weeks! And all that death and destruction didn’t actually bother me that much.
In a world ravaged by a military-designed plague, 1% of the population has survived and is trying to make sense of this bleak new landscape. As they wander around, collecting allies and enemies, we get a sense of how much work is ahead of these survivors if they wish to have any hope at all for the future.
The weakest part of The Stand in my opinion, is where King strays away from the standard Post-Apocalyptic themes and dives into Paranormal Horror, with Randall Flagg, the dark man. But this book is worth reading for the scale alone. It is massive. There are so many characters and the way they weave in and out of one another’s lives is a feat to behold.
#4 The World Made By Hand by James Howard Kuntsler
This book has a very different feel from some of the others on the list. While the setting is certainly post-apocalyptic: there is no electricity, no fuel for vehicles, no government to speak of anymore, it feels more like a tale from the North American frontier.
I really enjoyed The World Made By Hand for the back-to-basics homesteading life Kuntsler presents. There are dangers, of course, but the focus of this book is on how people will survive through cooperation and community.
In Post-Apocalyptic fiction, I find there’s an almost artificial darkness and bleakness presented where humanity essentially devolves into a monstrous, animal like version of itself. I appreciate that Kuntsler’s characters remain human–they are social animals–while they may be fiercely territorial they still find groups and work together for the betterment of their people. It’s not an every-man-for-themselves orgy of death and destruction (I’m looking at you, Cormac McCarthy)
#3 Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake is perhaps the single most important book in my journey as a speculative fiction writer. Atwood really demonstrates the potential for Science Fiction to predict the future, or warn us about our own potential (for devastation). Everything she writes about is inspired by real-life scientific discoveries which she pushes just a little bit further and asks “what if?”
It is perhaps unfair to include Oryx and Crake in this list as, while it starts and ends with a post-apocalyptic world, it is more the story of what caused the apocalypse. It is both a tragic love story and a story about the downfall of humanity. The rest of the Maddaddam trilogy explores in more depth both the pre- and post-apocalyptic world. I cannot recommend it enough.
Atwood has a way of finding humour in the most horrific situations, she is able to make awful people sympathetic, and her scathing jabs at humanity are both hilarious and poignant. These books are filled with so many literary gems! If you love emotional complexity in your end-of-the-world stories, this is the series for you.
#2 The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison
In a world that has been decimated by a mysterious virus, almost everyone is dead. Of those who survived, very few are women. This premise provides the unique setting for The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison as she explores the particular struggles that women and girls might face in the event of a post-apocalyptic reckoning.
The titular midwife is a woman who learns to dress and act like a man in order to conceal herself as she seeks out women needing help: menstrual products, birth control, midwifery, etc.
The female experience is often neglected in the post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve read. Or it’s used as a catch all for the horror of rape and other violence. While Elison certainly doesn’t shy away from these realities, I found the twist of women helping women to be a refreshing change. I read this book years ago and still think of it often.
#1 The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
I have had this book on my TBR pile for years and I finally decided now was the time to read it. I read it out loud to my husband as our before bed reading, which may not have been that great an idea. My husband has had a few nightmares inspired by this book. But I swear it’s worth it!
In Parable of the Sower Butler explores a world irrevocably changed by climate disasters and economic crises. She demonstrates how racial and class inequalities might play out in a post-apocalyptic world. And it’s bleak. This is not an easy book to read.
However, Butler does a few things that make this book stand out from other post-apocalyptic books I’ve read. First, she focuses on community. The main character, 15 year old Lauren lives inside a gated community with her family, and the first half of the novel shows us how they live by helping and supporting one another. But as the world gets increasingly unstable and violent outside their walls, Lauren tries to band her people together for self-protection. Second, Lauren suffers from a condition called hyper-empathy which causes her to share others’ pain. Third, Butler explores addiction and how that might affect an already precarious society. Fourth, Lauren not only bands people together for survival, she becomes a prophet for a new religion with the potential to save humanity from itself.
If that’s not a powerful setup I don’t know what is! You have to give this one a try. When I finished book one, my husband practically yelled “What!? It can’t be over yet!” because we had gotten so invested in these characters. Don’t worry, I’ve got book 2 already.
Not Recommended: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
I don’t usually like to comment on books I don’t like, but I felt The Road by Cormac McCarthy would be conspicuous by its absence on my list. I want you to know that I did read and consider this book, but no matter how hard I try I cannot like it or recommend it.
The Road is one of those books which has received so many critical accolades that it can’t possibly stand up to its own hype. I knew that going in, and I really tried to be fair with it. But I simply can’t see why everyone loves it so much?
The unnamed disaster doesn’t really hold up logically. There are way too many convenient windfalls for the father and son as they travel down the Road. I felt the story lacked purpose. There is no hope in this novel. And I know that was the point. But hopelessness taken to this extreme is pointless and frankly unrealistic. In order to make this plot work McCarthy had to strip human kind of all their social instincts. It felt forced to me, like he was trying really hard to be macho and gritty and show how dark he could be. This book tries too hard.
Parable of the Sower has so much more impact, and ends up being much darker, because it allows for hope. It allows for us to build up expectations and have some of them dashed to pieces. The Road is just a shit sandwich. You could keep eating it, but you know exactly what the next bite is going to taste like… so why put yourself through it?
So these are my top 5! What would you add to the list? Have you read any of these titles? What did you think of them?
I’m always looking for books to add to my never-ending To Be Read pile! Hit me with your suggestions in the comments.