We know this genre well: it usually starts with some kind of society-destroying cataclysm, sometimes stars a brooding protagonist with his/her own personal demons, and might end in some event that provides some kind hope for the future. It might be simple morbid curiosity that makes us as readers fascinated by post-apocalyptic fiction, or perhaps it’s because everyone loves an underdog, and what better underdog than heroes battling against world’s own end?
Cormac McCarthy’s writing style distills the prose in The Road to its barest fundamentals, which fits this story of a simple struggle for survival in a post-apocalyptic world for a man and his son. The Road won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007 and was adapted into a mainstream film two years later. A fantastic book full of bleak, raw emotion.
After a deadly sickness kills off most of the world, the large cast of characters in Stephen King’s The Stand struggle with rebuilding society and battling forces lead by an evil despot. The plot is convoluted, but Stephen King’s gift for writing dialogue and the believable personalities of every character makes “The Stand” a riveting read.
I Am Legend
Richard Matheson was a master of fantastical horror stories, and I Am Legend is one of his best works. The story follows a man who is seemingly the last man living after a disease transforms the rest of the world into undead creatures. “I Am Legend” has been remade into several film adaptations, including the blockbuster hit of the same name starring Will Smith.
On the Beach
Radiation is slowly destroying what’s left of the world after a nuclear war in Neville Shute’s On the Beach. Survivors in an isolated area in Australia await their imminent demise as they lose contact with other cities one by one. On the Beach is a depressing read and a grand study of futility and despair in a hopeless world.
Emily St. John Mandel
Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is one of the most recently published books in this list, but makes it to the top ten on the basis of strong writing and believable characterization in an otherwise unbelievable post-apocalyptic world. The narrative in Station Eleven hops back and forth through different time periods and from the eyes of different characters, but does so in a readable, captivating way.
This is another new release, though only the first 70% of Neal Stephenson’s wonderful Seveneves counts as true post-apocalyptic fiction, as the second part of the book focuses on humanity’s faraway, post-Earth future. However, the post-apocalyptic section — hard sci-fi through and through — is fantastically written. Unlike other post-apocalyptic stories where people are concerned with saving their friends and family, the heroes of Seveneves are concerned with keeping the human race alive — a pragmatic but realistic way of looking at the end of the world.
The World Without Us
Alan Weisman painstakingly researched what would happen to the world if all the humans disappeared, and the end result is his non-fiction bestseller The World Without Us. While post-apocalyptic fiction tends to focus on the societal and human impacts of a world-ending event, “The World Without Us” shows us the deterioration of cities and the restructuring of ecology and the natural world. In some ways, the dry scientific detail of a human-free world is more chilling than the most devastating post-apocalyptic fiction.
Robert R. McCammon
Robert R. McCammon’s Swan Song is a beautiful mess, with sequences that take off with a running start. The hectic story is full of violent thugs, rapists, and the criminally insane. The style works: Swan Song is a jumble of terror and confusion with opposing forces battling for control of a devastated landscape, and it is one of the best post-apocalyptic novels ever written.
David R. Palmer
Emergence an underrated gem of post-apocalyptic fiction. The book begins like many other post-apocalyptic stories: the destruction of the human race, a survivor searching for other people, and the rebuilding of some sense of normalcy in a destroyed society. However, several twists about the world and the characters keep the story fresh. The author, David R. Palmer, has written a serialized sequel to Emergence called Tracking, but an anthologized, complete edition of the newest book has yet to appear.
In the barren, destroyed landscape of David Brin’s The Postman, a man finds a postal worker’s outfit by happenstance. With it, he brings hope to to the otherwise despairing survivors across the wasteland. The Postman studies the effect of symbolism in a world where all of the symbols we’ve come to know have been destroyed. A great book.