I just finished reading the amazing Parable of the Sower by the amazing Octavia Butler for the “Read a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel” task of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge and it’s got me thinking about about the end of the world, so what better time for a book list!
First, a few pedantic words about genres. For me at least, dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels are not the same thing. While the word dystopia just means, in modern parlance, a crappy place, in books, it’s something more specific. John Joseph Adams, who certainly knows better than I do, captures my understanding of dystopia when he writes: “In a dystopian story, society itself is typically the antagonist; it is society that is actively working against the protagonist’s aims and desires. This oppression frequently is enacted by a totalitarian or authoritarian government, resulting in the loss of civil liberties and untenable living conditions, caused by any number of circumstances, such as world overpopulation, laws controlling a person’s sexual or reproductive freedom, and living under constant surveillance.”
Now, I know this probably sounds like splitting hairs, but I think it’s important. In dystopian fiction, it’s not just that everything is awful; it’s that the society is designed to be awful for some for the benefit of others. In apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, society, and all of the structures it puts in place to drive us to behave well, is falling/has fallen apart. The Venn diagram of the two genres has a whole lot of overlap, but it is certainly no circle. In my experience, dystopian fiction often ends up being variations on David and Goliath. Very us v. them. I tend to prefer apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction because it looks at what humanity really is when it’s stripped of all of the trappings and protections of every day life. It tells us who we really are. Plus, it scares the crap out of me in a way horror never does.
Without further ado, ten of my favorite books about the apocalypse and its aftermath, in no particular order:
- Blindness by José Saramago. Harrowing and unsettling, this is a different kind of plague story — an epidemic of blindness. Per Goodreads, “it evokes the vivid and trembling horrors of the twentieth century, leaving readers with a powerful vision of the human spirit that’s bound both by weakness and exhilarating strength.” This one is definitely on the literary end of the spectrum.
- Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. My YA pick. A meteor strikes the moon, pushing it into a closer orbit to earth. What happens? Nothing good. Tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and dramatic weather changes. A terrifying story of survival.
- The Stand by Stephen King. Because I read this a solid 20+ years ago, I don’t remember beyond the fact that I loved it and I was terrified/fascinated (that seems to be my reaction with the apocalypse). I’ll let Goodreads do the heavy listing: “This is the way the world ends: with a nanosecond of computer error in a Defense Department laboratory and a million casual contacts that form the links in a chain letter of death. And here is the bleak new world of the day after: a world stripped of its institutions and emptied of 99 percent of its people. A world in which a handful of panicky survivors choose sides — or are chosen.”
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Powerful corporations and genetic engineering? Can’t go wrong! Margaret Atwood is all too good at scaring the pants off of me. I really need to finish this series.
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Another one that is definitely on the literary/poetic meditation on art and humanity, but it also has a killer flu, a nomadic Shakespearan troupe of actors, a sinister religious cult, and a community of survivors holed up in an airport. Also, a Star Trek quote (“Because survival is insufficient” figures prominently.
- World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. I wouldn’t call myself a zombie fan, but I love the ways this book plays with the oral history form. Presenting the apocalypse as a history told from all these different perspectives brings that touch of terrifying realism that I want in my apocalypse fiction.
- A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. This is an old one, published in 1959. It’s been ages, so I’m going to have to defer to Goodreads: “In a nightmarish ruined world slowly awakening to the light after sleeping in darkness, the infant rediscoveries of science are secretly nourished by cloistered monks dedicated to the study and preservation of the relics and writings of the blessed Saint Isaac Leibowitz. From here the story spans centuries of ignorance, violence, and barbarism, viewing through a sharp, satirical eye the relentless progression of a human race damned by its inherent humanness to recelebrate its grand foibles and repeat its grievous mistakes.”
- Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. My newest favorite post-apocalyptic vision. It manages to touch on issues of diversity, climate change, economic inequality, faith, and the power of empathy. Weirdly reassuring to be reading when going through a difficult phase personally. “God is change.”
- All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. Another addition to my apocalypse canon. The sort of near future realistic portrayal of everything slowly but surely falling apart. Plus, magic!
- Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It’s perhaps more pre-apocalyptic fiction than apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction, but I don’t care because it’s just that fun. I mean, just look at the blurb: “So the armies of Good and Evil are amassing, Atlantis is rising, frogs are falling, tempers are flaring. Everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan. Except a somewhat fussy angel and a fast-living demon—both of whom have lived amongst Earth’s mortals since The Beginning and have grown rather fond of the lifestyle—are not actually looking forward to the coming Rapture. And someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist…”