Best post-apocalyptic books

Best post-apocalyptic booksThere is a rich and satisfying seam of sci-fi novels whose core themes overlap with those of The Knowledge. Here are the very best post-apocalyptic books, as well as other stories involving the exploitation of expertise for rebuilding civilisation, such as by time-travellers thrown far into either the past or future. I’ve listed my favourites below, including a selection of the very best top reads (but not dystopian fiction in general). Clicking the book covers or links will allow you to pick-up these novels yourself. If you’d like to explore this genre of literature further, see this list of post-apocayltpic book clubs around the world where you can discuss your thoughts on different books over a drink with new friends. Also see The Knowledge’s selection of the Best Post-Apocalyptic MoviesBest Post-Apocalyptic Games and Best Post-Apocalyptic Apps.

Top 8:

Earth Abides, George R. Stewart (1949)

Recounts the tribulations and aspirations of a small community for the first few decades of their recovery after a global pandemic. Incidentally, the book title is a biblical quote on the transience of human life:  Ecclesiastes, 1, 4 “Men go and come, but earth abides”.

The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951)

For me, the carnivorous plants are no more than a sub-plot in this incredible tale following the survivors of a global catastrophe and the inexorable unravelling of technological capability after the collapse of civilisation. The epigraph for Chapter 3 is taken from here.

On the Beach, Nevil Shute (1957)

The final months of a community in Australia as the radioactive clouds from a global nuclear war inexorably spread south towards them. A simple but utterly compelling story, and the ending is no less harrowing despite being clearly anticipated from the very first chapter.

Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank (1959)

A small town in Florida is spared outright annihilation by massive nuclear strike but not the consequences of a devastated society. This is the middle of the classic trio of post-apocaltypitic novels of the early nuclear age (along with Beach and Leibowitz) and served as the inspiration for more recent TV series like Jericho.

A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1960)

After society is crushed by nuclear holocaust, a chapter of monks attempt to preserve and copy the remaining shreds of human knowledge through the ensuing Dark Ages to kindle the eventual recovery of civilisation. Spanning many centuries, Canticle accomplishes a breath-taking scope and offers a cautionary tale on the cyclicality of history.

Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban (1980)

Two millennia after nuclear war destroyed civilisation, a primitive, nomadic community scavenges remnant iron and believes a curious set of myths.

Island in the Sea of Time, S.M Stirling (1998)

An unexplained event transports the island of Nantucket and its inhabitants back into the Bronze Age where they must use their modern knowledge to prevail.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006)

An unrelentingly brutal story of father and son travelling through the devastation after an unexplained collapse of society. Also see the equally harrowing film adaptation

Other recommendations:

Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe (1719)

The original story of restarting from scratch: shipwrecked on a tropical island

A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe (1722)

First-hand account of the effects of bubonic plague ravishing London

The Swiss Family Robinson, Johann David Wyss (1812)

Echoing many of the themes of Robinson Crusoe, a ship-wrecked family thrives on an isolated island in the West Indies.

The Last Man, Mary Shelley (1826)

One of the earliest post-apocalypse survivor stories. Few remain alive after the world is ravished by plague.

The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne (1874)

Five American aeronauts are blown far off-course by a storm and crash-land on a deserted island. They must use they knowledge and ingenuity to build a civilised life for themselves. Far more detailed on the actual processes required than Robinson Crusoe

After London, Richard Jefferies (1885)

After an unspecified catastrophe, England begins to return to nature and the small groups of survivors recede back to a medieval lifestyle.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain (1889)

Hank Morgan dozes beneath a tree and wakes in Arthurian England. Using his knowledge of gunpowder he convinces the King that he is a more powerful wizard than Merlin, and attempts to modernise the populace with his other ‘inventions’.

The Time Machine, H. G. Wells (1895)

The unnamed inventor jumps far into the future to find a carefree society of Eloi, living among ruins with no industry of their own but cannibalised by the subterranean Morlocks. In later adaptations of the original book, the time-traveller returns to his London home to recover a handful of books to help the Eloi rebuild civilisation.

The Scarlet Plague, Jack London (1912)

Decades after global epidemic, one survivor attempts to impart his knowledge to his grandchildren before it is too late.

The Cave Children, A. T. Sonnleitner (1918)

Translated into English (1971) from the German ‘Die Höhlenkinder’, a tale of two orphaned children in the Alps reinventing civilisation for themselves, one tool at time.

The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov: Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), Second Foundation (1953)

A ‘psychohistorian’ predicts the decline and fall of the Galactic Empire and attempts to minimise the recovery period by establishing a colony of the most capable individuals and compiling a compendium of all human knowledge.

I Am Legend, Richard Matheson (1954)

The sole survivor of a mysterious pestilence struggles against hordes of the afflicted. A classic in the vampire/zombie genre. Also see the various film adaptations

The Death of Grass, John Christopher (1956)

The continuation of civilisation is threatened not by a plague that affects humans directly, but the crops and other grass species we rely upon.

Some Will Not Die, Algis Budrys (1961)

In the wake of global epidemic, the survivors struggle to maintain civilised society as the emergent armies go to war.

The Drowned World, J. G. Ballard (1962)

Global warming and rising sea-levels have inundated the cities and the torrid climate regresses to the Triassic era.

The Plague, Albert Camus (1967)

Translated from the French, this is a tale of a small town quarantined and isolated when it falls into the grips of a lethal plague.

Junk Day, Arthur Sellings (1970)

Bands of post-apocalyptic survivors pick-over the remains of London.

The Flying Sorcerers, David Gerrold & Larry Niven (1971)

A spacefarer crash lands on a primitive, magic-fearing planet and must improvise the technology needed to escape.

Z For Zachariah, Robert C. O’Brien (1974)

Sixteen-year-old Ann has survived nuclear holocaust alone in an isolated valley, and fears the stranger she sees approaching.

Deus Irae, Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny (1976)

An artist journeys through a landscape ravished by fall-out to paint the God of Wrath, the creator of the ultimate weapon.

The Stand, Stephen King (1978)

A weaponised flu virus escapes containment and wipes out the majority of humanity, setting the stage for the apocalyptic battle between good and evil. Also see the film adaptation.

Down to a Sunless Sea, David Graham (1980)

The passengers and crew of a long-haul jetliner survive the nuclear war mid-flight, but they must decide where to land.

The Last Children of Schewenborn (Die Letzten Kinder von Schewenborn), Gudrun Pausewang (1983)

Translated from the German, an unyielding tale of a family who survive the immediate effects of nuclear war but are wracked by effects of the radiation.

The Postman, David Brin (1985)

A wanderer finds an old postal service uniform and brings hope of restored government to a post-apocalyptic society tormented by warlords. Also see the film adaptation.

Children of the Dust, Louise Lawrence (1985)

Similar to Last Children (above) but following the survivors for three generations after the nuclear apocalypse as humanity changes from the mutations induced.

The Cross-Time Engineer, Leo Frankowski (1986)

The first book in a series of five. A young engineer falls through a time-warp to thirteenth century Poland, and must use his modern knowledge to help leapfrog his homeland out of the medieval ages before the Mongol invasion. Combo edition of first three books also available in Kindle.

The Wild Shore, Kim Stanley Robinson (1994)

America is devastated by a nuclear strike and hindered from reattaining technological capability by international treaty.

Blindness, José Saramago (1995)

Translated from the Portugese in 1997, this novel tells of a mysterious pandemic that causes blindness, and the social breakdown that ensues. Also see the film adaptation.

Jack Faust, Michael Swanwick (1997)

A retelling of the classic German legend of Faust: with Mephistopheles’ help, Jack Faust accelerates the progress of medieval Europe through an early industrial revolution.

Girlfriend in a Coma, Douglas Coupland (1998)

Karen reveals to her boyfriend her recent vivid dreams of an apocalyptic future, before slipping into a coma.

Eternity Road, Jack McDevitt

Centuries after the advanced civilisation of ‘Roadmakers’ are wiped-out by plague, a small expedition of explorers sets-out to find a fabled cache of ancient knowledge.

The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson (2002)

A grand-scale alternative history in which medieval Europe has been virtually wiped out by the Black Death and Chinese and Islamic cultures vie for global dominance.

MaddAddam trilogy, Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of The Flood (2009), MaddAddam (2013)

A hermit helps guide a group of human-like creatures he calls Crakers, in a post-catastrophe world and tormented by memories of Oryx and MaddAddam.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)

A high-concept set of nested stories of souls being reborn through history, the apex of which is set in a harsh and lawless post-apocalyptic far future. Also see the film adaptation.

The Book of Dave, Will Self (2006)

The written rants of a troubled London cab driver are unearthed centuries later and form the basis of a post-apocalyptic dogmatic religion.

World War Z, Max Brooks (2006)

The only zombie apocalypse book I’ve included here, reporting the campaign against the hordes through a series of first-person accounts. Also see the film adaptation.

World Made by Hand, James Howard Kunstler (2008)

Decades after global catastrophe triggered by climate change and pandemic, a small rural community struggles to thrive in a world without oil, and with increasingly aggressive neighbours.

Things We Didn’t See Coming, Steven Amsterdam (2009)

Nine post-apocalyptic narratives told through the eyes of a drifting loner.

The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway (2009)

An apocalypse with a more fantastical leaning: an emergency response team rush to repair the Jorgmund Pipe

One Second After, William R. Forstchen (2009)

After an electromagnetic pulse knocks America back to the Dark Ages one man tries to save his family and community in a small rural town.

The Long Earth, Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter (2012)

A device allows people to jump between an infinite chain of parallel Earths, but iron tools cannot be transported and so communities must start from scratch on the new worlds.

The Dog Stars, Peter Heller (2013)

After global disaster, Hig only has his Cessna airplane. After receiving a radio message from another pilot he dares to risk flying his plane over the horizon, knowing he doesn’t have enough fuel to get back.

The Martian, Andy Weir (2014)

A crew member of the first manned mission to the red planet is left stranded alone and must use his ingenuity to survive until a rescue mission can reach him. Robinson Crusoe meets MacGyver, on Mars…

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

Twenty years after a flu plague wipes-out 99% of humanity, a band of actors and musicians tour the post-apocayltpic wasteland performing Shakespeare. The world feels relatively safe again, but a new danger is looming…

The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (2015)

An historical post-apocalyptic tale, set a thousand years in the past. The Wake follows Buccmaster of Holland, a free farmer of Lincolnshire, as his world collapses following the invasion of the Normans.


You may also enjoy these anthology volumes, collections of short stories on these themes.

Ruins of Earth, ed. Thomas M. Disch (1975)

Includes stories by J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick and Harry Harrison.

Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, ed. John Joseph Adams (2007)

Features Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Orson Scott Card and Cory Doctorow.

The Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic SF, ed. Mike Ashley (2010)

Includes Stephen Baxter, Alistair Reynolds, Frederik Pohl and Robert Reed.

The End is Nigh, ed. Hugh Howey and Jamie Ford (2014)

The first of The Apocalypse Triptych of anthologies, with stories focussing on life before doomsday and those who see the end coming.

The End is Now, ed. Hugh Howey and Jamie Ford (2014)

The second instalment of The Apocalypse Triptych of anthologies, with stories covering the fall of civilisation and those who live through it.

The End Has Come, ed. John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey (2015)

The third volume in the The Apocalypse Triptych of anthologies, with stories exploring what will rise from the ashes after the fall of civilisation.




And finally, if this genre of catastrophe and post-apocalyptic fiction appeals to you, you can’t go far wrong exploring through The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. John Clute and Peter Nicholls, especially the in-depth discussion of post-apocalyptic novels and films in the Holocaust entry, or the free online SFE (Encyclopedia of Science Fiction).



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