21 Best Post-apocalyptic Science Fiction Books

Post-Apocalyptic Cityscape

We’re in a Post-apocalyptic Golden Age. Not even during the Cold War were science fiction books about the apocalypse and life afterward so popular.

Here’s a chart of the top Post-apocalyptic science fiction books, and when they were published.

Post-apocalyptic SF books

The current Golden Age started in 2004 and shows no signs of relenting. (The “Pop score” is the number of Amazon stars multiplied by number of reviews.)

There are three distinct groupings when post-apocalyptic books are popular (note that this excludes all zombie and young adult books):

  • the 1950s
  • around 1980
  • 2004 – present (current Golden Age)

In the 1950s, people worried about communism and nuclear war, and science fiction reflected those concerns.

Around 1980, it was plague and danger from space, and science fiction reflected those concerns.

Now, we’re worried about everything. War, viruses, natural global disasters, genetically modified humans, computers run amok, you name it. Young adult apocalypse (not on this list) is especially popular.

As a species, we seem to be pretty freaked out right now.

 

The Top 21 Post-apocalyptic Science Fiction Books

1
Wool
by Hugh Howey – 2011

With four books on this list, Hugh Howey is the current King of the Post-apocalypse.

In a ruined and toxic future, a community exists in a giant silo underground, hundreds of stories deep. There, men and women live in a society full of regulations they believe are meant to protect them. Sheriff Holston, who has unwaveringly upheld the silo’s rules for years, unexpectedly breaks the greatest taboo of all: He asks to go outside.

“The biggest influence on me was probably Fraggle Rock. As a kid, I couldn’t get enough of the intro to that show, which revealed an entire world underground.”
– Hugh Howey

2
CyberStorm
by Matthew Mather – 2013
As the world and cyberworld come crashing down, bending perception and reality, a monster snowstorm cuts New York off from the world, turning it into a wintry tomb where nothing is what it seems… Author Mather has deep technology experience, and it shows: his nightmare scenario is hailed as both realistic and terrifying.

“…shows how dangerous our transition to an interconnected infrastructure will become without proper safeguards…I couldn’t put down!”
– Karic Allegra, Joint Interoperability Command, US Navy

3
One Second After
by William R. Forstchen – 2009

A high-altitude nuclear bomb detonates above the US, and the resulting electromagnetic pulse (EMP) fries the entire power grid and nearly every electronic device. In one second, the entire country is plunged into the Dark Ages.

Publishers Weekly says “Forstchen tackles the obvious and some not-so-obvious questions the apocalypse tends to raise.”

Unique to this list, Newt Gingrich provides a foreword. This is isn’t surprising, given that Forstchen co-authored an alternate-history trilogy with Gingrich: Gettysburg, Grant Comes East, and Never Call Retreat.

4
The Road
by Cormac McCarthy – 2006

A nameless son and father wander a landscape blasted by an unspecified cataclysm that has destroyed most of civilization and, in the intervening years, almost all life on Earth.

The Road is another list entry where the term “science fiction” may or may not apply, but it’s so freakishly good that the list would feel thin without it.

The novel was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and critics have called it “heartbreaking,” “haunting,” and “emotionally shattering.”

5
The Atlantis Plague
by A.G. Riddle – 2013

An indie (read: self-published) list entry, The Atlantis Plague is actually book two of a series, but its popularity and reviews are strong enough to warrant inclusion. The goodreads page recommends readers start with the first book, The Atlantic Gene.

An ex-internet entrepreneur, Riddle’s modesty/honesty is refreshing:

“For me, [my success] was pure dumb luck.”

6
Shift
by Hugh Howey – 2013

Shift is a series of novellas that act as a prequel to Wool.

Some reviewers have complained about Howey’s over-complicated plots, stereotypical femme fatales, and long-suffering housewives. However, given his massive popularity, those issues (if they even exist) haven’t bothered too many people.

7
Dust
by Hugh Howey – 2013

Another entry in the Hugh Howey Apocalypse Parade: Wool introduced the world of the silo. Shift told the story of its creation. Dust describes its downfall.

Instead of fencing off his world and characters, Hugh Howey has actively encouraged fans to write and publish their own fan fiction.

8
Alas, Babylon
by Pat Frank – 1959

When a nuclear holocaust ravages the United States, a thousand years of civilization are stripped away overnight, and tens of millions of people are killed instantly. But for one small town in Florida, miraculously spared, the struggle is just beginning, as men and women of all backgrounds join together to confront the darkness.

The book’s title is derived from Revelation 18:10:

Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! For in one hour is thy judgment come.

John Lennon was given a copy of Alas, Babylon in 1965 and spent all night reading the book, fueling his anti-war fervor and causing him to envision the people of the world attempting to crawl their way back from the horrors of a nuclear catastrophe.

9
Cat's Cradle
by Kurt Vonnegut – 1963

A satiric look at the arms race, religion, technology, and just being human, Cat’s Cradle has one of Vonnegut’s most famous creations, ice-nine, which is a special kind of solid ice that turns all liquid water it touches into more ice-nine (thus, if you drop a cube of ice-nine into a glass of water, every drop of water in the glass will turn into solid ice-nine).

Writer and critic Theodore Sturgeon gave it one of the best reviews of any book, ever:

“[A]ppalling, hilarious, shocking, and infuriating…this is an annoying book and you must read it. And you better take it lightly, because if you don’t you’ll go off weeping and shoot yourself.”

10
Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood – 2004

Author Atwood does not consider Oryx and Crake to be science fiction because it does not deal with “things that have not been invented yet.” Instead, she categorizes it as “adventure romance.” So you’ve been warned.

It does, however, feature the effects of genetic engineering, climate change run wild, and primitive semi-humans.

Oryx and Crake’s sequel, The Year of the Flood, also made it on this list.

11
Childhood's End
by Arthur C. Clarke – 1953

Without warning, giant silver ships from deep space appear in the skies above every major city on Earth. Manned by the Overlords, in fifty years, they eliminate ignorance, disease, and poverty. Then this golden age ends–and then the age of Mankind begins…

Childhood’s End is often regarded by both readers and critics as Clarke’s best novel, and has been described as “a classic of alien literature.”

12
Sand
by Hugh Howey – 2014

We live across the thousand dunes with grit in our teeth and sand in our homes. No one will come for us. No one will save us. This is our life, diving for remnants of the old world so that we may build what the wind destroys.

Unrelated to the Silo series, Sand left some reviewers felt the ending was a little rushed. Most reviews, however, were glowing:

Sand immerses you in its grubby post-apocalyptic world … Howey conjures a credible, brutal future.”
Financial Times

13
Earth Abides
by George R. Stewart – 1949

Earth Abides tells the story of the fall of civilization from deadly disease and its rebirth.

As it was written in the beginning years of the Cold War, it lacks some common post-apocalyptic conventions found in later novels: there are no warlords or biker gangs (as in Mad Max); there is no fear of atomic weapons or radiation; no mutants and no warring tribes.

Stephen King has stated that Earth Abides was an inspiration for his post-apocalyptic novel, The Stand (which almost made it on this list, but just wasn’t science-fictiony enough).

14
Lucifer's Hammer
by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven – 1977

Finally! No nuclear war, no bizarro plague, no surly computers, and no genetic experiment gone haywire. Just a big damn comet hitting the Earth and ending civilization.

Unfortunately, the book dates itself with references to hippies, Black Panthers, and Women’s Libbers, and by not liking any of those groups of people.

15
A Canticle for Leibowitz
by Walter M. Miller, Jr. – 1959

This is Miller’s first and only novel, but he didn’t hold back: it spans thousands of years, chronicling the rebuilding of civilization after an apocalyptic event.

Despite early reviewers that called Miller a “dull, ashy writer guilty of heavy-weight irony,” it’s never been out of print in over 50 years.

So there.

(It also made the Best 23 Science Fiction Books of All Time list.)

16
On the Beach
by Nevil Shute – 1957

Like all the best post-apocalypse stories, the famous and well-respected On the Beach examines ordinary people facing nightmare scenarios.

In this case, a mixed group of people in Melbourne await the arrival of deadly radiation spreading towards them from the northern hemisphere following a nuclear war.

If you’re a tough guy that doesn’t cry, be alone when you read the end of the book.

17
The Year of the Flood
by Margaret Atwood – 2009

Sequel to fellow list-member Oryx and Crake, in The Year of the Flood, the long-feared waterless flood has occurred, altering Earth as we know it and obliterating most human life.

Reviewers have noted that while the plot was sometimes chaotic, the novel’s imperfections meshed well with the flawed reality the book was trying to reflect.

Prolific author Margaret Atwood had never written a sequel before this book.

18
The Girl With All the Gifts
by M. R. Carey – 2014

To discuss The Girl With All the Gifts is to reveal too much about it, so here’s a review by filmmaker Joss Whedon:

“The story spirals towards a conclusion so surprising, so warm and yet so chilling, that it takes a moment to realize it’s been earned since the first page, and even before. It left me sighing with envious joy, like I’d been simultaneously offered flowers and beaten at chess. A jewel.”

19
The Day Of The Triffids
by John Wyndham – 1951

The Day Of The Triffids is a classic, one of the cornerstones of the post-apocalyptic genre. It traces the fate of the world after a comet shower blinds most of the world’s population. The few with sight must struggle to reconstruct society while fighting mobile, flesh-eating plants called triffids.

Arthur C. Clarke called The Day Of The Triffids an “immortal story.” Director Danny Boyle says the opening hospital sequence of The Day of the Triffids inspired Alex Garland to write the screenplay for 28 Days Later.

20
Galápagos
by Kurt Vonnegut – 1985

Narrated by a ghost that watches over the million-year evolution of the last group of humans on the planet, Galápagos questions the merit of the human brain from an evolutionary perspective.

Some critics consider it one of Vonnegut’s worst novels, but I strongly disagree. It’s funny, clever, and asks questions most post-apocalyptic books skip.

21
Emergence
by David Palmer – 1984

Emergence is one of the overlooked gems of science fiction with a small but passionate following whose glowing reviews nudged this relatively unknown book onto this list.

It follows a remarkable 11-year-old orphan girl, living in a post-apocalyptic United States. The girl has been called “the most compelling female protagonist in modern science fiction” and she “is so full of life, and her story so full of both surprises and interesting details, that ‘Beginning of the World’ might be a better characterization.”


Bonus Book

22
Riddley Walker
by Russell Hoban – 1980

I didn’t know this book existed until a friendly comment on Reddit from user JesusDiedLOL420 pointed me to it, and I’m excited to read it.

Author Hoban was known more for his children’s books when he published Riddley Walker. Set in a remote future in a post-nuclear holocaust England (Inland), Hoban has imagined a humanity regressed to an iron-age, semi-literate state—and invented a language to represent it. Riddley is at once the Huck Finn and the Stephen Dedalus of his culture—rebel, change agent, and artist.


Outrage!

Hey! Where’s The Stand?!

The Stand by Stephen King is the gold standard of post-apocalyptic stories, but it’s horror/fantasy, not science fiction.

Dude! Where’s World War Z?!

I loved World War Z by Max Brooks (son of comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks), but there wasn’t enough science in the fiction to warrant inclusion.

You cad! Where’s Swan Song?!

Swan Song’s a lot like The Stand: horror/fantasy instead of science fiction. Readers of one usually like the other. Also, it has a silly cover.


 

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78 thoughts on “21 Best Post-apocalyptic Science Fiction Books

  1. I am thrilled that “Riddley Walker” was included (even if as a bonus). It is a brilliant, unforgettable, complex and profound novel. I read Benjamin DeMott’s front page review in the NYTimes Sunday Book Review when it was released and immediately had my local library order it. There was no internet when I first read it, but I do advise looking to it for some help with abstruse arcania, geographical and other sites in England noted in the book, and interpretations of Riddley’s invented/degraded language.

      1. I was surprised that Calizona was not on there. There are 2 books in the series now, and the sequel was even better than the original. Just so funny, I can’t remember ever laughing out loud at a post apocalyptic book, simply a lot of fun.

  2. Richard Matheson wrote I am Legend in 1954. what a beautiful, horrifying story, it has
    haunted me for years.
    Also, Hiero’s Journey, by Sterling E Lanier. One of my favorites, I read it around the same time I read Alas Babylon .
    Thanks for the list, looking forward to reading them.

  3. Half of these books should come with a noose. “The Road” was probably the most depressing book I’ve ever completed. I’m still conflicted about the story.

    1. Agreed. But I feel it’s his conveyance of that emotion that marks McCarthy a great writer. I found the father’s sacrifice and utter commitment to his child in the dire, hopeless circumstances of the story compelling and refreshing, especially when juxtaposed with the mother’s suicide. Without that overwhelming sense of hopelessness, you can’t feel the magnitude of his task.

  4. Definitely agree with “Oryx and Crake” which I just finished reading last week but “The Year of the Flood” is very disappointing so far. Too many main characters, too little character development. I’m 150 pages in and considering calling it quits there.

  5. I read Earth Abides 30years ago and never forgot how much I enjoyed it. Didn’t even know in what category it would be listed. I am now armed with more titles in a genre I have said I would never read
    Eat your heart out Mystery Writers
    kay J

  6. This list is way too long, especially if you have to fill it with Howey. The rest of your selections were pretty good, but I feel Swan Song deserves a spot. Finally, Riddley Walker was horrible. I would say The Earth Abides and The Road stuck with me the most from the genre.

    1. ^^^ This. ^^^

      Mostly, anyway. There’s a ton of great post-apocalyptic sci-fi. If I had to pick 20, I’m not sure Howey would get A mention, much less four. Not a knock on Howey, there’s just a ton of stuff out there. The “suggested reading” list at the end of the Wastelands anthology is pretty exhaustive.

  7. One can argue about the list, but anyone having the insight to include “On The Beach” at least did their homework. “The Road” rules! My only complaint would be the absence of “Fail Safe,” particularly since it was serialized during the two weeks of the Cuban Missile Crisis! And, yes, “I Am Legend” is Matheson at his best – forget the crappy film.

  8. I’m disappointed that Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 did not make this list. It is my very favorite story in the genre. I first read it as a teen (and many times since – I’m now 47) and it is perfectly written, epic in its scope and leaves you totally satisfied. I’ve recommended it many times, often loaning out my ragged personal copy, and the reviews have been utterly singular in their ringing praise.

    Yes, the movie was HORRIBLE; literally establishing the standard against which all awfulness will ever be measured again. But imagine making Lord of the Rings into a 84 minute movie. This is why the movie was so bad. Not the original story.

    Yes, it was written by L. Ron Hubbard. Scientologist in Chief. But the book has nothing in common with his religion.

    The story is so good that, the first time I read it, I actually was sad that I had read it because I could never read it for the first time again. THAT’S a good book and a recommendation I can not make of any other book I’ve ever read.

    1. I should include that this story does not compare with The Road in its impact. It’s an adventure story in the same sense as an Errol Flynn movie. Still, great fun and a wonderful read.

    2. I agree whole heartedly, would also recommend David Robbins End World series, although I’ve only read a limited amount of the series because its not a very well known series. Haven’t been able to find them, and our library system up here doesn’t have any of them. They were a favorite in my house for a 13 year old, 18, 26, and 47. Not many books have appealed to my entire family!

    1. I made that chart myself. I just looked up a bunch of books and made a spreadsheet of their publication date and a made-up “pop score” reflecting relative popularity. That score probably doesn’t hold up to much statistical scrutiny, but it worked as a good starting place.

  9. Thank you for your list. I am finding that this is quickly becoming my favorite fiction genre and I am working my way through some of your recommendations.

    I had already read “The Road” and “One Second After” – both of which are outstanding. I have since read “The Girl with All the Gifts” and “Wool”. “Wool” was a bit slow to start, but an outstanding book – though I am not sure I would put it above One Second After (my #1 so far) or The Road (my #2). The Girl with All the Gifts isn’t close to as good as the previously mentioned books in my opinion – I wouldn’t recommend it.

    Again, thanks for the list! I will continue working my way through it.

  10. Someone realy should have the Deathlands series on this list author James Axler, we love these books. Very good story lines, and love the characters.

  11. Awesome round-up, thanks for sharing!

    I’ve just picked-up a dog-eared copy of Lucifer’s Hammer – I hadn’t heard of it before reading this, so I’m looking forward to getting stuck in. Can’t speak highly enough of Alas, Babylon, and The Road – with the latter being one of the most beautiful pieces of prose I’ve ever come across.

    I’ve included a few of these in my own round-up, and it’d be great if you could check it out and let me know what you think!

    The 50 Best Post Apocalyptic Books

    1. I’ve read the majority of the books listed. I’d have to agree on Wool and the silo series being excellent intriguing stories. I have an incredibly hard time believing that “Lights Out” by David Crawford isn’t #1 on this list. Heck, it didn’t even make the list. Lights out is a great story where a small community comes together to survive a world without electricity due to an EMP. Excellent read if you haven’t. Will be a favorite I am certain. One of the few I’ve read twice! Some small grammar errors rarely, but written well enough to be a classic!

  12. Just read Wool on your recommendation and loved it and am now getting ready for Shift and Dust!!!

    Where is the “donate here for my awesome reviews” button…

    Since I couldn’t find one, I just snagged your book NXY on my Kindle as the only means that I could find of repaying you.

    Thanks again for your great reviews!

  13. Thanks for compiling the list. Have you read The Passage by Justin Cronin? It really deserves a place. The sequel, The Twelve, is also excellent. For lovers of the genre they are a must. Cronin wrote “literary” books before and his young daughter challenged him to “write a book about vampires”. The final part of the trilogy, City Of Mirrors, is out sometime soon.

  14. Thanks for the list and good tips for reading.
    I would add my two cents with Robert Merle and recommend his Malevil (1972) and Les hommes protégés (The virility factor, 1977).

  15. Best I’ve read was called “The Last Canadian” by William Heine – It was also released for a different market as “Death Wind”.

  16. 2 suggestions I would make are:
    This is the way the world ends – James Morrow
    A Brief History of the Dead – Kevin Brockmeier

    1. Was hoping someone would mention “This is the way the world ends”. Far deeper and thought-provoking than I had expected as a teenage reader with shelves full of sci-fi.

  17. I’m looking for a series of books that I read in the mid 90s The main character had an eyepatch his girlfriend had bright red hair they had a friend they called dark who somehow was transported ahead in time along with a black doctor and a man that wears a fedora. I cannot renew night remembe along with a black doctor and a man that wears a fedora. I cannot Remember the name of the books I do remember there were a group of people that were deformed because of the nuclear holocaust and they call them stickies because they had mouth and teeth on the tip their fingers in on the palm of the hand and when they touched you get ripped your skin right off. They travel around the country trying to avoid the acid rain and cannibals

    1. Deathlands by James axler…graphic audio has put out over 120 of their audio versions with full cast of voice actors…gets a bit cheesy at times but great for a sustained story line. Also check out outlanders…this series takes place 100 years after deathlands. Delves more into the secret redoubts from the totality projects.

  18. Thanks for the list! I have read both Margaret Atwood books on the list and I would say The Year of the Flood is a great book with a world imagined well and an intriguing story. The first novel not so good. Off to read some new ones now, thanks 🙂

  19. I read a book in the 50’s that has always stuck with me. Takes place on a ship bound to Boston. Northern hemisphere continents have sunk. It’s later discovered that new continents have arisen in the southern hemisphere. It has a hopeful ending with land sighted.

    Does anyone know the title?

  20. As long as you bring up John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, how about another Wyndham post-apocalyptic novel, The Chrysalids (aka Re-Birth).

  21. Great list. Have read 7 of the listed books. Planning on reading some of the ones listed that I didn’t know about.

    Anyone know the name of the following book description? Electricity goes out worldwide due to a Russian experiment in Iran. Scientists in America get diesel trucks to run then take their families cross country. Run into a warlord type putting steam power back in use. Read paperback early to late 60s . Thanks

  22. Thank you so much for putting this list together. I have been slowing going through lists like this is apocalyptic books. I have read World War Z, One Second After, The Stand, The Road, I Am Legend and just finished On The Beach. As far as zombies go I really liked World War Z. My overall favorite book in the list of ones I have read so far is One Second After but after just finishing On The Beach I have to say it is the saddest book I have ever read! The author hits the nail on the head when saying “If you’re a tough guy that doesn’t cry, be alone when you read the end of the book.” WOW! I might have to take a little time off from reading to recover from that ending! Onyx and Crake and The Long Road are next on my list while I anxiously await the follow-up to One Second After, One Year After due out the end of June.

    1. Good grief. I should proof read before hitting Post Comment! I meant “I have been slowly going through lists like this in apocalyptic books.”

      1. Not that anyone cares, just sparking conversation, but I just couldn’t get into Wool. I am sitting about 3/4 done and haven’t touched it in months. It just seems like another Divergent, Hunger Games, Maze Runner type series. I’ve only read the Divergent Series, and while I found it entertaining, I probably would have enjoyed it more as a teenager instead of an old man. 🙂

        The Road was good but it wasn’t long enough to get me too involved with the characters.

        1. Share your feeling about “Wool” series, but I get why some love it. I tend to like stand-alone novels over series, but that’s just me. Some of the old school stuff (“Lucifer’s Hammer”, “Alas, Babylon”, “The Postman”, etc.) just gets it done in one.

        2. Finish Wool and the entire series, Hugh is an amazing guy and an amazing writer, coolest ending ever! I’m a huge fan of this genre and that series is at the top of my list. Nothing like the other series you mentioned.

  23. Great list and good comments. A few others worth throwing out there include “A World Made by Hand” and “Seveneves”. I’m in the pro-“Battlefield Earth” book club, but the movie … just … no. Love “WWZ”, but zombiepocalypse books can be a separate list.

  24. The reason The Stand wasn’t included is because it IS included! The first half of The Stand appears to be virtually lifted, character by character, side plots and all from Earth Abides, with a generous helping of S.King supernatural frosting on top.

  25. I personally enjoyed Malevil by Robert Merle. It should be on this list. One Second After was an awful read. I’m not sure why it’s on this list of bests. After reading it I searched out the classics in post apocalypse and have read most of the older stories on this list.

  26. It is hard to decide, but what about The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. I cried. I also loved each and every character.

  27. If I had to add one classic end-of-the-world book to the “must read” list then it has to be David Graham’s “Down To A Sunless Sea”. A masterpiece of the subject.

  28. Loved the Wool series because it involves underground survival. Loved Alas Babylon, a classic. One Second After is brilliant but so depressing. On The Beach is a classic but why weren’t they digging shelters around the clock? I am looking for recommendations on underground survival fiction.

  29. Just wonderful lists you have here. I’m still working on them (just found your site courtesy of the ClassicScienceFiction email group). I’ve found lots of new things to check out, and many of my favorites are included in the lists. I was delighted to see “The Sparrow” on one of the lists. It’s superb and doesn’t get mentioned often enough. For post-apocalyptic, my favorite genre, I second “Down to a Sunless Sea”, a haunting and unforgettable book.

  30. Malevil is the best ‘serious’ post apocalyptic novel I’ve ever read. For something more modern and science fictiony there’s S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse series. Which is a great read.

  31. A really nice list on the whole — thanks! I’m pleased that “Earth Abides” and “Canticle for Liebowitz” made your cut, but I don’t think Howey merits 4 mentions at the expense of Graham or Zelazny. Nor, for that matter, the omission of “Davy” by Edgar Pangborn; does no one read Pangborn anymore? “Davy” was influential enough to lead Paul Kantner to write “Wooden Ships” for the Airplane, way back when.

  32. Why not The Postman by David Brin? It incorporates themes of cyber technology and super computers mixed with a decayed society. The movie did not do the book justice and the book should be on this list.

  33. Hmm. I’d posted a comment wondering at the absence of Edgar Pangborn’s “Davy,” as well as Zelazny’s “Damnation Alley,” but it’s been removed. Did I offend somehow?

    1. No offense! All comments are held in moderation until approved, and I was out of town for a while, so I wasn’t able to approve comments.

  34. To those looking for more stories in the genre: The Pelbar Cycle by Paul O. Williams, a seven book series.

  35. I remember reading a book when I was a child called The Girl Who Owned a City I think that falls within your category I don’t know how good it is from an adult perspective though.

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