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.
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
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
“…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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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
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).
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.
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.
(It also made the Best 23 Science Fiction Books of All Time list.)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?!