Humans have worried about the end of the world ever since we made up the word “world,” and in the past twenty years or so, we’ve been really worried about it, based on how many post-apocalyptic books we’ve written. We’re stressed about war, viruses, natural global disasters, genetically modified humans, multiple flavors of zombies, computers run amok, you name it.
This list focuses on books published in the 21st century, with a number of exceptions because those books were amazing and I felt like it.
This collection of short stories follows the narrator over three decades as he tries to survive in a world that is becoming increasingly savage as cataclysmic events unfold one after another. In the first story, “What We Know Now”—set in the eve of the millennium, when the world as we know it is still recognizable—we meet the then-nine-year-old narrator fleeing the city with his parents, just ahead of a Y2K breakdown. The remaining stories capture the strange circumstances he encounters in the no-longer-simple act of survival: trying to protect squatters against floods in a place where the rain never stops, being harassed (and possibly infected) by a man sick with a virulent flu, enduring a job interview with an unstable assessor who has access to all his thoughts, and taking the gravely ill on adventure tours. But we see in each story that, despite the violence and brutality of his days, the narrator retains a hold on his essential humanity—and humor.
“By turns horrific and beautiful… Often moving, frequently surprising, even blackly funny… terrific.”
The Roadmakers left only ruins behind—but what magnificent ruins! Their concrete highways still cross the continent. Their cups, combs, and jewelry are found in every Illyrian home. They left behind a legend, too: a hidden sanctuary called Haven, where even now the secrets of their civilization might still be found.
Chaka’s brother was one of those who sought to find Haven and never returned. But now Chaka has inherited a rare Roadmaker artifact—a book called A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court—which has inspired her to follow in his footsteps.
So Chaka organizes her own quest, including scholar Silas Glote, Karik’s son Flojian, woodsman Jon Shannon, soldier Quait Esterhok, and former priestess Avila Kap. On their journey, far to the northeast, they will encounter vast ruined cities, flying trains, bandits, still-functioning computers, slavers, reclusive engineers, and crazy old balloonists. Ultimately, the group will learn the truth about their own mysterious past.
“Solid characters and a consistently intriguing plot.”
A city is hit by an epidemic of “white blindness” which spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but there, the criminal element holds everyone captive, stealing food rations and raping women. There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides seven strangers—among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears—through the barren streets, and the procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing.
Author José Saramago is the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature.
“This is a shattering work by a literary master.”
—The Boston Globe
Five years after the trouble began, a handful of scattered survivors remain, including Malorie and her two young children. Living in an abandoned house near the river, she has dreamed of fleeing to a place where they might be safe. Now that the boy and girl are four, it is time to go. But the journey ahead will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a rowboat—blindfolded—with nothing to rely on but her wits and the children’s trained ears. One wrong choice and they will die. And something is following them. But is it man, animal, or monster?
Engulfed in darkness, surrounded by sounds both familiar and frightening, Malorie embarks on a harrowing odyssey—a trip that takes her into an unseen world and back into the past, to the companions who once saved her.
“[A] chilling debut… Malerman…keeps us tinglingly on edge with his cool, merciless storytelling [and] douses his tale in poetic gloom.”
―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Over 30 miles from the nearest town, and several miles away from their nearest neighbor, Nell and Eva struggle to survive as society decays and collapses around them. No single event precedes society’s fall. There is talk of a war overseas and upheaval in Congress, but it still comes as a shock when the electricity runs out and gas is nowhere to be found. The sisters consume the resources left in the house, waiting for the power to return. Their arrival into adulthood, however, forces them to reexamine their place in the world and their relationship to the land and each other.
“From the first page, the sense of crisis and the lucid, honest voice of the… narrator pull the reader in… A truly admirable addition to a genre defined by the very high standards of George Orwell’s 1984.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Hig somehow survived the flu pandemic that killed everyone he knows. Now his wife is gone, his friends are dead, and he lives in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog, Jasper, and a mercurial, gun-toting misanthrope named Bangley.
But when a random transmission beams through the radio of his 1956 Cessna, the voice ignites a hope deep inside him that a better life exists outside their tightly controlled perimeter. Risking everything, he flies past his point of no return and follows its static-broken trail, only to find something that is both better and worse than anything he could ever hope for.
“A brilliant success.”
—The New Yorker
An epic and gripping tale of catastrophe and survival, The Passage is the story of Amy—abandoned by her mother at the age of six, then pursued and then imprisoned by the shadowy figures behind a government experiment of apocalyptic proportions. But Special Agent Brad Wolgast, the lawman sent to track her down, is disarmed by the curiously quiet girl and risks everything to save her. As the experiment goes nightmarishly wrong, Wolgast secures her escape—but he can’t stop society’s collapse. And as Amy walks alone, across miles and decades, into a future dark with violence and despair, she is filled with the mysterious and terrifying knowledge that only she has the power to save the ruined world.
“Magnificent… Cronin has taken his literary gifts, and he has weaponized them… The Passage can stand proudly next to Stephen King’s apocalyptic masterpiece The Stand.”
The Zombie Survival Guide is your key to survival against the hordes of undead who may be stalking you right now. Fully illustrated and exhaustively comprehensive, this book covers everything you need to know, including how to understand zombie physiology and behavior, the most effective defense tactics and weaponry, ways to outfit your home for a long siege, and how to survive and adapt in any territory or terrain.
Top 10 Lessons for Surviving a Zombie Attack
1. Organize before they rise!
2. They feel no fear, why should you?
3. Use your head: cut off theirs.
4. Blades don’t need reloading.
5. Ideal protection = tight clothes, short hair.
6. Get up the staircase, then destroy it.
7. Get out of the car, get onto the bike.
8. Keep moving, keep low, keep quiet, keep alert!
9. No place is safe, only safer.
10. The zombie may be gone, but the threat lives on.
Don’t be carefree and foolish with your most precious asset: life. This book is your key to survival against the hordes of undead who may be stalking you right now without your even knowing it. The Zombie Survival Guide offers complete protection through trusted, proven tips for safeguarding yourself and your loved ones against the living dead. It is a book that can save your life.
Artyom was born before the nuclear war that forced all of Moscow’s survivors into that city’s Metro.
Sukhoi, a military officer, saved baby Artyom from a horde of carnivorous rats that killed his mother and the inhabitants of his station.
When Artyom grows up, Sukhoi learns of increasing attacks from mysterious creatures known as “The Dark Ones,” who inspire terror throughout the station.
Artyom begins a dangerous journey towards the centre of the Metro to learn about the Dark Ones and to deliver an important message. He comes up against psychic forces, criminal gangs, revolutionaries, executioners, lethal librarians, and the madness and desperation of civilization on the brink.
This novel was a huge hit in Russia and spawned the Metro media franchise in the United States.
This postmodern book isn’t for everyone.
Two hundred years after civilization ended in an event known as the Blast, Benedikt isn’t one to complain. He’s got a job—transcribing old books and presenting them as the words of the great new leader, and though he doesn’t enjoy the privileged status of a Murza, at least he’s not a serf or a half-human four-legged Degenerator harnessed to a troika. He has a house, too, with enough mice to cook up a tasty meal, and he’s happily free of mutations: no extra fingers, no gills, no cockscombs sprouting from his eyelids. And he’s managed—at least so far—to steer clear of the ever-vigilant Saniturions, who track down anyone who manifests the slightest sign of Freethinking, and the legendary screeching Slynx that waits in the wilderness beyond.
—The New Yorker
Swan is a nine-year-old Idaho girl following her struggling mother from one trailer park to the next when she receives visions of doom, something far wider than the narrow scope of her own beleaguered life. In a blinding flash, nuclear bombs annihilate civilization, leaving only a few buried survivors to crawl onto a scorched landscape that was once America.
In Manhattan, a homeless woman stumbles from the sewers, guided by the prophecies of a mysterious amulet, and pursued by something wicked; on Idaho’s Blue Dome Mountain, an orphaned boy falls under the influence of depraved survivalists and discovers the value of a killer instinct; and amid the devastating dust storms on the Great Plains of Nebraska, Swan forms a heart-and-soul bond with an unlikely new companion. Soon they will cross paths. But only Swan knows that they must endure more than just a trek across an irradiated country of mutated animals, starvation, madmen, and wasteland warriors.
Swan’s visions tell of a coming malevolent force. It’s a shape-shifting embodiment of the apocalypse, and of all that is evil and despairing. And it’s hell-bent on destroying the last hope of goodness and purity in the world. Swan is that hope. Now, she must fight not only for her own survival, but for that of all mankind.
“[A] long, satisfying look at hell and salvation.”
The human race has become infertile, and the last generation to be born is now adult. Civilization itself is crumbling as suicide and despair become commonplace. Oxford historian Theodore Faron, apathetic toward a future without a future, spends most of his time reminiscing. Then he is approached by Julian, a bright, attractive woman who wants him to help get her an audience with his cousin, the powerful Warden of England. She and her band of unlikely revolutionaries may just awaken his desire to live… and they may also hold the key to survival for the human race.
“Extraordinary… Daring… Frightening in its implications.”
—The New York Times
Roadside Picnic is short, bleak, and fantastic. It has a typical Russian life-is-a-meaningless-struggle-against-absurdity vibe, but there’s enough going on to make it an interesting read.
Aliens have visited Earth, but then left, leaving behind a zone where commonplace things are sometimes instantly deadly. But in the zone are also artifacts of alien technology, which you can sell for decent money, if you survive trips into the zone. The main character travels to the zone, despite the effects it has on his life and family.
The basic premise is very similar to Annihilation (also a good book), but predates it by over forty years. They’re different enough that you can happily read both, but maybe not one right after the other.
“The story is carried out with a controlled fierceness that doesn’t waver for a minute.”
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.
His fateful decision unleashes a drastic series of events. An unlikely candidate is appointed to replace him: Juliette, a mechanic with no training in law, whose special knack is fixing machines. Now Juliette is about to be entrusted with fixing the silo, and she will soon learn just how badly her world is broken. The silo is about to confront what its history has only hinted about and its inhabitants have never dared to whisper: Uprising.
The first book of this trilogy isn’t technically post-apocalyptic, but the other books get there, so feel free to start with this one.
Off the coast of Antarctica, a research vessel discovers a mysterious structure buried deep within an iceberg. It has been there for thousands of years, and something is guarding it. Could it be the fabled city of Atlantis? Or is it something more dangerous?
At the same moment, in Jakarta, Indonesia, a brilliant geneticist named Kate Warner has just discovered a breakthrough treatment for autism. Or so she thinks. What she has found is far more deadly—for her and for the entire human race. Her work could unleash the next stage of human evolution. It might also hold the key to unlocking the mysterious structure off the coast of Antarctica.
On the other side of Jakarta, Agent David Vale is racing to uncover a conspiracy with far-reaching implications. But he’s out of time. His informant inside the conspiracy is dead. His own organization has been infiltrated, and his enemy has turned the hunt on him. Now he’s on the run. But when he receives a coded message related to an imminent attack, he risks everything to save the one person that can help him stop it: Dr. Kate Warner.
Together, Kate and David race to unravel a global conspiracy and learn the truth about the Atlantis Gene… and human origins. Their journey takes them to the far corners of the globe and into the secrets of their pasts. Their enemy is close on their heels and will stop at nothing to obtain Kate’s research and force the next stage of human evolution—even if it means killing 99.9% of the world’s population. David and Kate can stop them… if they can trust each other. And stay alive.
The Girl With All the Gifts is a wonderful book, which is odd praise for a story about zombies. But it’s surprisingly thoughtful, and at times, even tender, all while managing to be a fast-paced thriller. Every day I looked forward to reading it.
In a post-apocalyptic England, Melanie, along with other children, is imprisoned in a windowless bunker. They are all strapped down and muzzled whenever they leave their cells. No adult is allowed to touch them under any circumstances. Given who these children are, these are reasonable precautions. Then the installation is attacked, and Melanie is freed along with several adults, some who want her alive, some who want her dead, and others who want her dissected.
“Original, thrilling and powerful.”
By far the oldest book on this list, The Stand is a masterpiece. You could argue that it’s not really science fiction, but who cares? It’s a great book.
A patient escapes from a biological testing facility, unknowingly carrying a deadly weapon: a mutated strain of super-flu that will wipe out 99 percent of the world’s population within a few weeks. Those who remain are scared, bewildered, and in need of a leader. Two emergeL Mother Abagail, the benevolent 108-year-old woman who urges them to build a peaceful community in Boulder, Colorado; and Randall Flagg, the nefarious “Dark Man,” who delights in chaos and violence. As the dark man and the peaceful woman each gather power, the survivors will have to choose between them—and ultimately decide the fate of all humanity.
“As brilliant a dark dream as has ever been dreamed in this century.”
—Palm Beach Post
By 2025, global warming, pollution, racial and ethnic tensions and other ills have precipitated a worldwide decline.
Lauren Olamina and her family live in one of the only safe neighborhoods remaining on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Behind the walls of their defended enclave, Lauren’s father, a preacher, and a handful of other citizens try to salvage what remains of a culture that has been destroyed by drugs, disease, war, and chronic water shortages. While her father tries to lead people on the righteous path, Lauren struggles with hyperempathy, a condition that makes her extraordinarily sensitive to the pain of others.
When fire destroys their compound, Lauren’s family is killed and she is forced out into a world that is fraught with danger. With a handful of other refugees, Lauren must make her way north to safety, along the way conceiving a revolutionary idea that may mean salvation for all mankind.
“[T]hough science fiction readers will recognize this future Earth, Lauren Olamina and her vision make this novel stand out like a tree amid saplings.”
Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey—with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake—through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride. Margaret Atwood projects us into a near future that is both all too familiar and beyond our imagining.
“Towering and intrepid… Atwood does Orwell one better.”
—The New Yorker
Twelve-year-old Jonas lives in a seemingly ideal, if colorless, world of conformity and contentment. Not until he is given his life assignment as the Receiver of Memory does he begin to understand the dark, complex secrets behind his fragile community.
The Giver is for middle school readers, but if you haven’t read it, no matter what your age, you owe it to yourself to check out this slim book.
“The simplicity and directness of Lowry’s writing force readers to grapple with their own thoughts.”
—Booklist (starred review)
Riddley Walker is a unique, fascinating book. It takes places a few thousand years after a nuclear Armageddon in England when a young boy comes across a plan to recreate a weapon from the ancient world.
Humanity is semi-literate, and the language in the book reflects that. It can be a little off-putting; here’s the first line of the book:
On the naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the last wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for along time before him nor I aint looking to see none agen.
When I first started Riddley Walker, I thought, “Oh god, I don’t want to deal with this.” But someone whose opinion I respect (darn those people) recommended it, so I kept going.
It was totally worth it. Yes, you have to read it slowly, and yes, it’s more work than reading a typical book. But it’s also a lot better than a typical book. I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.
It’s intense, imaginative, and probably unlike anything you’ve ever come across.
Station Eleven is a great story and exceptionally well-written.
A virus sweeps through the world and quickly kills off 95% of humanity, ending all comforts of civilization. The book’s protagonist is Kirsten, a young woman traveling with a band of musicians and actors who move from town to town, playing music and putting on Shakespearean plays. They hunt for food and tread carefully in a dangerous world, but even they can’t avoid a deadly and insane prophet.
Author Emily St. John Mandel flings the reader back and forth in time, examining characters both before and after the pandemic by jumping from thirty years before the virus to twenty years after and back again. But she does so with such a deft touch that these transitions feel natural and illuminating.
“A surprisingly beautiful story of human relationships amid devastation.”
—The Washington Post
In this Pulitzer Prize-winner, a father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing: just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.
“Vivid, eloquent… The Road is… consistently brilliant in its imagining of the posthumous condition of nature and civilization.”
—The New York Times Book Review