The demise of mankind – or more accurately, the near-demise of mankind – is a common theme in speculative fiction. It’s not a new concept, either, since Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells both wrote of a future in which mankind was either gone or on the ropes. In the past fifty or sixty years, however, it’s a theme that has been visited by a number of writers, many of them among the best of their generation. It also happens to be a favorite sub-sub-genre of my own, as some truly battered paperbacks on my bookshelf will attest.
Without further ado, then, I give you my nomination for the Ten Best Post-Apocalyptic Novels written in my lifetime (in the approximate order in which I read them).
Death by Nuclear Holocaust I
"Alas, Babylon" by Pat Frank
The little community of Fort Repose, Florida, survives a World War III brought on by an errant missile in the middle east. Hero Randy Bragg is warned of the coming disaster by his brother, an Air Force Colonel, who sends his family to Randy with the code phrase “Alas, Babylon!” Soon after emptying out the local grocery, the Bragg household is awakened by the thunder of nuclear weapons vaporizing Miami and the nearby military bases.
Frank’s description of the aftermath of nuclear holocaust is low-key; without the ensuing warlike tribalism that marks almost all more recent books in the field. Frank brushes up against some medical issues – flash blindness from witnessing an explosion, radiation poisoning from looted goods – but the bulk of the novel is given over to survival in a world without any modern conveniences. That includes a freezer full of soup that was once ice cream, the hunt for salt, and learning some of the basic skills that had already been forgotten by many when Frank published the novel in 1959.
Though not honored with any awards, Frank’s novel was turned into a television movie starring Don Murray, Burt Reynolds, and Rita Moreno. It is frequently cited as an early influence by several Boomer-aged scifi authors, and regularly ranks in the top novels of its genre.
Death by Nuclear Holocaust II
"A Canticle for Liebowitz" by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Humanity manages to kill itself off not once but twice, both times with nuclear bombs, in Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz. In his seminal 1959 novel (published in 1960), Miller posits a second Dark Ages, a fuzzy future time in which the Catholic Church once more maintains the knowledge of humankind in scattered monasteries, complete with near-blind monks recopying old texts by hand. Except this time, the old texts are snatches of blueprints, owner’s manuals, and engineering texts.
After the horror of holocaust, the survivors took out their wrath on science and technology, destroying libraries and crucifying scientists and engineers. Decades later, Brother Francis, a postulant at a remote desert abbey, happens upon a basement room in what was once the abode of the holy Liebowitz (a techie of unknown occupation). It’s his findings that allow beatification of Liebowitz (a rather unlikely surname for a Catholic saint…) Miller’s vision of the future Church includes pilgrims, a Wandering Jew, and the occasional mortification of the flesh.
Miller’s vision comes full circle in A Canticle for Liebowitz, a rather depressing assumption that mankind is stuck in a rut and, once technology ascends, the cycle will repeat itself. Regardless of its dark mood, Miller’s novel won the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and has never been out of print in the past fifty-plus years.
Death by Nuclear Holocaust III
"Farnham's Freehold" by Robert Heinlein (Eminently Avoidable)
Heinlein’s novel finds a handful of survivors who waited out a nuclear holocaust in an unnaturally large and well-stocked family bomb shelter. Farnham’s Freehold, however, suffers greatly from the sort of misogyny and objectification of women so often seen in Heinlein novels such as Friday and Stranger in a Strange Land, in which a gaggle of beautiful women lie only to serve one studly man. Added to this list only because some people would wonder why I left Heinlein off – now you can see why, and also see why there’s no Amazon link.
Suicide by Alien Invasion
"Childhood's End" by Sir Arthur C. Clarke
The Overlords just appeared out of nowhere one day in Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 tale. Unlike most novels that open with giant spaceships looming on the skyline, however, Childhood’s End does not devolve into the kind of war that played out in Wells’ War of the Worlds or the flick Independence Day.
Although decidedly demonic in appearance, the Overlords have not arrived “to serve man.” Instead, they’re apparently benevolent: within just two generations, war, crime and disease have all disappeared and mankind has entered a sort of golden age. The Overlords, it appears are on the scene as a sort of cosmic midwife to deliver mankind into its next phase of evolution. Seems like they’re pretty nice guys.
Or maybe they aren’t…
Clarke’s novel predates both Hugo and Nebula Awards, but received a “Retro Hugo” fifty years after its publication in 2004.
Death from Space
"Lucifer's Hammer" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
“Hot fudge sundae falls on a Tuesday…” and that’s how Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle describe the apocalypse that awaits Earth after a huge comet smashes into earth, triggering major earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis: Lucifer’s Hammer, indeed.
The narrative follows amateur astronomer Tim Hamner, co-discoverer of Hamner-Brown (aka “the Hammer”) as he and a band of friends up in the hills of Southern California construct a compound and strive to keep the spark of civilization alive. Like much of Pournelle’s writing, Lucifer’s Hammer is disdainful of environmentalists and strongly pro-everything remotely technological.
As you’d expect from an accomplished novelist (multiple Hugo- and Nebula-winner Niven) and a pair of wise old tech-heads, the novel is chock full of know-how trumping violence; and featuring a character apparently based on The Professor from “Gilligan’s Island.” Like most novels in the category, Lucifer’s Hammer posits roving bands of bandits, though the largest battle in the novel pits Hamner’s enclave against a group united by consumption of “long pig.” I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what that means.
The novel was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1978, losing to Frederick Pohl’s Gateway. Niven or Niven and Pournelle were nominated for the award for four out of five years in 1974-8.
Death by Pandemic I
"The Stand" by Stephen King
Thought by many to be Stephen King’s best novel (and by most to be decidedly superior to his “uncut version” released a decade or so later), The Stand is undoubtedly a classic of the post-apocalyptic genre. Like most King novels, it’s leavened by a touch of the supernatural and a healthy dose of the battle between good and evil.
King’s 1200-page opus features an ensemble cast among the few survivors of “Captain Tripps,” the cutely-named but decidedly deadly “influenza” that kills more than 99% of those who contract it. Those who are pure at heart – the heroes – find themselves drawn to idyllic Boulder, Colorado, drawn by the vision of centenarian Mother Abigail. Meanwhile, the bad guys are collecting – where else? – in Las Vegas, drawn to Sin City by the siren call of the walkin’ dude, Randall Flagg.
King bothers little or none with marauding bandits, as his chief plot device is the division of the survivors into camps featuring the good and the evil. And, of course, there will be conflict, but King knows how to spin out a story so that you keep on reading… and reading. Trust me, it makes Under the Dome look like a YA novel!
The Stand was made into an eight-hour television miniseries in 1994, offering up a fine cast that featured the likes of Gary Sinese, Laura San Giacomo, Molly Ringwald, Rob Lowe and Miguel Ferrer.
Death by Collapse of Civilization
"Wolf and Iron" by Gordon R. Dickson
Jeremy Bellamy “Jeebee” Walthers finds his way across two thousand miles of post-apocalyptic wilderness between the east coast and a family ranch on the plains of Montana in Gordon R. Dickson’s Wolf and Iron, published in 1990. The “iron” part is pretty easy – like so many novels of the type, the fall of civilization has emboldened the more antisocial elements, who take to the countryside robbing every passerby and raping every woman (and most of the men). Jeebee’s lucky in that respect: he manages to tame – or at least reach an agreement with – a wolf, who acts as his guardian. Jeebee also manages to ingratiate himself with a traveling merchant, whose daughter becomes the love interest... and more.
Of the ten, perhaps the weakest – but still better than the Heinlein, by an order of magnitude!
Death by Zombie
"World War Z" by Max Brooks
They say that "armies prepare to fight the war they just finished," which seems pretty obvious given recent history: think WWII and Korea; Korea and Vietnam; Vietnam and the Gulf Wars... maybe a military mind only learns the hard way. You can forgive the military, though, this time, ‘cause there was no way to prepare, at least not for World War Z. After all, how do you prepare for an enemy who knows no fear? who can't feel pain? who can't die, because he's already dead?
That's the story of World War Z, where "Z" is for "Zombie."
Yes, zombies: undead; reanimated, flesh-eating ex-humans that can take a lickin' and keep on tickin'; shambling, howling, moaning, blank-eyed ghouls who can only be killed by lopping off their heads. Think of it: parents, children, lover, co-workers, boss, teacher; every one ambulatory dead with one purpose; to eat the living. It’s no wonder the military, even with those smart bombs and remote-controlled spy planes, proved less successful than a farmer with a .22 rifle or a homeowner with a sharp axe.
Max Brooks’ 2006 novel is told as a series of interviews that cover the zombie wars from just about every angle (well, every living angle, anyway). It was made into a motion picture starring Brad Pitt in 2013.
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Death by... Who knows?
"The Road" by Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road follows an unnamed father and son as they wander the road in an unnamed land after a disaster that is never described. The world is blasted and sere, peopled by the typical violent denizens of the world after mankind has committed mass suicide. McCarthy’s vision may well be the darkest novel of its genre in history, perhaps even the darkest novel in history.
McCarthy envisions a future so bleak, so dismal, that to give his characters names would endow them with too much humanity for us to bear. Instead, the nameless pair trek slowly through a blasted, ashen future world, their dragging steps lit sporadically by lightning flashes by night and rare glimpses of the wan sun behind billowing clouds of ash by day.
In spite of the bleakness of his vision, McCarthy somehow manages to turn the stygian blackness of that unexplained future into something approaching hope – for no world in which a father loves his son this much can be without hope.
Death by Genetic Tinkering
The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood
In a world filled with genetically-modified organisms – headless chicken bodies that grow endless supplies of breasts on stalks, oversized pigs that sprout made-to-order human body parts for transplanting (with the recipient’s own DNA) – it stands to reason that someone could genetically engineer a virus to wipe out humankind.
It takes a genetically-modified human to survive a genetically-modified virus, and that’s what Margaret Atwood’s vision produces in 2009’s The Year of the Flood – the Crakers, humans whose genome bears a bewildering array of transplanted genes. Only a handful of humans remain, mainly luddites who avoided the bioengineered bounty of their world and a few who happened to be otherwise occupied when “the flood” took place.
Best known for another speculative novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Canadian Margaret Atwood’s tale of a world gone mad (in the genetic sense) is from the same “universe” as Oryx and Crake – named for the two ne’er-do-wells responsible for the whole mess, and a finalist for the 2003 Booker Prize.
Death by Pandemic II
The Dog Stars, Peter Heller
An unusual version of a future after a flu pandemic, The Dog Stars is Peter Heller’s first foray into fiction – and it’s a fine one. Nine years after the last flu victims died, Hig and his dog, Jasper, live out on on the plains north of Denver with their one neighbor, Bangley, and Hig’s beloved 1958 Cessna. Every day Hig flies the perimeter and at night he and Jasper stare up at the sky. What Bangley does, only Bangley knows.
When events shake his semi-comfortable existence, Hig decides to follow a long-ago radio signal to the other side of the Rockies. It’s a journey that takes a lot longer than he had expected…
Heller’s vision includes the bands of marauding nomads that seem typical of the genre, but the personal relationships are far more the focus of this excellent entry from 2013. Read it, and you’ll want to be a pilot – and own a dog like Jasper.