Books about nuclear war are, to many people, the founding cornerstones of post apocalyptic fiction. After all, it was the dawning of the nuclear age that brought the possibility of imminent catastrophe to the forefront of the public consciousness, a time when total atomic annihilation seemed never more than a button-push away.
This “golden age” of post apocalyptic fiction birthed and inspired some of the genre’s best stories, from Nevil Shute’s melancholy classic On the Beach, through to modern classics like James Morrow’s This is the Way the World Ends.
So to feed your nuclear addiction, I’m showcasing 10 of the very best books about nuclear war.
Ready to dive headfirst into total atomic annihilation?
1) Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank
Pat Frank’s classic post apocalyptic novel was one of the first “nuclear age” books to tackle the catastrophic effects of nuclear warfare, and remains one of the genre’s defining stories to this day.
The tales follows the inhabitants of the small town of Fort Repose, as they bear witness to nuclear war at the hands of the Soviet Union. Watching nearby military bases disappear in a blinding flash, the story’s protagonist begins to fear for the safety of his enlisted brother. Following the small community as they struggle to make sense of life after Armageddon, Alas Babylon is one of the most famous books about nuclear war – and with good reason.
2) This Is the Way the World Ends – James Morrow
Bold statement time: I’ve read a lot of books about nuclear war, and This is the Way the World Ends is probably my favourite. James Morrow manages to combine the utterly surreal with the truly heartbreaking, creating a novel that’s both a compelling story of love between a father and his daughter, and a profound look at the absurdities of nuclear war.
Seamlessly integrating fantasy and reality into a fluid narrative, This is the Way the World Ends is a stark reminder that we all have a role to play in protecting the world for future generations; and when the world ends in nuclear fire, we’re all culpable.
3) A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M Miller
The idea of religion finding renewed strength in the power vacuum left by nuclear war has been used throughout the post apocalyptic genre, but nowhere is it used as effectively as Walter Miller’s classic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz.
The story follows the growth of the Catholic church, in the aftermath of an event known as The Flame Deluge. The church tasks itself with preserving the knowledge of the earth’s lost generation, but their naivety and drive for progress risk dooming the planet’s remaining inhabitants to repeat history.
4) A Gift Upon the Shore – MK Wren
With the memory of nuclear Armageddon etched indelibly into their minds, the characters of MK Wren’s post apocalyptic classic find themselves determined to preserve the few scraps of knowledge they have access to, and set out to save the Western world’s great books.
In doing so, they find themselves drawn into conflict with a group of religious fundamentalists, determined to purge the Earth of the information that brought about its downfall. After a plague decimates their population, the religious “Arkites” agree to take in the few survivors, and in the process, set the wheels of an unlikely friendship in motion.
5) Swan Song – Robert McCammon
Where many of these books about nuclear war take a melancholy, reflective look at the ends of days, Swan Song takes a very different tact.
From one of the masters of horror, Robert McCammon, Swan Song is an epic tale of survival in the aftermath of war. The story follows a disparate band of unlikely friends as they make their way across the ruins of post apocalyptic America, and in the process, cross the path of the Man of Many Faces – and evil itself. A huge, sprawling novel, Swan Song is McCammon’s finest hour: and comparisons to Stephen King’s epic The Stand are completely deserved.
6) On the Beach – Nevil Shute
On the Beach follows the plight of a small group of people in Melbourne, Australia: one of the few countries to avoid direct damage from the previous year’s catastrophic nuclear war.
But far from being spared from the conflict, the protagonists of Nevil Shute’s classic post apocalyptic novel have to watch their fate roll slowly, inexorably towards them: as a cloud of smothering fallout blows ever closer to the continent. The story centres around the different ways each character tries to deal with their doom, and offers a profound insight into the human side of nuclear war.
7) Farnham’s Freehold – Robert A Heinlein
Robert Heinlein is the legendary author behind Starship Troopers, and his unique approach to sci-fi and fantasy carries itself over into Farnham’s Freehold: winning my award for the weirdest book about nuclear war in the process.
When Hugh Farnham’s bunker suffers a direct hit from a nuclear bomb, Hugh and his family find themselves propelled 2,000 years forward in time. As the family battle to survive in their new environment, they realise that they aren’t alone – and the planet’s current inhabitants have less than savoury plans for the family. It’s up to Hugh and his family to work out how to survive in this (post-)post-apocalyptic world, and find out if they can ever make their way home.
8) The Long Tomorrow – Leigh Brackett
The Long Tomorrow takes a mature look at many of the tropes found in classic books about nuclear war: technology becomes vilified; new religious orders evolve to fill the gap left by the collapse of government, science and society; and the story’s protagonists find themselves drawn to the allure of forbidden technology.
Leigh Brackett’s 1955 novel follow two boys that set out to escape the violent clutches of their religious community, and find a fabled place, deep in the desert, where mankind works to rebuild technology.
9) Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
As the classic Slaughterhouse-five attests to, Vonnegut is a master at using humour and absurd satire to tackle some of the deepest, darkest topics around. Cat’s Cradle continues this tradition, and introduces the world to Dr Felix Hoenikker: co-creator of the atomic bomb, and inventor of the mysterious and destructive chemical compound known as ice-nine.
The story is a hilarious and poignant chase in search of Hoenikker and his exploits, in an attempt to save the world from being frozen solid by his legacy – creating a profound reflection on the madness of atomic war in the process.
10) The Wild Shore – Kim Stanley Robinson
The first of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy, The Wild Shore follows the inhabitants of a small community on the Pacific Coast, living out their lives in the aftermath of nuclear war.
Battling against food shortages and harsh sanctions imposed by the war’s victors are problem enough, but the story’s protagonist has visions of a grander purpose: one that will help rebuild the fallen country. Part frontier story, part post apocalyptic epic, The Wild Shore is one of the most beautiful and profound books about nuclear war ever written.
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