From nuclear armageddon to bio-engineered super plague, humanity has a timeless fascination with the end of the world. Since the golden age of post apocalyptic fiction in the 1950’s, the literary landscape has grown darker and more bleak by the year; and fans of all things post apocalyptic now have an incredible selection of plagues, explosions and invasions to choose from.
To help you choose between a massive selection of post apocalyptic books, I’ve scoured the web, my own bookshelves, and even something called a library, in order to bring you a selection of the 50 greatest post apocalyptic books ever written. I’ve included some of the genre’s most revered stories, alongside some seriously underrated novels that may have passed under your radar.
No matter the type of apocalypse you’re looking for, this list contains the perfect story for you: whether it’s a vampiric plague devouring the earth, nuclear warfare scouring the earth’s surface, flesh-hungry corpses rising from the dead, or even the world’s plants deciding to take on humanity.
Ready to explore the apocalypse?
1. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
A Canticle for Leibowitz takes place 600-years after an event known as ‘the Flame Deluge‘, an apocalypse apparently caused by the arrogance and hubris of man’s scientific pursuits. In the centuries that followed, the planet’s few survivors have turned on the scientists and academics, leaving behind a world of superstition, fear, and a handful of strange technological relics. Tracking the seemingly never-ending conflict of science and religion, A Canticle for Leibowitz is a timeless classic of the post apocalyptic genre.
2. A Gift Upon the Shore – M. K. Wren
Taking place a generation after nuclear war, A Gift Upon the Shore follows the journey of two survivors, as they attempt to preserve the last artefacts of civilisation: books. Drawn into conflict with another band of survivors known as the Ark, the tale’s protagonists struggle to preserve the knowledge of a forgotten world, and their humanity alongside it.
3. Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank
First published in 1959, Alas, Babylon is one of the defining novels of the nuclear age. It tells the story of small Florida town, miraculously spared in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Perfectly capturing the Zeitgeist of the dawning atomic age, it’s an absolute must-read for any fan of post apocalyptic fiction.
4. Blindness – José Saramago
José Saramago’s unique literary style, and unflinching critique of modern society, has earned him the accolade of Nobel Prize for Literature. Blindness is a perfect example of his talents in action, portraying a nation rendered suddenly and inexplicably blind. Only a handful of people retain their sight, endowing them with the ability to reinforce or resist the moral and physical degradation of society around them. Written in long, breathless prose, it’s a fascinating exploration of society’s moral fabric, and one of the more profound post apocalyptic books on offer.
5. Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut’s novels have a tendency to tackle the biggest, most-pressing issues of our time. Cat’s Cradle is no different, and looks at the role of technology in bringing about the end of days. Following the story of Felix Hoenikker, the fictional co-creator of the atom bomb, Vonnegut tackles a grave subject with typically humanising humour and sincerity.
6. Cell – Stephen King
Cell paints a vivid picture of a world destroyed by the technology it relies on – the seemingly innocuous cellphone. Whilst the core premise of Cell already feels slightly dated (a risk run by any novel centered around contemporary technology), it’s still an exciting, emotive and unique take on post apocalyptic fiction.
7. Children of the Dust – Louise Lawrence
Split into three distinct actions, Children of the Dust charts humanity’s progress through three generations of post apocalyptic survivors. Suffering through nuclear war, the cold, dark winter that follows, and conflicts between rival bands of survivors, hope of humanity emerging from the ashes of civilisation seem dashed – until radiation-induced mutations see the survivors begin to evolve into an entirely new species – Homo superior.
8. Damnation Alley – Roger Zelazny
Beset by hurricanes, radioactive storms and giant, mutated scorpions (bringing to mind Fallout’s radscorpions), the Southern California of Zelazny’s post apocalyptic book Damnation Alley is a nightmarish, lethal world. With travel across the current tantamount to suicide, the character’s anti-hero, convicted killer Hell Tanner, is offered his freedom in exchange for making a life-or-death delivery run across the country’s barren wastes.
9. Down to a Sunless Sea – David Graham
Set in a plausible near-future, where the world’s oil reserves have run to dangerously low levels, Down to a Sunless Sea follows a plane-load of travellers flying from New York to London. Mid-flight, it becomes apparent that nuclear war has broken-out – leaving the plane’s pilot with a series of life-threatening decisions to make. Interestingly, the book was released with two alternate endings – with both US and UK publications ending in startlingly different lights.
10. Earth Abides – George R. Stewart
Perhaps one of the most famous and celebrated of post apocalyptic books, Earth Abides tells the story of the earth’s demise at the hands of a deadly plague. In the absence of humanity, the novel’s main character, an ecologist, is able to witness both the guiding and damaging consequences of mankind’s existence. The book also gave birth to one of the genre’s most enduring quotes: ‘Men come and go, but earth abides.’
11. Eternity Road – Jack McDevitt
Set 1700 years after a lethal plague erased civilisation, Eternity Road follows a generation of primitive survivors, determined to unlock the secrets of their ancestors – referred to reverently as the Roadmakers. A band of explorers set out to uncover the location of a legendary haven of ancient knowledge, and in doing so, reveal the truth about their own past.
12. Farnham’s Freehold – Robert A. Heinlein
Farnham’s Freehold manages to combine two of science fiction’s post popular concepts – the apocalypse, and time travel. When worldwide nuclear war seems imminent, Hugh Farnham sets out to create a fallout shelter to protect his family. When his shelter suffers a direct hit, the thermonuclear explosion tears a hole in space, and sends the family two thousand years into the future. The resultant story is as satisfying as you might hope, making this underrated novel a fantastic and worthwhile read.
13. I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
Whilst the most recent film adaptation of I Am Legend suffers from a serious case of Hollywood-itus, Richard Matheson’s only foray into post apocalyptic fiction is as poignant and thought-provoking as they come. Telling of the aftermath of something between a zombie outbreak and a plague of vampirism, I Am Legend is both beautifully atmospheric and genuinely scary, entertaining and surprisingly philosophical.
14. Junk Day – Arthur Sellings
Junk Day was Arthur Selling’s last, and in the view of many, finest novel.With London lying in ruins, the country’s few survivors are left to fight amongst themselves, as they pick through the detritus of civilisation. As a nascent society begins to emerge, using brutality and force to control and subjugate, a single loner takes it upon himself to guide the world, through co-operation and civility.
15. Level 7 – Mordecai Roshwald
With a dark, dystopian theme, Level 7 is often considered a post apocalyptic counterpart to Huxley’s A Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. The story’s protagonist is a solider, a man whose entire life is dedicated to commanding his nation’s nuclear weapons. When war is declared, the 7 levels of the soldier’s shelter begin to fill with military and civilian personnel – and it falls to the solider to initiate nuclear Armageddon.
16. Life as We Knew It – Susan Beth Pfeffer
Despite portraying one of the genre’s more mundane catastrophes, Life As We Knew It manages to illustrate a particularly vivid and believable picture of humanity’s slow descent into destruction. When a meteor collides with the moon, the earth’s climate suffers an irreversible shift – transforming day-to-day life into a battle against hunger and extreme cold. Despite falling into the Young Adult niche, Pfeffer’s novel stands-up to even the harshest of adult scrutiny – making it a great read for anyone hunting for their next post apocalyptic book.
17. Lucifer’s Hammer – Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven
Lucifer’s Hammer has all you could want from a post apocalyptic book – a massive, world-destroying comet (dubbed, you guessed it, Lucifer’s Hammer), tsunamis, plagues, famine, cannibals and scavengers. Written in 1977, Pournelle and Niven’s novel is one of the oldest post apocalyptic tales to have truly stood the test of time – and in the eyes of many, it’s one of the genre’s archetypal stories.
18. Maddaddam – Margaret Atwood
Maddaddam is the third book in Margaret Atwood’s trilogy of dystopian, post apocalyptic novels, and finishes the story started by it’s predecessors (Oryx and Crake, #21, and The Year of the Flood, #45). In the wake of bio-engineering gone awry, the novels’ protagonists band together to build God’s Gardeners – and help restore life to the Earth.
19. On the Beach – Nevil Shute
Another nuclear age classic, On the Beach tackles Armageddon from a radically different angle to its contemporary, Alas, Babylon. Lacking any form of optimism, On the Beach shows humanity confronted by a slow, inevitable death, as radiation rolls inexorably towards Australia’s few surviving inhabitants. Slow, sad, and fuelled by alcohol, On the Beach is a fantastic read for fans of the more melancholy post apocalyptic books.
20. One Second After – William R. Forstchen
Centred around the small American town of Black Mountain, One Second After tells of a catastrophic electromagnetic pulse attack on the US. The EMP’s detonation plunges the small town into a world of primitive darkness, forcing the inhabitant’s to band together to survive.
21. Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood
Alternating between two periods of time, both before and after an apocalyptic event, Oryx and Crake details the ongoing development of genetic engineering, and the creation of entirely new species. Atwood refuses to label the novel science fiction as, in her words, the story does not deal with ‘things that haven’t been invented yet’. Both beautiful and haunting, Oryx and Crake is a powerful exploration of the ethics of bioengineering.
22. Riddley Walker – Russell Hoban
Set 2000 years after a nuclear war, Riddley Walker is set in a primitive post apocalyptic version of modern-day Kent. The area’s inhabitant struggle by, salvaging metals and tools, until the story’s protagonist stumbles upon an attempt to recreate the ancient world’s fiercest weapons. The novel’s bleak landscape, and Hoban’s unique use of language, have earned the story comparisons to A Canticle for Leibowitz and A Clockwork Orange – and Mad Max 3 is even thought to borrow many of the story’s key themes.
23. Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Roadside Picnic explores the aftermath of ‘the Visitation’ – a series of unseen alien visitations that have littered the earth with unexplained artefacts, and strange, dangerous anomalies that seem to defy the laws of nature. The story of Roadside Picnic was elaborated upon by the makers of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video game series, making the book a fascinating must-read for fans of the game.
24. Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
A Canticle for Leibowitz was the only novel published during Walter M. Miller Jr.’s lifetime, but a sequel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, was published posthumously. In it, Miller returns to the land of the Flame Deluge, and explores how religion, politics and love have combined to reshape a scarred and desolate world.
25. Swan Song – Robert R. McCammon
Written in 1987, Swan Song draws upon a plethora of historical conflicts, following rising tension between the US and the Soviet Union, chemical warfare in Afghanistan, and imminent nuclear conflict between India, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. With such a tumultuous backdrop, it’s no surprise that the story follows the story of a handful of disparate survivors, in the aftermath of total nuclear annihilation.
26. The Children of Men – P.D. James
In The Children of Men, legendary wordsmith P.D. James turns her talents to a world rendered suddenly and completely infertile. Exploring the psychological and sociological impacts of a planet devoid of children, alongside the tragic back-story of the book’s protagonist, it’s a profound (and surprisingly exciting) look at a world slowly dying. It’s also been adapted into a truly stellar film.
27. The Chrysalids – John Wyndham
The Chrysalids elaborates on The Day of the Triffids theme of genetic mutation. Portraying a community of religious zealots, the remaining survivors of an apocalyptic event known as the Tribulation band together to eradicate any form of genetic deviance. With their harsh principles applied to flora, fauna, and eventually, the novel’s protagonists, The Chrysalids is regarded by many to be Wyndham’s finest novel.
28. The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham
Few post apocalyptic books are as famous as The Day of the Triffids. Responsible for turning an entire generation away from horticulture, the story sees a nation blinded by a mysterious meteor shower – rendering the world helpless to the quiet advances of a race of mobile, carnivorous plants. Despite being written in 1951, it’s cautionary exploration of bioengineering is as relevant today as it was six decades ago.
29. The Death of Grass – John Christopher
Known as No Blade of Grass in the US, John Christopher’s quietly underrated novel is one of my favourite post apocalyptic books. It builds on a simple (and entirely plausible) premise – the death of the world’s grass, wheat and grain crops – and explores the destructive lengths humanity might go to in an attempt to survive.
30. The Drowned World – JG Ballard
A parable for the modern world, The Drowned World sees the Earth succumb to global warming on a truly epic scale. As the sea levels rise, and the Earth’s temperature begins to soar, the planet’s few remaining inhabitants find themselves torn between the urge to survive, and their desire to regress back to the mindless comfort of primordial existence. Claustrophobic and haunting, The Drowned World is a mesmerising read.
31. The Forest of Hands and Teeth – Carrie Ryan
The first in Ryan’s three-volume series, The Forest of Hands and Teeth follows the lives and struggles of a small isolated town, and the conflict between the resident Sisterhood, and the ever-present threat of zombies from the forest beyond. Bearing an obvious resemblance to The Passage (#36, below), Carrie Ryan’s first novel is regarded by many as a best YA novels in recent years.
32. The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower #1) – Stephen King
The Gunslinger is the first novel in King’s epic 8-book series, The Dark Tower. The story introduces us to the fierce and enigmatic gunslinger Roland Deschain, and follows his righteous quest through a desolate and dying world. In a world full of mutants, magic and horror, it’s up to Roland to find the source of building apocalypse, and the little that’s left of his world.
33. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
In the bleak world of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the US government has been overthrown by a brutal regime of dogmatic Christians. Despite a choice between life as a concubine, or exile into a irradiated wasteland, the story follows a lone women as she attempts to indulge her own private desires – without the state’s secret police finding out. Bleak, beautiful and profound, The Handmaid’s Tale perfectly encapsulates the raison d’etre of post apocalyptic fiction – shining a critical light on the contemporary world.
34. The Last Man – Mary Shelley
Arguably the progenitor of the entire post apocalyptic trope, The Last Man paints a dark vision of a futuristic world destroyed by plague. Though written in 1826 (by none other than Frankenstein author Mary Shelley), the story is completely devoid of the romantic ideals that proliferated fiction of the time – offering a chilling and bleak look at humanity’s destruction.
35. The Long Tomorrow – Leigh Brackett
Another novel from the golden age of post apocalyptic fiction (in this instance, published in 1955), The Long Tomorrow is set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, and a world that fears scientific reasoning and knowledge. With technology blamed for the world’s demise, religious superstition takes hold of the nation’s survivors – creating another classic commentary on the conflict between science and religion.
36. The Passage – Justin Cronin
Part vampire novel, part zombie apocalypse, Justin Cronin’s The Passage is a modern post apocalyptic epic. Telling the story of a viral outbreak, and the subsequent collapse of society, it’s an enthralling and engrossing read, with more than a passing resemblance to King’s classic The Stand (and I mean that in the best way possible).
37. The Planet of the Apes – Pierre Boulle
The Planet of the Apes entered the public consciousness as the result of the famous 1968 film of the same name, but the original French novel pre-dates the film by 5 years. It tells the now-famous story of a band of space travellers making contact with a forested world, not too dissimilar to our own, only to find themselves captured by a race of intelligent apes. I’ll leave the story’s conclusion to The Simpson’s Troy McClure:
‘Oh my God, I was wrong, it was Earth, all along!’
38. The Postman – David Brin
David Brin’s most famous novel, The Postman, tells the story of a lone survivor, wandering the post apocalyptic wastes of the US. Struggling to even survive, the protagonist stumbles upon the uniform of an expired letter carrier – and with it, a sense of purpose and community not found since before the apocalypse. Despite being something of an acquired taste, the Kevin Costner film of the same name is a worthwhile watch for any serious fans of post apocalyptic fiction.
39. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
The Road is something of a paradox – managing to be both heartbreakingly bleak and breathtakingly beautiful. McCarthy’s poetic prose plots the journey of a father and son, across the empty wastes of post apocalyptic America. The cataclysm responsible for the world around is never referenced – forcing the reader to live every moment through the tiny, desperate world view of the two main characters. It’s an absolutely stunning piece of fiction, and to my mind, a contender for the crown of best post apocalyptic book.
40. The Slynx – Tatyana Tolstaya
As a descendant of legendary Russian word-smith Leo Tolstoy, it should be no surprise that Tatyana Tolstaya’s post apocalyptic book The Slynx is a masterclass in modern creative fiction. With a heavy dose of political commentary, sandwiched between irradiated mutants and the criminalised act of Freethinking, The Slynx is the ultimate combination of dystopian social commentary and haunting post apocalyptic storytelling.
41. The Stand – Stephen King
The Stand is viewed by many as King’s magnum opus, and I’d be inclined to agree. With the revised edition weighing-in at well over a thousand pages, this heavyweight of post apocalyptic fiction weaves the most convincing, absorbing and downright scary vision of the apocalypse I’ve ever come across. It’s a roller-coaster of emotions, charting the diverging journeys of a whole host of incredibly vivid characters (and in classic King style, the terrifying protagonist of The Stand, The Walking Dude, makes appearances throughout King’s pantheon of work – including the Dark Tower series referenced below). It’s an absolute must-read for any fan of the genre, and the only post apocalyptic book on this list I guarantee you’ll love.
42. The Twelve – Justin Cronin
The Twelve continues the story started by The Passage, albeit several hundred years in the future. Introducing a new selection of characters, in addition to a handful from the original pantheon, The Twelve picks up a story that’s nothing short of addictive. Better still, the third book of the series, The City of Mirrors, is set for release this year – with a series of Ridley Scott film adaptations set to follow.
43. The Waste Lands (The Dark Tower #3) – Stephen King
In the third instalment of The Dark Tower series, we follow Roland deeper into the wasteland of Mid-World. Following a path set by a mysterious beam of energy, the band of travellers find themselves confronted by a devastated city, still inhabited by a band of marauding and mutated denizens, fighting over the city’s decaying technology. With each instalment of The Dark Tower series, we earn a greater insight into Roland’s homeland – and with each novel, the world grows more devastated and post apocalyptic.
44. The Wild Shore – Kim Stanley Robinson
The first book in Robinson’s Three Californias Trilogy, The Wild Shore follows the survivors of massive nuclear attack on the United States. With each book in the series exploring a different vision of the future, The Wild Shore paints a bleak picture of ongoing conflict and the regression of society, in a country intentionally annexed and isolated by the world’s few remaining nations.
45. The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood
The events of The Year of the Flood take place alongside the story of Oryx and Crake, instead developing on the story of a group of bio-activists known as God’s Gardeners. The events of each novel intertwine, and together, offer an incredibly detailed, clever and engaging look at the end-of-days in action – so engaging that HBO have commissioned a TV adaptation of the series, under the title Maddaddam.
46. The Zombie Survival Guide – Max Brooks
Though lacking the plot elements of the other post apocalyptic books on the list, The Zombie Survival Guide is worthy of inclusion through sheer enjoyment-factor alone. Reading like a real-world ‘how to’ guide for surviving the end of days, Max Brooks has simultaneously appealed to both the literary fan and wannabe survivalist inside of me. Come the end of days, give me this book, and a decent machete.
47. Things We Didn’t See Coming – Steven Amsterdam
Charting the life of an unnamed protagonist through a series of sequential stories, Things We Didn’t See Coming starts with a tongue-in-cheek look at the most contemporary of potential apocalypses – the Millennium Bug – and builds towards real devastation, in the form of climate change, disease, and the breakdown of society. One of the most culturally-relevant stories on this list, Amsterdam’s debut novel is a must-read for any fan of modern post apocalyptic books.
48. Wool – Hugh Howey
Wool is a collection of interrelated stories that make up part one of Hugh Howey’s acclaimed Silo series, and follows a band of survivors forced underground in the aftermath of a world-changing event. Following the life and struggles of people within the 140-story underground silo, the book builds to a climatic end, as the inhabitants draw closer to the silo’s secret.
49. World War Z – Max Brooks
Few post apocalyptic books have achieved the same level of success as Max Brook’s ‘oral history of the zombie war‘. World War Z recounts the events of a zombie apocalypse, through the eyes of a scientist trying to understand and explain the events that lead to the outbreak. Collating stories retold by dozens of survivors, the book is a fantastic read, and a unique take on the post apocalyptic genre – regardless of your views on the Hollywood blockbuster of the same name.
50. Z for Zachariah – Robert C. O’Brien
Z for Zachariah follows the post apocalyptic struggles of a sixteen-year-old girl, a survivor of nuclear and chemical warfare through the sheer virtue of living in a small valley with a self-contained weather system. She lives an isolated life with her family, until one-day, a stranger in a radiation-proof suit stumbles into the valley. Promising both danger and excitement, O’Brien’s posthumously published novel pairs an emotive, engaging story with an intricately-detailed vision of the post apocalyptic world.
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