There is something morbidly fascinating about the apocalypse. We have long attempted to predict, control and prepare for what horrible ending could be in store for us. We see it all over our media from crackpot conspiracies regarding Mayan calendars, books preparing us for the upcoming zombie apocalypse and preppers on reality TV shows stockpiling cans of peaches in their basements. And people write over and over again about the end of days. Though almost all of the books on this list are set in a distant future they aren’t about the future. They are rooted in our modern anxieties.
10. The Book of Revelation
Okay many will challenge the inclusion of this as a “novel,” but we are going to focus on The Book of Revelation as an apocalyptic text rather than a prophetic message from God for the purposes of this article. St. John narrates this ultimate battle between good and evil. We derive many western symbols of the apocalypse from this text including the four horsemen and the rise of the Antichrist. Scholars have devoted study to this text. It is steeped in mystery, symbolism and incredible imagery. Anyone brave enough to tackle this often-complicated work will certainly earn our respect.
9. On the Beach (Nevil Shute, 1957)
We jump from The Book of Revelation to a book viewed by many to be equally prophetic. On the Beach is the story of human life after the nuclear apocalypse. As fallout slowly kills the remaining humans on Earth our characters are faced with a dilemma. Not necessarily whether to live or die but rather how to die. Should they wait for radiation sickness or commit suicide? This moral dilemma is a common theme in apocalyptic texts and appears prominently in The Children of Men (1992) and The Road (2006). What decision might you make if the end is inevitable and painful?
8. The Postman (David Brin, 1985)
The Postman has a very different view on the end of the world than the first two items on our list. It is an optimistic view. The human species can live on and thrive in the face of adversity. It is a very American novel rooted in the belief of the sacred democracy. The Postman himself becomes a symbol of hope and civilization. He maintains the symbolic connection between the world before and the world after the apocalypse. The rise of an incredibly conservative and militant enemy conjures up images of Waco and right wing preppers. With a nation as divided as we are after the election the author recommends this novel for a good scare. It is an incredible easy read. The film adaptation is not stellar (despite our abiding love for Kevin Costner) and doesn’t do the novel justice.
7. A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller Jr, 1960)
This is a very interesting novel. The author read this during a class on Apocalyptic Literature and didn’t like it at first. It is difficult to read and doesn’t really fully tie together until the end. He would recommend pushing yourself through it. If you want to thank him someday you can always comment below. This is a novel that emphasizes the cyclical nature of society. Society is born, it lives, it dies and it is reborn. And common themes pervade the rebirth of civilization. Humanity makes the same mistakes time and time again. There is no film adaptation (but there absolutely should be!).
6. The Children of Men (P.D. James, 1992)
Most apocalyptic novels focus on some large event (zombie outbreak, meteor strike, fast acting virus). The Children of Men is far more subtle than that. Instead of a quick ending, the world ends on a much slower timescale. When women stop conceiving children the world is left to simply grow old and die. People are left with the knowledge that the human race will end and with no one has the power to stop it. Governments begin to shut down and people no longer see the point of living. It is interesting how important the ability to pass on our genes, culture and lives is to the maintenance of civilization. This is one of the few books where the author felt the film adaptation was much better. The book tends to be a little preachy at times. Either adaptation tells a very similar and great story of life in the face of death.
5. The Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham, 1951)
One of the best sung lines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) is “I really got hot when I saw Janette Scott fight a triffid that spits poison and kills.” At this point you may be wondering what The Rocky Horror Picture Show has to do with killer plants. Not much except that it references the classic science fiction adaptation of the novella. Triffids are manmade plants that develop the ability to walk and communicate. It is a carnivorous plant with the ability to kill. They are under control just fine until the world finds itself blind. And then the human race finds itself bumped from the top of the food chain. The author of this article hasn’t seen the 1962 version referred to in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) but he has seen the BBC’s 1981 adaptation and found it to be fantastic.
4. The Road (Cormac McCarthy, 2006)
This is probably one of the most depressing and darkest novels on this list. The author was surprised to hear it was being made into a film and wondered how audiences would react to the hopeless nature of the story. Some apocalyptic novels focus a great deal on the event leading up to the end of the world. The Road is not one of them. The audience is left to speculate about what exactly happened. The narrative of the novel is unique. The affect is flat and characters remain unnamed. The sky is dark and the plants are dead. There is literally no light at the end of the tunnel. Yet humanity continues on in search of something better. The moments of joy and laughter are few but they exist. The most important message is the courage to maintain hope even under the most horrific conditions. The film adaptation of The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen, was released in 2009 (the author never saw the movie).
3. Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood, 2003)
This is one of the greatest science fiction novels and certainly one of the best apocalyptic novels ever written. Margaret Atwood creates characters from whole cloth like no other writer. Snowman is witness to the destruction of the Earth. Crake is a wonderful mad scientist. And Oryx floats somewhere in between with her own interesting life story. The animal hybrids become a strange background narrative (especially rakunks which is just sound adorable). Crake is determined to remake the human race in a better form. This form is more peaceful, lives without either fear or God. Of course, in order to create the new world order, Crake must find a way to destroy the old. There are many things that could be written about the narrative of this novel. It is one of the most believable adolescent boy narratives the author has ever read. Please comment below if you have read this and loved it as much as the author did. It would also make an incredible film (if any amazing film directors are out there reading!)
2. The Stand (Stephen King, 1978)
Stephen King created a masterpiece when he wrote The Stand. This incredible novel refers directly back to The Book of Revelation. Good and evil must once again fight it out for world domination. The characters in this novel are organic and real. They come from every walk of life and are bound together by simply surviving a plague. They are able-bodied and disabled. They are Christian and atheist. They are saints and they are criminals. These are the very people who would be represented if the world did end. They are left to recreate civilization with a rag tag group all while fighting off the ultimate evil. There is a wonderful (though dated) mini-series version of The Stand. It follows the novel with fidelity. In 2011 it was announced that The Stand was being made into a feature film. Information is that Ben Affleck is set to star, but no release date has been set and apparently it may turn out to be a trilogy. It woulld really need to be given the length of this book.
1. Earth Abides (George R. Stewart 1949)
Another incredible apocalyptic novel without a film adaptation (maybe the author just needs to stop writing and start directing). One of the reasons this novel rates so highly is that it is one of the most unique apocalyptic novels ever written. The protagonist is not all that panicked by the end of the world. In fact he embraces it in very refreshing ways. There is hope that the world will simply adapt. Humans will adapt. Without civilization the human race can start over again. One of the biggest focuses in the novel is on the relationship between Ish and Em. They fall in love in an age that wouldn’t allow them to be together. She is an older black woman and he is a young white man. But without “civilization” to enforce racism it almost ceases to exist. They get to start all over again. They find themselves creating a world they want. While it isn’t a completely optimistic fairy tale it does serve as a contrast to the darkness of most apocalyptic novels. They face hardships as they discover some of their most cherished values (such as reading) are no longer valued by their children and grandchildren.