Global catastrophes transform life as we know it. Sound familiar? We’ve collected the best apocalyptic novels of all time.
If you needed another reason to have an existential crisis, apocalyptic novels have got you covered. Dealing with the catastrophic end of the world, survivor psychology, and other spooky themes, they’re some of the most detailed, complex examples of world-building in literature.
Despite having gained popularity during the 20th century, when the nuclear arms race and concept of “mutually assured destruction” became knowledge to the public, apocalyptic novels have actually been around since the 1800s. Below, we’ve compiled a list of the best.
Mary Shelley – The Last Man (1826)
Hear me out — I know that reading about a pandemic is probably the last thing you want to do, but Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is one of the earliest examples of apocalypse fiction in the Western world. Set in Europe in the 21st century, where a mysterious pandemic has swept across the continent (I know, bear with me) and the last man standing is Lionel Verney, a survivor that attempts to make sense of the collapse of the world. Often read as a critique of Romantic tropes, the book delves into the failure of the human imagination and is creepily prophetic on topics like the environmental crisis that we face today.
THE LAST MAN
M. P. Shiel – The Purple Cloud (1901)
Originally published in 1901, M. P. Shiel’s novel exists in three forms: the original serial version, the long-form, illustrated version, and a revised edition from the 1920s. Detailing the story of Adam Jeffson, an explorer who discovers a deadly, mysterious purple cloud on a polar expedition, that inevitably wreaks havoc on Earth’s inhabitants. Following his journey in searching for other survivors, the novel details Jeffson’s evolution into rash madness (he begins to burn down cities for fun, and that’s not even the weirdest part). M. P. Shiel’s apocalyptic novel was extremely successful during its original publication run and has been long considered a classic in the genre.
M. P. SHIEL
THE PURPLE CLOUD
Karel Čapek – War with the Newts (1936)
War with the Newts is a satirical, post-apocalyptic novel that follows the discovery of a sea-dwelling species of newts who begin the narrative as enslaved, and later evolve to acquire human intelligence to begin a war to take over the world.
WAR WITH THE NEWTS
René Barjavel – Ashes, Ashes (1943)
Set in 2050s France, Ashes, Ashes details the regression of the human species after electricity is wiped from the Earth. Following the English-language translation, it’s widely considered one of the best apocalyptic novels ever written.
George R. Stewart – Earth Abides (1949)
Detailing the decline of human civilization from a deadly disease, Earth Abides depicts the narrator, Isherwood Williams, emerging from isolation to find everyone he knows, dead. Exploring themes of ecology and natural selection, the post-apocalyptic novel has been cited by many people, including author Stephen King and musician Jimi Hendrix, as inspiration.
GEORGE R. STEWART
John Wyndham – The Day of the Triffids (1951)
The Day of the Triffids describes a horrifying apocalyptic world where most of humanity is blinded by a meteor shower and then has to endure the metamorphosis of plants (triffids, to be specific) into aggressive killing machines.
THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS
Nevil Shute – On the Beach (1957)
Written by the Australian Nevil Shute, On The Beach is one of the most memorable, and successful literary exports to come out of Australia. It follows the story of an American submarine captain who goes on a gripping expedition to search for signs of life, reeling in the shock of the state of a world which has been annihilated by a nuclear war. As the Guardian writes in a retrospective review, “I often wonder how many people bought On the Beach when it came out in 1957, assuming it was a novel about a group of gorgeous, sun-kissed surfers catching breaks all summer long. On the Beach is instead about a bunch of miserable Melburnians waiting to die slowly and horribly from radiation poisoning after the world has been annihilated in a nuclear holocaust started by the Albanians.”
ON THE BEACH
Walter M. Miller Jr. – A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959)
Another apocalyptic novel set in the wake of nuclear war annihilation, Walter M. Miller’s Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is composed of three novellas that span thousands of years, from the 20th to the 38th century, following the lives of clandestine monks who secretly dedicate themselves to the preservation of knowledge and hope to rebuild civilization. The novel also delves into themes of religion, recurrence, church and state, and theocracy.
WALTER M. MILLER JR
A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ
Pat Frank – Alas, Babylon (1959)
One of the first apocalyptic novels on the nuclear age, Alas, Babylon describes the effect of nuclear war on a small town in Florida. Investigating the tenacity of the human spirit, the concept of mutually assured destruction, and the trappings of warfare, Alas, Babylon has stayed enduringly popular since its release.
Angela Carter – Heroes and Villains (1969)
Set in the aftermath of an unnamed global disaster, Heroes and Villians follows the story of Marianne, a daughter of one of the “Professors”, a group of academics that survived the devastating apocalypse.
HEROES AND VILLAINS
Michael Crichton – The Andromeda Strain (1969)
Contextualized in a world where returning space satellites have contaminated the Earth, The Andromeda Strain is a techno-thriller novel set in a small town named Piedmont, where its residents have mysteriously started dropping dead in the middle of the street.
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN
Robert R. McCammon – Swan Song (1987)
Like many of the apocalyptic novels of this era, Swan Song takes inspiration from the Cold War conflict and begins with a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. Following the individual journeys of multiple characters, the apocalyptic novel weaves together a tale that questions the future of humankind.
ROBERT R. MCCAMMON
William Brinkley – The Last Ship (1988)
Set during a full-blown nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, The Last Ship tells the story of a U.S.-guided missile destroyer through its commanding officer, Thomas, as it tries to find a home for its crew amidst the chaos.
THE LAST SHIP
P. D. James – The Children of Men (1992)
Set in 2021, The Children of Men explores the diminishing population of England as the country faces mass infertility. Having been described by The New York Times as “wonderfully rich” and “a trenchant analysis of politics and power that speaks urgently,” P. D. James’ apocalyptic novel may not be an accurate foretelling of what 2021 brought us in terms of the apocalypse (lol). It’s a complex story that alternates between the third person, and the perspective of Theodore Faron, a collegiate Don, and his encounters with a group of dissidents as they face the possibility of human extinction.
THE CHILDREN OF MEN
Octavia E. Butler – Parable of the Sower (1993)
One of the most famous, and widely celebrated, sci-fi writers in history, Octavia E. Butler’s books are guaranteed enjoyment. Parable of the Sower constructs its worth through the diary entries of fifteen-year-old Lauren Oya Olamina in 2024, who experiences “hyper empathy” – a condition that makes her extremely sensitive to the pain of others. As she is forced out of the safety of her walled neighborhood, the novel follows Olamina’s journey as she begins a revolution within the constraints of a crumbling society. In a retrospective piece on the author, The New Yorker writes: “In colorful diagrams, Butler extrapolated her vision of a near-future dystopia from what she read in the news, forecasting what kind of collapse might result if the forces of late-stage capitalism, climate change, mass incarceration, big pharma, gun violence, and the tech industry continued unhampered.”
OCTAVIA E. BUTLER
PARABLE OF THE SOWER
Lois Lowry – The Giver (1993)
Narrated through the perspective of 12-year-old Jonas, The Giver details life in a society where pain and strife have been stripped from individuals by converting to “Sameness”, a strategy that has also removed emotional depth from their lives.
José Saramago – Blindness (1995)
Blindness follows a society that is ravaged by an epidemic of, well, blindness, and the social breakdowns that consequently occur; the chaos is narrated through the perspectives of several unnamed characters who both do and don’t suffer from the affliction.
David Brin – The Postman(1997)
The Postman depicts a post-apocalyptic world where ordinary citizens are threatened by a neofascist militia. It follows the story of a lone wanderer, Gordon Krantz, who finds a U.S. Postal Service uniform, claims it to be his own, and then starts a movement to revive his civilization.
Nalo Hopkinson – Brown Girl in the Ring (1998)
Exploring themes of Afro-Caribbean culture, with the aid of magical realism, Brown Girl in the Ring explores the journey of the complex heroine Ti-Jeanne as she navigates the ruins of a city abandoned by the rich and privileged while trying to unravel the mystery of her missing family.
A story of the human condition in the face of crisis, Nalo Hopkinson’s spectacular novel explores a range of themes like immigration, aging, motherhood, poverty, and exploitation.
BROWN GIRL IN THE RING
Tatyana Tolstaya, Jamey Gambrell (Translator) – The Slynx (2000)
The Slynx is set in two centuries after civilization was destroyed in an event called “The Blast.” While human life has returned to a primitive state, and people are afflicted with ungodly mutations, the narrative follows the story of Benedikt, a young man who tries his best to steer clear of the vicious, mysterious “Slynx.”
Dmitry Glukhovsky – Metro 2033 (2002)
Metro 2033 details the lives of the remaining survivors of a nuclear holocaust who hide out in the Moscow Metro. Having been adapted into a video game, as well as an upcoming feature film, the apocalyptic novel is a worldwide bestseller and provides a unique Russian perspective on the oft-Americanised trope of U.S. versus Russia nuclear warfare.
Margaret Atwood – Oryx and Crake (2004)
Written by Margaret Atwood (of The Handmaid’s Tale fame), Oryx and Crake focus on Snowman, a character living in a post-apocalyptic society and who only interacts with Crakers: a group of almost-human, primitive animals. The novel explores ideas of scientific advancements and their perils, capitalism, the importance of human relationships, and the power of language, as Atwood unravels Snowman’s, and the Crakers’, life story.
ORYX AND CRAKE
Cormac McCarthy – The Road (2006)
Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning apocalyptic novel follows the journey of a father and son, as they try to make sense of a world that has been obliterated by an unknown catastrophe. The Road has been widely critically acclaimed since its release and has secured spots in several lists of the best books of the 21st century. As reviewed in The Guardian, “The Road affirms belief in the tender pricelessness of the here and now. In creating an exquisite nightmare, it does not add to the cruelty and ugliness of our times; it warns us now how much we have to lose. It makes the novels of the contemporary Savants seem infantile and horribly over-rated. Beauty and goodness are here aplenty and we should think about them. While we can.”
David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas (2008)
With six intertwining narratives, Cloud Atlas jumps between the storylines of a troubled reporter named Luisa Rey in the 19th century, to Sonmi-451 who is a type of clone fabricant in the Korean superstate of the near future, all the way to a post-apocalyptic future in Hawaii. Cloud Atlas is deeply profound and as equally playful in its originality, whilst exploring the fundamentals of the nature of reality, and identity.
Justin Cronin – The Passage (2010)
Combining elements of horror, science fiction, fantasy, and apocalyptic fiction, The Passage details a post-apocalyptic world that is overrun by contagious, virus-infected zombie-vampire hybrids.
Colson Whitehead – Zone One (2011)
Zone One details an apocalyptic world that’s succumbed to the will of horrific, flesh-eating zombies. Following the life of protagonist Mark Spitz, Colson Whitehead’s novel details how Sptiz and his fellow “sweepers” patrol the streets of New York, trying to eliminate the creatures who have rendered their world unlivable.
Hugh Howey – Wool (2012)
Set in the aftermath of an unnamed apocalyptic event where Earth has become inhabitable, Wool details civilization’s existence in an underground silo. A thrilling meditation on the nature of humanity in crisis, Wool follows the life of Holston, a silo sheriff, as he investigates the conflicting circumstances of his wife’s death amidst the chaos of the apocalypse.
Josh Malerman – Bird Box (2014)
You’ve probably heard of the eponymous Sandra Bullock film that took over Internet meme culture in 2018, but did you know it was based on an apocalyptic novel? Josh Malerman’s Bird Box details a woman who tries to find a way to guide her children to safety from the threat of unseen danger, in a situation where characters must stay blindfolded throughout their daily lives.
Emily St. John Mandel – Station Eleven (2014)
Bringing it back to eerily relatable pandemic novels, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven describes a world ravaged by a fictional swine flu pandemic. It details the chaotic dissolution of society, charting the lies of five strangers whose lives become inextricably intertwined after the death of a Hollywood star on stage.
One review from Entertainment Weekly describes it as: “ A novel that miraculously reads like equal parts page-turner and poem. One of her great feats is that the story feels spun rather than plotted, with seamless shifts in time and characters. … “Because survival is insufficient,” reads a line taken from Star Trek spray-painted on the Traveling Symphony’s lead wagon. The genius of Mandel’s fourth novel … is that she lives up to those words. This is not a story of crisis and survival. It’s one of art and family and memory and community and the awful courage it takes to look upon the world with fresh and hopeful eyes. “
EMILY ST. JOHN MANDEL
Michel Faber – The Book of Strange New Things (2014)
The Book of Strange New Things follows the story of an English pastor who is despatched on a mission — miles away from his wife and family — to the planet of Oasis to teach its native inhabitants about Christianity.
THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS
Omar El Akkad – American War – (2017)
Set in the near future, American War constructs a world disrupted by the sustained impact of climate change, and a United States that has broken out into a Second Civil War over the use of fossil fuels. The novel is narrated by Benjamin Chestnut, a historian, who tells the story of his aunt Sarah, a climate refugee displaced by the civil war.
OMAR EL AKKAD
Lidia Yuknavitch – The Book of Joan (2017)
The Book of Joan details the story of a group of rebels living in a world-war stricken future, where humans have become sexless creatures who exist in isolation.
As reviewed by The Guardian, The Book of Joan has been described as a “moving and compelling” vision of a collective “that is carefully attuned to the importance of the ties that bind us to each other, and to our world.”
THE BOOK OF JOAN
Waubgeshig Rice – Moon of the Crusted Snow (2018)
Moon of the Crusted Snow follows the collapse of a small northern Anishinaabe community after their town’s internet and electricity disappear. In the throes of catastrophe, a group of young friends, spearheaded by protagonist Evan Whitesky, turn to the traditions of their land to make sense of life in the chaos.
MOON IN THE CRUSTED SNOW
Peng Shepherd – The Book of M: A Novel – (2018)
Detailing the lives of four characters, an unnamed man called the “amnesiac,” an Iranian woman Mahnaz Ahmadi, Orlando Zhang and his wife Max, The Book of M describes an apocalypse where ordinary peoples’ memories are being erased by a mysterious force.
THE BOOK OF M: A NOVEL
Rumaan Alam – Leave the World Behind – (2020)
Leave the World Behind details the interactions between two families, forced together in the midst of a nationwide blackout, as they are thrown into isolation from the rest of civilization.
Described by The Guardian as an “extraordinary” book, the novel “[while written before the COVID-19 pandemic,] brilliantly [taps] into the feeling of generalised panic that has attached itself to the virus and seems to mingle fears about the climate, inequality, racism and our over-reliance on technology.”
LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND
Diane CooK – The New Wilderness – (2020)
Longlisted for the Booker Prize, The New Wilderness follows the story of a mother and daughter, as they try to navigate a civilization ravaged by overpopulation, climate change, and disease.