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.
The Last Man – Mary Shelley (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 Purple Cloud – M. P. Shiel (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.
Earth Abides – George R. Stewart (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.
The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham (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.
On the Beach – Nevil Shute (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.”
A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller Jr. (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.
Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank (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.
Swan Song – Robert R. McCammon (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.
The Children of Men – P. D. James (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.
Parable of the Sower – Octavia E. Butler (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 neighbourhood, 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.”
The Postman – David Brin (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.
Brown Girl in the Ring – Nalo Hopkinson (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.
Metro 2033 – Dmitry Glukhovsky (2002)
Metro 2033 details the lives of the remaining survivors of a nuclear holocaust who hideout 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.
Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood (2004)
Written by Margaret Atwood (of The Handmaid’s Tale fame), Oryx and Crake focuses 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.
The Road – Cormac McCarthy (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.”
The Passage – Justin Cronin (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.
Zone One – Colson Whitehead (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.
Bird Box – Josh Malerman (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 an unseen danger, in a situation where characters must stay blindfolded throughout their daily lives.
Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel (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. “
The Book of M: A Novel – Peng Shepherd (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.