Books for after the apocalypse | Books borrowed


I was recently asked to do a public radio segment on post-apocalyptic fiction, which was so much fun. The radio play, not an apocalypse, of course.

Fiction about the end of time has accompanied us since the very beginning of recorded writing: The Epic of Gilgamesh; it’s in the Bible more than once and versions of the flood story exist in cultures around the world. It gained popularity after World War II as we grappled with the possibility that we as a species could destroy ourselves and much of the planet.

Many of these books are oddly comforting because they invite you to see the world through the eyes of a survivor. Only a tiny handful offers no hope. Because most science fiction writers do a lot of research, when COVID hit, the idea and early progression of a global pandemic was eerily familiar.

Contemporary end-time imaginations have largely expanded from nuclear bombs to include climate catastrophe, super-intelligent computers wiping out humanity, and the zombie apocalypse, among many others.

Here is a selection of readings for the end of the world.

Alas, Babylon

By Pat Frank

Set in a small town in Florida, it begins with a nuclear attack. It deals with how survivors cope and attempt to rebuild. A staple of high school collections and popular since its publication in 1959, here comes My First Apocalypse: Training Wheels for the Unthinkable.

The road

By Cormac McCarthy

At the opposite end of the scale is this McCarthy masterpiece. Here, the devastation is near total: a father and son journey through a world of ashes and ruins, to a supposed haven at the end of the unnamed road. Dark, disturbing – probably the darkest book I’ve ever read – and I couldn’t put it down.

Do Androids

Do you dream of electric sheep?

By Philip K. Dick

Best known as the source material for the film Blade Runner, the novel’s world is more clearly post-war; almost devoid of humanity. Right here, in 1969, Dick summarizes all the bioethical issues of the next century and a half in 244 very easy to read pages:

What is the limit between life and death? Human and other? What value human vs animal life? What is the role of religion, of the soul? Who decides who will live and who do we believe? It’s all here, and more.

I’m a legend

By Richard Matheson

Speaking of movies, it’s been done three times: The Last Man (1964), The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston, and I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith. One of the very first zombie stories; fans of the genre will see many of his ideas which have continued to this day.

The ringroad

By William Gibson

Gibson is an author and futurist, who predicted the Internet a decade before it was created. This book is set in the near future – where the economy exists pretty much solely in the form of Walmart and meth. And there is a more distant future, after a somewhat hazy era of near total social collapse. If you want to read a book about what a post-apocalyptic future might look like, starting with the guy who coined the word “cyberspace” isn’t a bad place to start.

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