Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Best of Apocalyptic Fiction

Apocalyptic fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction that is concerned with the destruction of civilization, or even humanity itself. It can be traced back to apocalyptic mythology in ancient times, and in modern times, to Mary Shelley's 1826 novel The Last Man. Here are a few of my favorites:

Earth Abides (1949) by George R. Stewart. The main character, Ish, is a graduate student camping in the woods for a few weeks. In the interim, a horrendous plague sweeps the earth, killing almost the entire human race. The only common factor among the survivors is, strangely, that they have all been bitten by rattlesnakes at some point in their lives. Ish commits to rebuilding civilization, only to find that children born after the disaster have little desire to resurrect the past.

The Last Ship (1988) by William Brinkley. A U.S. Navy destroyer in the Barents Sea suddenly receives missile firing orders. Following often-drilled procedures, it immediately fires it nuclear payload into the Soviet Union, and then waits for further orders. None arrive. In fact, the Nathan James cannot receive any transmissions from the U.S. at all. Traveling south to Europe and thence to America, it finds no signs of human life. The task of preserving the human race apparently falls to them alone.

War Day (1984) by Whitley Streiber by James Kunetka. The authors, who were childhood friends, write as future version of themselves as they journey across an America devastated by an inexplicable and sudden nuclear war that occurred one day in 1984. It is, in my opinion, the most realistic depiction of nuclear war in fiction. For example, one major theme of the book is the wholesale destruction of the U.S. economy after only a handful of nuclear warheads hit it.

What are your favorite works of apocalyptic fiction?


Keith H. McIlwain said...

Recent works such as Lowry's The Giver, McCarthy's The Road, and Vaughn's Y: The Last Man are worth a look.

Kurt M. Boemler said...

Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller. I read this a while back; I need to reread it.

The Postman by David Brin. Don't judge a book by its Kevin Costner movie adaptation.

The Stand by Stephen King. Don't judge a book by its made for TV move adaptation.

And, of course, World War Z by Max Brooks.

David said...

As a librarian I expect you to correct me if I am wrong about classifying these as "Apocalyptic Fiction", but that is how they fit in my brain...

Sword of Truth Series - Terry Goodkind

The Wheel of Time - Robert Jordan

Shannara Series - Terry Brooks

Magic Kingdom - Terry Brooks

The Word and the Void - Terry Brooks

John of the Dead said...

What? No mention of World War Z? For shame...

John said...

World War Z is not apocalyptic -- or even a zombie apocalypse -- because most national governments continue to demonstrate control over substantial portions of their territory. Had national governments ceased to function outside of their bunkers or the immediately surrounding area (e.g. The U.S. government in War Day is essentially the city of Los Angeles), then World War Z would have been a work of apocalyptic fiction. I will admit, however, that it is a borderline case.

Jeff the Baptist said...

Robert Kirkman's comic series Walking Dead is also quite good, but it's very bleak so I tend to read it in small increments.

John said...

I've read a few of The Walking Dead comics. Fairly good stuff.

Anonymous said...

I'll second McCarthy's The Road. Excellent. They're making a movie of it.

I'm a big fan of this genre and am glad to be exposed to more titles.

JD said...

I would have to say Brother in the Land(1984) by Robert Swindells ISBN 0-192-71491-0

I read it in junior high and was the only one at school to read it. The principal thought it too graphic for a young adult book, and once I returned it to the library, the librarian "got rid" of it.


Dan Trabue said...

I like The Giver, too, and I really enjoyed a book/series by DuPrau my daughter lent me, beginning with The City of Ember, although perhaps that is better described as post-apocalyptic.


JD said...


Actually looking forward to the movie, City of Ember.


Anonymous said...

"Wooden Ships," a song by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (or some subset thereof) and also recorded nicely by Jefferson Airplane, is a fine little three-minute post-nuclear story.

"Can you tell me, please, who won?"