One of my favorite book genres is the dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel. I love the ways these books highlight aspects of our current society that could have serious consequences if allowed to run rampant. They also often call attention to the realities of human nature and what we truly value.
A broad definition of post-apocalyptic is the time following some sort of catastrophic event. The apocalyptic events on this list of best post-apocalyptic books vary from climate change to pandemic to governmental reform, but they all present images of a world that has changed drastically from the one we know now.
Best Post-Apocalyptic Books: Young Adult
In the last decade, Young Adult dystopian novels have simply exploded. In most of these novels, which are typically series, a corrupt government is overthrown by a small band of teenagers: The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and Uglies series, to name a few.
The two novels here are not those kinds of books. Both of these books show how the world could change after an unpredictable climate event, and how real teenagers might react to the aftermath. They worry about their friends and families, if they’ll be able to go to school again, and how they could survive without their parents.
Catastrophic Event: the moon is knocked closer to the earth by a meteor
I found the premise of this book fascinating.
I can’t speak to the scientific accuracy of the novel, but it does seem likely that the tides would be affected, which would have other effects on water and climate.
The story is told through the diary entries of a high school student, Miranda, who lives with her mother and younger brother. As the book opens, she has just gotten news that her dad’s new wife is having a baby and is understandably upset by this news. She is a realistically self-centered teenager, who cares about others but also finds her family annoying at times.
What we can learn: It’s important to be resourceful, especially with food, and to work together with your neighbors to survive when food runs short.
Catastrophic Event: the rain suddenly becomes deadly, which quickly affects all drinking water
Known as The Rain in the UK, H2O is told from the perspective of fifteen-year-old Ruby. She is quickly left completely alone, as everyone else falls victim to the poison rain or drinks water that has become unsafe. Ruby is an often whiny, very self-centered teenager. It’s probably realistic, but she can also be a little obnoxious as a reader.
What we can learn: It’s important in a survival situation to conserve water. One ingenious solution to the water problem was discovering that the flowers in the floral department of the grocery store were all sitting in water.
Sequel: The Storm
Best Post-Apocalyptic Books: Classic Sci-Fi
Catastrophic Event: a flu pandemic
Approximately 99.4% of the world’s population is killed within a month of the accidental release of a superflu created by the U.S. Department of Defense as a biological weapon. Small bands of survivors form and eventually confront one another in their attempts to form a new social system.
What we can learn: Much like Lord of the Flies, this book shows that it in the absence of organized leadership, people will kind of go crazy, and that it’s important to find ways to work together with others.
Catastrophic Event: an unspecified extinction event
A man and his young son wander across the desolate and ash-covered United States to the coast. They encounter marauders and cannibals and a constant threat of violence and death from other survivors. Armed with only a pistol and two bullets, the pair make it to the coast before things go really awry.
This novel won the Pulitzer Prize back in 2007, and one of my professors in grad school talked multiple times about how harrowing it was to read as a parent, because the father has to make some truly difficult decisions about how to keep himself and his son alive.
What we can learn: Hope and love can pull us through hard times.
Best Post-Apocalyptic Books: Zombies
Catastrophic Event: zombie plague that leads to social, economic, and political conflicts worldwide
It’s twenty years since the start of the worldwide zombie pandemic, and United Nations Postwar Commission agent Max Brooks (also the author of the Zombie Survival Guide) is traveling the world collecting the stories of survivors. One bit that hits a little close to home is the reaction of the United States government, which is hesitant to make a big deal out of this plague because it is an election year.
What we can learn: We can’t always rely on those in charge to make the right decisions for us.
I Am Legend, published in 1954, is considered the first zombie novel, though the book uses the word “vampires” instead. In the novel, Robert Neville is apparently the last man alive after his daughter and wife were both killed by the disease that created the vampires.
He spends his days hunting vampires and his nights barricaded in his Los Angeles home. When a woman appears seemingly out of nowhere, they must gain each other’s trust in order to survive. But Ruth is not what she seems, and things quickly take a turn for the worse for Robert.
If you’ve seen the 2007 Will Smith movie with the same title, you’ll get quite a different story here.
What we can learn: A life of isolation can lead to desperation and dangerous decisions.
Best Post-Apocalyptic Books: Female Authors
Catastrophic Event: a plague outbreak caused by bioengineered products
I love Margaret Atwood, and Oryx and Crake was the first of her novels I ever read. (You can read more about that here.) It’s told through alternating past and present storylines so that the reader sees what the world has become while also learning out it got there. The novel tells the story of bioengineering gone awry and the dangers of corporate greed and power.
What we can learn: Scientific advancements can go too far, specifically when we start messing with DNA and genetics.
Catastrophic Event: climate change and growing wealth inequalities lead to the collapse of society
This one will hit a little close to home, as it is set in the 2020s (it was published in 1993), and the events that lead to the end of society as we know it sound rather familiar. Eerily, the president in the novel promises to “Make America Great Again.” Octavia Butler may be a fortune teller.
The novel tells the story of 18-year-old Lauren Olamina who lives in a walled community near Los Angeles. When the walls are breached and her parents are killed, she is forced to go out in the dangerous world beyond her community. The daughter of a preacher, Lauren believes that “God is Change,” and she sets out to spread this message to the world.
What we can learn: It’s important to hang on to our beliefs and values in times of struggle.
Sequel: Parable of the Talents
Catastrophic Event: a deadly flu spreads quickly across the world, shutting down everything
This is one of my favorite books that I’ve read in the last few years. I just liked the writing style and the way that many of the characters’ stories were connected or came together by the end of the novel.
Station Eleven starts with the flu outbreak, showing how quickly this particular strain kills people, then flashes forward twenty years to show a completely changed world. We meet a traveling acting troupe, intent on keeping art alive, a mysterious prophet who keeps young girls as his “wives,” and people spreading world of a Museum of Civilization, which has preserved artifacts from the old society (things like cell phones and cameras).
What we can learn: The arts are an important part of the human experience and shouldn’t be forgotten or allowed to die, even amidst the collapse of society.
The nine books listed here are some of the best post-apocalyptic books of the last century, and while the catalyst for the end of the world as we know it varies, in the end they all emphasize how important other people are to survival.
We need each other not just for our emotional and mental well-being, but for our physical needs as well. It’s a lot easier to make it in a lawless or desolate world if you have a group of people with different skills.
All of these books show us that even when the world as we know it has ended, there’s still room for hope.