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17 Post-Apocalyptic Books to Read from the Comfort of Your Home

Tertulia staff •
Aug 9th, 2023

It's no surprise that HBO's recent hit adaptation of the video game, The Last of Us, drew in 4.7 million viewers for its series premiere. The post-apocalyptic setting of the show triggers our primal fears; yet, the humanity shown by its characters gives us grounding and hope to persevere no matter the outcome of looming threats. While haunting post-apocalyptic themes—whether it’s nuclear fallout or zombies ravaging the human world —are having boom times on TV and movies, they have long enthralled readers.

From the genre’s origins with Mary Shelley's The Last Man, to its surge during the Cold War's threat of annihilation, to the current wave of cli-fi, the post-apocalyptic genre continues to evolve. We've put together a curated selection of post-apocalyptic books that will engage the mind, challenge and captivate the imagination, and perhaps leave you pondering what truly matters when all else falls away.

1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

As a post-apocalyptic book that has reached icon status, The Road is the perfect title to kick off this list. In a desolate and burned America, a father and his son journey to the coast, armed with only a pistol, the clothes on their backs and a cart of scavenged food. The Road is a harrowing story that explores the dichotomy of human nature, examining the depths of destruction, desperation and the tenderness that can still exist amid utter devastation. McCarthy is a master of beautiful prose in the most bleak realities of this national bestseller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Like other McCarthy books All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men, this novel that has been turned into a hit film. But we highly recommend reading the book first.

2. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

In a recent conversation with The New York Times, author Emily St. John Mandel mentioned how the COVID-19 pandemic inspired a jump in sales as her readers found a kind of catharsis in the idea that “there is life afterward, and there’s joy afterward, and a lot of things that are worth living for in the aftermath.” See if the novel strikes the same chord as you follow Kirsten Raymonde from the night a catastrophic flu pandemic begins and leads to the civilizational collapse, to 20 years later when she’s traveling with The Traveling Symphony, a group dedicated to preserving art and humanity. Following the trend of post-apocalyptic books adapted for TV, a Station Eleven mini-series was recently launched on HBO Max. 

3. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Parable of the Sower takes place in the early 2020s as global climate change and economic crises (seems pretty spot-on so far) create social chaos in California, leading to dangers like water shortages and lawlessness. Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina, who lives in a gated community and suffers from hyperempathy, initially fights to protect her community from these threats, but eventually embraces a greater purpose, leading to the creation of a new faith and a profound vision of humanity's future. An expertly woven post-apocalyptic tale, this book is a prime specimen of Butler’s lean prose and Afrofuturistic-feminist perspective. According to one Los Angeles Times review: “As I see it, Butler’s gift is naming vulnerability, exploring its burden and value.”

4. Blindness by José Saramago

Picture this: A city is struck by an epidemic of "white blindness," leading authorities to confine the afflicted to a mental hospital where criminal elements take over. Amid the chaos, one eyewitness guides seven strangers through the harrowing streets in a tale that serves as a parable of humanity's weaknesses and resilient spirit. Blindness is a backlist gem that won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998 and was named the Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. It’s a unique take on a pandemic, exploring the depths and horrors that come with losing one’s sight.

5. Wool by Hugh Howey

In Book One of the Silo series, Wool presents a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity lives underground in a single silo due to a toxic outside world. Those expressing hope or optimism are exiled outside, and when Juliette, a mechanic, is promoted to sheriff, she begins to uncover a dark conspiracy that could either reveal the truth or lead to the extinction of the human race. This captivating novel was recently turned into an Apple TV+ series of the same name.

6. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Like most people, you probably recognize Atwood most as the author of The Handmaid's Tale. This book is another national bestseller that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003. It’s the first in the MaddAddam post-apocalyptic series of books, and features Snowman, possibly the last human after a plague, as he mourns his lost friends Crake and Oryx. While embarking on a journey through a once-great city turned wilderness with the Children of Crake, Snowman unravels the disastrous consequences of powerful corporations' uncontrolled genetic engineering.

7. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 

Regularly quoted (Maybe “travel far enough, you meet yourself” sounds familiar?) and having attracted a huge cult following since it was published in 2004, Cloud Atlas is regularly acknowledged as one of the best post-apocalyptic books of all time. It was adapted into a film by the creators of The Matrix trilogy and features Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. This multifaceted novel interweaves six stories across time and space, ranging from 1850 to a post-apocalyptic future, revealing interconnected characters and themes as the narrative boomerangs back to its starting point and explores how souls drift across time like clouds across the sky. Often compared to Umberto Eco and Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell combines philosophy, mind-bending concepts and scientific speculation into one unforgettable novel.

8. Earth Abides by George Stewart

Although published in 1949, this novel continues to captivate readers and inspire the next generation of science-fiction novels, like Stephen King’s The Stand – and rumor has it, even inspired Jimi Hendrix to write Third Stone from the Sun. It follows Isherwood (Ish) Williams after he recovers from a snake bite and discovers that a mysterious disease has wiped out most of humanity. He then finds himself detachedly curious about how long it will take for all traces of civilization to disappear from Earth. 

9. The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

Recently adapted into a major motion picture titled Knock at the Cabin by acclaimed director M. Night Shyamalan, The Cabin at the End of the World is a gripping novel that won the Bram Stoker Awards in 2018 for its achievement in horror literature. Seven-year-old Wen and her parents encounter four menacing strangers at their remote vacation cabin who claim they need the family's help to save the world, initiating a tense and apocalyptic tale of paranoia, sacrifice, and survival. This is what happens when post-apocalyptic books and home-invasion crime tales meet.

10. World War Z by Max Brooks

Author Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks) brings us an addictive oral history of a zombie vs. human war that feels so realistic and probable, it’s often likened to the Orson Welles's War of the Worlds radio broadcast that caused a national panic. A #1 New York Times bestseller, World War Z is a chilling account of a global zombie apocalypse, told through the testimonies of survivors who faced the terror and devastation. It captures not only the horror but also the human spirit of resistance that emerged during the plague years. You can catch the novel on the big screen, too, as it inspired a major motion picture by the same name that features Brad Pitt.

11. Severance by Ling Ma

Who says post-apocalyptic books can’t be funny? Ling Ma delivers a witty, satirical take on disaster-era office politics in this contemporary post-apocalyptic novel. The narrative follows Candace Chen, a routine-driven millennial in Manhattan, as she becomes an anonymous blogger documenting the abandoned city after a biblical plague called Shen Fever. She eventually joins a group of survivors and finds herself grappling with a personal secret. Severance has earned acclaim as a Best Book of the Year from top publications and cultural platforms, like NPR, Refinery29, Jezebel and Flavorwire. 

12. The Broken Earth Trilogy by NK. Jemisin

Jemisin’s post-apocalyptic series of books includes: The Fifth Season, the Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky. They chronicle the end of the world in the Stillness, a land plagued by geological catastrophe, following a chain of events marked by a great red rift, death, betrayal and the merciless wielding of the earth's power. Each book in the series won the Hugo Award, marking Jemisin as the first person to win the award three years in a row and the first person to win for all three books in a trilogy. Sony's TriStar Pictures acquired the rights to the series – so look out for a film adaptation soon!

13. Moon Of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice

Rice draws from his roots in the Wasauksing First Nation to bring us an apocalyptic tale about a northern Anishinaabe community that’s plunged into darkness and chaos during winter when outsiders take advantage of their vulnerability. Evan Whitesky and a group of youths turn to Anishinaabe traditions to restore order and find resilience amidst societal collapse. Moon of the Crusted Snow has earned wide acclaim and awards, including being shortlisted for the 2019/20 First Nation Communities READ Indigenous Literature Award, winning the 2019 OLA Forest of Reading Evergreen Award, and being chose as a 2019 Amnesty International Book Club Pick.

14. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

"She's a surprise this old earth, one big surprise after another since before she separated from the moon who circles and circles like the mate of a shot goose." Heller’s New York Times best-selling novel follows Hig after he survives a flu pandemic and is navigating a post-apocalyptic world. Expect the strong prose to bring on strong emotions, emphasizing the profound bonds of friendship between men, the connection to animals, and the essence of what makes life worth living.

15. Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton

One of the quirkier post-apocalyptic books, Hollow Kingdom tells the story of S.T., a domesticated crow, who is thrust into a post-apocalyptic world where humans have turned into zombies. Despite his limited knowledge from television, S.T. embarks on a mission to save humanity alongside his canine companion, Dennis. A finalist for the 2020 Thurber Prize for American Humor, this is a novel that takes you on an unexpected journey with an even more unexpected cast of characters.

16. The Passage by Justin Cronin

Stephen King called the trilogy to which this book belongs “one of the great achievements in American fantasy fiction.” The Passage, the first in the post-apocalyptic series, follows Amy, a girl central to a government experiment, after she’s rescued from captivity. Amy embarks on a journey through a violent future, bearing the unique knowledge to potentially save humanity. The Passage was a New York Times bestseller that earned wide critical acclaim and was recently adapted into a Fox TV show.

17. The Last by Hanna Jameson

Fans of The Guest List and Agatha Christie will latch onto this Hanna Jameson thriller-mystery novel. Stranded in a Swiss hotel after a series of nuclear bombings worldwide, Jon and other survivors grapple with a new apocalyptic reality. As they try to maintain order, the discovery of a young girl's body in the hotel's water tank suggests there may be a killer among them, pushing Jon to uncover the truth amidst growing tensions and dwindling supplies. Station Eleven author Emily St. John Mandel says, “The questions Jameson poses — who will be with you at the end of the world, and what kind of person will you be? — are as haunting as the plot itself.”

Find Inspiration in Post-Apocalyptic Humanity

From the chilling reality of a devastated world to profound insights into humanity's resilience and unbreakable spirit, post-apocalyptic literature continues to captivate readers with its rich diversity and compelling themes. This curated selection of the best post-apocalyptic books series and individual novels ranges from classics to contemporary masterpieces to give you a variety of options within the genre. Whether you're drawn to the horror of a zombie-infested world or the philosophical reflections in a land scarred by catastrophe, these works promise to engage, challenge and perhaps even inspire a new perspective on what happens after the end of the world.

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