First, a bit of genre-definition. While many refer to any novel or movie set in a dark far future as being “dystopian,” that word is actually meant to refer to a deeply oppressive and cruel political order. A dystopia is the opposite of a utopia. Thus, 1984 is a dystopian novel. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, though, is not, as it describes the complete collapse of civilization and not some new and terrible order. This list focuses on novels about apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic worlds. Some of these worlds are ruled over by dystopian regimes, some by benevolent ones, and others yet have hardly anything resembling a society in them. One of these novels, in fact, is about the last woman on Earth, and she can’t be said to be living in any sort of society at all.
The gold-classic in the horror genre is, of course, Stephen King’s The Stand, with its portrayal of everything from the fall of civilization to the scramble for resources to the rise of new societies. I’m often attracted to weird apocalypses, to catastrophes that are inexplicable or which leave mysterious new realities in their wake. Tonally, these novels are all over the place. Some are optimistic about the possibility of renewal even in the face of near-total annihilation. Some are deeply pessimistic, even cynical, about our ability to transcend our deepest flaws, seeing humanity locked into an endless cycle of growth and destruction. And some of these books are playing another game altogether, using the end of all things as merely the setting for stories about other facets of human experience. In an age plagued by worsening climate change and the still-looming possibility of nuclear or viral catastrophe, this sub-genre is definitely one of the most vital, as well as the most terrifying.
The Night Land (1912)
William Hope Hodgson
William Hope Hodgson‘s weird fiction was a massive influence on H. P. Lovecraft and those early twentieth century authors associated with him, particularly through his The House on the Borderland and this, the mysterious, frustrating, and visionary The Night Land. Hodgson’s novel is set tens of millions of years in the future, when the sun has gone black, and the last human beings are making their stand against the horrors of the final days.
Although the novel is framed by narration from a 17th century man who has been given a vision of the future, the story is all set in this dark future. The vestiges of the human race now live in an eight-mile tall metal pyramid named the Last Redoubt, a refuge powered by a mysterious source of energy drawn up from within the dying Earth. Just outside the ring of protection created by this energy begins the wasteland, and what a horrifying landscape it is. Mountainous beings known as the Watchers sit staring at the Last Redoubt, creatures so ancient and strange no human can explain them. Nearby also sits the House of Silence, a massive structure that somehow seduces those who wander too close to it into vanishing inside, never to be seen again. Roaming this blighted world are freakish predators, many of them clearly some sort of descendants of humanity.
The novel is patterned as a hero quest as the protagonist, one of the inhabitants of the Last Redoubt, sets out to find another one of these pyramids out there in the dark. The true attractions of The Night Land, though, are the disturbing, awe-inspiring monstrosities of the wasteland. Normally, I would never recommend an abridgement of a novel, but there are some excellent shorter or even retold versions of Hodgson’s terrifying future. Having read the nearly 600 pages of the original, I can say much of it is repetitive, slow-going, even tedious. But any good abridgment will keep Hodgson’s wild creations intact. I think that core of the novel still stands out as possibly the darkest, most mysterious vision of the end of the world in any genre.
A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959)
Walter Miller Jr.
The truth of the matter is that our species has already experienced apocalypses in our long history. From the Ice Age to the devastating effects of plagues to our current struggle with cataclysmic climate change, we’ve faced many an external threat. We have also run into civilizational catastrophes that have almost robbed us of hard-won knowledge and order. Fortunately, in almost every case, we’ve been fortunate to have had people and organizations willing to save that knowledge from authoritarian regimes, ideological purifications, and religiously inspired anti-intellectualism.
Walter Miller Jr.’s famous novel begins as a nuclear conflict destroys most of human civilization. In the aftermath, a movement known as the Simplification arises in which books are destroyed, intellectuals are massacred, and even the ability to read is forbidden on pain of death. A former engineer founds an abbey dedicated to preserving as much as knowledge as possible from the maddened populace. 600 years later, his intellectual descendants seek to restore civilization to its previous heights, but will they be able to stave off the fanatics and tyrants of the new Dark Age?
A Canticle for Leibowitz plays with many of the same themes as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series does, but the story here is far more intimate, mostly Earth-bound, and filled with richly described characters and settings in contrast to Asimov’s broad sketches of a Galactic Empire. This novel does cover an equally long time span, though, bringing us from the twentieth century up to the 3700’s.
M. John Harrison
M. John Harrison’s Viriconium novels, beginning with The Pastel City, are set in the far future, several hundreds of thousands of years from now. Humanity has, by this time, seen civilizations rise and fall so many times no one can keep track of it anymore. Earth is littered with the ruins of these previous eras, including amazing technologies that often still work without anyone being able to understand them. Unfortunately, some of the catastrophes that brought down these previous worlds are still around, waiting to once more bring chaos and destruction.
Harrison tells several stories in this strange setting, moving from sword-and-sorcery style quests to more intimate and city-bound narratives. As he delved into this world, his fiction got more stylistically complex, so expect some significant and fascinating shifts as you move from novel to novel. Something I love about this setup is how mysterious these previous eras and their remnants are. Harrison refuses to give tidy explanations for many if not most of the wonders and terrors his characters encounter, and this creates a sense of mystery often missing from post-apocalyptic tales. As little as they understand the technologies they find, his protagonists might as well be living in a world of magic and monsters.
Gore Vidal carved out a reputation primarily by writing razor-sharp journalism, cultural commentary, and meaty historical novels. He also, though, wrote a handful of science fiction novels, including the hilariously blasphemous Live from Golgotha, the madcap The Smithsonian Institute, and this novel. In Kalki, the upcoming and possibly world-destroying testing of a new type of bomb convinces former soldier James Kelly that he needs to take actions to save the human race. His solution: he creates a new cult based on ideas from Hinduism and declares himself to be the new avatar of Vishnu, Kalki the destroyer. As he draws a small circle of confidants into this scheme, they begin wondering what his true intentions are. Might he actually intend on setting off the explosive apocalypse he claims to fear? Or does have he have something much more devious in mind?
Kalki is far more satirical and politically pointed than most books about apocalypses, real, imagined, or potential. It’s also a good one to read if you’re looking for novels about cults and messiahs.
When Lilith Iyapo awakes in an empty room with no memory of the recent past, she tries running through several explanations of what has happened to her. Her situation is made all the weirder by a disembodied voice that asks increasingly odd, even intrusive questions. Slowly, the past begins dawning on her, including the fact that she’s recently lost a husband and a child in an accident, and her captors reveal what’s happened. A nuclear war was unleashed in which almost the entire human species was destroyed, a war that also left most of the planet uninhabitable. Lilith, along with a few dozen, maybe a few hundred other people, was saved by an alien species named the Oankali, on whose spaceship she now lives.
The Oankali are fascinating creatures, protoplasmic and tentacled beings who generally elicit repulsion in human beings, but who also seem to have good intentions towards Lilith and the other survivors. The Oankali intend on helping humanity arise from the ashes, but only at a strange cost, one that will bind these two species into a permanent relationship.
Butler’s novel moves through many questions common to apocalyptic literature, ideas about human fallibility, the possibility of making meaning after the collapse of society, and that sort of thing. But her Oankali and their deeply alien motives and methods, as well as their reproductive peculiarities, add new, significant, and thought-provoking twists, making this a post-apocalyptic story like no other.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988)
On a list of strange novels, Wittgenstein’s Mistress may actually be the weirdest, this despite the simplicity of its setup. Kate is an intellectual and world traveler, so thoroughly (over)educated that her every thought drips with allusions to poetry, drama, philosophy, and other cultural products. Kate has also been placed in a singularly uncomfortable position because, after some catastrophe she can’t even begin to understand, Kate appears to be the last human being alive. Increasingly lonely and desperate for connection, she makes her way around a world suddenly and mysteriously depopulated. Now, she can see more or less anything she’s ever wanted to see, can do anything she pleases too. But can it have any meaning now?
While Kate does have experiences tromping through this empty world that could be called adventurous, Markson’s novel is far more about what she’s doing intellectually and emotionally with this knowledge that she may be the last human being alive. It’s also an image of the detritus of human civilization washing up on a lonesome and deserted beach. Wittgenstein’s Mistress is told in flat, short prose, sentences that often seem as aphoristic and paradoxical as those produced by Ludwig Wittgenstein. This is a weird one, with one leg in apocalyptic territory and the other in a world of literary self-examination like that explored by Kafka and Samuel Beckett.
Oryx and Crake (2003)
As with Octavia Butler’s Dawn, Oryx and Crake is the first book in a trilogy. In Atwood’s novel, we move back and forth through the life of Snowman, an old man occupying a post-apocalyptic and nearly human-less world. Long before, his name was Jimmy and he lived in an era only a bit in the future from ours. As we see more of Snowman’s lonely existence, as well as the strange semi-human Crakers with whom he shares this empty world, we also learn about his childhood in a far busier and borderline dystopian era. Back then, Jimmy made friends with a kid named Glenn, a savant with whom Jimmy shared an interest in extinct animals, videogames, and deviant pornography.
What happened between these boys, as well as an enigmatic woman they met years later, shaped Snowman’s life. As we slowly discover, these connections may have had an even larger impact on the world as a whole. Atwood’s post-apocalyptic landscape is, or at least seems to be, a gentle, even utopian one, particularly compared with the chaotic era that proceeded it. This is another tight-focus apocalypse, concerned less with portraying mass devastation than the lives and characters of those caught up in the middle of it. Atwood’s novel isn’t just intriguing on the level of plot: it’s also deeply thought-provoking in its treatment of environmentalism, genetic manipulation, sex, and the idea of civilization itself.
The Slynx (2003)
This novel is easily the funniest apocalypse on this list, but this is dark Russian humor, so don’t expect Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams-style zaniness here. Two hundred years ago, an apocalyptic conflagration known as the Blast killed billions of people and threw what was left of civilization back into a new Medieval era. Benedikt lives in what used to be Moscow and has a pretty good life. He doesn’t have any visible physical mutations, unlike the unfortunate and half-human Degenerators, who are essentially used as pack-animals. He’s got a cushy job copying old and rotting books into new volumes which are then attributed to the great and glorious ruler Fyodor Kuzmich. And Benedikt has plenty of mice to eat, always a sign of prosperity in the new world.
But when he decides to marry the daughter of a prosperous villager, Benedikt is exposed to a world of thought and adventure that makes him yearn for more. If the bureaucracy-choked society in which he lives continues to forbid him from learning more, Benedikt may have to resort to rash measures. And always out there, on the edge of everyone’s minds, is the sad and monstrous wasteland creature known as the Slynx…
I thoroughly enjoyed this bizarre and parodic novel, and I can only hope it gets the wider audience it deserves.
In the opening paragraph of Neal Stephenson’s epic Seveneves, the moon explodes for unknown reasons. The resultant tidal anomalies would have been bad enough to deal with, but an astrophysicist soon realizes that the Moon’s fragments, now being drawn into Earth’s gravity, will in two years essentially carpet-bomb the Earth’s surface, boil the seas, and render life impossible. Spurred by the threat of total annihilation, the world’s nations band together and create enough spacecrafts to lift 1500 people out of the atmosphere before the deluge begins.
Seveneves follows the struggles, personal, political, and existential, these last survivors undergo as their numbers dwindle even further because of accidents and poor planning. It’s an audacious idea, that human beings with technology not much more advanced than ours could possibly create a home in outer space. Stephenson, though, does his best to stick to the science behind his ideas as well as current technological capabilities. Horrible and desperate circumstances abound in this nearly 900-page novel, but at its heart, it is optimistic about human ingenuity and our ability to work together despite our differences. There’s a reason this novel counts President Barack Obama and Bill Gates among its fans.
The Book of Joan (2017)
If Seveneves is the most hopeful of the novels I’m covering on this list, Lydia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan may be the grimmest, at least in tone. The ability to create life-altering art and the power of collective action are certainly recognized and given scope here, but the forces of greed and cruelty are brought to vivid and grotesque life. Only a few decades from now, the surface of the planet is all but uninhabitable. What’s left of the upper-upper class has retreated to a space station named CIEL, where they now live decadent, bizarre lives that end abruptly at 50 when they are executed in order to save resources. Reigning over these enervated, almost inhuman creatures is the dictator Jean de Men, a warlord and former television personality.
We primarily follow Christine Pizan, an artist who has made her living burning stories and images onto the bodies of these aristocrats with blowtorches. Pizan hates de Man’s tyranny but can do little about it. On Earth, though, among the pitiful remainders of the human species, rumors have arisen about a young woman named Joan, a resistance fighter who may have a plan to save the human species and bring the space-based dictatorship down.
The Book of Joan is filled with a surprising amount of body-horror, and it is one of the only apocalyptic novels on this list to involve the supernatural. Yuknavitch’s book is erotic in queasy ways, poetic, and meatily philosophic. If I were to compare it to anything, I’d say it’s the post-apocalyptic novel Clive Barker and Philip Dick might have written together, but Yuknavitch’s voice and vision are all her own.