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11 Alarming Books About Apocalyptic Plagues

These terrifyingly realistic books will make you want to live in a bubble, permanently.

The end of the world seems bound to be a big event, and it’s tempting to assume that the cause will be appropriately large—perhaps a nuclear exchange, maybe, or a giant asteroid. But some of science fiction’s most terrifying and fascinating apocalypse stories take things in just the opposite direction. What if the end of the world, they ask, was caused by the smallest possible thing: An alien bacteria, or a strange new type of virus?   

There’s no shortage of books like this, but the best ones bring something new to the table. In this list, we highlight some of the best of the apocalyptic disease genre.  

 

Buy Bat Out of Hell at Amazon

Bat Out of Hell

By Alan Gold

The deadly virus in Bat Out of Hell is a modern Black Plague. Spread by bats just as the Black Plague was spread by rats, Gold’s fictional illness sparks a frenzied debate among his characters. Should bats be hunted to extinction to save humanity? Are animal lives too precious to waste? Or is there another solution–like the cure that his characters are racing against time to find?  

RELATED: 8 Freaky Predictions Dystopian Novels That Have Come True

Bat Out of Hell

By Alan Gold

 

Buy Helliconia Summer at Amazon

Helliconia Summer

By Brian W. Aldiss

Deadly illness figures prominently in Aldiss’ popular Helliconia trilogy, particularly in this middle volume. In the heat of the planet Helliconia’s centuries-long summer, Brian W. Aldiss’ twin fictional diseases–“bone fever” and “the fat death”–run rampant. And while some humans live in safety above the Earth-like planet in a space station, Aldiss cleverly imagines them growing so bored in confinement that they often volunteer to head to the planet’s surface and risk exposure to the deadly diseases.  

Helliconia Summer

By Brian W. Aldiss

 

Buy Clay's Ark at Amazon

Clay's Ark

By Octavia E. Butler

Octavia Butler’s famous Patternist series features a pretty terrifying threat to mankind: Mutants called clayarks. In Clay’s Ark, a prequel and the last Patternist book Butler published, we watch a terrible disease spark the mutation that will drive so much of the action in the series.    

RELATED: Re-Read: Octavia Butler's Parable Series

Clay's Ark

By Octavia E. Butler

 

Buy The Last Man at Amazon

The Last Man

By Mary Shelley

When it comes to sci-fi/horror, nobody does it like Mary Shelley. Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein is perhaps the single greatest sci-fi/horror novel of all time–and a literary classic to boot. In The Last Man, Shelley’s protagonist lives in a world where a terrible plague has brought on the apocalypse. Critics panned this book in Shelley’s lifetime, but modern scholars and readers have revived and celebrated it.  

The Last Man

By Mary Shelley

 

Buy The Stand at Amazon

The Stand

By Stephen King

Stephen King’s The Stand is an absolutely massive book, but it never feels slow. The size of the book suits the scale of King’s ambition as he charts a grim future for the world after a weaponized strain of the flu infects the populace. The Stand was originally published in the late 1970s, but King fine-tuned and expanded his work in 1990, giving us the text we have today.  

RELATED: The Portalist's Guide to The Dark Tower

The Stand

By Stephen King

 

Buy I Am Legend  at Amazon

I Am Legend

By Richard Matheson

I Am Legend is a classic of the sci-fi/horror genre. Here, Matheson creates a disease that turns people into vampires–a twist on the classic monster horror story that would go on to influence other writers and works, particularly in the zombie sub-genre. The book follows the story of Robert Neville, the apparent sole survivor of the pandemic that claimed the lives of his wife and daughter. He works to kill those infected, as well as to try and figure out what caused the disease and how to cure it.

RELATED: 15 Bloody Good Vampire Books

I Am Legend

By Richard Matheson

 

Buy The Passage at Amazon

The Passage

By Justin Cronin

The Passage is a sweeping epic that covers nearly one hundred years in a near-future, post-apocalyptic world. Cronin invents a disease that causes humans to become vampire-like monsters–an illness reminiscent of the one in Richard Matheson’s classic I Am Legend. The Passage’s epic scope and disease narrative has also earned it comparisons to other classics of the genre, including Stephen King’s The Stand

The Passage

By Justin Cronin

 

Buy The Andromeda Strain at Amazon

The Andromeda Strain

By Michael Crichton

The Andromeda Strain is the novel that put Michael Crichton on the map, well before he gained notoriety for Jurassic Park. Crichton, a medical doctor, was the perfect writer to invent a fictional world-threatening disease, and his book delivers. The horrifying illness arrives from an alien world with the help of a human-made satellite, and Crichton’s characters must race to contain and combat it.  

The Andromeda Strain

By Michael Crichton

 

Buy Earth Abides at Amazon

Earth Abides

By George Stewart

Originally published in 1949, Earth Abides is a post-apocalyptic classic that moves through main character Ish’s life—as he is exposed to and recovers from a measles-like disease, and attempts to rebuild society with those who have survived. Set in California, Earth Abides is as much about rebuilding civilization as it is about its destruction, and Stewart’s vision of the post-apocalyptic and recovering world is fascinating. Winner of the inaugural International Fantasy Award in 1951, Stewart’s novel send a message about learning from our mistakes…in the hope that we don’t continue to repeat them.   

Earth Abides

By George Stewart

 

Buy The Scarlet Plague at Amazon

The Scarlet Plague

By Jack London

London’s 1912 novel, originally published in serial form, is an essential early example of the apocalyptic disease genre. In The Scarlet Plague, London’s protagonist wanders through a post-apocalyptic San Francisco Bay area and tells the reader about his life before the arrival of the plague–and the terrible things he witnessed when the disease took hold.  

The Scarlet Plague

By Jack London

 

Buy Enclave at Amazon

Enclave

By Ann Aguirre

Aguirre’s post-apocalyptic disease novel features a particularly compelling setting: The dense world of New York City. Forced underground by the ravages of disease, New Yorkers now live in “enclaves.” It’s a grim world, where humans die young and, over the course of Aguirre’s book, discover terrifying underground monsters. It’s a fictional world that is as memorable as it is dark.  

Enclave

By Ann Aguirre

This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Portalist to celebrate the sci-fi and fantasy stories you love.  

Featured image: Art from "I Am Legend" cover 



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