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.
Bat Out of Hell
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?
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.
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.
The Last Man
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.
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.
I Am Legend
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.
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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 Andromeda Strain
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.
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.
The Scarlet Plague
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.
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.
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Featured image: Art from "I Am Legend" cover