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16 Powerful Post-Apocalyptic Books

It's the end of the world as we know it: These post-apocalyptic novels offer terrifying visions that will have you hooked.

Post-apocalyptic fiction offers readers a chance to safely imagine the end of society. It allows us to process at a distance the incredible loss that will come when humanity as we know it inevitably ends, whether from environmental destruction, nuclear war, or disease. Maybe it's the ability to look our destruction in the face — then close the cover and return unscathed to our daily lives — that makes post-apocalyptic books so gripping. These are our recommendations for sixteen of the best post-apocalyptic books. They're perfect reads for when you need a reminder about the fragility of our world, and the indomitability of human hope.  

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Buy The Chaos Function at Amazon

The Chaos Function

By Jack Skillingstead

As an international journalist whose career has brought her to the front lines of the world’s most dangerous war zones, Olivia is used to crises. But nothing could have prepared her for her time in Syria. While on assignment in Aleppo, Olivia — against her better judgment — falls for an aid worker named Brian. After Brian is killed protecting Olivia, she'd do anything to bring him back. And, incredibly, she gets the chance to do just that. 

Olivia is shown incredible technology at an ancient sacred site, including a tool with the capacity to change the past and re-shape the future. She makes the risky decision to alter reality and revive Brian, but in doing so Olivia also ushers in the end of the world. Her rash actions have pushed Earth to the precipice of nuclear collapse. Now, Olivia and Brian are in a race against time to save the planet and prevent the dangerous tech from falling into the wrong hands. Spoonbenders author Daryl Gregory says this unique novel "left me feeling like I’d been strapped to the front of the car like Mad Max in Fury Road" — so you know it's bound to be an unforgettable, apocalyptic ride. 

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The Chaos Function

By Jack Skillingstead

Buy The Disappearance at Amazon

The Disappearance

By Philip Wylie

This 1951 novel is perfect for fans of The Leftovers and other stories that explore what post-apocalyptic life is like for those left behind. In an instant, everything changes for the people of The Disappearance: men vanish from the world of women, and women from the world of men. Suddenly living in separate timelines, unaware of what has happened to their friends, parents, lovers, and children, men and women must learn to forget the gender roles prescribed to them by the society of the old world. In The Disappearance, Wylie explores gender issues and the institutionalized sexism of his time, issues which unfortunately are still relevant nearly 70 years after this addition to the post-apocalyptic genre was published.

RELATED: 8 Vital Sci-Fi Climate Change Books 

The Disappearance

By Philip Wylie

Buy A Boy and His Dog at Amazon

A Boy and His Dog

By Harlan Ellison

This Nebula Award-winning 1964 novella by Harlan Ellison continues to inspire post-apocalyptic media today, like the video game franchise Fallout. Set in a post-nuclear America, it follows Vic, a young boy roaming the ruins of the country with his loyal telepathic dog Blood by his side. But their connection isn’t the classic boy-and-his-dog relationship seen in more wholesome stories. Blood brings women to Vic so that Vic can terrorize them; in exchange, Vic makes sure Blood has food. When the pair are drawn into an underground civilization, their strange and savage relationship is forever changed. 

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A Boy and His Dog

By Harlan Ellison

Buy At Winter's End at Amazon

At Winter's End

By Robert Silverberg

When the objects from space struck, humans were forced to seek refuge underground to survive. For thousands of years, generation after generation has lived below ground, finding ways to thrive in their subterranean community. Now, Chieftain Koshmar senses that the legendary New Springtime has arrived. It's time for her to lead the tribe out of the dark and into the light. But what they find above ground will test their loyalty to each other — and forever change the future of humanity. From Grand Master Robert Silverberg, this is the first title in a totally unique post-apocalyptic series exploring the nature of our species. 

RELATED: Sci-Fi Great Robert Silverberg Talks Time Travel 

At Winter's End

By Robert Silverberg

Buy Earthseed at Amazon

Earthseed

By Octavia E. Butler

This two-novel series by Octavia E. Butler opens with The Parable of the Sower, which offers a vision of the post-apocalypse that is terrifying in its plausibility. Book one begins in near-future dystopian Los Angeles, seen through the eyes of Lauren Olamina, a hyper-empathic teenager. When the gated compound her family hides in is destroyed by marauders, Lauren leads a group of survivors across the wreckage of California. Along the way, she helps her companions come to terms with the new world via the teachings of Earthseed, a belief system she has created around the central tenet that God Is Change. 

Book two follows Lauren’s disciples as they watch while a tyrannical despot promising to ‘Make America Great Again’ rises up out of the ruins of society, attempting to restore order but ushering in new horrors at the same time. 

RELATED: 14 Octavia Butler Books: The Complete Canon 

Earthseed

By Octavia E. Butler

Buy In the Drift at Amazon

In the Drift

By Michael Swanwick

100 years ago, the nuclear reactor on Three Mile Island went into meltdown. Now, the land around the reactor is the site of not only environmental destruction— poisonous air, unrecognizable earth — but also vampires and other previously-inconceivable monsters. This terrifying novel chronicles the lives of survivors on opposite sides of the drift as they struggle to retain their humanity in a new Hell on Earth. George R.R. Martin called In the Drift "a potent new myth from the reality of radioactive waste," and you know it's serious when Mr. Red Wedding himself calls a sci-fi horror book 'potent.'

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In the Drift

By Michael Swanwick

Buy Swan Song at Amazon

Swan Song

By Robert R. McCammon

Bram Stoker Award winner Swan Song follows a prophetic nine year old—Swan—as she receives harrowing visions of doom and destruction. After the nuclear apocalypse she predicted hits, Swan knows something even worse is coming—a malicious, shape-shifting horror that is set on not only bringing an end to her life, but to the rest of humanity.

Across the shell of America, Swan knows there are wanderers that will soon unite: a homeless woman with a mystical amulet, a young orphan boy twisted by the ways of warped survivalists, and Swan herself, with a new and unexpected companion. But even together, can they stop the evil that is coming for the rest of the world? 

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Swan Song

By Robert R. McCammon

Buy Valhalla at Amazon

Valhalla

By Newton Thornburg

Newton Thornburg weaves a commanding story of dystopian America. After the collapse of the government, America descends into anarchy. With cities aflame and the dangerous Mau Mau gang striking chaos country-wide, drifter Walter Stone settles down in a lakeside camp. Supplies dwindle as plane crash survivors join the lakeside refugees, and the mansion called Valhalla starts to tempt those who live outside of it.

Inside of Valhalla sits a wealthy junkman and his daughters, stocked to the brim with food and ammunition. Though the lake between the refugees and the mansion holds the risk of death, the lakeside camp is also under threat from bandits. No matter what choice is made, humanity as these survivors know it is fading fast.

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Valhalla

By Newton Thornburg

Buy Mockingbird at Amazon

Mockingbird

By Walter Tevis

In this science fiction tale, the human race has dwindled to a handful of survivors. On a decaying Earth, the few people left float through existence in an electronically drugged state, with no release or relief in family or art. Even reading is forbidden. An infallible machine, Spofforth now rules the husk the world has left behind, but he longs for death.

However, a glimmer of hope for humankind is found in the passion that humans Paul and Mary Lou hold for one another. Spofforth simmers with jealousy for the couple’s affections, crafting a strange and tragic love triangle.

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Mockingbird

By Walter Tevis

Buy Doomsday Morning at Amazon

Doomsday Morning

By C.L. Moore

Author C.L. Moore stuns in this novel from 1957. As the United States recovers from a devastating nuclear war, Comus—a totalitarian system—takes the reigns. Everything falls under the strict jurisdiction of Comus: communication, transportation, even law enforcement. However, there are rumors that a rebellion is rising in California.

In this tense political climate, has-been actor Howard Rohan will play an unexpected role in the fate of Comus and the course of history. Howard leads an acting troupe across the country on a secret mission to gather intelligence on a device that could bring Comus to an end. However, the double agent soon loses sight of his true allegiances, leaving the fate of America teetering precariously in his hands.

Doomsday Morning

By C.L. Moore

Buy Earth Abides at Amazon

Earth Abides

By George R. Stewart

Earth Abides tells the story of a mysterious and deadly worldwide plague. From corner to corner of the globe, every single member of the human race falls ill and drops dead. All except one man: Isherwood Williams.

Emerging from an isolated cabin after working through the aftermath of a rattlesnake bite, Isherwood is stunned to find the world abandoned by life. Unsure why he remains immune to the merciless epidemic, he journeys on to see if he can find any scrap of humanity left, or if he remains alone.

RELATED: 13 Alarming Books About Apocalyptic Plagues

Earth Abides

By George R. Stewart

Buy The Stand at Amazon

The Stand

By Stephen King

Stephen King struck horror into reader’s hearts with the 1978 post-apocalyptic tale The Stand. The world is whittled away to a mere one percent of its population when a minuscule error in the computer of the Defense Department releases a weaponized strain of influenza. The few survivors who are immune to the epidemic quickly fall into sides. In Nebraska, the good flock to 108-year-old Mother Abigail. The evil flock to the supernaturally-powered Randall Flagg in Las Vegas.

Related: Hear Stephen King & George R.R. Martin Discuss Their Craft

The Stand

By Stephen King

Buy World War Z at Amazon

World War Z

By Max Brooks

World War Z immerses readers in a world fresh out of the zombie apocalypse. After nearly all of humanity has been eradicated, this book takes the perspective of a man determined to preserve the history of those who survived. Traveling to every corner of the globe, Max Brooks interviews the men, women, and children who faced off against the gruesome undead threat. From the brutal story of Patient Zero in China, to the plans drafted in South Africa which brought hope at an unforgivable price, the fictional interviews in World War Z are chilling. 

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World War Z

By Max Brooks

Buy I Am Legend at Amazon

I Am Legend

By Richard Matheson

In a world ravaged by a vampiristic plague, Robert Neville stands as the last living man on Earth. The blood pumping through his veins might as well be a target on his back, as the droves of vampires seek him out with a vicious hunger. In the hours of daylight, Robert hunts the monsters through the crumbling ruins of the world, researching the cause of this wicked plague when he can. When night falls, he hides himself away behind barricades, waiting for the break of dawn to bring him back to safety.

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I Am Legend

By Richard Matheson

Buy Station Eleven at Amazon

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

This 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novel is as scary as it is unforgettable. Spanning across North America, but centering specifically around the Great Lakes region, it charts the impact of the devastating Georgia Flu. 20 years after the pandemic, Kirsten Raymonde is part of a troupe of nomadic performers known as the Traveling Symphony who tour the remnants of society, putting on plays. 

When the troupe comes across a predatory figure known as the Prophet, they get a brutal reminder that not all survivors are trying to remember the good in humanity. Weaving stories from before the flu and after into an unforgettable exploration of what it means to hope and to seek happiness, Station Eleven is one of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels in recent years. A TV show adaptation starring Mackenzie Davis as Kirsten is currently in production at HBO Max, so now is the perfect time to read this modern classic.  

RELATED: 7 Unforgettable Books Like Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel 

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

Buy Zone One at Amazon

Zone One

By Colson Whitehead

Pulitzer Prize-winner Colson Whitehead has written one of the greatest zombie novels ever. Set over three days, Zone One follows Mark Spitz, a member of a ‘Sweeper’ unit tasked with eliminating harmless catatonic zombies in lower Manhattan, now known as Zone One. Through Mark’s reflections and memories, we learn how a virus quickly ended society, how the pandemic culminated in an evening of terrors now called ‘Last Night,’ and how survivors ultimately turned the tide of the war against the armies of the undead. Now, Spitz and his comrades are conducting a final sweep of New York before the city will be declared clear. But Mark and his fellow soldiers can't trust that the nightmare is over.  

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Zone One

By Colson Whitehead

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Published on 21 Mar 2019

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