The end of humanity, or near-end anyway, is a common theme in speculative fiction. It seems that a lot pf people think mankind has a suicide gene. That’s not a new notion: both Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells wrote of a future when mankind had disappeared, or nearly so. During my lifetime, the theme’s been visited many a writer, including some of the best of their generation. The genre of post-apocalyptic fiction is one of my favorites, as one could tell from several quite battered paperbacks on my shelves. Now it’s time to share.
So without further delay, I present my nominations for the Ten Best Post-Apocalyptic Novels published since I started reading. Drum roll, please:
Death from a Nuclear Holocaust, One
Pat Frank: Alas Babylon
Eensy little Fort Repose, Florida, survives a World War III that began with an accidental missile discharge in the Middle East. Randy Bragg’s brother, a colonel in the Air Force, sends his wife and kids to Randy’s house bearing their childhood code phrase for impending disaster, “Alas, Babylon!” Soon after Randy cleans out their local grocery, the Bragg household is awakened by the distant thunder of nuclear weapons vaporizing the city of Miami and nearby airbases.
Frank’s vision of a post-holocaust society is fairly tame; without the thread of warlike tribalism that marks many other entries in the genre. Frank covers some medical issues like a case of flash blindness in a child who witnessed a fireball and radiation poisoning from looting contaminated goods; though most of the plot deals with surviving a world without modern conveniences. Think a freezer filled with rotting food; a lack of salt; and modern men lacking basic skills that had already already forgotten when Frank published his novel in 1959.
Though it never received any awards, Alas Babylon was made into a TV movie starring Don Murray, Burt Reynolds, and Rita Moreno. It’s often cited as an early read by science fiction authors of the Baby Boom generation, and regularly males lists of the top novels of its genre. It’s also recently been republished.
Mankind manages to nearly kill itself off itself not once but twice in Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz, on both occasions via “mutually-assured destruction.” In his seminal 1960 novel, Miller depicts a second Dark Ages, a desolate future in which the Catholic Church again keeps mankind’s store of knowledge safe in isolated monasteries. He even envisions old, near-blind monks as they re-copy old texts by hand. The difference is that this time around, the texts are pages from users manuals, snippets of blueprints and the rare science text.
After a holocaust, the survivors took revenge against technology, burning books and executing the techno-savvy scientists and engineers. Decades later Brother Francis, a postulant of a remote desert abbey, finds the basement of the house where the holy Liebowitz (a technologist of unknown occupation) had dwelt. It’s this discovery that permits Liebowitz’s beatification, despite his unlikely surname for a Catholic saints). Miller’s far-future Church also features pilgrims, a Wandering Jew, and the occasional mortification of flesh.
Miller’s envisions a rerun in A Canticle for Liebowitz, a somewhat pessimistic assumption that humanity is in a rut and once technology returns, the cycle of racial suicide will repeat. It’s dark and moody for sure, but Miller’s novel won the 1961 Hugo award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and has never been out of print in the last fifty years.
Suicide by Alien Invasion
Sir Arthur C. Clarke: Childhood’s End
The Overlords appeared out of nowhere in Clarke’s 1953 saga. Unlike most novels in giant spaceships loom over the skyline in chapter one, though, Childhood’s End does not depict a war like those in H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds or the 1996 movie Independence Day.
Although the clearly appear demonic, the Overlords have not come “to serve man” (at least they aren’t carrying a cookbook). No, they appear benevolent: within just the first two generations war, crime and disease have disappeared and mankind has entered what many think is a golden age. The Overlords, humans discover, are here as a sort of cosmic midwife tasked with delivering mankind into its next phase of evolution. Apparently they’re the good guys… but maybe they aren’t.
Childhood’s End predated both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, but won Clarke a “Retro Hugo” in 2004, fifty years after its first publication.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle : Lucifer’s Hammer
“Hot fudge sundae will fall on a Tuesday…” That rather prosaic-seeming prediction is how Niven and Pournelle describe a giant comet smashing into Earth, and impact that triggers monster earthquakes, awakens volcanoes and generates tsunamis: Lucifer’s Hammer, indeed.
Protagonist Tim Hamner, an amateur astronomer who co-discovered the Hamner-Brown comet, also known as “the Hammer,” holes up with a handful of friends in the hills of Southern California. That’s where they construct a compound, hoping to keep civilization’s spark burning. Like a lot of Pournelle’s writing, Lucifer’s Hammer is anti-environmentalism and strongly pro-technology.
As you might expect from two accomplished novelists (Niven had already won multiple Hugos and Nebulas), both wise old techies, Lucifer’s Hammer regularly finds know-how defeating mindless violence; even featuring a character who might well have been cloned from The Professor on “Gilligan’s Island.” As do many recent novels in the category, Lucifer’s Hammer features roving bands of heavily-armed bandits. The novel’s climactic battle finds Hamner and the enclave at war with a ragtag army united by their consumption of “long pig.”
Lucifer’s Hammer was nominated for a Best Novel Hugo in 1978, but lost to Frederick Pohl’s Gateway. Niven, alone or teamed with Pournelle, received a nomination for a Hugo award in four of the five years 1974-78.
Death by Disease, One
Stephen King: The Stand
Considered Stephen King’s finest novel by many readers, The Stand is a classic member of the post-apocalyptic genre. Like many King novels, this one dips into supernatural territory, and depicts the eternal battle between good and evil within its pages.
King’s 1200-page novel centers on a cast of characters who survived “Captain Tripps,” a deadly strain of “flu” that escaped a bioweapons lab to wipe more than 99% of humanity off the face of the earth. Those survivors who are pure at heart are inexorably drawn to Boulder, Colorado, by a vision of an old black woman, Mother Abigail. At the same time, the evil guys collect – of course – in Las Vegas, drawn to Sin City by the siren call of the walkin’ dude, Randall Flagg.
King doesn’t bother with bands of marauding bandits, as the plot concerns itself with dividing survivors into camps featuring good and evil. Of course a final conflict looms, but the way King spins out his tale keeps on reading… and reading.
The Stand was broadcast as a television miniseries in 1994, with a cast featuring well-known actors such as Gary Sinese, Laura San Giacomo, Molly Ringwald, Rob Lowe and Miguel Ferrer.
Jeremy Bellamy “Jeebee” Walthers carefully makes his way through 2,000 miles of a post-apocalyptic wilderness after leaving New England bound for a family ranch in Montana in Gordon R. Dickson’s Wolf and Iron (1990). The “iron” part is simple: like most novels of its type, civilization’s disintegration emboldens antisocial types, who take over the countryside. Bands of evildoers rob passersby and rape their woman (and some of their men). Jeebee is lucky: he somehow manages to tame a wolf, who becomes his guardian. He also manages to find his way into the good graces of a traveling merchant, whose foxy daughter becomes the love interest… and more.
While probably the weakest of the bunch and most certainly the least well-known, Wolf and Iron is nonetheless still pretty good.
Death by Disease, Two
Max Brooks: World War Z
Military historians say that “armies prepare to fight the war they just finished.” They’re probably right: first WW2, then Korea; Korea, then Vietnam; Vietnam, then the Gulf Wars… it could be that the military mind only learns the hard way. This “war,” however wasn’t the military’s fault. That’s because there was no way to prepare this time. After all, how do you prepare to fight an enemy who knows no fear, feels no pain, and doesn’t die because he’s already dead?
That’s World War Z, where “Z” stands for “Zombie.”
Yes, zombies: undead; reanimated, flesh-eating ex-humans; creatures that can take a licking and keep on ticking. They’re shambling, blank-eyed ghouls who can only be killed by removing their heads. Think of it: your parents, your child, your lover, your co-workers, boss, teacher – every one of them an ambulatory corpse with just one purpose; to eat living beings. It’s no wonder that the military, even with those smart bombs and remote-controlled drones, was less successful than a phalanx of farmers with .22 rifles and homeowners carrying sharp axes.
Max Brooks’ 2006 novel is a series of interviews that covers the zombie wars from almost every angle. World War Z was made into a movie in 2013, featuring Brad Pitt in the starring role. Though both book and movie are quite good, the film version bears almost no resemblance to the novel.
Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel follows a father and son, neither ever given a name, as they travel The Road through an unnamed land after a disaster that’s never described. The world is sere and blasted, populated by the by-now expected violence of the post-apocalyptic world. McCarthy’s novel may well encapsulate the darkest vision ever for its genre, and may well be one the dreariest and most pessimistic novels ever penned.
This future is so bleak and dismal that had McCarthy given his characters names, it might have endowed them with a humanity readers could not bear. Instead, the duo remain nameless as they trek slowly through an ashen landscape, steps occasionally lit by lightning flashes during the night and rare, wan sun shining through billowing clouds of ash in their days.
In spite of all the bleakness, McCarthy manages to turn his unexplained future’s blackness into something that approaches hope; for a world in which a father has such love for his son could never be hopeless.
Death by Genetic Accident
Margaret Atwood: The Year of the Flood
Take one world stuffed with genetically-modified organisms – chicken-based bodies that, on demand, sprout unending supplies of plump breasts on stalks; or a gigantic pig that can grow custom-order body parts to be transplanted to humans, grown with the recipient’s DNA – it makes perfect sense that someone might design a genetically engineered virus to do in humanity.
You’d need a genetically-modified version of humans to survive that genetically-modified virus, and that’s where Margaret Atwood takes her 2009 novel The Year of the Flood. These are Crakers, humanoids whose genome is “upgraded” through the addition of genes scavenged from other species. Only a few true humans remain, mostly luddites who avoided the bounty of the bioengineered society and a lucky few who were otherwise occupied as “the flood” occurred.
Though she’s best known for her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Canadian Margaret Atwood’s tale of a world gone mad (in the genetic sense) is set in the same future as Oryx and Crake, which she named for the two crazies who created the whole for the whole mess; which book was a finalist for the Booker Prize in 2003. She completed her trilogy with MaddAddam in 2013.
Previously better-known for his non-fiction work, Peter Heller debuted as a fiction writer with The Dog Stars, a post-apocalyptic vision of life after a pandemic. Nine years after the last victims of the flu died, Hig and his dog Jasper live at an air field on the plains north of Denver. Their life revolves around a single neighbor, Bangley, and a lovingly-maintained 1958 Cessna. Every day Hig flies a perimeter, and every night he and Jasper sleep under the sky. Only Bangley knows what he does.
When his comfortable, if lonely life is shaken, Hig follows a radio signal from the other side of the Rockies that he’d heard years previously. His journey that takes far longer than planned.
Heller’s vision of the future includes the expected nomadic marauders, but character development is more the focus of his excellent 2013 novel. Read The Dog Stars, and you’ll wish you were a pilot – and that you had a dog like Jasper.