My favourite books (and games) about the apocalypse
It feels a bit macabre to admit it, but I’m a big fan of the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic genre. I’m in my happy place when I’m watching zombies chase after Rick in The Walking Dead, or killing Radroaches in Fallout.
This is why: The Walking Dead has lots of zombies, but it isn’t about zombies. The scariest things in their world are other people, and how survival has forced them to lose their humanity. The same is true in a lot of texts in this genre, and I find it interesting how different characters react not just to their new world, but also to the people they are thrown amongst.
The method of destruction isn’t what interests me (eg nuclear war, plague, being overthrown by robot overlords), it’s what happens after – the renewal and rebuild, and the way that society strives to pull back together (or sometimes, pull apart). Here are some of my favourites…
Before getting into novels, I need to mention The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which is a non-fiction book about what would happen if all humans left Earth – from day one, to thousands of years into the future. It details how long things would take to decay, what would last, what would not, and how animals would adapt. It’s fascinating from a scientific perspective, but it does make you feel embarrassed to be human.
I feel like the creators of Horizon Zero Dawn would have studied this book thoroughly, as the game is set thousands of years in the future. Nothing I’ve played rivals this in terms of storytelling and imagination, I love this game.
I’ve been reading a lot of the texts mentioned in The Incomparable, Apocalypse Book Club (Episode 82), in particular, After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh which is a series of short stories. I liked this format because it explores some very interesting themes without going into too much detail, often, not mentioning what the cause of the collapse of civilisation was. One of the stories I particularly enjoyed was The Effect of Centrifugal Forces, which is set during a bird flu pandemic – a disease is spread via processed chicken, but the latency period is 5 years. The symptoms of infection, a slow destruction of brain tissue, have only just started to materialise, and people aren’t sure whether they will succumb to it. The teenage protagonist has more everyday concerns though, such as her step-mum's hoarding habit.
The Last Man was written by Mary Shelley in 1826. I was prompted to read this after indulging in several volumes of the comic book Y The Last Man, which is about life after the sudden death of all but one male on earth. The Last Man is about the last surviving human on Earth; Lionel Verney. It’s set in the late 21st Century.
A plague spreads through Europe over several years, eventually reaching England, where the book is set. It’s… slow going, and I almost gave up. It’s not until about a third to halfway through the book that a plague is even mentioned. But the characters are interesting, and there are a lot of bits that have inspired future authors.
On a friend’s recommendation, I read A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr., which was published in 1960. It’s set 600 years after global nuclear war, and follows a gradual rebuild of society spanning 1,800 years, post a massive backlash against technology in response to the weapons that destroyed modern civilisation. Monks are tasked with preserving scientific knowledge. It was mostly lost on me, but I liked the weirdness of it.
If you like weird, The Day of the Triffids, written in 1951 by John Wyndham, will be up your street. An unusual, green meteor shower renders everyone who looks at it blind the next day. Like The Last Man, it’s set in England. Triffids are strange, carnivorous plants that take advantage of the situation. The game Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (also set in England) feels like it has taken some inspiration from it.
Following on with the biological theme, the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer is worth a mention. I’ve only read the first book so far, but it was thrilling, creepy, and not what I expected. It’s a bit of a stretch to include it in the post-apocalyptic genre, but it follows all the same themes of survival, adapting to sudden change, and wondering what the hell is going on.
One of the most chilling and memorable books I’ve read is also the one I initially enjoyed reading the least – Flood by Stephen Baxter. Like The Last Man, it has a stubbornly slow start (I appreciate that’s the point, I’m just impatient). This isn’t post-apocalyptic – it’s set over decades and documents the slow, desperate decline of society as the waters creep ever higher. It’s a modern adaption of Noah’s Ark.
It reminded me of The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker – also set over years, in which the Earth’s rotation gets slower and slower, causing days and nights to last days. The theme is less about survival, and more about adapting (or choosing not to adapt) to new norms, and coming of age in a world that is gradually falling apart. I read it shortly after reading The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey (a zombie thriller with a twist), and both feel aimed at a young-adult audience, but I didn’t enjoy them any less.
I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy on a short trip to France and spent an evening bawling my eyes out when I finished. It’s very good, and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy going, but… oh boy. It’s a story about a dying father and his young son, walking south through a totally desolate landscape. They encounter people on the way, most of whom are not friendly.
My favourite book in this genre is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s set right before and then a generation after a plague wipes out most people, and the survivors are now rebuilding civilisation. It follows a group of travelling actors who go from town to town to perform, rekindling culture. While travelling, they learn of a cult that has been spreading its influence in the towns they visit.
The story follows lots of different characters at different points in time. The characters feel incredibly real, and I loved reading it. I’m currently about a quarter-way through Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which also follows a number of different characters, but set over centuries. I’m struggling with the leaps in time a little, but persevering.
Edit: Not a video game but I also love the board game Pandemic. It's a co-operative game where you each have a different role, and you work together to try and save humanity from global pandemic.