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February 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
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From Booklist’s Top of the List to Oprah’s Book Club, Cormac McCarthy’s stunning work of speculative fiction, The Road, has won honors and acclaim. But despite the breathtaking originality of McCarthy’s particular vision, the idea of the end of the world is hardly new. In fact, as we revisit the apocalyptic fiction that paved the way for this modern classic, we find that, for writers, the end of the world is practically an annual occurrence.
The Bible: King James Version. 1611.
Whatever your religious beliefs, the Bible is the book that’s had the greatest influence on Western literature. And the book of Revelation has apocalypse to spare. Despite the harrowing imagery and strange symbolism, the essential message to the faithful is to be steadfast and endure through all travails—not so different, when you think about it, from the message of The Road.
Earth Abides. By George R. Stewart. 1949. Del Rey, paper, $13.95 (0-345-48713-3).
Published after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima but before the cold war heated up, this pivotal postapocalyptic work is curiously Edenic. A plague kills off most of humanity, leaving animals and plants alive. Isherwood (“Ish”) Williams forms a community of survivors and tries to preserve a sense of civilization as his comrades evolve into hunter-gatherers. Observations of the effects of humankind’s absence will interest fans of Alan Weisman’s World without Us (2007).
I Am Legend. By Richard Matheson. 1954. Tor, paper, $14.95 (0-7653-1874-1).
This horror-sf hybrid also pursues the plague idea, but here the pandemic turns its victims into vampires. Ordinary guy Robert Neville forages by day and fights by night; his will to live is beset by loneliness and despair (a conflict also revisited in The Road). The plague is explained scientifically, not supernaturally, but it’s Neville’s final realization that “normal” is the new anomaly that gives this book its power. This durable book has been adapted for film repeatedly, most recently in a December 2007 Will Smith vehicle.
No Blade of Grass. By John Christopher. 1957. Buccaneer, $18.95 (9780899683355).
Christopher reverses the conceit of Earth Abides—here, the virus doesn’t hurt humans, but all the grasses and grains die off. The British countenance the prospect of short rations with characteristically stiff upper lips, but when the world’s famine hits home, they find themselves struggling for survival just as savagely as everyone else.
On the Beach. By Nevil Shute. 1957. Ballantine, paper, $6.99 (0-345-31148-5).
With the Northern Hemisphere destroyed, and radioactive fallout drifting toward the Southern Hemisphere, a U.S. nuclear submarine with a U.S. and Australian crew searches out the source of a mysterious Morse code signal; its source is a cruel existential joke. Returning to Australia, the submariners choose different ways to play out their remaining days. Despite the chilling idea of death by degrees, Shute’s tale is more stiff upper lip than psychological nuance.
Alas, Babylon. By Pat Frank. 1959. HarperCollins, paper, $12.95 (0-06-074187-2).
This tale explores the effects of U.S.-USSR nuclear war in the small Florida town of Fort Repose. As in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1955) and J. G. Ballard’s High Rise (1977), Frank’s Alas, Babylon Frank shows an interest in the way people behave when times get tough—in part because the author depicts the war, though dire, as winnable. That’s a point of view that didn’t last for long.
A Canticle for Leibowitz. By Walter M. Miller Jr. 1959. HarperCollins, paper, $13.95 (0-06-089299-4).
This ambitious novel begins with a religious order preserving scientific knowledge at a remote abbey in the Utah desert after a nuclear holocaust, then makes giant leaps forward in time to depict cycles of learning, anti-intellectualism, and war. Religion plays a major role throughout. The scope and black humor (a sacred text turns out to be the shopping list of the order’s founder) suggest various Vonnegut novels and Will Self’s Book of Dave (2006). A highly original take that also won a Hugo Award for best novel.
High Rise. By J. G. Ballard. 1977.
There are no bombs or plagues here, but Ballard’s chilling thriller relentlessly explores the same terrain as many apocalyptic novels, showing the shallowness of civilization’s veneer. Instead of a single triggering event, there are many small ones, as a luxury high rise’s isolation from the world outside gives its residents license to live out their primal urges. It’s Lord of the Flies without the plane crash, the island, or the children.
Likely the best-selling and best-read novel on this list, perhaps the book flap says it best: “It’s the end of the world . . . as only Stephen King could imagine it.” This long, long, long tale gets going when a bioengineered superflu kills over 99 percent of the world’s population. Two groups of survivors build very different societies (one good, one evil) but edge ever closer to a final confrontation. Interestingly, King has said The Stand was inspired by both J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Earth Abides.
Riddley Walker. By Russell Hoban. 1980. Indiana Univ., $15.95 (0-253-21234-0).
The versatile and always surprising Hoban creates a society, some two millennia postapocalypse, in which narrator Riddley Walker, in devolved, phonetic English, struggles to make sense of his existence (“May be it wer the barms what done it poysening the lan or when they made a hoal in what they callit the O Zoan”). The Iron Age living conditions, religious superstition, and misremembered history place this in the line of A Canticle for Leibowitz, although Riddley’s cult will defend it as the more powerful of the two.
Chin Music. By James McManus. 1985.
Long before he hit it big at the poker tables (Positively Fifth Street, 2003), McManus wrote an experimental novel set in the hour before Armageddon. Nuclear missiles are in the air, and chaos reigns. In Chicago, they’ve even canceled the World Series. Amidst a cacophonous mélange of imagery and stream-of-consciousness ramblings, a White Sox pitcher makes a nightmarish odyssey toward home. This bizarre novel isn’t for everyone, but its technique dovetails nicely with its subject.
Fiskadoro. By Denis Johnson. 1985. HarperCollins, paper, $13 (0-06-097609-8).
The postapocalyptic novel continues to move beyond the mechanics of survival toward a reimagining of human psyche and society. Johnson’s second novel is set “in a time between civilizations” in the Florida Keys, the only area unscathed by the effects of atomic war. In a nightmarish world of contamination and deformity, Johnson interweaves the stories of a man obsessed with finding out what happened, an old woman who could tell him if she could only talk, and Fiskadoro, a young boy who achieves a kind of freedom because he remembers nothing.
The Last Ship. By William Brinkley. 1988. Ballantine, paper, $29 (0-345-35982-8).
In the wake of a nuclear holocaust, the USS Nathan James sails the seas in desperate search of uncontaminated land. Finding safe harbor on a South Pacific island, and believing that his crew comprises the last of humanity, the ship’s captain presides over a naval-structured society whose main purpose is propagation. In many ways an update of Shute’s On the Beach, this somewhat long-winded epic suggests that Brinkley knew a lot more about ships’ hardware than human nature.
Into the Forest. By Jean Alma Hegland. 1996. Dell, paper, $16 (9780553379617).
In the near-future, with a distant war having brought about the collapse of industrialized America, two teenage sisters live in seclusion in the Northern California forest. Eva dreams of becoming a ballerina, while Nell prepares for higher education—but when they finally realize that rescue is not forthcoming, they shift their focus to simple survival. A sweet and sadly elegiac coming-of-age tale.
Blindness. By José Saramago. 1998. 304p. Harcourt, $25 (0-15-100251-7).
Starting with a single driver struck blind at a stoplight, a mysterious and fast-spreading epidemic of blindness soon causes complete societal collapse. The first to be afflicted are quarantined in an unused mental asylum but hear terrifying tales of “the white evil” from new arrivals. Conditions go from dire to disastrous, and when the plague finally lifts, its survivors must bear the burden of having witnessed human nature stripped bare. Blindness here may be a rather obvious allegory for a certain kind of unseeing, but the way Saramago writes it is well worth a look.
Unmanned: Y: The Last Man 1. By Brian K. Vaughan and others. 2003. Vertigo, paper, $12.95 (1-56389-980-9).
What if a mysterious plague killed half the earth—the male half? That’s the provocative premise of the Last Man comics series. Somehow, however, one man, Yorick Brown, still lives, and it’s his survival that gives this engaging series its momentum. Alas for poor Yorick, his predicament is less the stuff of teenage dreams than nightmares; thoughts of repopulating the planet must be postponed, as he spends most of his time on the run from a tribe of self-styled Amazons bent on eliminating the last vestige of patriarchy.
Oryx and Crake. By Margaret Atwood. 2003. Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, $26 (0-385-50385-7).
As our fears of nuclear bombs have been rightly or wrongly upstaged by fears of ozone depletion and bioengineering, Atwood, in a companion piece to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), gives voice to those fears. Jimmy, struggling to stay alive on a wreckage-littered earth overrun with vicious and intelligent predators, just might be the last human left. As he prepares to return to the compound where the endgame began, the plot spins backward until all the horrific details are revealed.
Eden: It’s an Endless World! 1. By Hiroki Endo. 2005. Dark Horse Manga, paper, $12.95 (1-59307-406-9).
This series saga of a world decimated by a plague that kills by paralysis starts slowly. In a huge facility built to foster plague-resistant individuals, two teenagers, its only success stories, live a somewhat innocent existence—until soldiers and scientists return and all hell breaks loose. As the series progresses, the politics of plague often take a backseat to action and adventure, but this ugly story is beautifully executed—the art is more realistic-looking than most manga—and a real page-turner.
The Children’s Hospital. By Chris Adrian. 2006. McSweeney’s, $24 (1-932416-60-9).
The world comes to an end, drowned beneath seven miles of water, and all that is preserved, floating on the waves, is a children’s hospital and its occupants. Presiding over the apocalypse are four angels who often are indistinguishable from demons: one to chronicle and one to accuse, one to protect and one to punish. In this difficult but elegant and poetic novel, Adrian posits a scalpel’s width between life as an obscene abomination and the miracle it suffers to be.
The Pesthouse. By Jim Crace. 2007. Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, $24.95 (0-385-52075-1).
Crace had the misfortune to publish his book a half-year after The Road; the two novels are remarkably similar. Both take place at some indeterminate point in the future in which America has been reduced to a wasteland; both spend little time discussing the actual apocalypse; both depict a lawless people and a poisoned land; both follow survivors struggling toward the sea. Crace can do desolation with the best of them, but a love-story element limits the potency of his portent.
The Swing Voter of Staten Island. By Arthur Nersesian. 2007. Akashic, $22.95 (9781933354347).
In this alternate history set in 1981, New York, New York, has been made uninhabitable due to chemical terrorist attacks, and a replica has been built for its relocated undesirables: New York, Nevada. Featuring a surreal landscape and an equally surreal plot—Uli, an amnesiac, is supposed to shoot someone named Dropt—this provocative novel is Nersesian’s response to the twin tragedies of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
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