Top 10 End of the World Novels

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Well, here it is!  2012 and all that happy nonsense.  The Mayan calendar says the world is going to end this December, though it is decidedly vague as to how exactly the planet-engulfing calamity will occur.  From all of the publicity given to radio host Harold Camping’s big prediction that Judgment Day and the Rapture was going to happen last May, it’s pretty obvious that the apocalypse is big business right now.

So it would seem then that any reading list for 2012 ought to include a healthy dose of end-of-the-world fiction.  But how do you separate the wheat from the very considerable chaff that is out there?  Don’t worry, as a fan of the genre since I was a teenager growing up in the 1970s (another decade in which the apocalypse was a hot topic) I’m here to help.  These are the top 10 novels that will put you in the proper mindset as the date of Mayan prophecy approaches.  I’ve even estimated the chances that each one of the scenarios depicted will ever come true.

10.  Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949)

earthabides

How The World Ends: Super epidemic wipes out most of humanity, leaving only very scattered survivors.

Scenario: The protagonist tries to maintain the memory of civilization as the leader of a tiny post-plague community.

Coolness Factor: Despite being over 60 years old, Earth Abides holds up very well as a work of post-Apocalyptic science fiction.  The story begins as a last man alive tale, and turns more philosophical once the protagonist begins to assemble a band of survivors who scratch out a living among the ruins of San Francisco.

Likelihood of Scenario Coming True: 3 out of 10. A worldwide pandemic is among the more plausible doomsday scenarios, and Stewart’s observations of the tribalism that would likely arise among the survivors are chillingly realistic.

9.  The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)

thedayofthetriffids

How The World Ends: A mysterious comet passes by Earth, leaving nearly all of humanity blinded in its wake.

Scenario: One survivor who retains his sight battles for survival in a world rapidly being overrun by mobile, man-eating plants called Triffids.

Coolness Factor: The opening sequence, in which the protagonist wakes up in a deserted hospital, was chillingly reproduced in the movie 28 Days Later and the television series The Walking Dead.  This is British sci-fi at its best–who would have thought that a bunch of plants could be so badass?

Likelihood of Scenario Coming True: 0 out of 10.  Since there is no such thing as Triffids, I think we can sleep soundly knowing this book, while a great read, is not a prophecy of our collective fate.

8.  I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)

iamlegend

How the World Ends: An epidemic of rampaging vampirism.

Scenario: The last man alive is under siege in Los Angeles and is barricaded in his house every night, venturing out only during the day to forage for supplies and kill vampires in their sleep.

Coolness Factor: Hollywood absolutely loves this story, having made it into three major motion pictures starring Vincent Price, Charleston Heston and most recently (and regrettably), Will Smith. The book is far superior to all three, especially the ending, which twists the reader’s perception of who really is the monster.

Likelihood of Scenario Coming True: 0 out of 10.  To the disappointment of millions of Twilight fans everywhere, there is no such thing as vampires.

7.  Summer of the Apocalypse by James Van Pelt (2006)

summeroftheapocalypse

How The World Ends: After a pandemic kills off most of humanity, leaking radiation from abandoned nuclear power plants begins to finish the job.

Scenario: A story told in two parts, the protagonist is a teenager when the epidemic hits and an old man in a small community of survivors as it reaches its climax.

Coolness Factor: The author effortlessly weaves the two ends of the story together throughout the book.  Plenty of action combines with moments of quiet philosophical rumination and an emotionally charged ending.

Likelihood of Scenario Coming True: 4 out of 10.  I give this book kudos for recognizing, five years before the Fukushima catastrophe, that the world’s nuclear power plants represent a dire potential long-term threat to humanity’s survival.

6.  Sleepless by Charlie Huston (2010)

sleepless

How The World Ends: An epidemic of insomnia is slowly consuming humanity.

Scenario: A dedicated undercover cop and an ice-cold, aging hitman barrel towards confrontation in a slowly imploding Los Angeles during the year 2010.

Coolness Factor: Sleepless, as the mysterious disease is called, is actually a metaphorical stand-in for a number of maladies afflicting mankind today.  Sleepless, the novel is an action packed thrill ride with plenty to say about the likely near-term future of humanity.

Likelihood of Scenario Coming True: 5 out of 10.  It’s not that an epidemic of insomnia is imminent or even a realistic possibility—it is rather that author Charlie Huston’s vision of the near term future as society breaks down is realistically scary and plausible.

5.  Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack (1993)

randomactsofsenselessviolence

How The World Ends: Not really specified but, in America, massive civil unrest and economic collapse swirl in the background and eventually envelope the main characters.

Scenario: A 12-year-old girl begins writing in a diary just as the world begins to fly apart around her.

Coolness Factor: Lou Reed used to crab about the condition of New York City, but he never saw anything like this. The first person narrative is as gripping as it is harrowing, and the ending is as dark as it is grittily realistic.

Likelihood of Scenario Coming True: 5 out of 10.  Like Sleepless, author Jack Womack’s vision of the near term future as society breaks down is downright scary in its utter plausibility.

4.  The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

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How The World Ends: Not specified, but probably a nuclear war.

Scenario: A father and his young son follow the road trying to find a place where the landscape is not utterly barren and forlorn.

Coolness Factor: The most “respectable” doomsday novel out there, likely because of McCarthy’s stature as an author and a prominent endorsement from Oprah Winfrey.  This is the one apocalypse book most people have read if they have read any at all.

Likelihood of Scenario Coming True: 4 out of 10.  Just because the Cold War is over does not mean the threat of a nuclear conflagration has ended.

3.  World War Z by Max Brooks (2006)

worldwarz

How The World Ends: Zombie outbreak, baby!

Scenario: In the wake of the worldwide zombie war, the narrator travels from country to country interviewing the survivors.

Coolness Factor: Best.  Zombie.  Novel.  Evah.  Brooks’s globetrotting faux oral history is simply brilliant, packed full of humor, action and social commentary.  The “Battle of Yonkers” scene is the most badass living-versus-dead confrontation you’ll ever read.

Likelihood of Scenario Coming True: 0 out of 10.  Well, it is a zombie outbreak, after all.

2.  On The Beach by Nevil Shute (1957)

onthebeach

How The World Ends: Nuclear war destroys the Northern Hemisphere, and the survivors in the Southern Hemisphere await the arrival of the radiation clouds that will ultimately spell their doom.

Scenario: How would you prepare to die?  How would you live out your last months on Earth?

Coolness Factor: This is the dean of all classic nuclear war novels.  The ending is perhaps the all-time best for end-of-the-world fiction.  A timeless classic that is no less moving or powerful today than when it was written.

Likelihood of Scenario Coming True: 4 out of 10.  If humanity destroys itself, nuclear war still remains the most likely cause.

1.  The Stand by Stephen King (1978, 1990)

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How The World Ends: Superflu epidemic, and then an epic clash of good versus evil among the survivors.

Scenario: In a sweeping tale, King describes the breakdown of civilization as the plague sweeps across America and then slowly builds up the suspense to the final confrontation.

Coolness Factor: This was King’s magnum opus, his best and most memorable novel and one he’s never managed to top.  The 1990 version restores an incredible 500 pages deleted from the initial publication, and yet doesn’t seem bloated despite its length.  The Stand has had arguably had the greatest cultural impact of any doomsday novel.

Likelihood of Scenario Coming True: 3 out of 10 for the epidemic, 0 out of 10 for the supernaturally tinged, post-apocalyptic confrontation.

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Written By William Hicks


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43 Comments

  1. can’t we get over zombies? Please? It’s an absolutely retarded apocalypse story. It can and will never happen. It just doesn’t work for many simple biological reasons. Nuclear war, disease, asteroid strike, they can all actually happen. Zombies are just lazy and boring.

      • The author (William Hicks) Also wrote that there was

        “0 out of 10 for the supernaturally tinged, post-apocalyptic confrontation.”

        He is obviously NOT the one to listen to.

    • Just cause you don’t like something, doesn’t mean it’s lazy and boring. True, Zombies are not plausible as the ‘walking corpses’ styling. However, a 28 Days Later type is scarily plausible.

      That being said, once someone is the leader of cultural entertainment, they may then and only then dictate what others shall and shall not find enjoyment in.

  2. darkknight9761 on

    Very good list, but you omitted one of my favorites; “Childhood’s End” by Arthur C. Clarke. If you’re going to include “The Stand”, and “World War Z” both of which are highly unlikely, what about “Childhood’s End”?

    • Something like “Childhood’s End” would be a great way to go. Likelyhood? I take the JBS Haldane approach: “The universe is stranger than we can imagine”.

    • absolutely, Childhood’s end is quite brilliant, the end scene when the super beings dance into the sky as Earth dies is astonishing

    • I agree, Childhood’s End is a great story! I would also include the following novels – some of which have been made into films – and skip all those Zombie and Vampire crappy stories:
      Armageddon (yes, it’s also a book)
      Pandemic (yes, it’s also a book)
      Knowing (yes, it’s also a book)
      Deep Impact (yes, it’s also a book)

  3. I would add another Larry Niven short story called “Inconstant Moon” which was also done on TV as an episode of Outer Limits in 1996, which was probably the best episode of that run of the series.

    • Hugo-Arild Madtzog on

      Check out “Down to a sunless sea” by David Graham, it’s a really harrowing end-of-the-world story. It came out in the 1970s, I think.

  4. How about my favourite book of all-time, “Swan Song” by Robert R. McCammon? I’ve read my copy so many times that it’s falling apart.

  5. William Hicks on

    Hey guys. I’m the author of the piece. I really liked “Swan Song,” “Lucifer’s Hammer,” and “Childhood’s End” as well. And “Inconstant Moon” is an awesome short story.

    Unfortunately, there were only 10 spots on the list. 🙂

  6. James Van Pelt is my AP Lit teacher. I sent him this list because he will really find it cool that he was listed.

    • William Hicks on

      Cool! When I posted an earlier version of the list on my own blog, he sent me a thank you note. A very gracious man, indeed! 🙂

  7. I love The Stand and as a single novel I understand its inclusion here. However, I would argue that its status as King’s magnum opus was taken away by The Dark Tower series. Indeed, not only is that series an end-of-the-world story, it’s actually an end-of-many-parallel-worlds story.

  8. I’m very pleased to see Stephen King’s “The Stand” in top place as it’s been my favorite novel of any genre since I read it in the early 80’s. However, I do agree with Rob that it isn’t necessarily King’s magnum opus. I was completely blown away by King’s new book “11/22/63” and, even though it is not a typical King novel (not a horror story) or anything like “The Stand,” it may be his best work yet. I can’t comment on the Dark Tower series as it is the only thing of King’s that I haven’t read in it’s entirety. He has threatened retirement so many times I want to save something of his should that sad day ever come to pass.

    By the way, I loved this article and plan on checking out all the books on the list that I haven’t read. Great job! Thank you.

  9. While i can agree with most of this list, i think “War of the Worlds” should of been put on it over several otheres but ofcoarse that is only my opinion and who knows, it could happen. As for your comment that vampires aren’t real well that depends on how you view them, in terms of how they are portrayed in movies, sure they aren’t in that sense but they are real(look up emotional vampires etc)which is seen as a mental health problem and no matter how much anyone tries to makeout they aren’t, facts speak for themself, it’s the movies that twisted the view on them.

  10. I also loved Swan Song, and have read it oh so many times. Robert McCammon was always one of my favourite authors. Footfall & Lucifers Hammer were also good books.

  11. Thank you so much for having Sleepless on here by Charlie Huston. He is an absolutely amazing author and he’s far too little known. This book is also a big step up from all of the previous books, which I already loved.

  12. tease book should be in the list “The death of grass” the melting of the civilization by the end of its major food source by a virus.

    what would happen in the world with out grass? no rice ,wheat, maize, sorghum, barley, grass for cattle.

  13. FYI: Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” never specifies what caused the apocalypse beyond it being somehow fire-related. You can make a very good case that the supervolcano under Yellowstone caused a global catastrophe. Not to mention, he never mentions radiation.

  14. I am a little late posting on this topic, but if I could add one of my (new) favorites, The Passage by Justin Cronin, is a fantastic post-apocolyptic novel, however since it is (I believe) a trilogy, and only the first part is out, I can’t comment on if it ends well. But if you haven’t read it you should check it out.

  15. How can you have a list of top end of the world novels without mentioning anything from Orson Welles like 1984 or anything from H.G Wells like War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. Also how come none of the Left Behind books were mentioned? They give the most plausible scenario for end of the world out of any of the books mentioned.

  16. Greg Bears The Forge Of God is as good as the end of the world gets. We get very intelligent, unemotional visitors. One set says they are our friends, another has some bad news: the world is going to get obliterated. This book will knock you on your rear and break your earth loving human heart.

  17. jennifer stewart on

    well i think a nuclear war is more plausible than a zombie out break i also think a pandemic is more plausible than say something super natural bye

  18. I would like to submit S.M. Stirling’s “Dies The Fire” as one of the better post-apocalyptic novels. The cause of the “Apocalypse” is a bit far-fetched (fast combustion is somehow suppressed) but the description of a society in a fast collapse scenario seems chillingly plausible.

    It’s a good read and the first of 6 books in the Emberverse series. In my opinion, the later books in the series get more and more “fantasy-oriented” and don’t have the same impact as the first novel.

  19. I would like to toss “Dust” by Charles Pellagrino into the ring. An astonishingly intellectual book that handles the simple question, “What if a few insects disappeared.” The answer is terrifying.

  20. Donald W Berghuis on

    Is it appropriate to suggest one’s own book in this list? I have written a book entitled “All Alone”, It is the story of a man who is left as the only apparent survivor of a wold wide cataclysm which , in addition to wiping out all human life except him, has also destroyed almost all electrical power. He finds an operative TV that indicates there may be life in a distant city. His journey there and the time following is , I think, an intriguing story. It is not available through most outlets, as I submitted it to “Publish America” which is a Print on Demand house. You can order it through them, or contact me—I have about 30 copies of it available. I’ll sell them for $10 a copy, which is what they cost me.

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