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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
Written By William Hicks