The best disaster books where society fails suddenly

Who am I?

I’ve written or edited thousands of science and engineering proposals, blog posts, and reports, and in the past decade, disaster resilience has become a major subject of these documents. I’ve come to realize that while it’s possible to be ready for disasters, few people truly are. In the books I’m recommending, something vital to life has been stolen and the disasters are so overpowering that mere survival is a nearly impossible goal. This forces the characters into unusual and heroic action. Their choices are sometimes surprising and always compelling, and I loved sharing their journeys.   

I wrote...

The Climate Machine

By Susan Kemp,

Book cover of The Climate Machine

What is my book about?

No one seems to know why the waters are vanishing from the Northwestern United States. Crime and chaos reign as society collapses. Marella Wells, a young employee at a worldwide chemical company, thinks she may have discovered what is happening to the water. But there is no way to alert authorities and no time to spare. With her mentor-boss and a displaced college student, Marella travels through the depleted regions of the Pacific Ocean to stop the run-away Climate Machine. The small band of unlikely warriors must battle for survival through unprecedented droughts, storms, and fires, and to make matters worse, a violent religious doomsday cult is at their heels. If Marella and her companions fail in their mission, all life on Earth will perish.

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The books I picked & why


By Ling Ma,

Book cover of Severance

Why did I love this book?

What stood out to me about Severance, aside from the witty-without-trying-to-be writing, was the dynamic between the characters.

In the group of nine or so people still healthy after a devasting virus, one man appoints himself as the leader, and the others allow him to do so, following him on a questionable journey. It spurred me to ponder why people award others status.

Why do people follow others so faithfully, even when they don’t deserve respect? Also, the alternating chapters of pre- and post-disaster expose the many things we stress about in our daily lives that just don’t matter. That may sound tragic, but I found it liberating.

Read this book to immerse yourself in the post-apocalyptic world, but also enjoy the vivid detail and great writing.   

By Ling Ma,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Severance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Maybe it’s the end of the world, but not for Candace Chen, a millennial, first-generation American and office drone meandering her way into adulthood in Ling Ma’s offbeat, wryly funny, apocalyptic satire, Severance.

"A stunning, audacious book with a fresh take on both office politics and what the apocalypse might bring." ―Michael Schaub,

“A satirical spin on the end times-- kind of like The Office meets The Leftovers.” --Estelle Tang, Elle

NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY: NPR * The New Yorker ("Books We Loved") * Elle * Marie Claire * Amazon Editors * The Paris Review…

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel,

Book cover of Station Eleven

Why did I love this book?

It’s a mark of a good book that years after reading it, scenes from it still play out in your mind.

In Station Eleven, after the world grinds to a halt (again, a virus), a girl can’t get hold of her desperately needed medication. I still visualize her wandering off into the woods, never to be seen again.

If society collapsed, we would profoundly miss many things that are more than just basics. It begs the question of whether we can ever be truly disaster resilient.

At one point in the novel, a character protests, “Are we supposed to believe that civilization has just come to an end?” Another responds, “…it was always a little fragile, wouldn’t you say?”

This compelling book, which imagines both society’s collapse and its resurgence years later, is well worth reading.

By Emily St. John Mandel,

Why should I read it?

20 authors picked Station Eleven as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Best novel. The big one . . . stands above all the others' - George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones

Now an HBO Max original TV series

The New York Times Bestseller
Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award
Longlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction
National Book Awards Finalist
PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist

What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.

One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in…

Bird Box

By Josh Malerman,

Book cover of Bird Box

Why did I love this book?

It fascinates me how in a disaster, from one day to the next, nothing is ever the same again.

In Bird Box, where something is turning people violently suicidal, “…it definitely begins when a person sees something.

At first there’s a rumor in a faraway country, but later the world abruptly changes. Nobody can be outside without a blindfold, millions are dying, and society collapses.

It would be bad enough to literally never see the world outside of your house, but then Malorie has to take a journey on a river…while blindfolded...with two blindfolded children…amidst creatures she knows almost nothing about.

That’s pure insanity that makes for a riveting, absorbing book, and Malorie’s determination is beyond inspiring. 

By Josh Malerman,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Bird Box as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Josh Malerman's debut novel Bird Box is a terrifying, Hitchcockesque psychological horror that is sure to stay with you long after reading.

Malorie raises the children the only way she can: indoors.

The house is quiet. The doors are locked, the curtains are closed, mattresses are nailed over the windows.

They are out there. She might let them in.

The children sleep in the bedroom across the hall.

Soon she will have to wake them. Soon she will have to blindfold them.

Today they must leave the house. Today they will risk everything.

Book cover of The War of the Worlds

Why did I love this book?

You might think this classic was written in the 1930s because of the panic-causing radio drama, but it was actually published in 1898.

How astounding it must have seemed back then, and the tale of Martians causing utter destruction has endured the test of time.

What stood out for me was the difficulty of disseminating information in the late nineteenth century, and the in-depth descriptions of the English landscape, the Martians, and their machines: “…vast spiderlike machines, nearly a hundred feet high, capable of the speed of an express train, and able to shoot out a beam of intense heat.”

Books like this are wildly entertaining, but that’s not all. Our ability to imagine disaster, and envision overcoming it, is a step toward disaster resilience. 

By H.G. Wells,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked The War of the Worlds as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

But planet Earth was not only being watched - soon it would be invaded by monstrous creatures from Mars who strode about the land in great mechanical tripods, bringing death and destruction with them. What can possibly stop an invading army equipped with heat-rays and poisonous black gas, intent on wiping out the human race? This is one man's story of that incredible invasion, from the time the first Martians land near his home town, to the destruction of London. Is this the end of human life on Earth?

Book cover of The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

Why did I love this book?

This nonfiction book is jam-packed with astonishing facts and captivating personalities from the time of the Dust Bowl.

The disasters were many and varied during the 1930s on America’s Great Plains. “The weather might display seven different moods in a year, and six of them were life-threatening. Droughts, blizzards, grass fires, hailstorms, flash floods, and tornadoes…”

Not to mention the dust storms: “thick like coarse animal hair…with an edge like steel wool.” At least two monster “black dusters” traveled 2,000 miles (3,220 kilometers), taking topsoil from the midwest all the way to Washington DC.

The impact on society was terrible, but brought about great change in the country’s approach to conservation. This book is excellent for writers. Having read it helped me write more truthfully (I hope) about disasters in my fiction.

By Timothy Egan,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Worst Hard Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a tour de force of historical reportage, Timothy Egan’s National Book Award–winning story rescues an iconic chapter of American history from the shadows.

The dust storms that terrorized the High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression were like nothing ever seen before or since. Following a dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region, Timothy Egan tells of their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black dust blizzards, crop failure, and the death of loved ones. Brilliantly capturing the terrifying drama of catastrophe, he does equal justice to the human characters…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in dystopian, survival, and Mars?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about dystopian, survival, and Mars.

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Mars Explore 63 books about Mars

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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