The best books for imagining life after an apocalypse

Carrie Vaughn Author Of Bannerless
By Carrie Vaughn

The Books I Picked & Why

The World Without Us

By Alan Weisman

The World Without Us

Why this book?

When trying to imagine what would happen if civilization collapsed, you run up against some really basic, logistical details. Like, what actually happens to all our stuff, if no one's around to take care of it? Turns out, it falls apart a lot quicker than you'd think. Anyone who's noticed the grass and saplings coming up through the pavement in an abandoned lot after just a couple of years understands this. Now expand that to everything. Weisman's book asks questions about this post-people world I didn't even know to ask and the answers are fascinating.


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The Water Knife

By Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water Knife

Why this book?

For my money, nobody does a better job of showing us possible worlds after environmental collapse than Paolo Bacigalupi. Rigorous extrapolation of trends that are happening right now makes his work barely science fiction at all. The Water Knife is about what happens when the western U.S. runs out of water—and make no mistake, this is happening. What does it look like when a community successfully plans for it? And what happens when a community doesn't? Read and find out.


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A Song for a New Day

By Sarah Pinsker

A Song for a New Day

Why this book?

So, this is a novel about a world in which a global pandemic means that large gatherings are illegal and everyone has adapted to life at home in isolation. It was published in 2019, and I read it summer of 2020. I'm not sure I've ever read anything that was this spookily, horrifyingly prophetic. That said, it's also really punk and ultimately uplifting. One of the characters is the lead singer of the band who it turns out inadvertently gave the last public concert ever, and she's trying to revive live music with underground concerts. Another character is the virtual talent scout who joins her cause. The story is about how you peel yourself out of trauma and disaster to find community again. Be warned, at this historical moment this one's a bit of a kick in the teeth.


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Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction

By Annalee Newitz

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction

Why this book?

When you study the long arc of history you begin to suspect that apocalypses aren't just inevitable, they're common. And so is survival, which is a really heartening thought. Human beings are crazily adaptable, and our ability to come together in communities (ideally, when we're at our best, which granted isn't always and is hard to see sometimes) will aid our survival. Annalee Newitz tells us how this is has happened before, and how it can happen again.


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On the Beach

By Nevil Shute

On the Beach

Why this book?

While the total nuclear apocalypse presented here seems old-fashioned now, I still found this a powerful thought experiment: how will people respond when faced with inevitable, unavoidable destruction, when it creeps slowly and they can see it coming? Which of course, is the set of disasters we're facing now, unlike that sudden nuclear apocalypse those of us of a certain generation grew up with. This is a tough read, not at all hopeful as most of my other recommendations are, so I hesitated even putting it on this list. But it's reassuring to think that this scenario isn't the one that will likely get us. We have way more options than the characters here do.


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