The best novels on those good old apocalypse days

The Books I Picked & Why

Earth Abides

By George R. Stewart

Book cover of Earth Abides

Why this book?

Earth Abides is the Grandparent of modern apocalypse novels. I read it for the 1st time in my early teens; it captivated me. I don’t generally reread books, but I reread Earth Abides more than once a decade. Despite its age, 75, it still reads well, it is not a page-turner, but the world building and the story are so strong they will pull you through. Isherwood, the central character, wakes up after barely surviving a snake bite after spending a season doing research in the wilderness. He returns to ‘civilization’ to find that, though many things are still working, most people are dead or walking wounded. A scientist used to just observing, Ish becomes a leader of ‘his tribe,’ people he has encountered and brought together in a community.

The story follows him and his family from a young man as human civilization falls, to an old man where his descendants are returning to a hunter/gatherer society. Throughout the novel, which takes place over many decades, there is a strong theme of the fragile balance between the planet and the beings that live on it, especially humans.

Trivia: George R. Stewart also wrote Ordeal By Hunger, a non-fiction about the Donner Party. He also came up with the idea of naming hurricanes. 

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A Canticle for Leibowitz

By Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Book cover of A Canticle for Leibowitz

Why this book?

A Canticle for Leibowitz truly has all three aspects of apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian set in a three-part cycle. My middle school English teacher gave it to me to read since I was bored with what she was teaching. I cannot thank her enough. Canticle has a fascinating premise: six centuries before the story begins, a worldwide atomic apocalypse occurred. Blaming the scientists and thinkers, survivors, dubbing themselves “Simpletons,” hunted and killed off academics, scientists, and other people with knowledge.

Leibowitz founded a monastery in the Utah desert to preserve what knowledge they could. He is being considered for sainthood for his efforts 600 years before, when a young monk of his order discovers a trove of ‘relics’ in a bomb shelter which are attributed to Leibowitz. These include a grocery list and blueprints which the monk copies as a medieval illumination. The monks' interpretations of the items found in the shelter illustrate the loss of knowledge in those few intervening centuries. The book is cyclical in three parts, with lots of significant connections with the history of the Catholic church. Each part is separated by hundreds of years, there is a secondary apocalypse after humans have come back from their degradation and they eventually achieve space travel. This book is truly epic.

Trivia: Walter M. Miller wrote it in response after having helped destroy an ancient monastery in Europe during WWII. It is also the only novel he finished, though a sequel was eventually finished by a friend, author Terry Bisson and published a year after his death and forty years after Canticle was published.

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Lucifer's Hammer

By Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle

Book cover of Lucifer's Hammer

Why this book?

Lucifer's Hammer is probably the most realistic apocalypse novel I have read. The authors, also scientists, were very careful to make the entire novel seem possible, probable, and plausible (except maybe for the scene where the surfer rides the tsunami wave into a skyscraper!). It has an immediacy that is lacking in many such novels. When an amateur astronomer discovers a comet headed for Earth, the novel follows him, along with many other different storylines and characters, including astronauts who see the devastation from space. It seemed terrifyingly realistic for me as a 12-year-old, and many scenes still stick in my head though I’ve only reread it once. Would love to see this one turned into a film!

Trivia: Jerry Pournelle was one of the first bloggers, and a tech writer who predicted that hard drives would be replaced by solid-state storage devices. Larry Niven was an advisor to President Reagan on the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka Star Wars program) to design space-based weapons.

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The Stand

By Stephen King

Book cover of The Stand

Why this book?

I generally don’t like what I call Woo-Woo (supernatural elements) in novels, but The Stand blew me away! In fact, it was so impactful to me (along with the 1st three on this list) I referred to my 1st book as being “The Stand” without paranormal. In these days of the Covid Pandemic, the beginning of the novel seems very realistic. The characters, who the reader gets to know intimately are incredibly real human beings, and as the plot draws the participants together, I couldn’t help but be pulled along with them. I highly recommend the “uncut” version, partly because it allows you to stay in that universe longer!

Trivia: It’s been made into two different film adaptations, an expanded edition that is closer to King’s original manuscript with some editing and additions. Amongst these, there are now three different final scenes. Stephen King also played parts in both film versions.

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Parable of the Sower

By Octavia E. Butler

Book cover of Parable of the Sower

Why this book?

Parable of the Sower was published in 1993, but I came to it late, not reading it until I had finished my 1st apocalyptic novel. It is a stunning story and the most terrifying for those of us living today. It is set in the 2020s and seems prescient in its representation of rampant capitalism and societal breakdown in a climate-changed United States. Told from the point of view of Lauren, a young black woman growing up afflicted with “The Sharing,” which forces her to feel what others are feeling, especially pain. She has grown up in a former gated community that manages to live slightly above the literal “have nots” living outside their walls, because of their members’ interdependence and support. Eventually, they are attacked by people from outside and she escapes north disguised as a man. Interspersed with the narrative are pieces of poetry that begin to build into a belief system envisioned by Lauren, a better way for humans to live: Earthseed. Despite its darkness, the ending is more optimistic than many dystopian novels.

Trivia: Octavia Butler, also wrote of alien races, historical, futuristic science fiction, and even a modern vampire story that upends many tropes of the genre. Two extrasolar objects bear her name: Asteroid 7052 Octaviabutler and the Perseverance rover landing site on Mars.

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