The best books in which the whole of human civilization collapses overnight

Nicholas Ponticello Author Of Do Not Resuscitate: The Monkey Parade
By Nicholas Ponticello

The Books I Picked & Why

Cat's Cradle

By Kurt Vonnegut

Book cover of Cat's Cradle

Why this book?

As an avid Vonnegut reader and aficionado, I can confidently recommend any of his fourteen novels. You’ve probably heard of his most famous work, Slaughterhouse Five. My personal favorites are Galapagos and Mother Night. But in terms of apocalyptic collapses of human civilization, I’d have to suggest Cat’s Cradle as your next (perhaps, first) Vonnegut read.

Cat’s Cradle was published in 1963 as a satirical commentary on technology and religion, specifically referencing the creation of the atomic bomb and its devastating impacts on the planet and its people. But even more devastating is Vonnegut’s ice-nine, a solid crystal that turns any liquid it touches into more solid ice-nine. When some of this ice-nine accidentally falls into the ocean, all the water on Earth instantly solidifies, causing a mass extinction event and leaving only a few unlucky humans to fight for survival in the barren aftermath.

Everything Vonnegut writes borders on the absurd, so go into this read expecting a wild ride through a satirical universe filled with quirky characters and dark humor. I love this book and its wisecracking author. So Cat’s Cradle goes on top as my number one recommendation for best books in which the whole of human civilization collapses overnight.

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By José Saramago

Book cover of Blindness

Why this book?

Where Cat’s Cradle is a dark comedy, Blindness is just plain dark. A plague of blindness sweeps through an unnamed city in an unnamed country. The afflicted are quarantined in an abandoned asylum where all hell breaks loose. The story is told through the eyes of a woman who is inexplicably immune to the blindness, but who accompanies her husband in quarantine. She witnesses the worst of humanity, seeing everything that the inmates do when they think nobody is watching. 

José Saramago won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his body of work, which includes this dystopian novel. Blindness is not for the weak of stomach or faint of heart. I have to admit that I get a little sick every time I think about the terrible ways the people treat each other in this book. It doesn’t help that I have horrific scenes from the movie version of Blindness etched into my skull. Read it first, then watch the movie if you dare.

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Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

Book cover of Station Eleven

Why this book?

Station Eleven hits a little close to home for those of us who are living through the COVID pandemic. In this quintessentially American tale, a swine flu pandemic wipes out a significant portion of the global population. The story takes place in the Great Lakes region and follows a traveling theater troupe through a post-apocalyptic world.

I read Station Eleven years before the COVID pandemic struck. At the time, the novel made me contemplate what life might be like for me in a pandemic. Would I be stocked up on enough food and water? Would I wait it out in my apartment? How would I survive?

Now I know what it’s like to live through a deadly pandemic, and it is nothing like the books. Turns out, life in a pandemic involves a lot of Netflix.

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Dissipatio H.G.: The Vanishing

By Guido Morselli, Frederika Randall

Book cover of Dissipatio H.G.: The Vanishing

Why this book?

I found Dissipatio H.G. through a New York Times book review when the first English translation was released in 2020. The story was originally published in Italian in 1977, four years after the author died from suicide. This obscure but brilliant work of fiction takes place in a fictional mountain metropolis. One day our main character wakes up, and every human being on the entire planet has vanished. Except of course for him. Part philosophical treatise, part post-apocalyptic adventure, Dissipatio H.G. is a rare find for those lovers of eclectic literature.

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The Passage

By Justin Cronin

Book cover of The Passage

Why this book?

A plague of vampires? Why not? This book is part of a trilogy but stands well on its own. In fact, I haven’t even read the other books in the trilogy. Maybe someday. The Passage was one of the first books I’d ever read that imagined vampirism as a global pandemic. And I ate it up. Of all the books on this list, The Passage is the least philosophical in its treatment of human nature. So if you came here for a purely apocalyptic adventure with lots of action, then this is your book.

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