The best books on extinction events

2 authors have picked their favorite books about extinction events and why they recommend each book.

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Extinctions

By Michael Hannah,

Book cover of Extinctions: Living and Dying in the Margin of Error

The history of life’s diversity, as revealed in the fossil record has been tumultuous. Periods of explosive evolution alternated with times of major species loss. Hannah skillfully utilizes the geologic record to provide a historical context for our current global ecological emergency and the rapid demise of many key species. He makes a strong case that those who ignore the clear messages of geologic history are doomed to experience the worsening “Sixth Extinction” during the newly defined Anthropocene epoch.

Who am I?

A visit to the American Museum of Natural History when I was seven years old hooked me on dinosaurs and geology in general. I have maintained that passion to uncover the history of the earth with fieldwork on all seven continents, cutting-edge research, and teaching undergraduates to appreciate the implications of our tenancy on the planet, and our place within the solar system, the galaxy, and the wider universe.


I wrote...

Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century

By Michael R. Rampino,

Book cover of Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century

What is my book about?

Cataclysms offers a cosmic context for the earth’s geologic evolution, in which periodic disasters from above in the form of comet and asteroid impacts and from below in the form of huge outpourings of lava have led to catastrophic mass extinctions of life. This “new geology” sees the earth’s position in the solar system and the galaxy as the key to understanding our planet’s geology and the history of life.

The book concludes with a controversial consideration of exotic dark matter in the galaxy as a potential triggering mechanism, exploring its role in heating the earth’s core and spurring periodic bursts of geologic activity.

On the Beach

By Nevil Shute,

Book cover of On the Beach

This book is limited in scope to a narrow cast of characters and focuses on just one part of the world, but it is terrifying and ultimately preaches a strong sermon against nuclear war. It has unusually well-developed characters for this type of book, and you care about them, which makes the ending even more horrific.

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by the end of the world since I was a child, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and post-apocalyptic fiction helps me see different perspectives on the topic and explores different ways to feel about extinction-level events. I am a lawyer, an MBA, and a published novelist.


I wrote...

The Cure: A Thriller

By Bradlee Frazer,

Book cover of The Cure: A Thriller

What is my book about?

A mysterious new contagion is decimating the population. There is no vaccine, and none is expected, as the virus is protean and elusive. If it remains unchecked and mutates into a more virulent form, it will become an extinction-level event.

Jason Kramer has the disease, known by its nickname “Trips Lite”, but his body produces a unique antibody that kills the viruses inside him. This component in Jason’s blood can be harvested and given to anyone who needs it—his blood can heal. But pharmaceutical magnate Phillip Porter needs to keep people believing that only his expensive drug cocktail will slow Trips Lite down, and so if there’s any chance someone with the disease will live, Phillip Porter must make sure that Jason Kramer does not.

Death from the Skies!

By Philip Plait,

Book cover of Death from the Skies!: The Science Behind the End of the World

This is not a fiction book per se but each chapter sets out a possible future, in a story-like form, of how life as we know it might be terminated on Earth. We know for a fact that mass extinctions have happened before but this time, we may well have the smarts to do something about it. This book inspires us to look up not down and marvel at the cosmos that made us but that also might unmake us. It is a clarion call for us to become planetary caretakers, rather than planetary abusers.


Who am I?

Tom spent the first 30 years of his professional life at the cutting edge of the broadcast industry. He has always been fascinated by new technology and more specifically how it allows humans to evolve and work smarter and better. He is also a sci-fi fan and has a keen interest in both cosmology and metaphysics. He says that today's metaphysics is tomorrow’s physics. So his book choices mirror his fascinations which are in what lies in the future for humanity, bearing in mind that science fiction especially has a tendency to become science fact at some time or other. If we humans are capable of imagining something, then we seem to develop the ability to make it happen.


I wrote...

Soulwaves: A Future History

By Tom Evans,

Book cover of Soulwaves: A Future History

What is my book about?

Soulwaves is a metaphysical and cosmological adventure across space and time. If you’ve ever wondered where we are heading, this book explores a possible near-future for humanity and the Earth.

Soulwaves are the missing dark energy and dark matter that cosmologists can’t find. They bond people to people, moons to planets, planets to stars, and stars to other stars to form galaxies. When this book begins in 2059, China has become the predominant force on the world stage. You will discover that events on planet Earth, and all other sentient planets, are managed and directed by more pervasive, yet unseen, forces.

T. Rex and the Crater of Doom

By Walter Alvarez,

Book cover of T. Rex and the Crater of Doom

This is the classic story of the amazing discoveries that led to the hypothesis that a large comet or asteroid impact, 66 million years ago, caused a global catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs and most other species of life, as told by the discoverer of the critical evidence. Alvarez is a master storyteller—the book is written along the sensational lines of a great scientific murder mystery, solved by geologic detective work, but also relying on mind-bending serendipity. These discoveries by Alvarez and others marked the beginning of an ongoing revolution in the geological sciences and forced geologists to recognize the critical role played by rare, but devastating, catastrophic events in earth history.


Who am I?

A visit to the American Museum of Natural History when I was seven years old hooked me on dinosaurs and geology in general. I have maintained that passion to uncover the history of the earth with fieldwork on all seven continents, cutting-edge research, and teaching undergraduates to appreciate the implications of our tenancy on the planet, and our place within the solar system, the galaxy, and the wider universe.


I wrote...

Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century

By Michael R. Rampino,

Book cover of Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century

What is my book about?

Cataclysms offers a cosmic context for the earth’s geologic evolution, in which periodic disasters from above in the form of comet and asteroid impacts and from below in the form of huge outpourings of lava have led to catastrophic mass extinctions of life. This “new geology” sees the earth’s position in the solar system and the galaxy as the key to understanding our planet’s geology and the history of life.

The book concludes with a controversial consideration of exotic dark matter in the galaxy as a potential triggering mechanism, exploring its role in heating the earth’s core and spurring periodic bursts of geologic activity.

The Worst of Times

By Paul B. Wignall,

Book cover of The Worst of Times: How Life on Earth Survived Eighty Million Years of Extinctions

Can continental drift lead to mass extinctions of life? In this book, Wignall expounds his provoking hypothesis that gigantic volcanic eruptions, triggered by the arrangement of the world’s landmasses in a single super-continent, led to eighty million years of episodic environmental crises that devastated life again and again. He describes the latest scientific evidence for this volcano-extinction connection and takes us with him on his own exciting field experiences studying these volcanic events in remote corners of the world.


Who am I?

A visit to the American Museum of Natural History when I was seven years old hooked me on dinosaurs and geology in general. I have maintained that passion to uncover the history of the earth with fieldwork on all seven continents, cutting-edge research, and teaching undergraduates to appreciate the implications of our tenancy on the planet, and our place within the solar system, the galaxy, and the wider universe.


I wrote...

Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century

By Michael R. Rampino,

Book cover of Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century

What is my book about?

Cataclysms offers a cosmic context for the earth’s geologic evolution, in which periodic disasters from above in the form of comet and asteroid impacts and from below in the form of huge outpourings of lava have led to catastrophic mass extinctions of life. This “new geology” sees the earth’s position in the solar system and the galaxy as the key to understanding our planet’s geology and the history of life.

The book concludes with a controversial consideration of exotic dark matter in the galaxy as a potential triggering mechanism, exploring its role in heating the earth’s core and spurring periodic bursts of geologic activity.

The Andromeda Strain

By Michael Crichton,

Book cover of The Andromeda Strain

This novel teaches the doomsday aspects of biological warfare and not nuclear warfare. Great hard science underpinning a very scary story of the government acting in a typical self-serving way to find a better weapon, a project that ends up almost ending life on earth. Crichton leaves open the possibility of a viral apocalypse and teaches us, in his typical science-dense prose, that man should not play God, especially when it comes to germ warfare!

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by the end of the world since I was a child, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and post-apocalyptic fiction helps me see different perspectives on the topic and explores different ways to feel about extinction-level events. I am a lawyer, an MBA, and a published novelist.


I wrote...

The Cure: A Thriller

By Bradlee Frazer,

Book cover of The Cure: A Thriller

What is my book about?

A mysterious new contagion is decimating the population. There is no vaccine, and none is expected, as the virus is protean and elusive. If it remains unchecked and mutates into a more virulent form, it will become an extinction-level event.

Jason Kramer has the disease, known by its nickname “Trips Lite”, but his body produces a unique antibody that kills the viruses inside him. This component in Jason’s blood can be harvested and given to anyone who needs it—his blood can heal. But pharmaceutical magnate Phillip Porter needs to keep people believing that only his expensive drug cocktail will slow Trips Lite down, and so if there’s any chance someone with the disease will live, Phillip Porter must make sure that Jason Kramer does not.

The Road

By Cormac McCarthy,

Book cover of The Road

What if the world as we know it came to an end? And what if you had a child to care for in this new merciless land? I'd just become a father when I picked up this book after hearing all the buzz about the novel. A story about a father and son traveling through an apocalyptic world: I read it in one night. The story is heartbreaking and unforgettable. And that's what great stories are supposed to do—they make you feel and bring out unexpected emotions. Author Cormac McCarthy is a master of doing just that.


Who am I?

I love reading and writing "what if" stories. When I came up with the idea for my book, I thought, that's one whopper of an idea. Then I thought, how the heck will I pull this off? An elite military unit sent back in time to when Jesus walked the earth. And one of the members of the unit decides to save Christ. With that crazy concept, the result is my book Save Him, which has won seven writing awards as I write this. As a kid, I always tried to tell the best stories around the campfire, and I guess that's what I'm still trying to do now.


I wrote...

Save Him

By William M. Hayes,

Book cover of Save Him

What is my book about?

Save Him is a seven-time award-winning what-if novel that leaves readers on the edge of their seats.

The book involves a brilliant scientist who accidentally discovers time travel while working from a military base on a project designed to save wounded soldiers in the field. His sister, a nun, tells him that she has received a message from God telling him to go back in time to save Jesus from the cross. Crazy right? I love what-if novels and I’ve gone out of my way to give this one the biggest wow factor possible.

The Sixth Extinction

By Elizabeth Kolbert,

Book cover of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Any book by this writer makes a good read but this one rise above the others—and that is no small feat. This is an odd way to put it but the book brings to life the five catastrophic events that decimated so many species over the course of geological time. The idea of a sixth catastrophic event causing another mass extinction can be seen in human time because human activity is driving the catastrophe. Though it is true that the earth has always had climate change with global warming and cooling, this book shows how dangerous that plain fact can be without context. 


Who am I?

When I left Wisconsin and arrived for a position at the University of Alaska Anchorage, I was struck by the state’s nearly manic fear of low prices for the oil flowing from Prudhoe Bay through the Alaska (or North Slope) oil pipeline. Years later I returned to Wisconsin and quickly learned that there was relatively little interest in a pipeline that ran down the entire state in the manner of the Alaska pipeline. Only this pipeline carried synthetic crude made from natural asphalt hacked or melted out of the ground in Alberta, Canada. My interest in the environmental and political aspects of that pipeline set me on the path to a book about asphalt.


I wrote...

Asphalt: A History

By Kenneth O'Reilly,

Book cover of Asphalt: A History

What is my book about?

The asphalt on approximately 94 percent of paved roads in the United States has a chemical cousin in the oil sands (or tar sands) of Alberta, Canada. Oil companies are converting that natural asphalt (called bitumen in Canada) into synthetic crude oil ("syncrude") or diluting it with chemicals ("dilbit") so it can ship south via pipeline through Wisconsin and into storage tanks in Illinois. Refineries are the end destination. Gasoline is the end product. 

Global warming imagery has the earth bleeding co2 and consumed by God knows what. Wildfire and rising sea? War and famine? Pandemic now and pandemic from now on? Asphalt helped shape our environment in so many ways. Now, it might help destroy our environment in one simple way.

Alas, Babylon

By Pat Frank,

Book cover of Alas, Babylon

Growing up in Florida near the end of the Cold War, the looming threat of nuclear war was ever-present. We were even still doing nuclear attack drills in school. When this book was assigned reading for an English class, I had no idea how close to home it would hit. Survivors in a small town in Florida must survive the aftermath of a nuclear war. Ironically, the small town in the book was based on a town only a short drive from my own home. Witnessing the experiences of wholly ordinary people—people who could have been my own family, friends, and neighbors—thrust into an extraordinary situation was gripping and terrifying.


Who am I?

I lived in small towns with “ordinary” people most of my life, so books where people from small towns contend with situations beyond the ordinary fascinate me. I also served in the US Army as a nuclear, biological, and chemical operations specialist and am a military history buff, so anything with a military spin is all that more engaging for me and I developed a morbid fascination for just how easy it would be for us to end civilization as we know it. Therefore, military science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction are among my favorite genres. 


I wrote...

What Once Was Home

By B.K. Bass,

Book cover of What Once Was Home

What is my book about?

When his world is suddenly torn apart, one man must learn to survive in What Once Was Home.

Jace Cox’s life is changed when an overwhelming alien force invades the Earth with no warning or provocation. In the years that follow, he must not only fight to survive, but also learn what it means to be a man and a leader. As the situation grows more dire and the weight of loss bears down on Jace, he realizes his greatest challenge isn’t the alien invaders or even his fellow man. It is holding onto his own humanity despite living in a world gone mad.

I Am Legend

By Richard Matheson,

Book cover of I Am Legend

Matheson has a way with words that few have been able to replicate since. This novelpossibly his most famous workcombines light reading with heavy subtext interwoven into the story. It’s the kind of tale that makes you pause on the final page, reflecting on the message of the storyonly to have it hit you harder every time you’re reminded of it, as more meaning builds upon previous thoughts. Matheson’s writing is beautiful, purposeful, and accessible, but the scenes he creates with those words are fraught with danger and dread. He is able to craft perfect monsters in the least suspecting waysprobably why his works are so notoriously timeless and worth revisiting.


Who am I?

I’ve been ensconced in horror since childhood—from the Monster Double Feature to Creepy and Tomb of Dracula. I’m part of the Monster Squad; I’m what goes bump in the night. I live for the scare. My love for all things spooky started young, growing up with Bradbury and Matheson, before graduating to King, Koontz, and Straub. I continued to absorb horror wherever I could: books, films, and comics, drinking it in as quickly as it came out. Eventually, I found that I’d absorbed so many stories, I had one or two of my own to contributeso I began writing short stories and novels to terrorize the genre myself!


I wrote...

Threshold

By Andy Lockwood, Brian Ritson (illustrator),

Book cover of Threshold

What is my book about?

After the death of her grandmother, Cate inherits an antique mirror. The frame is detailed, ageless. The glass unmarred. Impeccable. Cate can't put her finger on it, but there's something wrong with the way her reflection looks back at her.

Cate assumes the mirror has a storied history, but it doesn't seem to have any history at all. Previous owners have all disappeared, leaving Cate to piece together its mysterious origin. At first, this didn't seem like a problem, but Cate's life is twisting in unusual ways since taking ownership of the artifact. Plagued by nightmares and haunted by her own reflection, she can hardly close her eyes. Perhaps it is exhaustion. Perhaps it is something else entirely.

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