From infectious diseases of the 21st century to the 20th century fascination of space-based apocalypses and nuclear warfare, these 23 recommendations for the best post-apocalyptic books from the past century contain a little bit of everything.
Post-apocalyptic reads feature the end of the world as we know it, and the beginning of something new. Therefore, the recommendations on this list will venture slightly into the horror, fantasy, or dystopian genres as well.
Some books will feature zombies or vampires as part of the apocalypse. Yet perhaps the most terrifying recommendations shine a light on the purely human crimes and actions.
Post-Apocalyptic vs. Dystopian
Before we dive into our list of the best post-apocalyptic books, it’s important that we define the parameters that were used in putting together these recommendations.
While dystopian, apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic are often used interchangeably, each does have its own definition and serve its own purpose. That’s not to say that there isn’t crossover between these closely-related genres, as you will see examples of in the list below. But we tried to hold fast to the true definition of post-apocalyptic.
Dystopias tend to focus on the society. The community and governance is often presented in an idealistic light. For example, think of The Hunger Games and the utopian way District 1 and the Capitol were presented.
A general rule of thumb is that if a book focuses on the rebellion against an oppressive government or regime, it should be classified as dystopian. However, if the book focuses on the consequences and effects of a wide-spread tragedy, then it is more apocalyptic.
There are two classifications of apocalyptic books. Either a book takes place during the collapse of society, which makes it an apocalyptic read, or it takes place in the aftermath of such a collapse, making it a post-apocalyptic book. Obviously, this list will focus on books which take place after a catastrophic event which has decimated society and the larger world.
This destruction can be the result of a fantastical epidemic, biological warfare or a disease strain, nuclear war or an environmental disaster. The crux of many post-apocalyptic reads will be the search for survivors or the battle to establish a new society.
23 Best Post-Apocalyptic Books
In looking at a century of literature, it was impossible to capture everything that has been published and impacted the genre. But now that we’re all on the same page for how to define post-apocalyptic reads, with the understanding that authors hardly ever hold hard and true to one genre exclusively, let’s dive into our list of the best post-apocalyptic books.
23. Severance by Ling Ma
The first book on our list of the best post-apocalyptic books from the past century is a modern tale. It is a contemporary coming-of-age story which takes place in New York City as a plague sweeps the metropolis.
Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, loves routine. So she barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York.
Then Shen Fever spreads. Families flee. Companies halt operations. The subways squeak to a halt.
Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost.
Candace won’t be able to make it on her own forever, though. Enter a group of survivors, led by the power-hungry IT tech Bob. They’re traveling to a place called the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew.
But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers?
22. Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
This next title is a slim book. It is also a grotesque story which delves into the question of consumption and nourishment following an infectious virus pandemic.
Marcos is in the business of slaughtering humans at the local processing plant, but no one calls them that anymore.
His wife has left him, his father is sinking into dementia, and Marcos tries not to think too hard about how he makes a living. After all, it happened so quickly.
First came reports that an infectious virus has made all animal meat poisonous to humans. Then governments initiated the “Transition.”
Now, eating human meat — “special meat” — is legal. Marcos tries to stick to numbers, consignments, processing.
Then one day he’s given a gift: A live specimen of the finest quality. Though he’s aware that any form of personal contact is forbidden on pain of death, little by little he starts to treat her like a human being. And soon, he becomes tortured by what has been lost — and what might still be saved.
21. Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
This book shifts from the infectious diseases of the 21st century to the previous generation of space-based apocalypses. First published in 1977, Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle is a classic post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel.
The gigantic comet has slammed into Earth, forging earthquakes a thousand times too powerful to measure on the Richter scale, tidal waves thousands of feet high. Cities were turned into oceans; oceans turned into steam. It was the beginning of a new Ice Age and the end of civilization.
But for the terrified men and women chance had saved, it was also the dawn of a new struggle for survival. A struggle more dangerous and challenging than any they had ever known…
20. A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C.A. Fletcher
Coming in at the twentieth spot on our list of the best post-apocalyptic books is a young adult recommendation. A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C.A. Fletcher is a pretty self-explanatory title.
It follows Griz, who has grown up in a post-apocalyptic world. The apocalypse has decimated the world and its population. Griz recounts to the reader that he has never met enough people to play a game of football.
However, despite growing up isolated on a remote island, Griz and his parents were never lonely. They had each other and they had their dogs, but then a thief came.
Now Griz is intent on hunting down the thief. In a world in which there is no law, Griz’s morality surrounds being loyal to the things he loves.
19. Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon
Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon is another classic post-apocalyptic sci-fi title from the 1980s, but this book also creeps along the lines of the horror genre. It begins in the aftermath of a nuclear war as an ancient evil roams the desolate landscape of America.
He is the Man with the Scarlet Eye, a malevolent force that feeds on the dark desires of the countless followers he has gathered into his service. His only desire is to find a special child named Swan — and destroy her. But those who would protect the girl are determined to fight for what is left of the world, and their souls.
In a wasteland born of rage, populated by monstrous creatures and marauding armies, the last survivors on earth have been drawn into the final battle between good and evil that will decide the fate of humanity…
18. The Passage by Justin Cronin
Next is The Passage by Justin Cronin. It was first published in 2010 and is the first book in the series of the same name. This is another recommendation that hovers between the genres of post-apocalyptic, horror, and fantasy.
First, the unthinkable: A security breach at a secret U.S. government facility unleashes the monstrous product of a chilling military experiment. Then, the unspeakable: A night of chaos and carnage gives way to sunrise on a nation, and ultimately a world, forever altered.
All that remains for the stunned survivors is the long fight ahead and a future ruled by fear — of darkness, of death, of a fate far worse.
As civilization swiftly crumbles into a primal landscape of predators and prey, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a good man haunted by what he’s done in the line of duty. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is a refugee from the doomed scientific project that has triggered the apocalypse.
Wolgast must protect her from the horror set loose by her captors, but for Amy, escaping the bloody fallout is only the beginning of a much longer odyssey — spanning miles and decades — toward the time and place where she must finish what should never have begun.
17. The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey
This is another recommendation that is the first in a series by the same name. The Girl with All the Gifts is another contemporary publication that edges into the horror genre.
That’s because Melanie is a very special girl. Dr. Caldwell calls her “our little genius.”
Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be brought to class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.
But Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children’s cells. She tells her favorite teacher all the things she’ll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn’t know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.
16. Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
After a few contemporary recommendations, here is a classic from 1959 at the height of the Cold War.
“Alas, Babylon.” Those fateful words heralded the end. When the unthinkable nightmare of nuclear holocaust ravaged the United States, it was instant death for tens of millions of people; for survivors, it was a nightmare of hunger, sickness, and brutality. Overnight, a thousand years of civilization were stripped away.
But for one small Florida town, miraculously spared against all the odds, the struggle was only just beginning, as the isolated survivors — men and women of all ages and races — found the courage to come together and confront the harrowing darkness.
15. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Our next recommendation for some of the best post-apocalyptic books also features the bond between man and dog.
Hig somehow survived the flu pandemic that killed everyone he knows. Now his wife is gone, his friends are dead, and he lives in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog, Jasper, and a mercurial, gun-toting misanthrope named Bangley.
But when a random transmission beams through the radio of his 1956 Cessna, the voice ignites a hope deep inside him that a better life exists outside their tightly controlled perimeter. Risking everything, he flies past his point of no return and follows its static-broken trail, only to find something that is both better and worse than anything he could ever hope for.
14. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood writes within the genres of dystopian and apocalyptic so frequently that her placement on a list of the best post-apocalyptic books should come as no surprise. This is the first book in the MaddAddam series. Oryx and Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future.
Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved.
In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey — with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake — through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.
13. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Our next recommendation also crosses genres with hints of fantasy and dystopia with its focus on the character journey. However, its on our list of the best post-apocalyptic books as it takes place in Africa following a nuclear holocaust in the far future.
Genocide is plaguing one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert.
She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient African tongue.
Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny — to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture — and eventually death itself.
12. Days Gone Bye by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore
This graphic novel series has almost become synonymous with post-apocalyptic worlds and zombies. That’s because the adaptation of The Walking Dead became tremendously popular. If you haven’t yet read the source material and enjoy zombie stories, that you should absolutely check out this series.
The world of commerce and frivolous necessity has been replaced by a world of survival and responsibility. An epidemic of apocalyptic proportions has swept the globe, causing the dead to rise and feed on the living.
In a matter of months society has crumbled: No government, no grocery stores, no mail delivery, no cable TV. In a world ruled by the dead, the survivors must finally start living.
Rick Grimes finds himself one of the few survivors in this terrifying future. A couple months ago he was a small-town cop who had never fired a shot and only ever saw one dead body. Separated from his family, he must now sort through all the death and confusion to try and find his wife and son.
11. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham has become a post-apocalyptic classic since its initial publication in 1951. It was written during the tense years of the Cold War, yet Wyndham manages to anticipate bio-warfare and mass destruction with this slim novel.
Bill Masen, bandages over his wounded eyes, misses the most spectacular meteorite shower England has ever seen. Removing his bandages the next morning, he finds masses of sightless people wandering the city. He soon meets Josella, another lucky person who has retained her sight, and together they leave the city, aware that the safe, familiar world they knew a mere twenty-four hours before is gone forever.
But to survive in this post-apocalyptic world, one must survive the Triffids, strange plants that years before began appearing all over the world. The Triffids can grow to more than seven feet tall, pull their roots from the ground to walk, and kill a man with one quick lash of their poisonous stingers. With society in shambles, they are now ready to prey on humankind.
10. Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice
Our next recommendation pushes the boundaries of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic as it takes place in the immediate aftermath. Mood of the Crusted Snow focuses on the confusion amid an apocalypse, but through the collapse of society, another one is reborn.
With winter looming, a small northern Anishinaabe community goes dark. Cut off, people become passive and confused. Panic builds as the food supply dwindles. While the band council and a pocket of community members struggle to maintain order, an unexpected visitor arrives, escaping the crumbling society to the south. Soon after, others follow.
The community leadership loses its grip on power as the visitors manipulate the tired and hungry to take control of the reserve. Tensions rise and, as the months pass, so does the death toll due to sickness and despair.
Frustrated by the building chaos, a group of young friends and their families turn to the land and Anishinaabe tradition in hopes of helping their community thrive again. Guided through the chaos by an unlikely leader named Evan Whitesky, they endeavor to restore order while grappling with a grave decision.
9. Blindness by José Saramago
First published in the 1990s, Blindness by José Saramago explores loss and blindness following a plague. In a way that is uniquely Saramago, it evokes the horrors of the twentieth century and the strength of the human spirit.
A city is hit by an epidemic of “white blindness” that spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but there the criminal element holds everyone captive, stealing food rations, and assaulting women.
There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides her charges — among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears — through the barren streets, and their procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing.
8. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The first book in the Earthseed duology is another post-apocalyptic classic from 1993. Before you pick up this book, however, you should know that it takes place in the very near future of 2025. As the world descends into madness and anarchy, one woman begins a fateful journey toward a better future.
Lauren Olamina and her family live in one of the only safe neighborhoods remaining on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Behind the walls of their defended enclave, Lauren’s father, a preacher, and a handful of other citizens try to salvage what remains of a culture that has been destroyed by drugs, disease, war, and chronic water shortages. While her father tries to lead people on the righteous path, Lauren struggles with hyperempathy, a condition that makes her extraordinarily sensitive to the pain of others.
When fire destroys their compound, Lauren’s family is killed and she is forced out into a world that is fraught with danger. With a handful of other refugees, Lauren must make her way north to safety, along the way conceiving a revolutionary idea that may mean salvation for all mankind.
7. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
The seventh best post-apocalyptic book on our list is another classic which was first published in the 1950s. You may be more familiar with the adaptation of this slim novel, however, its influence on the genre shouldn’t be understated.
Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth…but he is not alone. Every other man, woman, and child on the planet has become a vampire, and they are hungry for Neville’s blood.
By day he is the hunter, stalking the undead through the ruins of civilisation. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for the dawn.
How long can one man survive like this?
6. Wool by Hugh Howey
In the sixth spot on our list of the best post-apocalyptic books is another young adult recommendation. It is the story of mankind clawing for survival in the wake of an apocalypse.
The world outside has grown toxic, the view of it limited, talk of it forbidden. The remnants of humanity live underground in a single silo. But there are always those who hope, who dream. These are the dangerous people, the residents who infect others with their optimism.
Their punishment is simple. They are given the very thing they want: They are allowed to go outside.
After the previous sheriff leaves the silo in a terrifying ritual, Juliette, a mechanic from the down deep, is suddenly and inexplicably promoted to the head of law enforcement. With newfound power and with little regard for the customs she should abide, Juliette uncovers hints of a sinister conspiracy. Tugging this thread may uncover the truth…or it could kill every last human alive.
5. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
Our next recommendation was first published in 1949. This is a much more philosophical post-apocalyptic book exploring the aftermath of total destruction and then the resurrection of society.
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart boils humanity down to one man experiencing a vast empty world, and its commentary is evocative. This book inspired another book on our list: The Stand.
A disease of unparalleled destructive force has sprung up almost simultaneously in every corner of the globe, all but destroying the human race. One survivor, strangely immune to the effects of the epidemic, ventures forward to experience a world without man. What he ultimately discovers will prove far more astonishing than anything he’d either dreaded or hoped for.
4. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The fourth best post-apocalyptic book on our list is a more recent publication from 2014: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. This is another book that blurs the lines between dystopia, apocalypse, and post apocalypse.
It takes place in the days following civilization’s collapse. Station Eleven follows a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region. They are risking everything for art and humanity.
One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve.
It moves back and forth in time — from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains. It charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.
3. The Stand by Stephen King
Our recommendation for the third best post-apocalyptic book comes from the king of horror: Stephen King. In this book, King creates a world which has been devasted by a plague and is caught in an elemental struggle between good and evil. This book is perhaps even more relatable now than when it was first published in 1978.
It begins with a patient escaping from a biological testing facility, unknowingly carrying a deadly weapon: A mutated strain of super-flu that will wipe out 99 per cent of the world’s population within a few weeks.
Those who remain are scared, bewildered, and in need of a leader.
Two emerge. Mother Abagail, the benevolent 108-year-old woman who urges them to build a peaceful community in Boulder, Colorado. And Randall Flagg, the nefarious “Dark Man,” who delights in chaos and violence.
As the dark man and the peaceful woman gather power, the survivors will have to choose between them — and ultimately decide the fate of all humanity.
2. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The second best post-apocalyptic book on our list is probably one of the most well-known books within the genre from the 21st century. The Road by Cormac McCarthy is an iconic book that is recommended reading for almost everyone, not just fans of post-apocalyptic worlds.
A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray.
The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there.
They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food — and each other.
This is not only a story about journeys and destinations, but about the best and worst that humanity is capable of, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.
1. The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
Finally, in the top spot on our list is The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin. The first book in The Broken Earth trilogy is a newer publication from 2015, but it has the makings of a modern classic.
What pushes this book to the top spot on our list of the best post-apocalyptic books is that there is not only one apocalypse within this world, but there have been multiple. This volatile world is struck by seismic tremors that rip the continent wide open, making The Fifth Season not only a dystopian fantasy book, but also a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel.
It begins with the world ending. Again.
Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance.
And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness.
It will be a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.
Wrap-up of Best Post-Apocalyptic Books
In conclusion, here are our picks for the 23 best post-apocalyptic books. In looking at the publication years you can see the spikes in popularity for this genre.
- The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (2015)
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
- The Stand by Stephen King (1978)
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
- Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949)
- Wool by Hugh Howey (2013)
- I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)
- Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (1993)
- Blindness by José Saramago (1995)
- Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice (2018)
- The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)
- Days Gone Bye by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore (2004)
- Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010)
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003)
- The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (2012)
- Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (1959)
- The Girl with all the Gifts by M. R. Carey (2014)
- The Passage by Justin Cronin (2010)
- Swan Song by Robert. R. McCammon (1987)
- A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C.A. Fletcher (2019)
- Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven (1977)
- Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica (2017)
- Severance by Ling Ma (2018)
While we have tried to stay as true to the definition of post-apocalyptic literature as possible, there are definitely books on this list which transcend genres. However, each recommendation does feature the aftermath of a cataclysmic event that alters society.
The type of event varies. From biological warfare, nuclear catastrophes, viral pandemics, or something else in between. But in each book that change in society is paramount, as is its effects on humanity.
Let us know in the comments how many of these post-apocalyptic books you’ve read, and which one was your favorite.