13 Books About The End Of The World That Are Still Less Stressful Than The News Cycle
Is it just me or is it getting a tad... apocalyptic in here? I don't know if anyone else has glanced at the news lately, but at this rate I'm worried that I won't have time to enjoy my Handmaid's Tale-style retrograde anti-feminist dystopian police state before climate change puts you and me underwater. It's a scary time to be a human (and an embarrassing time to be an American). The good news is that you can still make yourself a huge nuisance to the forces of hate and injustice. The bad news is... everything else. So if you need to take a break from the constant stream of terrifying news stories, then here are some funny, thrilling, and weirdly hopeful books about the end of the world.
Now look, I'm not saying that it's time to pivot from "how can we save the world?" to "well, are there any upsides to the impending doom of mankind?" It's time to vote and organize and get loud. Abandoning all hope is not a particularly useful strategy for large-scale political change, and it's certainly not going to make you feel like getting up in the morning. But if you find yourself constantly picturing horrific cataclysms and zombie wastelands, then these books might help you work through some of those fears (and have a good laugh while you're at it):
'Station Eleven' by Emily St. John Mandel
Sure, a super-flu has wiped out most of humanity, and civilization as we know it has utterly collapsed. But the Traveling Symphony is still on the road, bringing music and Shakespeare plays to the scattered enclaves of surviving humans. That's because "survival is insufficient." Even in this dark future marked by sickness and violence and creepy cults, people still fall in love and make art and find new ways to rise above mere survival.
'Good Omens' by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
The apocalypse in Good Omens isn't due to a pandemic outbreak or an ecological collapse or even zombies: it's the good old fashioned Judeo-Christian Judgment Day. The fussy angel Aziraphale and the ultra-cool demon Crowley are responsible for kicking off the End Times, but there's just one little hiccup: they've misplaced the Antichrist. Good Omens is a hysterically funny take on metaphysical bureaucracy, and an absurd (yet heart warming) Doomsday tale.
'One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses' by Lucy Corin
Why settle for just one apocalypse when you could have one hundred? Lucy Corin's clever, explosive collection of short (and very short) fiction explores the many, many different ways that the world could meet its end. It's ridiculous and strange and hopeful all at once, Corin's "apocalypses" could mean the shattering end of a relationship or the total destruction of the planet (basically the same thing).
'Zone One' by Colson Whitehead
There's been a zombie apocalypse, etc, etc. But now the plague is finally retreating, and Americans are starting to rebuild. This means resettling Manhattan, wiping out the remainders of the living dead, and dealing with the stragglers: those near-catatonic individuals fixated on their former lives. Zone One is a wry take on the classic zombie story. There's plenty of horror and cases of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, but there's also a plot that subverts many of the well-worn zombie tropes.
'Cat's Cradle' by Kurt Vonnegut
I hesitate to call Cat's Cradle a "funny" book. It's hilarious, yes, but in a bitter, deadpan, "we're all going to die" kind of way. So if irony and dark humor are your jam, then pick up Kurt Vonnegut's (arguably) most disturbing book about religion and madness and a lethal chemical capable of freezing all liquid on the planet in one fell swoop. You'll never take running water for granted ever again.
'The Fifth Season' by N.K. Jemisin
The "Stillness" of The Fifth Season isn't quite Earth as we know it. It's an alternate world or a far future Earth, plagued by seismic activity and cycles of tremendous destruction. The apocalyptic season has just begun. Earthquakes threaten to tear the land apart for centuries. But for Essun, none of that matters. Her family has already been torn apart, and she will break the earth herself if it means finding her daughter again. Essun's determination will carry you through the most unnatural of natural disasters as the world crumbles around her.
'The Book of M' by Peng Shepherd
People's shadows have started to vanish. It's spreading like a plague. The shadow-less gain strange new powers, but at a terrible price: the loss of all their memories. And when it happens to Max, she runs away before she can be a danger to her husband, Ory. But Ory refuses to give up on Max. Even amid bandits and war and a terrifying shadow-cult, Ory will stop at nothing to find his wife again, and to find a cure for the Forgetting.
'Oryx and Crake' by Margaret Atwood
Like all good post-apocalyptic "love stories" by Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake will make you wildly uncomfortable and very angry at most of the men in your life. But it will also provide a startling vision of a future overrun by genetically engineered creatures and lovely, lush wilderness and very human emotions of heartbreak, love, and loss.
'The Gone-Away World' by Nick Harkaway
The world has been decimated by the "Go-Away War." "Go-away" bombs are able to destroy anything in their path without leaving a single scrap of wreckage behind. But there's a catch: the "go-away" bombs create swirling storms of "Stuff" that will take the form of whatever you're thinking about—or whatever you fear. Despite this uniquely horrific premise, The Gone-Away world is a terrifically fun adventure through the wastelands, as two friends try to protect that remains of humanity from apparitions of the imagination and predatory corporations.
'Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play' by Anne Washburn
Mr. Burns is technically a play, but no catalog of post-apocalyptic fiction is complete without it. Civilization has fallen, you see, but humans still gather around the campfire to re-tell their favorite episode of The Simpsons. Over time, as humans begin to rebuild, this one episode works its way into the oral tradition, becoming a darkly hilarious testament to the power of storytelling.
'Ice' by Anna Kavan
Our nameless narrator wanders through a frozen, post-apocalyptic landscape, looking for a fragile woman with silver hair. But another person is searching for this woman, too: a man named the warden. He must not find her first. Ice is an achingly beautiful, somewhat hallucinatory novel that forces you to question the motivations behind the classic "man saves girl from apocalypse" story.
'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' by Douglas Adams
No one can make you laugh at the apocalypse like Douglas Adams can. At the very start of the first novel in the seriously misnamed Hitchiker's Trilogy, the planet Earth is blown up to make way for a hyper-space bypass. That's where the fun begins in this utterly absurd, entirely brilliant series of novels about searching for meaning in nonsensical universe.
'Parable of the Sower' by Octavia Butler
Parable of the Sower is required reading for everyone living through this current moment in history. I don't know how Octavia Butler did it, but she accurately predicted our current state of environmental and economic disaster, complete with a demagogue president, rampant income inequality, and wildfires tearing through California. Parable of the Sower is about the collapse of civilization. But it's also about Lauren, a young woman with the powers of extreme empathy, who is determined to make a new world for herself and anyone else who still wants to build something beautiful. It is a book of all-too-real horrors and tremendous hope. Read it. You'll be glad you did.