Not everyone has the time or inclination to devote themselves to a single genre, even when that genre is as awesome as the Post Apocalyptic genre. For those who like to read broadly and only want to sample the best of what each genre has to offer, it’s sometimes hard to decide which titles to chose. A quick search of the best post apocalyptic books gives plenty of Top 10 lists, some Top 20’s and even a Top 166 for some reason… but a lot of people won’t even have the time to read 10 books just to get a feel for the genre.
So that’s why I’ve come up with this list, a Top 3; it’s short enough that anyone can sample it and still read plenty of other titles from other genres in a single year. This list has, in my opinion, the best of the best that the Post Apocalyptic genre has to offer. They could be considered the pillars of the Post Apocalyptic genre and as such they’re the perfect place to start.
Now, I haven’t read everything that the Post Apocalyptic genre has to offer. I’d be pretty depressed if I’d done that already at my age, but I have read a lot. After sifting through a few greats, a lot of good and heaps of bad – this is what I’ve come up with. These three titles each offer a different post apocalyptic scenario and they each offer a different time scale to work with after the world has ended. Read just one, or read all three, however you go about it you’re sure to get an amazing story and a prime example of what the Post Apocalyptic genre has to offer.
Disclaimer – Before you ask; no, I’m not the sort of douche who’d put his own novel in a Top 3 list. I’d like to earn my way onto someone else’s someday, but it is not this day.
A Canticle for Leibowitz
A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post apocalyptic story with a nuclear war scenario, and it has the largest time scale of the three titles of this list. It’s set in three stages; with the first set 600 years after the nuclear war, then the second and third stages each set 1200 and 1800 years after the war respectively. A Canticle for Leibowitz deals with the preservation of knowledge, the church versus the state, and there’s also a nice little nod to cyclical history thrown in there as well.
The story revolves around a desert monastery that’s located somewhere in what would be the southwest of the modern day United States. The monks within seek to preserve the relics of the past and rediscover the knowledge that was lost when the world was bathed in nuclear fire. With each leap forward in time we see the monks’ continued efforts to add humanity from their cloistered corner of the world, and we get to see the ramifications of choices made in previous eras as humanity walks down a familiar path.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is a great read if you’re looking for a post apocalyptic story with a more intellectual angle to it, as the characters and timescale tend to focus on the bigger picture rather than the everyday minutia of survival. It’s not an action packed story and it doesn’t focus on the depraved depths that humanity can fall to, so fantastic writing aside, these two aspects make it stand out among its peers in the genre. (You can buy it here.)
Earth Abides takes a step back in timescale and focuses on the lifetime of a single man, Isherwood Williams, and deals with a plague post apocalyptic scenario. Similarly set in three stages, Earth Abides deals with natural checks on human and animal populations, the loss of knowledge in reduced populations, and finally there’s a biblical focus on repopulating the planet after a catastrophe.
Earth Abides follows the life of Isherwood as he survives the plague that wipes out most of humanity, builds a community around himself and then finally becomes the somewhat mythical “Last American” in his old age. The story explores the natural processes that would happen as the human world decays and the natural world reasserts its dominance, as well as Isherwood’s attempts to preserve the best of humanities’ achievements despite the impracticality of this in a post apocalyptic setting. Modern weaponry breaks down and reading becomes a novel activity that takes far too long to learn, and as the years pass the community regresses back to a tribal hunter/gatherer state.
Like A Canticle for Leibowitz, Earth Abides is a great read if you’re looking for a post apocalyptic story with a more thought provoking look about the end of the world. As a graduate student from Berkley, Isherwood brings an intellectual element to the post apocalypse that is so often overlooked in a genre full of protagonists who are gruff, loner anti-heroes. He doesn’t get to rebuild society exactly the way he wanted, but he does live a full life and he does make a difference. (You can buy it here.)
Sorry, I know every Top # list of Post Apocalyptic novels has The Road on it, but there’s a very good reason for this – it’s quite possibly one of the greatest novels ever written, not just in the genre either. It’s arguable that the release of the movie version of The Road in 2009 is what brought the Post Apocalyptic genre into the mainstream, but that’s a discussion for another day.
The Road follows a father and son as they make their way south towards a warmer climate, the physical decay of the world around them mirrors the moral decay of the few survivors that remain. It’s never made explicitly clear what exact sort of post apocalyptic scenario befell the world in The Road, but it was most likely some sort of environmental collapse. The timescale here is the shortest of the three entries in this list, with the story taking place over no more than a few months.
The Road has some of the most hauntingly beautiful prose that will leave you depressed but somehow also hopeful about humanities’ chances of survival. Like all the best post apocalyptic stories, The Road deals with some of the darkest aspects of humanity but also gives you a glimpse or two of the best we have to offer. There’s not much else for me to say here, except that it’s up there as one of the best novels ever written and you do yourself a disservice if you never read it. (You can buy The Road here.)
So that’s my Top 3 list. Not as much spiked leather or mutants as you might expect from a post apocalyptic list, surprisingly enough. If you don’t have time to devote months of reading to the genre then just grab one or more of these three novels and you’ll be set. Whoever you are and whatever your goals for dipping your toe in the post apocalyptic waters, I’m sure you’ll find a thought provoking story here that will stay with you for a long time.