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January, 2004 : Sub-Genre Spotlight:

Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction

Famine. Death. War. Pestilence. These are said to be the harbingers of the biblical apocalypse—Armageddon, The End of The World. In science fiction, the end of the world is usually triggered by other (or at least more specific) means: nuclear warfare (or disaster), biological warfare (or disaster), ecological/geological disaster, or cosmological disaster. But in the wake of any great cataclysm, there are survivors—and post-apocalyptic SF speculates what life would be like for them.

The first significant post-apocalyptic work is Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826), which concerns the survivors of a plague that is wiping out the human race. The sub-genre rose to prominence during the 1950s and reached the height of its popularity during Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation was very real. Though the enemies have changed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, life today holds as many threats and so post-apocalyptic tales remain timely and potent. For further reading about the history of the sub-genre, check out the "Holocaust and After" section of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls.

The appeal of post-apocalyptic SF is obvious: it fulfills our taste for adventure, the thrill of discovery, the desire for a new frontier. It also allows us to start over from scratch, to wipe the slate clean and see what the world may have been like if we had known then what we know now.

But perhaps the sub-genre is best summed up by this quote from "The Manhattan Phone Book (Abridged)" by John Varley:

"We all love after-the-bomb stories. If we didn't, why would there be so many of them? There's something attractive about all those people being gone, about wandering in a depopulated world, scrounging cans of Campbell's pork and beans, defending one's family from marauders. Sure it's horrible, sure we weep for all those dead people. But some secret part of us thinks it would be good to survive, to start over.
"Secretly, we know we'll survive. All those other folks will die. That's what after-the-bomb stories are all about."

Essential Novels

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett
Religion rules and technology is disdained in a post-nuclear America where communities of more than 1000 people are forbidden.
The Postman by David Brin
A wandering survivor assumes the role of a long-dead postal worker and helps ignite a movement that sets in motion the restoration of the United States.
No Blade of Grass (a.k.a. The Death of Grass) by John Christopher
A virus destroys the grass and grain supply of the entire world resulting in a lawless, nightmarish future.
Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
The residents of a small Florida town struggle to survive in the wake of a nuclear holocaust.
The Committed Men by M. John Harrison
An unlikely group of humans brave the ravaged wasteland to give a mutant child the chance to survive.
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
A tale told in a pidgin English, set in an iron-age England, 2000 years after a nuclear holocaust.
Eternity Road by Jack McDevitt
1000 years after plague brings on the collapse of civilization, a band of adventurers seeks out the lost books and artifacts of the Roadmakers, the builders of the ancient ruins.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
A tale of the cyclical rise and fall of civilization, told in three parts, revolving around the monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz who seek the knowledge and truth of the ancients.
Davy by Edgar Pangborn
An adventure story that tells of the coming-of-age of a boy—part Tom Jones, part Huck Finn—named Davy in a post-nuclear feudal society.
The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson
The coming-of-age tale of a boy and a community of survivors in the aftermath of a nuclear attack that leaves the United States crippled and under the heel of U.N. sanctioned watchdogs. [Ed. Note: this is one volume of a trilogy which together plots three different futures for California, only one of which is post-apocalyptic.]
On the Beach by Nevil Shute
Australia initially escapes the affects of the nuclear war, but when the winds carry deadly radiation their way, the survivors face their impending doom.
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
The tale of Isherwood Williams who is immune to the plague that wipes out most of the human race.
The Long Loud Silence by Wilson Tucker
A man tries to return west to civilization after all land east of the Mississippi River is quarantined in the wake of a nuclear and biological holocaust.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
An isolated community of clones attempts to preserve civilization after an ecological and biological catastrophe wipes out most of the life on Earth and renders the survivors sterile.
Re-Birth (a.k.a The Chrysalids) by John Wyndham
A group of telepaths flee the God-fearing, anti-mutant community where they were raised when their "blasphemous" secret is discovered.
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Bill Masen wakes up in the hospital to find that a bizarre meteor shower has blinded most of the world's population, leaving them at the mercy of the genetically-engineered killer plants known as triffids.
Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny
Anti-hero Hell Tanner must cross the radioactive wasteland between L.A. and Boston to deliver a case of antiserum to plague victims.

Essential Short Fiction

"The People of Sand and Slag" by Paolo Bacigalupi
Thanks to weeviltech, humans have been modified in so many ways that they're barely recognizable as human at all. In this war-torn far future, a band of warriors discovers one of the oddest creatures they've ever seen: a dog. But now that they've found it, what should they do with it?
"Speech Sounds" by Octavia E. Butler
A global pandemic leaves the survivors totally or partially unable to read, write, or communicate verbally.
"West" by Orson Scott Card
Scavenger Jamie Teague guides a group of Mormons west from North Carolina to the new state of Deseret and tries to make a life for himself within their group.
"A Boy and His Dog" by Harlan Ellison
In the aftermath of World War IV, civilization retreats to underground cities but some choose to remain aboveground, like a solo named Vic and his telepathic dog companion, Blood.
"Lot" by Ward Moore
A family flees Los Angeles after the bomb drops.
"A Master of Babylon" by Edgar Pangborn
A musician living in the upper levels of the Museum of Human History in a flooded Manhattan encounters another human for the first time in 25 years.

Essential Collections & Anthologies

The Folk of the Fringe [ToC] by Orson Scott Card
Five stories set in the post-apocalyptic state of Deseret which tell of a Mormon community of survivors trying to build a new civilization.
Vic and Blood by Harlan Ellison & Richard Corben (artist)
Contains three Vic and Blood stories: "Eggsucker," "A Boy and His Dog," and "Run, Spot, Run." The complete text of each story is included, along with comic book adaptations depicted by artist Richard Corben.
Beyond Armageddon: Twenty-One Sermons to the Dead [ToC] edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr. & Martin H. Greenberg
"Best of" anthology complete with a lengthy introduction to the sub-genre and insightful introductions to each of the stories.

Other Recommended Works

Additional Info:

The Table of Contents for Beyond Armageddon is as follows:

Copyright © 2004, John Joseph Adams. All Rights Reserved.

About John Joseph Adams

John Joseph Adams is the editorial assistant at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and the audiobook reviewer for Locus Magazine. His non-fiction has appeared in The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Science Fiction Weekly, Locus Online, and Amazing Stories. For a complete list of publications, visit his website at


Feb 21, 00:00 by John Frost
Anything else you believe should be part of a Post-apocalyptic list?
Mar 6, 22:51 by Christina Rivera
One book that might be added for consideration is I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman. I seriously doubt it would warrant being "essential" as the post-apocolyptic setting is neither fully explained nor focused on extensively. It's a very character-centric novel and focuses on a young woman (a girl, really) who has no idea what happened to her world and has no memories of her life before waking in an underground bunker full of other women and guarded by speechless men.

A summary can be found on, and the edition I'm referring to was the mass market release from 1998. (No linking just in case it doesn't work).
Jul 22, 12:38 by Olivier Lessard Lavallée
I'd say Malevil, a french book by Robert Merle, this book started my post-apocalyptic frenzy and it kept me hooked for a while. It can be bough on amazon in english I think.

It tells the story of survivors of a "hot bomb" that burns everything with no radiation and that survive in a medieval castle protected by some mountains(that's not the exact word he used, but close to it). It is a MUST!!
Jul 22, 20:20 by James Morrison
Surely Robert O'Brien's classic Z for Zaccariah belongs on any such list? A marvellous YA novel about a girl who believes herself to be the sole survivor of a nuclear war--and when she discovers she's not, things actually get worse.
Jul 23, 08:18 by Bluejack
Oh, yes, I remember that story made quite an impression on me when I read it in my teens. Was that the first of the "last two people on earth" sub-genre?
Jul 25, 14:10 by v kayne
A wonderful story in the "last two people on earth" sub-genre is Mother to the World, by Richard Wilson; it was nominated for a Nebula, and may have won, in 1968.
Apr 18, 08:55 by Bill King
The Road, Cormac McCarthy (Knopf,2006)
Apr 18, 14:36 by Lois Tilton
Pulitzer Prize!
Jul 13, 18:11 by Danny Patric
Malevil also started my obsession with p-a books. I would be remiss not to mention that my favorite p-a story is The Man Who Walked Home by James Tiptree, Jr. Read it! It's easy to find.
Sep 6, 03:15 by Colin Unsworthy
A great survivalist book about surviving the effects of an electromagnetic pulse attack is William R. Forstchen's "One Second After", published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, copyright 2009
Dec 26, 09:04 by
"Holocaust and After" section of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls.
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