Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel imagines a world shaped by catastrophe: a new strain of flu wipes out most of the world’s population in a matter of weeks. The novel is a vibrant mosaic of moments before, during, and after this crisis, tracing the intersecting paths of a handful of profoundly human characters. Station Eleven is set in a bleak and dangerous landscape, but it contains glimmering moments of humanity and hope.
Post-apocalyptic literature asks urgent questions as befits the catastrophic settings and high stakes of the genre. What are the consequences of our decisions? What do we owe each other? How can we create meaning in the face of our own transience? If you are looking for more literary explorations of apocalypse, these nine books examine many of the themes in Mandel’s masterpiece and move beyond logistical questions to ask existential ones, exploring not only what it takes to survive, but what it means to live.
1. Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
In this achingly beautiful novel, our main character Snowman believes he is the last person in the world. A horrifying plague left Snowman alone, mourning his friend Crake and the beautiful woman they both loved. Now, Snowman must journey through a punishing landscape full of genetically engineered creatures and relics of civilization’s collapse — and through his own memories of the years leading up to the disaster. Although I had encountered apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature before, this was the first time I truly felt the weight of the loss and destruction depicted on the page. This book haunted me for months and remains one of my favorites to this day.
2. The Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker
A freshman girl stumbles home from a party and falls asleep… and never wakes up again. Her small college town is soon overrun by a mysterious sleeping sickness, sparking chaos and panic. No one can figure out what is causing this sickness or how to cure it. The only thing they know for sure is that the infected are dreaming while they sleep—but what are they seeing? Like Station Eleven, this book follows a large cast of characters with a broad range of responses to this epidemic. Told in hypnotic prose, this book will put readers into a reverie of their own. If you like this, you can also check out Karen Thompson Walker’s debut, The Age of Miracles, which follows a young girl coming of age during another kind of apocalypse: the slowing of the earth’s rotation.
3. Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins
In California racked by drought, Luz and her partner Ray are squatting in a movie star’s abandoned mansion, surviving on rationed cola. They’ve declined the offer to relocate to a government-run encampment in the cooler, wetter east, but they know they can’t go on this way forever, especially once they rescue (or kidnap?) a neglected child from a party. Desperate, they strike out into the desert, where they encounter a mysterious cult led by a charismatic prophet who claims to be able to dowse for water. If you enjoyed the cult aspect of Station Eleven, or if you are taken by vivid descriptions of nature in all its sublimity, Gold Fame Citrus may be for you.
4. Zone One, by Colson Whitehead
Zone One by Colson Whitehead is a literary remix of a zombie apocalypse novel. As in Station Eleven, the disaster was a plague, but this plague turns the infected into the living dead. Now the worst is over and civilians, including our main character Mark Spitz, are working to secure and resettle Manhattan by clearing out any remaining infected stragglers. Like Station Eleven, this novel alternates between the present rebuilding efforts and flashbacks to the height of the crisis. This is not your everyday zombie book: the living are haunted by the dead in more ways than one, and readers may wonder whether they would prefer the undead wasteland to the young civilization striving to replace it.
5. Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler
A classic of the apocalyptic genre, Parable of the Sower is set in an America plagued by climate change, income inequality, and violence. The book is told through the diary entries of a hyper-empathetic teenage girl named Lauren, who feels the pain she sees others experience. When a fire destroys the safe neighborhood where she and her family lived, Lauren is forced to journey through the chaotic outside world. Eventually, she founds her own religious order. This oddly prescient novel (the new president promises to “Make America Great Again”) explores a brutal societal collapse and what it takes to build a new community in such dire circumstances.
6. The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters
In a bit of a genre twist, The Last Policeman is actually a pre-apocalyptic novel. Turns out it’s hard to get people to care about much of anything when there’s an asteroid hurtling through space on its way to obliterate the earth. The economy plummets, the churches are packed, and a suicide epidemic breaks out. While some abandon their jobs to rush through their bucket lists, rookie cop Hank Palace is promoted to detective and becomes determined to investigate a hanging that he believes is a homicide. But in the last few months of life on earth, he just can’t seem to get anyone else to pay attention. Again, this is a novel that examines different reactions to impending catastrophe, pressing readers to consider what they would do in the characters’ shoes.
7. The Gracekeepers, by Kirsty Logan
If the Traveling Symphony was your favorite part of Station Eleven, this is the readalike for you. The Gracekeepers is set on a flooded world where people either live on boats or own land on the few remaining islands. One main character, Callanish, is a Gracekeeper who lives alone on an island performing shoreside burials; the other, North, is a performer on the Excalibur, a circus ship that travels from island to island. Part post-apocalyptic, part love story, part fairy tale, The Gracekeepers will enchant readers with its ocean setting and lyrical prose.
8. The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne
One morning, Meena wakes up with snakebites on her chest, suddenly convinced that her life is in danger. She doesn’t know why, but she must leave India and return to Ethiopia where she was born. She sets off across The Trail, a massive bridge over the Arabian Sea — a difficult and dangerous journey, since the bridge was designed to harvest energy from the waves, not to provide passage. In a different time, Mariama is also on a journey, riding across Saharan Africa towards Ethiopia with a group of smugglers. As in Station Eleven, these two characters are connected in surprising and poignant ways, and their stories are set in a richly imagined, deeply troubled future.
9. All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai
All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai is another genre-twisting book. Main character Tom Barren lives in a utopian version of 2016, but he can’t quite seem to find his place — until, in a time travel mishap, he finds himself in our version of 2016. To him, our world seems like a dystopian wasteland, but he also finds a more appealing life for himself than he ever thought possible. Tom must work through his own issues as he struggles to get back to his original timeline—if he even wants to go back at all. Avid readers of the post-apocalyptic genre will find this inventive take refreshing.