One of the most popular end-of-the-world stories, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a Pulitzer Prize-winner about an unnamed man who travels with his son across a lifeless post-apocalyptic America. Although it’s violent and can be hard to read, The Road is also a story about hope and resilience. Even in the face of the imminent end, the father doesn’t give up trying to protect his son from countless horrors. For more stories about the struggle to keep humanity alive when the world ends, check out these 12 books.
1. The Last Man, by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville
Originally titled Le Dernier Homme, The Last Man is a French fantasy novel published in 1805 and is considered one of the first fictional narratives to deal with the end of the world. De Grainville was inspired by John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, but instead of telling the story of mankind’s first couple (Adam and Eve), he wrote about the planet’s last couple. They live in a distant future where the Earth is sterile and humans are infertile. When Omegarus, who lives in Europe, has a vision of the last fertile woman, he sets off on a dangerous journey to South America to find her.
2. The Scarlet Plague, by Jack London
Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death, this 1912 book has several things in common with The Road–from the focus on a protagonist trying to protect his children after the apocalypse to the conclusion on the California coast. The story takes place in 2073, after the planet is destroyed by a deadly disease called Red Death. The protagonist James Smith wanders the desolate world accompanied by his three young grandchildren. He is one of the few survivors to remember the things before the apocalypse. As the story unfolds, Smith tells his grandchildren how humanity ended, knowing that all knowledge of the world before will die with him.
3. On the Beach, by Nevil Shute
Published in 1957, On The Beach is considered one of the first novels to deal with the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse. It’s full of an atmosphere of horror and hopelessness brought about by World War II. Instead of focusing on the efforts to survive after an atomic war, Neil Shute preferred to show how the last humans would deal with the possibility of an imminent end since everyone would die sooner or later from radiation poisoning. The result is a rich microcosm of different human reactions–denial, ignorance, pragmatism, hope, suicide–in a poignant story on the inevitability of death.
4. The Drowned World, by J. G. Ballard
The English novelist J. G. Ballard was a visionary in this 1962 sci-fi book: his apocalypse is triggered by global warming! The Drowned World takes place in the year 2145, when most of the planet is an uninhabitable desert due to extreme temperatures. Most survivors live in the polar caps, but a group of scientists lives in a flooded and abandoned London, facing radical changes in flora and fauna and also the horrors related to the end of society (such as pirates who still seek wealth in the ruins of civilization).
5. Virus: The Day of Resurrection, by Sakyo Komatsu
Virus was originally published in Japan in 1964 but translated to English in 2012. It tells the story of a modified, deadly influenza virus that spreads around the world and completely wipes out humanity, except for a small group of scientists and soldiers confined to research stations in Antarctica. The first half of the book focuses on the drama of dozens of characters trying to escape the tragedy. The second half deals with a new threat: the possibility that nuclear warheads will fire with no one to control them.
6. A Boy and His Dog, by Harlan Ellison
The same author who stirred nightmares in a whole generation with one of the most terrifying short stories about the end of the world (I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream) returned to the subject with this 1969 Nebula Award-winning novel. A Boy and His Dog is basically The Road but with a 15-year-old boy named Vic and his dog as the main characters. They communicate telepathically and wander aimlessly through what is left of the United States after a nuclear war. Vic’s routine is all about seeking food and sex and fleeing the violent gangs that dominate the wasteland.
7. The Stand, by Stephen King
Another fine example in the field of biological apocalypse, The Stand is one of the most popular works of the great Stephen King–an epic narrative that he started before fame in 1975. King said he wanted to write a contemporary fantasy in the style of The Lord of the Rings, and the result is a symbolic struggle between Good and Evil that unfolds over a thousand pages. A considerable part of the book chronicles the destruction of humanity by a super flu virus; then the survivors split into groups led by an old woman and a wanderer who could be the Devil (who chooses Las Vegas as headquarters, obviously). King takes his time to introduce the characters and address the difficulties of rebuilding society.
8. The Children of Men, by P. D. James
Like The Road, this 1992 dystopian novel is about a man trying to protect a child in a post-apocalyptic world. The difference is that, in The Children Of Men, the child is not even born yet. Scientist Theo must protect a pregnant girl, Julian, in the terrible “future” of 2021, when mankind faces imminent extinction because humans are infertile. Julian is the last hope of repopulating the planet in a horrible universe ruled with an iron fist by a fascist state where baby animals are dressed as children to make up for the lack of human babies.
9. Blindness, by José Saramago
One of the most popular books by Portuguese author and Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, Blindness was published in 1995 and proposes a different apocalypse, just as terrible as deadly viruses or nuclear wars. One day, without explanation, people are struck by mysterious white blindness in which they see a white glare instead of the typical darkness. The blind people are confined in an abandoned asylum. A doctor’s wife is the only one who retains her eyesight but pretends to be blind to accompany her husband and witnesses the horrors as society crumbles. The story is narrated with long sentences in which commas replace periods, helping to create an uncomfortable mood.
10. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
Twenty years after another viral apocalypse, a nomadic group of actors and musicians who survived the tragedy decide to wander around what’s left of the planet performing Shakespeare plays for other small groups of survivors. Published in 2014, Station Eleven approaches the post-apocalyptic struggle in a completely new way. It highlights the point of view of artists who try to compensate for the horrors of reality with minimal beauty, keeping alive an art that quickly tends to die with them. It can’t be sadder than that.
11. Bird Box, by Josh Malerman
This 2014 post-apocalyptic thriller feels like a mix of Saramago’s Blindness with John Wyndham’s classic 1951 sci-fi novel The Day of the Triffids. In Bird Box, Malorie tries to find a safe place to live with her children after a monster invasion devastates humanity. Seeing the creatures causes madness and consequently death, which forces the characters to voluntarily cover their eyes and forgo their sight. The book inspired a 2018 Netflix film starring Sandra Bullock.
12. Good Morning, Midnight, by Lily Brooks-Dalton
Published in 2016, Lily Brooks-Dalton’s debut novel resembles a more sentimental version of The Road. Father and son have been replaced by an old scientist, Augustine, and a little girl in his care. Apparently, they’re the last two living beings on Earth, confined in a research center in the Arctic after an unexplained catastrophe. At the same time, a space mission prepares to return to the planet–unaware of the tragedy. Good Morning, Midnight is a minimalist story about the end, dealing with themes like loneliness, family, and regret.