I remember reading a short story in Starlog magazine when I was a teenager about a girl who thought she was the last survivor on earth after a nuclear war. She was super surprised and stunned when one of her friends called her.
“I thought I was the last person alive!”
“Nope – the whole group is alive.”
“How is that possible?”
“Don’t you know? Books absorb radiation.”
I loved the notion of it – that those of us who read and had shelves full of books as a comfort blanket might somehow be spared if we had hoarded enough books. My friends and I were voracious readers – junior high was a minefield of mean kids, and we were big nerds. The idea of all those who’d bullied me dying in some kind of enormous calamity was tempting to fantasize about.
1.) The Stand by Stephen King – I think this may have been the very first post apocalyptic book I read, when I was 15 or so – I’m glad it was a good one! I’ve read it several times since then, make a point to read it again every few years (think I’m due again). 99% of the world’s population is decimated by a superflu bug, and the survivors begin receiving messages through their dreams – one from an Adversary and another from a messianic figure – and these dreams, whichever they choose to follow, lead them to either Boulder (the good guys) or Las Vegas (the bad guys). The Adversary (Randall Flagg), of course, leads through fear, while the messianic figure (Mother Abigail Freemantle) leads through example. There is the title Stand-off towards the end.
2.) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – I was on my way to see the 1990 movie in the theatre and picked the book up on the way, which I read afterwards, helped me figure out why the world had gotten to where it had gotten in the movie. YES, this is postapocalyptic, though not in the traditional sense – it’s dystopian, and while many dystopian societies in fiction are the result of a prior, more physical apocalypse, I propose the idea that a dystopia IS actually the product of a social apocalypse of some kind. In this social apocalypse, Offred (Of Fred) has tried to escape Gilead (which rose from the ashes of the US after a terrorist attack and gov’t takeover by religious extremists – also, fertility rates had gone WAAAAAY down) with her daughter and husband, and gets caught and since she is still fertile, she is forced to be a handmaid in the house of the Commander and his wife, which is basically a monthly and ceremonial rape to provide them with a child. I am enjoying the Hulu series so far as well…curious to see how they will expand into a 2nd season.
3.) The Road by Cormac McCarthy – this was a fairly recent read, and I’m very glad I read it in the summer and during a period where I was pretty content, because had I been depressed, it likely would’ve thrown me over the edge. It is BLEAK. Takes place years after some kind of apocalypse – because nothing grows anymore and there were so few survivors, I am assuming either nuclear war or asteroid/comet strike – it’s not specified. A father realizes he is dying and needs to find someone to take care of his young son, so they journey towards the coast through and extremely bleak and ravaged landscape. The fact that McCarthy’s prose is SO eloquent elevates it literarily, and makes it THAT MUCH MORE DEVASTATING.
4.) Glimmering by Elizabeth Hand – I read this one at some point in the late 90’s, and reference it to artistic collaborators all the time. Was probably the first climate-based apocalyptic fiction I ever read. There is an avalanche in the antarctic ocean that releases methane into the atmosphere, which mixes with the bromotetrachloride particles left there by a solar storm. The depletion of the ozone layer hastens, and the particles begin glimmering. No one can see the stars anymore, there is no more normal night, only a constant glimmering in the sky. Several of the main characters have AIDS, and one of them starts being aware of…ghosts? Visions?…as he is dying. It has kind of a bleak or hopeful ending, depending on how you look at it. The interesting takeaway from this was that the AIDS virus was a path towards human evolution towards less corporal, light-energy forms…hence the aforementioned ghosts/visions.
5.) Bird Box by Josh Malerman – devoured this one on the beach in Crete last September! Apocalyptically-speaking, it was kind of in a category of its own. In bits and pieces, the characters figure out a hypothesis for why people are suddenly going mad and killing themselves and each other: some kind of interdimensional creatures have arrived on earth (this is nowhere as cheesy as it sounds), and they are SO out of the realm of human comprehension that just looking at them drives people insane and they immediately try to end it all in horrifying and violent ways for themselves and anyone around them. Those who survive manage to do so by staying inside with all the windows closed and blocked. The protagonist knows there is a surviving colony of people “down the river” and must journey with her two young children to find this colony, and all of them must be blindfolded for the entirety of the journey.