From viral pandemics to extinction-level events, these searing novels set in the wake of an apocalypse make the essential end-of-world reading list
Nuclear war, devastating pandemics, natural collapse and even zombie apocalypses; speculative fiction featuring the downfall of civilisation and the end of the world as we know it has long held a special place in many readers’ hearts.
Post-apocalypse writing has been around for a couple of centuries, with Mary Shelley credited as writing one of the first examples, The Last Man, in 1826. Yet it wasn’t until the threat of nuclear war entered the public consciousness in the 1950s that the golden age of doomsday fiction was truly born. Since then, the genre has only grown bleaker and more terrifying, while also spreading like a killer fungus to include films, video games, and even TV adaptations of video games, as in the case of hit HBO series The Last of Us.
These fictional works often hold a mirror to society, reflecting the deepest anxieties of the age, while perhaps comforting us with a vision of humanity that somehow finds a will to survive against the odds. So if you’re a fan of the genre, or if The Last of Us has given you a taste for something dark and disturbing, we’ve compiled a list of post-apocalyptic Booker Prize-nominated novels that will capture the darkest of imaginations and leave you asking - at the end of it all - what really matters?
Diane Cook’s 2020 shortlisted novel The New Wilderness takes place in a nearish future. It’s a future ravaged by climate catastrophe, where mega-cities have slowly consumed the natural world around them until there is little left but a toxic metropolis completely overrun by pollution. With her daughter slowing dying, poisoned by the very air she breathes, Bea’s only hope is a research programme located on one of the last scraps of land left, known as ‘The Wilderness State’. Along with 20 other volunteers, they attempt to start a new life where the air is clean. Crafting a nomadic existence while foraging and gathering, they must leave no trace.
With a story that echoes of the survival struggle seen in another hit TV show The Walking Dead, Cook seamlessly portrays the bleakness of life on the limits while tenderly portraying the complexities of a maternal bond in the extremes. But the real terror in this ecological horror ultimately lies in its recognisability: it feels shockingly prescient, and not altogether impossible.
At the more speculative end of the genre sits Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, written amid the 2002 Sars outbreak - which gives a pandemic-sized clue to the inspiration behind the novel. The first book in her MaddAddam trilogy is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the population has been wiped out by a plague; all that is left is one lonely boy, ‘Snowman’, who struggles to survive alongside a group of childlike and genetically-modified humanoids he calls the ‘the Crakers’. Atwood’s narrative oscillates between pre and post-apocalypse to slowly reveal the catastrophic set of events that brought society to its knees. A world which is, at times sordid, consumed by big pharma and devastated by greed. Atwood is a master of the parable and her 2003 shortlisted novel deftly illustrates the vices of humankind. It’s a cautionary tale that shows how a desire to play god could be our biggest downfall.
David Mitchell grew up during the Cold War, and his 2004 shortlisted novel reflects the oppressive threat of nuclear warfare the author clearly felt during those formative years.
While beginning in 1850 and ending in a dystopian future, Cloud Atlas eschews the traditional linearity of most post-apocalyptic novels, adopting a unique boomerang-like structure constructed of six interconnected stories. At its heart lies the end of civilisation as we know it and through a panoply of voices, we learn of the collapse of a society where the corporations and the government have merged into one terrifying entity, called Corpocracy. Those who are left must forge a simple existence on the land, but not without the fear of violent attacks from the neighbouring cannibalistic slavers. Mitchell’s genre-defying novel is a meditation on humanity’s lust for power combined with a profound critique of the post-industrial age.
John Lanchester’s 2019 longlisted novel takes present-day socio-political issues and intertwines them in a near-future, ‘cli-fi’ vision. Set after the ecological collapse of ‘the Change’, lands across the globe have been flooded or parched, turning survival into a lottery. Britain remains one of the few places still habitable, albeit drastically colder. It shelters behind a 10,000 km wall, its borders closed to the outside world while, in their thousands, subservient citizens must suffer through two years of conscription. They form a line of defence that ensures no outsider breaches the island’s perimeter.
Lanchester’s post-catastrophe novel depicts a world with harrowing present-day parallels that, at times, feels a little too close to home - with rising sea levels, extreme weather and climate migrants making headlines every week, this premise often feels scarily close to home. A thrilling, yet uncomfortable read for these fractured times.
Set during the Norman conquests of the 11th century, The Wake, described by its UK publishers as a post-apocalyptic novel set a thousand years ago, proudly splices historical fiction with a devastated landscape. Buccmaster, a fens farmer, loses his wife, children, land and home when the Duke of Normandy invades. While the Normans pillage around him, those left are driven to the wilds to survive. Consumed by rage, and blinded by paranoia, he gathers a band of men and leads a guerilla uprising against the invaders. It’s a brutal and violent read, narrated by a man lamenting the end of his world.
Upon writing, Kingsnorth assumed his novel would be a flop (‘I’m writing a book about a period in history no one knows about in a language no one can understand with a central character who’s horrible’ he told NPR in 2015), yet it was published by Unbound and became the first crowd-funded novel to be nominated for the Booker Prize when it was longlisted in 2014. It enthralled readers across the world, including Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance, who then bought the film rights. Part of its draw lies in the prose: Kingsworth’s novel is written in a version of Old English mixed with modern syntax, and this use of language is key to the author’s worldbuilding. ‘So it is when a world ends’; ‘all is broc,’ says Buccmaster. It couldn’t be more true, in this brutal tale of medieval conquest.
Sequestered on a remote island, a family whose borders are fenced with barbed wire are protecting themselves and the safe zone they inhabit from the ‘toxin‑filled world’ that lies beyond. The earth is diseased and contaminated, and the mother, father and their three daughters ritualistically cleanse in a bid to keep themselves healthy. But when three male outsiders wash up on the shore one day, everything the girls know - and believe - is thrown into question. Is their enclave a refuge, or a draconian jail? And what price must women pay to survive in the brutal world they inhabit?
Told from the changing perspective of sisters Grace, Lia and Sky, Sophie Macintosh’s story expertly leaves unanswered the terrifying uncertainty the sisters face after a lifetime of deception, while building a fever dream of a world through her rich, detailed prose. The Water Cure was longlisted for the prize in 2018.