James W. Harris over at his Auxiliary Memory blog (see below) started an interesting discussion on post-apocalyptic novels, a favorite subject of mine, so I’m doing something different and reblogging his post and adding a list of some of my own favorite post-apocalyptic novels.
A note on taxonomy: the science fiction subgenres of the disaster and post-apocalyptic novels often blur. I’m not going to mention novels where the old order is essentially reasserted after some convulsion be it via plague, war, asteroid impact, or nanotech disaster.
For purely sentimental reasons, I’ll start with Christopher Anvil’s The Day the Machines Stopped. This one has electrical technology grinding to a halt after some accident in the Soviet Union. To be honest, I don’t even remember how it ended, so I don’t know if qualifies as a true post-apocalyptic novel or not. I read it decades ago, in grade school, during the 1970s. I just remembered the gun battles around grocery stores, and my young brain thinking, “Why, yes, that’s how it would be if there was no more electricity.” A lifelong fascination was born.
Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer is long and goes the whole spectrum from pre-disaster, through cometary impact, and the new world after. Some issues raised: Are accountants really useful after civilization ends? How do you store books in a hoard? If you’re a feudal lord who used to be a U.S. Senator, do you really owe anything to that one time campaign contributor?
One of the characters in Lucifer’s Hammer was a postman still making his rounds because communicating with other survivors is still useful after life as we know it ends. I suspect he inspired David Brin’s The Postman. Its titular character not only helps bind communities together, but he becomes the accidental and reluctant nucleus for a revival of civilization. Yes, the novel ends with silly super-survivalists, but I still liked it.
Perhaps not a truly post-apocalyptic novel but still good and a fascinating look at the possible effects of even a limited nuclear war was Whitley Strieber (yes, the Communion guy) and James Kunetka’s War Day. Using the John Dos Passos mosaic style, it’s a trip through an America that survived in a shaken and rattled state.
Something a little different but along the same line are the first two installments of Dean Ing’s Ted Quantrill trilogy: Systemic Shock and Single Combat. Set in a “streamlined America” after a limited nuclear war (specifically Ing used, as his starting point, the events of Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War — there’s a recent look at it here), it has America under the thumb of a Mormon theocracy with its young hero, Quantrill, as a government assassin. To be honest, I don’t remember much of the plot. (Ing wrote a straight up survivalist novel called Pulling Through which featured an appendix on how to build an improvised fallout shelter in a hurry.)
John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass aka The Death of Grass is a very good novel, another work that starts in the world before it falls apart, covers the unfraying of civilization due to the death of all grain crops, and covers the beginning of the new order. There’s Pierre the gun store owner who is one of those memorable characters who comes into his own during the disaster. But he’s not the protagonist. The hero becomes the de facto leader of a group of survivors, and the novel ends memorably with a tragic incident that shows the loyalties and relationships of the old world now count for nothing.
For reason’s Jim covers ably in his reviews, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids are rightly regarded as classics. (I take an extended look at the tter here.)
Wyndham’s Out of the Depths is also worth a read. It’s a combination post-apocalypse and alien invasion novel. Wyndam’s interest in the practical skills needed to maintain life and society probably owe something to his unusual education at England’s Bedales School, an education which emphasized gardening and crafts besides traditional academics.