Author John Birmingham, who knows a thing or two about end-of-the-world novels, sent me a list of his favorites in that subgenre. John’s own latest falls in this category: the gripping, action-filled After America. Here’s John:
The Stand, Stephen King. It’s not the original end of the world novel, but it might just be the best. This was the first book I ever bought with my own money, many, many years ago. I think I’ve read it four or five times since. It’s an almost perfect example of how to maintain narrative integrity across multiple character arcs over a significant length of story time. That’s why he da king.
Earth Abides, George R. Stewart. I picked this one up on a recommendation by King who once cited it as a source of inspiration for The Stand. A novel from a more genteel era it stays with me as a great study in how to tell a huge story on a small canvas.
Dies the Fire, S.M. Stirling. In fact all of the novels in Steve’s emberverse series are just brilliant. Beautifully paced, densely plotted, and populated with the sort of characters you just want to hang with long after the last page is read. I particularly liked the way he slowly but surely turned this into a neo-fantasy epic over the course of the series.
World War Z, Max Brooks. What can I say. A brilliant device, the use of ‘interviews’ a la Studs Terkel’s The Good War. And a tribute to Brooks’ talent as a writer that he makes each “voice” unique. Best zombiepocalypse ever. Worth reading and rereading over and over.
‘48, James Herbert. A lesser known but somewhat awesome end of the world trope from British horror meister James Herbert. Follows an American pilot on a white knuckle chase through London in 1948, after Hitler has unleashes “the blood death” bioweapon. Great example of hyperaccelerated narrative that never trips over itself.
Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham. Wyndham was a master of the “cosy catastrophe” genre, where a handful of survivors see out the end of days because of some world-ending cataclysm like rising sea levels or, in this case, murderous ambulatory plants. I’ve often wondered who’d win a war between triffids and zombies.
A great list! And I think we should add to it John’s own novels Without Warning and After America, which chart what happens to the rest of the world after the United States (and part of Canada and Mexico) wiped off the face of the earth by a mysterious energy wave. Without Warning covers the first year after the Disappearance, as it comes to be known; After America is the story of the fight for U.S. territory once the energy wave dissipates.
It’s interesting to note that John’s list and my own of favorite postapocalyptic novels overlap only slightly. (And even though he’s Australian, he left off On the Beach by Nevil Shute, an absolute classic in both book and film form. Don’t miss it.)