Since science fiction first became popular, authors have been dreaming up new and terrifying ways to envision the world ending. Whether through war, alien invasion, or mankind's own foolishness, all these books describe Planet Earth coming to a severe end. If you want a taste of the best end of the world science fiction, look no further.
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Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut is proof that end of the world sci fi can have serious literary clout. Vonnegut is widely regarded as one of the best writers of the modern era. The plot line deals with the impact of a nuclear catastrophe, and the environmental havoc that ensues. Such heavy themes are tempered by Vonnegut’s trademark use of dark humor and ironic themes. Cat’s Cradle works both as a fine work of end of the world science fiction, and a standout literary achievement in its own right.
The Sheep Look Up
As you would expect from a sci fi tale dealing with the end of the world, The Sheep Look Up makes for great a bleak read. The story centers on the dystopian way in which society unfolds following serious environmental collapse. Unlike many more fantastical imaginations of end of the world sci-fi, The Sheep Look Up is grimly truthful, even being called prophetic by many modern environmentalists. John Brunner’s vignette style of narrative is gripping and makes the reader take in the implications of environmental damage from many angles and perspectives.
The Death Of Grass
John Christopher's The Death Of Grass is proof that sci-fi authors have long imagined the consequences of environmental damage, having received its original release back in 1956. The story imagines what would happen if a virus destroyed all grass on Earth, and the consequences of this occurring. The human element of the story deals with a group of survivors making their way across England. Along the way, they are forced to choose between brutal alternatives in the name of survival. Like all of the best sci-fi, The Death Of Grass forces the reader to imagine what they would do in a similar scenario.
The Andromeda Strain
The Andromeda Strain is one of the best known Michael Crichton novels outside of Jurassic Park. Unlike many of the end of the world books found here, The Andromeda Strain deals with an end of the world event outside of mankind’s control, but one which they must cope with nonetheless. When harmful alien microbes are found in America, scientists must race to understand and neutralize them. As well as being a gripping end of the world scenario, The Andromeda Strain is scientifically detailed, showing the process of laboratories and their workings in some detail.
Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle is an incredible example of end of the world, packing in a wide array of apocalyptic events. If you want comets hitting Earth, epic environmental events, and nuclear war, this is the book for you! Lucifer’s Hammer is able to mix together credible science with a gripping plot line in a way which will satisfy sci-fi fans from across the spectrum. One of the all time great end of the world stories.
The Drowned World
Station Eleven represents a change of mood and tone from most of the books on this list. While most end of the world fiction envisions the aftermath of a large scale event as being horrifying and violent, Station Eleven takes a different tone. After a pandemic has killed the majority of people, a group of survivors make it their mission to travel the country and entertain others. End of the world fiction and the term heartwarming rarely are found in the same sentence, but Station Eleven is an interesting exception. A great choice for readers bored of the usual post-apocalyptic tone and tropes.
Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
Good Omens was released as a collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, two absolute titans of the fantasy and sci-fi genres. Although the story is more comedic fantasy horror than sci-fi, there is a lot for fans of end of the world tales to enjoy here. As one would expect from a Pratchett story, there is a lot of humor and irony to be found here. If you want to explore the end of the world due to the son of Satan through a comedic lens, Good Omens is your best bet.
Although David Brin released Earth back in 1990, and set it five decades in the future, it came to be eerily prophetic a lot sooner than expected. The plot tells the tale of an artificial black hole which has been unleashed and is causing havoc on Earth, threatening humankind’s very existence. Earth is considered remarkable due to the number of predictions Brin made which came to be true, including modern Internet, malicious email, and the possibility of humanity creating artificial black holes. Earth’s excellence is also shown through its Hugo and Locus award nominations.
Although Stephen King is perhaps best known for what can be termed ‘small town horror’, The Stand is positive proof that he can turn his attention to the world ending with equal effect. It is a truly epic tale which many die-hard King fans class as their personal favorite. The story explores a post-apocalyptic society divided, and the way in which survivors band together, and factionalize, often to devastating effect. A gripping and memorable tale which demands to be reread.
The Only Ones
The Only Ones is a post-apocalyptic tale which deals with a survivor immune to the pandemic which has devastated the world. Many readers have compared this book to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, as it explores themes of survival and parenthood. Sci-fi fans will find fascinating the fact that the parental relationship in question is based around the concept of cloning. The Only Ones switches back and forth between introspective reflection and exciting scenes of end of the world action. Intelligent and intellectually stimulating end of the world sci-fi.
What are some of the events that incite end of the world fiction?
The types of apocalyptic events found in end of the world fiction are incredibly varied. Interestingly, the particulars often depend upon the time period in which the book was released, with the fears of the era being reflected.
Broadly speaking, end of the world events can be divided into two types. Those which humanity have self-inflicted, and those which are inflicted upon us by outside forces.
So what are the common end of the world events found in this type of science fiction?
Environmental damage. Humans having a negative impact upon the world and the ecosystem we all rely on is a common theme in end of the world fiction. Many devastating environmental events often lead to the downfall of society. This type of end of the world book is particular relevant to the era of climate change.
Technological catastrophe. Sci-fi authors have long grappled with questions of how humanity’s reliance on technology will impact us, and end of the world sci fi takes this to its ultimate conclusion. Whether through out of control AI, or artificial pandemics which cannot be contained, technology is often the villain in this type of tale.
Alien invasion. Let’s face it, it wouldn’t be sci-fi if the world didn’t have to occasionally fight back against an invading alien force. Some of the most interesting, and imaginative, end of the world sci-fi can be found in the form of aliens or other outside entities choosing to bring Planet Earth’s days to a close.
Some of the most incredible end of the world stories combine elements from each of the above, with Lucifer’s Hammer being a particularly notable example. No matter what flavor of worldwide destruction you seek, you’re sure to find a story that satisfies.
What are some of the psychological and human themes found in end of the world sci fi?
Like all the best science fiction, end of the world sci-fi is as concerned with the human impact of the end of the world event as it is with the macro level fallout.
Without a strong psychological impact, end of the world stories lose their depth, and readers quickly become bored.
So what are some of the common psychological areas of exploration end of the world books deal with?
Morality. It’s easy for us to think we are good people. After all, we live lives of comfort that even royalty from previous decades could never have imagined. But what happens when a plague hits? When medicine stops being available? When food is scarce? Do we still act in a moral way, or do our moral guidelines shift? The best end of the world books explore this question in unflinching detail.
Society. We have a feeling of predictability and order in the world in which we live. Elections. Laws. Taxes. What happens when the end of the world hits, and society breaks down? Do people unite, or find new ways to hate one another? This type of question is often explored in end of the world fiction.
Hope. In the worst of circumstances, can we find glimmers of light? Are there any ways in which the end of the world will produce something other than utter bleakness? The best end of the world authors are able to consider whether there is anything positive to be found amidst the carnage the end of the world will inevitably lead to.
Ultimately, for an end of the world book to be a true classic, it needs to combine an awesome apocalyptic event with gripping psychological exploration. The stories on this list offer both in masterful measure.
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