The best survival fiction is able to delve deep into the psychology of humanity like few other genres.
After all, we all like to imagine how we would survive in a similar situation to the characters found in the stories below. It's fun to get lost in a story of life and death consequences, and picture how we ourselves would fare under such a situation.
Fiction focusing on survival runs the range from Earthly to intergalactic, from plausible to mind-blowing. No matter which type of survival story you prefer, you're sure to find something to love here.
If you want to check out any of these titles for free, you can do so with Audible's one month free trial.
Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’ is perhaps the epitome of survival science fiction, as well as an inspiration to authors everywhere. Why? Weir originally released the story for free, a chapter at a time. It then received a conventional release before going on to become the blockbuster Hollywood adaptation it is today. As well as being a gripping, fascinating, and humorous tale, ‘The Martian’ is packed with plenty of scientific clout thanks to Weir’s professional background and meticulous research process. A must-read for fans of survival sci-fi.
‘The Stand’ is arguably the most epic Stephen King tale outside of ‘The Dark Tower’ series. It is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which bands of survivors group together to sustain their existence in America. It is a fascinating study of the tribalism inherent in humanity, as well as an intriguing ‘what if’ exploration of a terrifyingly plausible scenario. True King fans prefer the expanded edition for the level of detail offered, not to mention the fact it’s fare more in line with the author’s original intention for the tale.
Like a lot of the best survival fiction. Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ walks the line between science fiction and out and out horror. The book is a bleak and emotionally potent story of a father and son, who remain nameless throughout, journeying through America after an extinction event. ‘The Road’ is critically acclaimed as well as emotionally affecting, having won no less than the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. All fans of survival tales should check out The Road, but should also steady themselves for the emotional gut punch of reading it.
Michael Punke’s ‘The Revenant’ is packed full of survival fiction credibility, thanks to the authors own personal love of the outdoors and all that entails. Readers will notice the authentic detail present in descriptions of activities such as exploration and catching food in the wild. As well as satisfying the most stringent survivalist, The Revenant is an emotionally captivating tale of revenge. Guaranteed to grip you from the first page to the last, this is an essential choice for anyone who loves epic tales of survival.
Although originally intended for younger readers, ‘Hatchet’ by Gary Paulsen is an epic example of survival fiction, beloved by people of all ages. The story focuses on a young man, Brian, who is forced to survive in the wilderness after a plane crash. The story is the first in a series of five. ‘Hatchet’ holds a special place in the heart of many survival fiction fans, due to the fact it was many people’s first experience of the genre. The story is well-written, believable, and packs plenty of narrative thrill and tension into its pages.
James Wesley Rawles
Hardcore survivalists will find a lot to love in ‘Patriots’. Its author, James Rawles, is one of the most well-known names among the prepper community, and is also ex-military. This attention to detail permeates each and every page. In fact, many have described his novels as authentic survivalist manuals as well as stories! If you’re interested in exploring a patriotic, epic survivalist saga, Rawles is the author for you.
The Hunger Games
The novels behind the blockbuster movies are well worthy of the attention of any survival fiction fans. Set in a dystopic nation in which young people are made to compete in a brutal survival competition, screened for the amusement of the wealthy and privileged. The stories are packed full of fascinating detail and emotionally potent characters. The Hunger Games series is a wild ride which forces the reader to reflect on the nature of society and the world in which we live.
Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
Footfall is a tale of survival packed full of sci-fi awesomeness. It deals with the invasion of Earth of an elephant-like race of aliens. The survival aspect of the story comes into play as the reader is shown both the Earthly attempts at resisting and coping as well as the perspective of a group of human captives onboard the craft of the invaders. Footfall is a fantastic sci-fi story which masterfully blurs the line between survivalism and alien invasion. It’s also a fun and genuinely enjoyable read which also manages to provoke thought.
Oryx and Crake
Although Margaret Atwood has stated she doesn’t technically consider Oryx and Crake to be science fiction, fans of sci-fi survival will find much to love in this story. Why? It focuses on a world gone wrong, thanks to the impact of out of control bioengineering with unintended consequences. The protagonist of the tale has to come to terms with potentially being humanity’s last survivor, in addition to the complexities of surviving in a world utterly ruined by unchecked capitalism. Like many of Atwood’s stories, Oryx and Crake has a topical potency which will force readers to stop and think about the world we are collectively creating.
One Second After
William R. Forstchen
‘One Second After’ is a fascinating foray into survival sci-fi, exploring the immediate aftermath of an EMP attack upon the United States of America. It considers the practical implications of a society thrown back into low-tech ways of operating. It also explores the psychological aspects of a man trying to protect his loved ones in the face of an unprecedented technological assault from an unknown adversary. The most terrifying aspect of this tale is its plausibility.
On The Beach
On the Beach by Nevil Shute is a post-apocalyptic novel which also makes use of survival themes. The story is set in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, and deals with a group of survivors who are hiding out on an Australian beach, awaiting their impending death as a cloud of radioactive material moves towards them. Insight into the psychology of people in such a scenario, on the beach serves as a fascinating insight into the political climate of the Cold War era.
David Brin’s ‘The Postman’ deals with a drifter coping with the aftermath of a dystopian societal wipeout. The book deals with both the symbolic and practical reality of such a scenario. Survivalists will find many interesting details, such as the practicalities of a barter system, should one ever be needed. Brin has also imbued ‘The Postman’ with plenty of emotional potency, and the main character is likely to live long in the memories and hearts of readers. Like all the best survival fiction, ‘The Postman’ forces you to stop and consider what you would do in a similar scenario.
Similarly to ‘On The Beach’, found earlier on this list, ‘Alas Babylon’ deals with the fallout of a nuclear holocaust. The story is set in the one city which was spared the chaos and destruction which wiped out the rest of America. Frank deals with the realities of disparate groups of people forced to come together and deal with an unprecedented external threat. Although the nuclear holocaust fears have dimmed a little in the time period we now live in, readers are sure to relate to the fear and threat found in this epic and chilling survival tale.
Like many of the best modern survival fiction tales, ‘Lights Out’ by David Crawford is terrifyingly plausible. After all, modern society is so dependent upon the electricity grid that it represents a real point of vulnerability that could potentially have serious knock on effects. Crawford’s survival fiction story deals with exactly this. It looks at what happens when the power grids go down, and the way in which humans react when their normal way of life is thrown into turmoil.
George R Stewart
It’s fitting to close out the list of the best survival fiction with a classic older tale. ‘Earth Abides’ by George R Stewart was originally released all the way back in 1949 and has won awards for being one of the best all time science fiction tales. It proves that it’s possible to produce a story of survival which equally manages to satisfy the interests of true sci fi readers. A must read for any fans of science fiction in general and survival tales in particular.
What Makes A Book Survival Fiction?
If you’ve read through the whole list of suggested survival stories, you’ll see that there is a wide range of variety in terms of theme and setting.
So how do we categorize a story as survival fiction? What makes the best tales of this type stand out from other similar genres?
Although the particulars may vary, survival fiction tends to feature some or all of the following aspects:
A catastrophic event. This can be either on a small scale, such as a plane crash leaving some survivors, or a larger scale, such as an event wiping out the vast majority of humanity. This initial event is the reason for the characters needing to survive and provides the dramatic reason for the story.
A group of survivors. Readers need more than an interesting concept to become enthralled with a story. They also need a set of believable and relatable characters they can root for. It’s important that the reader is able to see themselves in the scenario, in order to consider what they themselves would do, and this effect is achieved by making the main characters sympathetic and interesting.
A series of setbacks. In order for a story of survival fiction to maintain the dramatic tension which is established by the initial event, it’s important that things don’t go smoothly from the start for the group of survivors. They need to experience a series of setbacks and challenges to overcome in order to maintain the interest and sympathy of the reader throughout the story.
A negative outside force. There’s usually something going up against the sympathetic group of main characters. In the case of the more science fiction oriented survival fiction, this can be an invading force of aliens, or even some kind of plague that has ravished the world. In the more realistic, modern prepper type survival books, the outside force is often a group of invaders who aim to impede America by taking down the central power grids.
In essence, if a story is based around a person or group of people who is forced to overcome the odds and fend for their lives in extraordinary circumstances, the story may properly be called survival fiction.
What Type of Settings Are Found In Survival Fiction?
The type of setting found in any given survival fiction story depends a lot upon whether the story is more geared towards sci fi or realism, the time period in which it is set, and the type of event which caused the survival scenario to occur.
Some of the most common settings found in survival fiction stories include:
Earth. When the survival event was something large scale that affected the whole of humanity, the story is often set across the whole planet. This can take the form of a group of survivors who travel from place to place, or a story set across multiple countries, showing the fates of different groups of people unfolding at the same time.
America. Many of the more survivalist, prepper style survival tales occur in modern day America. This adds a level of realism to the story, but might not be quite right for hardcore science fiction fans.
Another planet. Some of the more science oriented survival tales occur on another planet. This can be the case with stories based around a group of humans stranded on an alien world, an abduction survival story, or some other scenario.
The future. Many stories are set in either the near or far future. This gives the writer more liberty to play around with the technological, scientific and poltiical tales found in the story.
The past. Some survival stories occur in the past. This can be the case with stories which deal with an alternative reality survival scenario, a time travel survival story, or just a writer wishing to use a past time period as a backdrop for their characters.
The full list of survival fiction is definitely proof that gripping tales can occur no matter the time period in which they are set.
If genres such as hard science fiction are suited for explaining detailed scientific concepts, both real and imaginary, then survival fiction is tailor made for exploring aspects of human psychology.
While some of the best survival stories deal with scientific concepts and others don’t, every one of them explores the psychology of human beings forced out of their comfort zone and into a struggle for survival.
Some of the psychological and social concepts explored within the genre of survival fiction include:
Leadership. In the case of a group of survivors banding together, who will take the lead? Many interesting survival stories deal with the power struggles that occur between potential rival leaders within groups.
Resources. How do people cope when they are thrust from a world of abundance into a world of scarcity? How do people choose to ration and distribute the resources still available to them after the catastrophic event has happened?
Economics. In times of crisis, how do people operate in an economic sense? Is there a barter system? Are certain commodities more valued than others? This is often one of the most fascinating parts of survival fiction.
If you’re interested in seeing how human beings cope in extreme scenarios, both on an individual and a group basis, you will find much to love in survival fiction.
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