What Is Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction?

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2019 • 3 min read

What will life be like at the end of the world? Will the United States of America be a dystopian failed state, ruled by zombies reeling from nuclear war? Will we be ill from a mass pandemic, parched by climate change, ruled by sci-fi robots, or locked in a thousand year battle against an alien invasion? The popular genres of apocalyptic fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction seek to answer these questions.



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What Is Apocalyptic Fiction?

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction are subgenres of science fiction that are set in a time period where the earth as we know it is coming to an end. Post-apocalyptic novels almost always take place in the future, although some describe the end of past civilizations that no longer exist.

What Are the Origins of Apocalyptic Fiction?

Apocalyptic literature has existed for millenia. Major western religions ranging from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism contain multiple tales of a civilization or locale reaching its end. The stories of the garden of Eden, Noah, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the book of Revelation all contain apocalyptic themes. The ancient Mesopatamian epic of Gilgamesh is also concerned with the end of the known world. Apocalyptic stories of Babylon have been written all the way from antiquity to the present.

The Romantic and Gothic authors of the early nineteenth century explored apocalyptic themes, perhaps most famously in Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826). Edgar Allan Poe's 1839 short story "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" centers on disembodied souls discussing the recent destruction of the Earth.

In the twentieth century, the apocalyptic genre grew in the wake of World War I, World War II, and the Cold War nuclear arms race. Novelists, essayists, and filmmakers conjured many an apocalyptic world that offered everything from zombie wars to a desolate post-nuclear wastelands.

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7 Common Themes in Apocalyptic Fiction

The themes that govern apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic books tend to involve circumstances that lead to mass unrest, societal breakdown, and widespread death. These include:

  1. Climate change
  2. Nuclear holocaust
  3. Medical pandemic
  4. The rise of sentient robots
  5. The destruction of a major city like New York, Los Angeles, or London
  6. Endless war
  7. A fascist government engaged in mind control

In novels with these themes, a main character is usually tasked with navigating the deathtraps of a world afflicted by the prevailing apocalyptic conditions.

Examples of Apocalyptic Fiction

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have given rise to what many consider the best post-apocalyptic books and post-apocalyptic stories ever written. These books are often also cross-categorized as dystopian fiction and speculative fiction. Some also fit the young adult subgenre. Here are some highlights of the genre, divided by theme:

Post-Disaster Wastelands

  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • The Stand by Stephen King
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
  • On the Beach by Nevil Shute
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
  • One Second After by William R. Forstchen
  • Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
  • Swan Song by Robert McCammon
  • The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
  • The Postman by David Brin
  • "A Boy and His Dog" by Harlan Ellison
  • Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam, a trilogy by Margaret Atwood
  • The Mad Max film series by James McCausland and George Miller


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Nature Gone Awry

  • The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
  • The Maze Runner trilogy by James Dashner
  • The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Death of Grass by John Christopher

Zombie Apocalypse

  • World War Z by Max Brooks
  • The Walking Dead, a graphic novel series by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard
  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
  • The Passage by Justin Cronin

Dystopian Governments

  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Children of Men by P.D. James

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