Imagination magazine cover, depicting an atomic explosion, dated March 1954
The apocalypse event may be climatic, such as runaway climate change; natural, such as an impact event; man-made, such as nuclear warfare; medical, such as a plague or virus, whether natural or man-made; or imaginative, such as zombie apocalypse or alien invasion. The story may involve attempts to prevent an apocalypse event, deal with the impact and consequences of the event itself, or may be post-apocalyptic, and be set after the event. The time frame may be immediately after the catastrophe, focusing on the travails or psychology of survivors, the way to maintain human race alive and together as one, or considerably later, often including the theme that the existence of pre-catastrophe civilization has been forgotten (or mythologized). Post-apocalyptic stories often take place in a non-technological future world, or a world where only scattered elements of society and technology remain.
Other themes may be cybernetic revolt, divine judgment, dysgenics, ecological collapse, pandemic, resource depletion, supernatural phenomena, technological singularity, or some other general disaster.
Numerous societies, including the Babylonian and Judaic, had produced apocalyptic literature and mythology which dealt with the end of the world and of human society. The Epic of Gilgamesh, written ca. 2000–1500 BC, details a myth where the angry gods send floods to punish humanity, but the ancient hero Utnapishtim and his family are saved through the intervention of the god Ea.
The scriptural story of Noah and his Ark describes the end of a corrupt civilization and its replacement with a remade world. Noah is assigned the task to build the Ark and save the lifeforms so as to reestablish a new post-flood world.
A similar story about the Genesis flood narrative is found in Sura 71 of the Quran, where the Islamic counterpart of Noah, Nūḥ (نُوح ), builds the ark and rebuilds humanity.
Even in the Hindu Dharmasastra, the apocalyptic deluge plays a prominent part. According to the Matsya Purana, the Matsya avatar of Lord Vishnu, informed the King Manu of an all-destructive deluge which would be coming very soon. The King was advised to build a huge boat (ark) which housed his family, nine types of seeds, pairs of all animals and the Saptarishis to repopulate the Earth, after the deluge would end and the oceans and seas would recede. At the time of deluge, Vishnu appeared as a horned fish and Shesha appeared as a rope, with which Vaivasvata Manu fastened the boat to the horn of the fish. Variants of this story also appear inBuddhist and Jain scriptures.
The first centuries AD saw the creation of various apocalyptic works; the best known is the Book of Revelation (from which the word apocalypse originated, meaning “revelation of secrets”), which is filled with prophecies of destruction, as well as luminous visions. In the first chapter of Revelation, the author St. John the Divine explains his divine errand: “Write the things which thou hast seen, the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter” (Rev. 1:19). He takes it as his mission to convey—to reveal—to God’s kingdom His promise that justice will prevail and that the suffering will be vindicated (Leigh). The apocalyptist provides a beautific vision of Judgement Day, revealing God’s promise for redemption from suffering and strife. Revelation describes a New Heaven and a New Earth, and its intended audience (Christians under the persecution of the Roman Empire, for whom John wrote the letters that constitute the book) were enchanted and inspired, rather than terrified by visions of Judgment Day. These Christians believed themselves chosen for God’s salvation, and so such apocalyptic sensibilities inspired optimism and nostalgia for the end times.
Mary Shelley’s novel, The Last Man (1826), is often considered the first work of modern apocalyptic fiction. The story follows a group of people as they struggle to survive in a plague-infected world. The story centers on a male protagonist as he struggles to keep his family safe but is inevitably left as the last man alive. However, Shelley’s novel is predated by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s French novel Le Dernier Homme (English: The Last Man (1805)). Published after his death in 1805, de Grainville’s novel follows the character of Omegarus, the titular “last man,” in what is essentially a retelling of the Book of Revelation, combined with themes of the story of Adam and Eve. Unlike most apocalyptic tales, de Grainville’s novel approaches the end of the world not as a cautionary tale, or a tale of survival, but as both an inevitable, as well as necessary, step for the spiritual resurrection of mankind.
Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” (1839) follows the conversation between two souls in the afterlife as they discuss the destruction of the world. The destruction was brought about by a comet that removed nitrogen from Earth’s atmosphere; this left only oxygen and resulted in a worldwide inferno.
Richard Jefferies’ novel After London (1885) can best be described as genuine post-apocalyptic fiction. After a sudden and unspecified catastrophe has depopulated England, the countryside reverts to nature and the few survivors return to a quasi-medieval way of life. The first chapters consist solely of a description of nature reclaiming England: fields becoming overrun by forest, domesticated animals running wild, roads and towns becoming overgrown, London reverting to lake and poisonous swampland. The rest of the story is a straightforward adventure/quest set many years later in the wild landscape and society, but the opening chapters set an example for many later science fiction stories.
H.G. Wells wrote several novels that have a post-apocalyptic theme. The Time Machine (1895) has the unnamed protagonist traveling to the year 802,701 A.D. after civilization has collapsed and humanity has split into two distinct species, the elfin Eloi and the brutal Morlocks. Later in the story, the time traveler moves forward to a dying Earth beneath a swollen, red sun. The War of the Worlds (1898) depicts an invasion of Earth by inhabitants of the planet Mars. The aliens systematically destroy Victorian England with advanced weaponry mounted on nearly indestructible vehicles. Due to the (in)famous radio adaptation of the novel by Orson Welles on his show,The Mercury Theatre on the Air, the novel has become one of the best known early apocalyptic works. It has subsequently been reproduced or adapted several times in comic books, film, music, radio programming,television programming, and video games.
In Argentine comic writer Héctor Germán Oesterheld’s comic series El Eternauta (1957 to 1959), an alien race only mentioned by the protagonists as Ellos (“Them”) invades the Earth starting with a deadly snowfall and then using other alien races to defeat the remaining humans.
In Raccoona Sheldon (a pen name of Alice Sheldon)’s Nebula-winning novelette The Screwfly Solution (1977), aliens are wiping out humanity with an airborne agent that changes men’s sexual impulse to a violent impulse.
Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series (1979–2009, with the sixth and final volume written by Eoin Colfer) parodies the same genre of fiction as the 2011 TV show Falling Skies, through having multiple Earths which are repeatedly “demolished”, in Adams’ series by the bureaucratic Vogons to make way for a hyperspace bypass, much to the chagrin of series protagonist Arthur Dent.
In Gene Wolfe’s The Urth of the New Sun (1987), aliens (or highly evolved humans) introduce a white hole into the sun to counteract the dimming effect of a black hole, and the resulting global warming causes a sea-level rise that kills most of the population (though this may be redemptive, like Noah’s Flood, rather than a disaster).
In Greg Bear’s The Forge of God (1987), Earth is destroyed in an alien attack. Just prior to this, a different group of aliens is able to save samples of the biosphere and a small number of people, resettling them on Mars. Some of these form the crew of a ship to hunt down the home world of the killers, as described in the sequel, Anvil of Stars (1992).
Al Sarrantonio’s Moonbane (1989) concerns the origin of werewolves (which he attributes to the Moon, which is why they are so attracted to it), and an invasion after an explosion on Luna sends meteoric fragments containing latent lycanthropes to Earth, who thrive in our planet’s oxygen-rich atmosphere. Moonbane‘s tone is reminiscent of Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds (1897).
Charles R. Pellegrino and George Zebrowski’s novel The Killing Star (1995) describes a devastating attack on a late-21st-century Earth by an alien civilization. Using relativistic missiles, they are determined to destroy the human race in a preemptive strike, as they are considered a future threat.
In the video game Chrono Trigger (1995), the giant alien creature Lavos collides with the earth in prehistoric times, subsequently hibernating beneath the earth. As millions of years pass, the monster feeds on the energy of the earth, eventually surfacing in 1999 to wreak complete destruction of the human race, atmosphere, and general life on the planet in the form of a rain of destruction fired from its outer shell, known as the ‘Day of Lavos’.
The 2011 TV series Falling Skies, by Robert Rodat and Steven Spielberg, follows a human resistance force fighting to survive after extraterrestrial aliens attempt to take over Earth by disabling most of the world’s technology and destroying its armed forces in a surprise attack. It is implied that the attacking aliens are in reality former victims of an attack on their own planet and are now the slaves of an unseen controller race.
The television series Defiance (2013-2015) is set in an Earth devastated by the “Pale Wars”, a war with seven alien races referred to as the “Votan”, followed by the “Arkfalls”, which terraforms Earth to an almost unrecognizable state. Unlike most apocalyptic works, in this one Earth is not inhospitable, and humanity is not on the verge of extinction.
The Purple Cloud (1901) by M. P. Shiel is a “last man” novel in which most of humanity has been killed by a poisonous cloud.
In Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer’s novel When Worlds Collide (1933), Earth is destroyed by the rogue planet Bronson Alpha. A selected few escape on a spaceship. In the sequel, After Worlds Collide (1934), the survivors start a new life on the planet’s companion Bronson Beta, which has taken the orbit formerly occupied by Earth.
Possibly inspired by When Worlds Collide, the horror manga Hellstar Remina (published by manga artist Junji Ito presents a similar premise where an extrasolar, and in reality extradimensional, rogue planet sets a collision course for Earth, destroying several solar systems on the way there, and destroying Pluto, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars as well. Its eventually discovered that the planet is in reality a massive lifeform that feeds on other planets, and is not only alive, but also home to an extremely deadly ecosystem which kills both an expedition force and a group of affluent survivors that escapes to the planets surface to avoid death on Earth. A nuclear response fails, and the planet devours Earth, leading to the extinction of mankind aside from a group of characters surviving in a durable, airtight shelter that is left floating in empty space with supplies and air for a year.
In J. T. McIntosh’s novel One in Three Hundred (1954), scientists have discovered how to pinpoint the exact minute, hour, and day the Sun will go “nova” – and when it does, it will boil away Earth’s seas, beginning with the hemisphere that faces the sun, and as Earth continues to rotate, it will take only 24 hours before all life is eradicated. Super-hurricanes and tornadoes are predicted. Buildings will be blown away. A race is on to build thousands of spaceships for the sole purpose of transferring evacuees on a one-way trip to Mars. When the Sun begins to go nova, everything is on schedule, but most of the spaceships turn out to be defective, and fail en route to Mars.
Brian Aldiss’ novel Hothouse (1961) occurs in a distant future where the sun is much hotter and stronger, and the human population has been reduced to a fifth of what it had been.
Likewise J. G. Ballard’s novel, The Drowned World (1962), occurs after a rise in solar radiation that causes worldwide flooding and accelerated mutation of plants and animals.
Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s novel, Lucifer’s Hammer (1977), is about a cataclysmic comet hitting Earth and various groups of people struggling to survive the aftermath in southern California.
Hollywood—which previously had explored the idea of the Earth and its population being potentially endangered by a collision with another heavenly body with the When Worlds Collide (1951), a film treatment of the aforementioned 1933 novel – revisited the theme in the late 1990s with a trio of similarly themed projects. Asteroid (film) (1997) is a NBC-TV miniseries about the U.S. government trying to prevent an asteroid from colliding with the Earth. The following year saw dueling big-budget summer blockbuster movies Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998), both of which involved efforts to save the Earth from, respectively, a rogue comet and an asteroid, by landing crews upon them to detonate nuclear weapons there in hopes of destroying them.
In characters in the six-part ITV television drama serial The Last Train (1999) awaken from a cryogenic sleep after an asteroid, the size of Birmingham, strikes Africa, causing a worldwide apocalypse.
K. A. Applegate’s 2001–2003 book series, Remnants, details the end of the world by asteroid collision. The first book, The Mayflower Project (2001), describes Earth in a sort of hysteria as 80 people are chosen by NASA to board a spacecraft that will go to an unknown destination away from the destroyed Earth. The later books deal with the few survivors waking up from a 500-year hibernation and succumbing to both strange mutations and the will of a strange alien computer/spaceship that they land on. Eventually they return to Earth to find a couple colonies of survivors struggling on a harsh planet completely different from the Earth the Remnants knew.
In id Software’s video game Rage (2011), Earth is heavily damaged, and humanity nearly wiped out, by the direct collision of the real asteroid 99942 Apophis with the Earth in the year 2029.
Marly Youmans’ epic poem Thaliad (2012) tells the story of a group of children after an unspecified apocalypse from the sky, perhaps connected with solar flares or meteor impact, resulting in people and animals having been burned and the skies having filled with ash. The children survive only because they were together on a school visit to a cave.
The “cosy catastrophe” is a name given to a style of post-apocalyptic science fiction that was particularly prevalent after World War II among British science fiction writers. A “cosy catastrophe” is typically one in which civilization (as we know it) comes to an end and everyone is killed except for the main characters, who survive relatively unscathed and are then freed from the prior constraints of civilization. The term was coined by Brian Aldiss in Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1973). Aldiss was directing his remarks at English author John Wyndham, especially Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids (1951), whose protagonists were able to enjoy a relatively comfortable existence with little associated hardship or danger despite the collapse of society.
In Spanish Catalan author Manuel de Pedrolo’s novel Mecanoscrit del segon origen (1974, Typescript of the Second Origin), two children accidentally survive an alien holocaust that eradicates all life on Earth. They take up the mission of preserving human culture and repopulating the Earth.
In Alfred Walter Stewart’s 1923 novel, ‘Nordenholt’s Million’, an engineered strain of bacteria denitrifies almost all plants, causing a collapse of food supply. The plutocrat of the title establishes a haven in central Scotland for a chosen group of survivors, while deliberately wrecking all alternative refuges.
In Alfred Bester’s story “Adam and No Eve”, an inventor takes off in a rocket whose propulsion uses a dangerous catalyst. From orbit he sees that the entire world has been destroyed by a runaway reaction caused by the catalyst. Fatally injured in a crash landing, he crawls to the sea so that bacteria in his body can initiate new life on Earth.
In John Christopher’s novel The Death of Grass (1956), a mutated virus kills cereal crops and other grasses throughout Eurasia, causing famine.
Kurt Vonnegut ‘s novel Cat’s Cradle (1963) ends with all the bodies of water turning into “ice-nine”, a fictional phase of ice that forms at room temperature.
In J. G. Ballard’s novel The Burning World (1964, expanded into The Drought in 1965), pollution in the oceans creates a surface layer that resists evaporation, bringing about a worldwide drought.
John Brunner’s novel The Sheep Look Up (1972) describes an environmentally-degraded world rapidly collapsing into social chaos, revolution, and anarchy.
Richard Cowper’s three-volume novel The White Bird of Kinship (1978–82) envisions a future in which anthropogenic global warming caused by the greenhouse effect led to a catastrophic rise in sea level. Most of it takes place two millennia later.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel Always Coming Home (1985) takes place long after worldwide disasters, apparently largely environmental though nuclear war may also be involved, that drastically reduced the population. It paints an admiring picture of a primitive society that will not repeat the mistakes of civilization. It won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and was a runner-up for a National Book Award.
In the film The Day After Tomorrow (2004), based on Whitley Strieber’s speculative non-fiction novel The Coming Global Superstorm (1999), extreme weather events caused by climate change invoke mass destruction across the planet, and eventually result in a new ice age.
Failure of modern technology
In E. M. Forster’s novella The Machine Stops (1909), humanity has been forced underground due to inhospitable conditions on Earth’s surface, and is entirely dependent on “the machine,” a god-like mechanical entity which has supplanted almost all free will by providing for humankind’s every whim. The machine deteriorates and eventually stops, ending the lives of all those dependent upon it, though one of the dying alludes to a group of humans dwelling on the surface who will carry the torch of humanity into the future.
In René Barjavel’s novel Ravage (1943), written and published during the German occupation of France, a future France is devastated by the sudden failure of electricity, causing chaos, disease, and famine, with a small band of survivors desperately struggling for survival.
Four decades later, Steve Boyett’s novel Ariel (1983, sub-titled “A Book of the Change”) has all technology—including electricity, gunpowder, and some physics principles—ceasing to function, while magic becomes real. He also contributed to the 1986 Borderland series, which investigates a return of the Realm of Faery to the world.
Roughly a decade later, S. M. Stirling took up a slight variation on this theme in Dies the Fire (2004), The Protector’s War (2005) and A Meeting In Corvallis (2006), where a sudden mysterious worldwide “change” alters physical laws so that electricity, gunpowder and most forms of high-energy-density technology no longer work. Civilization collapses, and two competing groups struggle to re-create medieval technologies and skills, as well as master magic. Like Boyett’s novel, Stirling’s features Society for Creative Anachronism members as favorably disposed survivors, and a hang-glider attack against a building.
Afterworld (first aired in 2007) is a computer-animated American science fiction television series where a network of satellites firing peristant electronic pulses, combined with a strange nanotechnology, has not only destroyed most electronic technology on the planet, but also caused the deaths of 99% of humanity, and is now causing strange mutations to occur in lower forms of life.
NBC’s Revolution (2012-2014) also revolves around a “change” after which the principles of electricity and physics are inoperable. However, the focus of the story is how a group of protagonists try to get the power back on while opposing the efforts of a tyrannical militia leader to understand it first (so that he can take absolute power).
The web series H+: The Digital Series (2012) depicts in part, the aftermath of a world in which a computer virus that infected a popular brain-computer interface killed one-third of the population, leading to a breakdown in order and the lack or shortage of electricity and other modern conveniences.
Other works use Ray Kurzweil’s idea of the technological singularity, the creation of a sentient machine using artificial intelligence, as the starting point for an apocalypse. For example:
- Harlan Ellison’s short story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1967), is set after the Cold War, where a super-computer, named AM (Allied Mastercomputer/Adaptive Manipulator), created to run the war office, becomes self-conscious, and destroys all but five human beings. In a vast subterranean complex, the survivors search the shadow of the former world in search of food, whilst being tortured by AM on the way.
- The Terminator film series (first introduced in 1984) describes an artificial intelligence created by the U.S. government to monitor military systems, for national defense. In a twist of logic, Skynet destroys civilization in order to protect itself from its human masters, causing a global thermonuclear war, followed by the near-extermination of the survivors by the machines.
- The film The Matrix (1999), written and directed by the Wachowskis describe a future in which the artificial intelligence singularity has destroyed human civilization, and has placed the remaining humans in a virtual reality simulation which is designed to keep them complacent while using them for power. A significant amount of religious iconography pervades the series, including the protagonist being an allegory for the second coming, and the name of the supporting actress, Trinity.
Fossil fuel supply scarcities
The cult classic film Mad Max (1979), directed by George Miller, presents a world in which oil resources have been nearly exhausted. This has resulted in constant energy shortages and a breakdown of law and order. The police do battle with criminal motorcycle gangs, with the end result being the complete breakdown of modern society as depicted in Mad Max 2 (1981) and after nuclear war as depicted in the third sequel film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). The opening narration of Mad Max 2 implies that the fuel shortage was caused not just by peak oil, but also by oil reserves being destroyed during a large scale conflict in the Middle East. The remnants of society survive either through scavenging, or in one notable case, by using methane derived from pig feces.
James Howard Kunstler’s novel, World Made By Hand (2008), imagines life in upstate New York after a declining world oil supply has wreaked havoc on the US economy, and people and society are forced to adjust to daily life without cheap oil. Kunstler’s sequel is title The Witch of Hebron (2010).
Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland’s book Player One (2010) deals with four individuals taking refuge in a Toronto airport bar while a series of cataclysmic events occurs outside.
Alex Scarrow’s novel Last Light and its sequel Afterlight narrate the fall of British civilization after a war in the Middle East eradicates the majority of the Earth’s oil supply.
Crossed by Garth Ennis is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which a bodily fluid-borne virus has destroyed civilization. Carriers of the virus develop a cross-shaped rash on their faces and act without inhibitions, raping, killing and torturing the few remaining uninfected humans.
Y: The Last Man comic series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra deals with the lives of Yorick Brown and his monkey Ampersand, after a plague wipes out all but three male life forms on the Earth, leaving the whole planet to be controlled by women.
The Walking Dead is a comic-book series from IC and was written by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard It was started in 2003 and is continuing as of 2016. The story follows a group of survivors in a post-apocalyptic landscape. The apocalypse in this series was brought about by zombies (here called Walkers), and it is strongly suspected that the Walkers are victims of a virus. The Walking Dead AMC television series is based on the comics, and has spawned a spin-off franchise comprising a motion comic, television series (Fear the Walking Dead, a companion television series and prequel, with different characters from the source material, and the Talking Dead aftershow), video games (e.g., The Walking Dead: The Game (Season One) and The Walking Dead: Season Two), and webisodes (including the The Talking Dead webisodes and the Fear the Walking Dead web series), in addition to numerous parodies and spoofs.
Films and television
Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its sequels, Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), popularized the concept of a zombie apocalypse, focusing on the breakdown of society in a world where the dead are reanimating as mindless, undead cannibals due to some unknown disease, implied to be extraterrestrial in origin, and anyone bitten will soon become a zombie as well.
The BBC television series Survivors (1975-1977) and its 2008 remake series focus on a group of British survivors in the aftermath of a genetically engineered virus that has killed over 90% of the world’s population. The first series of both versions examine the immediate after-effects of a pandemic outbreak of the flu, while the subsequent series concentrate on the survivors’ attempts to build communities and make contacts with other groups.
12 Monkeys (1995) is a science fiction film which depict the remains of human civilization after an uncontrollable pandemic wipes out 99% of the human population. It is a semi-remake of La Jetée (1962), and both films focus on the theme of fate by introducing the ability to travel through time and make contact with pre-apocalyptic society.
The film 28 Days Later (2002) and its sequel 28 Weeks Later (2007) revolves around a virus that turns anyone infected into a mindlessly violent psychotic, though still alive and not an undead, in a variation of the classic zombie theme. This also makes the infected more dangerous, as they are not limited to zombies’ slow walk or decaying bodies. The plot revolves around groups of both uninfected survivors and a handful of immune carriers.
In the film Zombieland (2009), a disease mutates most Americans (the rest of the world is not mentioned) and turns them into animal-like creatures hungry for human flesh. The story is about a group of people who stick together and to try survive against the zombies.
Novels and short stories
Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, published in 1826, is set in the end of the twenty-first century. It chronicles a group of friends, based on Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and others, moving through Europe as a plague kills most of the world’s population. The Scarlet Plague by Jack London, published in 1912, is set in San Francisco in the year 2073, sixty years after a plague has largely depopulated the planet. Written in 1949 by George R. Stewart, Earth Abides is the story of a man who finds most of civilization has been destroyed by a disease. Slowly a small community forms around him as he struggles to start a new civilization and to preserve knowledge and learning.
Empty World is a 1977 novel by John Christopher about an adolescent boy who survives a plague which has killed most of the world’s population. Originally published in 1978, Stephen King’s The Stand follows the odyssey of a small number of survivors of a world-ending influenza pandemic, later revealed to be the man-made superflu “Captain Trips”. It was eventually adapted for a 1994 miniseries of the same title starring Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald. The novel was semi-inspired by Kings earlier short story Night Surf. Gore Vidal’s 1978 novel Kalki also involves an apocalyptic event caused by a man-made pandemic.
Written in 1984, the novel Emergence by David R. Palmer is set in a world where a man-made plague destroys the vast majority of the world’s population. The novel was nominated for several awards and won the 1985Compton Crook Award. José Saramago’s 1995 novel Blindness tells the story of a city or country in which a mass epidemic of blindness destroys the social fabric. It was adapted into the film Blindness in 2008. Published in 2003 by Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake is set after a genetically modified virus wipes out the entire population except for the protagonist and a small group of humans that were also genetically modified. A series of flashbacks depicting a world dominated by biocorporations explains the events leading up to the apocalypse. This novel was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. A sequel, The Year of the Flood, was published in 2007 followed by MaddAddam, in 2013, the trilogy’s conclusion.
Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend deals with the life of Robert Neville, the only unaffected survivor of a global pandemic that has turned the world’s population into vampire zombie-like creatures. The novel has been adapted to film three times: The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007). Jeff Carlson wrote a trilogy of novels beginning with his 2007 debut, Plague Year, a present-day thriller about a worldwide nanotech contagion that devours all warm-blooded life below 10,000 feet (3,000 m) in elevation. Its two sequels, Plague War and Plague Zone, deal with a cure that allows return to an environment that suffered ecological collapse due to massive increases in insects and reptiles. The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure are the last two novels of a series of three (The Maze Runner), by James Dashner which take place in post-apocalyptic United States, in which most of the world population dies of a slowly killing disease caused by a planetary shift.
Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” takes place in the Great Lakes region after a fictional swine flu pandemic, known as the “Georgia Flu,” has devastated the world, killing most of the population. The novel won theArthur C. Clarke Award in May 2015, beating novels including The Girl with All the Gifts and Memory of Water. The committee highlighted the novel’s focus on the survival of human culture after an apocalypse, as opposed to the survival of humanity itself. The novel was also nominated for the National Book Award, ultimately losing to Phil Klay’s short story cycle Redeployment. It was also a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, as well as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. The novel won the Toronto Book Award in October 2015.
Abomination: The Nemesis Project (1999) takes place in 1999 after the United States has been almost wiped out by a deadly plague. The disease started on the east coast, and communication with the west coast ceased within 72 hours. The last few groups of survivors stopped broadcasting after six days, and the overwhelming majority of the country’s population has been wiped out. The player leads a team of eight genetically altered supersoldiers (marines) to defeat an infestation of a global genetic plague which slowly turns into a superorganism.
The Left 4 Dead series (first released in 2008) is set in the days after a pandemic outbreak of a viral strain transforms the majority of the population into zombie-like feral creatures. The games follow the adventures of four survivors attempting to reach safe houses and military rescue while fending off the attacking hordes.
The PlayStation 3 title The Last of Us (2013) revolves around the premise of a mutated cordyceps fungus spreading to humans, resulting in the deterioration of society within the United States.
The Nintendo 3DS and Playstation Vita game Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward (2012) takes place 45 years after a virus outbreak exterminated almost the entire human civilization. Survivors lived in shelters during this time or evacuated to the Moon to live in space colonies.
Film and television
H.G. Wells adapted his novel The Shape of Things to Come (1933) into the movie Things to Come (1936). In the movie, England is reduced to rubble by a prolonged conventional, chemical, and biological war. Survivors are depicted living under the rule of a local warlord who raids his neighbors in an attempt to get his fleet of rotting fighter planes in the air again. At the same time, surviving engineers create a technological utopia.
The film Panic in Year Zero! (1962) tells the story of a Southern California family’s fight to survive the violence and chaos that ensue in the aftermath of a nuclear war.
La Jetée (1962) deals with a time traveler sent back in time to help the people of the post-apocalyptic future rebuild civilization after nuclear war destroys most of the world. It was partially remade in 1996 in the film 12 Monkeys.
In 1965 the BBC produced The War Game, but it was considered too horrifying to broadcast at the time; it was only in 1985 that it was shown. It portrays a nuclear attack on Great Britain and its after-effects, particularly the efforts of the Civil Defence system.
Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) also has religious or mystical themes.
The ABC made-for-TV movie The Day After (1983) deals with a nuclear war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, focusing on a group of people in the U.S. heartland states of Kansas and Missouri attempting to survive during and after the nuclear exchange.
CBS produced the TV series Jericho in 2006–2008, which focused on the survival of the town after 23 American cities were destroyed by nuclear weapons.
The 1984 BBC television program Threads depicts life before, during, and after the detonation of a Soviet nuclear bomb over Sheffield, England.
The Terminator film franchise (first introduced in 1984) depicts an artificial intelligence called Skynet becoming self-aware in 1997 and trying to exterminate humanity by instigating nuclear war between the United States and Russia, which results in the death of three billion people. Many of the survivors eventually band together to destroy Skynet and its army of robots (called “terminators”). The series follows resistance leader John Connor and his mother, Sarah Connor, and their adventures before and after the nuclear strike (called “Judgment Day” in the film series).
Orson Scott Card’s post-apocalyptic anthology The Folk of the Fringe (1989) deals with American Mormons after a nuclear war.
The Cartoon Network series Adventure Time (which began airing in 2010) takes place a thousand years in a future after a nuclear war (referred to as “The Great Mushroom War”) where once existent but eventually forgotten magic is recreated and humans are nearly wiped out with all kinds of creatures that had taken their place. Tom Hanks’ 2011 web series Electric City is a story based on a post-apocalyptic world. In this world, a group of matriarchs (the “Knitting Society”) impose an altruistic but oppressive society to counter the aftermath of a brutal war that brings down modern civilization. However, in time, even this new “utopian” order is ultimately called into question by the inhabitants of the new society.
The CW Channel’s The 100 (which began airing in 2014) is a television series based on a post-apocalyptic world. After a nuclear war, Earth was uninhabitable and the only survivors were those on space stations which eventually came together to form the Ark; 97 years later on an undeterminable year the Ark is dying and 100 prisoners under the age of 18 are sent to see if Earth is now survivable. There they are faced with the challenges Earth brings and those who survived the nuclear war.
The movie Zardoz is a surreal take on the genre, revolving around a post-apocalyptic future England where a warrior caste called Exterminators worship a giant, floating stone head known as Zardoz, which gives them weapons and ammunition.
Novels and short stories
In Stephen Vincent Benét’s story By the Waters of Babylon (1937, originally titled The Place of the Gods), a young man explores the ruins of a city in the northeastern United States, possibly New York, generations after a war in which future weapons caused “The Great Burning.”
Paul Brians’ Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction (1987) is a study that examines atomic war in short stories, novels, and films between 1895 and 1984. Since this measure of destruction was no longer imaginary, some of these new works, such as Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957), which was subsequently twice adapted for film (in 1959 and 2000), Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7 (1959), Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959), and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song (1987), shun the imaginary science and technology that are the identifying traits of general science fiction. Others include more fantastic elements, such as mutants, alien invaders, or exotic future weapons such as James Axler’s Deathlands (1986).
Judith Merril’s first novel Shadow on the Hearth (1950), is one of the earliest post-World War II novels to deal with a post-nuclear-holocaust world. The novel recounts the ordeals of a young suburban housewife and mother of two children as she struggles to survive in a world forever changed by the horrors of a nuclear attack. Several of Ray Bradbury’s short stories of The Martian Chronicles take place before, during, and after a nuclear war on Earth. The people flee Earth and settle on Mars but have constant conflicts with the native Martians. Several of these stories have been adapted to other media.
Andre Norton’s Star Man’s Son (1952, also known as Daybreak 2250), is an early post-nuclear-war novel that follows a young man, Fors, in search of lost knowledge. Fors begins his Arthurian quest through a radiation-ravaged landscape with the aid of a telepathic mutant cat. He encounters mutated creatures called “the beast things”, which are possibly a degenerate form of humans.
Wilson Tucker’s novel The Long Loud Silence (1952) posits a post-nuclear holocaust America in which the eastern half of the country has been largely destroyed and its surviving inhabitants infected with a plague and barred from crossing the Mississippi River to try to find refuge in the unscathed western part of the country.
A nuclear war occurs at the end of Bradbury’s dystopian futuristic novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953), with the outcasts who had fled an unidentified American city to escape a despotic government which burned books in order control the public by limiting knowledge left alive to re-establish society.
According to some theorists, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 has influenced Japanese popular culture to include many apocalyptic themes. Much of Japan’s manga and anime are filled with apocalyptic imagery. Most notably, the 1954 film Gojira (1954, Romanized as Godzilla) depicted the title monster as an analogy for nuclear weapons, something Japan experienced first-hand.
A seminal work in this subgenre was Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), in which a recrudescent Catholic Church, pseudo-medieval society, and rediscovery of the knowledge of the pre-holocaust world are central themes.
Poul Anderson’s Maurai series (1959–1983) takes place after a nuclear war, and his Hugo and Prometheus award-winning story No Truce With Kings takes place after a cataclysmic war. Both show the interactions among various kinds of societies that have developed in the centuries of recovery. Robert Heinlein’s 1964 novel Farnham’s Freehold follows the story of a group of people that have survived a nuclear explosion. The group survives the attack in a fallout shelter but are taken to a future in which Africans rule. Damnation Alley is a 1967 science fiction novella by Roger Zelazny, which he expanded into a novel in 1969. A film adaptation of the novel was released in 1977.
Harlan Ellison’s novella A Boy and His Dog (1969) takes place in a world desolated by the nuclear warfare in World War III. It was adapted into 1975 a film of the same name as well as a companion graphic novel titled Vic and Blood.
Alexander Key’s novel, The Incredible Tide (1970), is set years after the Third World War. The weapons used were not nuclear, but ultra-magnetic that tore and submerged the continents. The story was adapted in the anime Future Boy Conan (1978).
In Hayao Miyazaki’s manga (1982-1994) and anime film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), human civilization is destroyed after a war known as the “Seven Days of Fire”, which results in the Earth’s surface becoming polluted and the seas turning poisonous.
William W. Johnstone wrote a series of books between 1983 and 2003 (35 books all containing the word “Ashes” in the title) about the aftermath of worldwide nuclear and biological war.
David Brin’s novel The Postman (1985) takes place in an America where some are trying to rebuild civilization after the “Doomwar.” It won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and was adapted into the film The Postman (1997).
Jeanne DuPrau’s children’s novel The City of Ember (2003) was the first of four books in a post-apocalyptic series for young adults. A film adaption, City of Ember (2008) stars Bill Murray and Saoirse Ronan.
In the computer game Wasteland (1988), nuclear war occurred in 1998 leaving a wasteland in its wake. The game centers around a player-controlled party of Desert Rangers. Its sequel Wasteland 2 was released in 2014.
Fallout, an ongoing series of post-apocalyptic video games first published in 1997, focuses on a world after a massive nuclear war destroys most of the great powers in 2077. The games are usually based around “vaults,” safe underground bunkers for long-term survival, and exploring the outside wasteland, in locations such as California, Las Vegas, Washington D.C., and New England. The Fallout series is heavily based on retro 1950s sci-fi, and the setting’s technology is mostly frozen in mid-20th century, with vacuum tubes and monochrome screens still being used in most electronics, despite being far more advanced in fields such as robotics and energy weapons.
In Metro 2033 (2010), a nuclear war occurs in late 2013. Russia was targeted with atomic bombs, causing severe radiation across Moscow, forcing the rest of the people to live underground in the metro stations away from the deadly effects of radiation. Many animals and humans left behind mutated into creatures known as the Dark Ones, who were left outside for the next 20 years. The game is played from the perspective of Artyom, a 20-year-old male survivor and one of the first born in the metro. The story takes place in post-apocalyptic Moscow, mostly inside the metro system, but some missions have the player go to the surface which is severely irradiated and a gas mask must be worn at all times due to the toxic air. A sequel, Metro: Last Light was released in 2013.
In anime and manga
The anime and manga X by Clamp features a supernatural apocaylpse. In it there is a battle over the end of the world between the “Dragons of Heaven” who wish to save humanity, and the “Dragons of Earth” who wish to wipe out humanity. The central character, Kamui Shirō, has to choose which side to fight for. The manga began in 1992 and has been on hiatus since 2003. It has been adapted as an anime film in 1996 and an anime TV series between 2001–2002.
In films and literature
In Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem (1938), society has entered a near-medieval state after a new government forbids any kind of individual thought, even forbidding the words “I” and “me”.
In Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953), the universe ends when Tibetan monks (making use of a specially-written computer program) finish writing all of the nine billion possible names of God. The story won a retrospective Hugo Award.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) is a film by Val Guest about an Earth thrown out of its orbit around the sun by excessive nuclear testing. It paints a picture of a society ready to believe that humans could destroy the planet, hoping that science could fix what it has broken but resigned to the possibility of irreversible doom.
The film Soylent Green (1973), loosely based upon Harry Harrison’s science fiction novel Make Room! Make Room! (1966), is set in the dystopian future of 2022, in an overpopulated, heavily polluted world, where the masses of mostly homeless and destitute people have been herded into the overcrowded cities and barely survive on government-issued food rations made from the processed corpses of the dead.
John Crowley’s novel Engine Summer (1979) takes place perhaps a thousand years after “the Storm” (not described) destroyed industrial civilization. Surviving cultures seem to be influenced by the 1960s and 1970scounterculture.
The Christian-themed Left Behind series of 16 novels published between 1995 and 2007, and four film adaptions made between 2000 and 2014, posits a world in which righteous believers have suddenly disappeared en masse as they are raptured up to Heaven as the end of times approaches, leaving behind them an increasingly troubled and chaotic world in which the evil Antichrist predicted in Revelations arises to despotically rule over those unfortunate enough to have been “left behind”; he is opposed by newly born-again Christians ahead of the end-times Tribulation.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) takes place several years after an unspecified cataclysm that forces a father and son to perpetually search for survival. It was adapted into a film in 2009.
Robert Reed’s short story “Pallbearer” (2010) deals with most of the developed world’s population dying after a mass vaccination program in which the vaccines were purposefully tainted. The survivors are those who were not vaccinated, often for religious reasons, and their descendants. Most of the developing world does not receive the vaccine, and decades later, large numbers of its refugees are arriving to America’s shores. The protagonist survives the disaster as a young boy and has a chance encounter with an elderly scientist and her fanatical younger family members.
James Wesley Rawles’ novel Survivors: A Novel of the Coming Collapse (2011) addresses a contemporaneous global economic crash, and focuses on the struggles of a large cast of characters who struggle to survive after what is termed “The Crunch.” It covers both the lead up to the economic crash, as well as several years after the crash.
In Ubisoft’s videogame I Am Alive (2012), America has gone through a massive earthquake that destroys most cities and areas. Due to the damage of the aftermath, many people are forced to go without resources, causing citizens to become agitated, violent, and bitter, turning them into savage hunters.
Many hard rock, heavy metal, and punk bands have post-apocalyptic themes and imagery in their lyrics. Numbered among the bands whose music includes these themes are: Arcade Fire Marilyn Manson, Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, Nuclear Assault, Radiohead, R.E.M., Slayer, Sodom, System of a Down, The Clash, The Cure, The Doors, The Misfits, and The Smashing Pumpkins. Their work includes various apocalyptic songs across genres. For example, Muse’s album The 2nd Law (2012) was inspired by post-apocalyptic life in World War Z, and the event is referred to specifically in the song “Apocalypse Please” (2003). Likewise, the music video for The Sisters of Mercy song “This Corrosion” takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting.