Feliza Casano writes about science fiction, manga, and other geeky media around the internet. She currently lives in Philadelphia, where she moderates two book clubs and reads potentially too many books. Follow her on Twitter @FelizaCasano.
Cold weather always puts me in mind of the apocalypse. (Possibly from hearing the phrase “nuclear winter” when I was a bit too young to interpret it as anything but literal.) And with weather in the region where I live being alternately too snowy, too icy, or just too freaking cold, it’s hard to feel motivated to do anything other than cuddle up in an armchair to read about someone in considerably less pleasant circumstances than my own.
Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic journeys are a particular fascination of mine, joining a great many books about long journeys that fill my bookshelves. (I also like taking trains, which are long journeys of a different sort.) Long trips are fertile grounds for both exciting adventures and quiet contemplation, especially when those trips involve protagonists wandering through wastelands or contemplating the end of the world.
Here are five radically different journeys through the apocalypse to feed your thoughts. Keep in mind that due to the nature of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic journeys—namely the whole bit about the difficulty of survival and lack of food—most of these books contain violence, including murder and cannibalism. (Maybe don’t start these books on a full stomach.)
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
Jemisin’s award-winning novel takes place in a land where apocalyptic-level natural disasters occur every few hundred years or so. As the Season begins again, possibly for the last time, a woman named Essun returns home to find her son murdered and her daughter abducted, leading her on a trek through a land wracked with the fury of the earth itself.
This title is the first in a climate fiction trilogy that doesn’t pull punches when it comes to any difficult topic: the environment, sure, but also race, abuse, systematic oppression, and the devastating question of how broken something has to be before it’s not worth trying to fix anymore. If you haven’t picked up The Fifth Season or its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, it’s a perfect time to start reading: the final book in the trilogy, The Stone Sky, came out last year.
Girls’ Last Tour by Tsukumizu
If a series could be described as “a lighthearted post-apocalyptic tale,” that would perfectly suit Tsukumizu’s Girls’ Last Tour, a manga published in the U.S. by Yen Press. The series follows Chito and Yuuri, a pair of girls exploring the wreckage of the world and enjoying one another’s company. The manga’s daily life style is an interesting framework to question the purpose of war in a way that’s not graphically violent.
Three volumes are currently available in the US now, with Volume 4 releasing February 27. The manga completed its run in Japan on January 12, and the series will be complete at 6 volumes.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler is the one author I recommend to almost anyone who’ll listen, because even decades after publication her work still feels relevant to today’s readers. Parable of the Sower was published in 1993, but it’s as fresh as if it were published last week: the apocalypse Butler describes in the novel is an extended period of drought in California followed by devastating wildfires.
Parable is an interesting apocalyptic story because it’s about building a new community in chaotic times rather than a tale of a tiny band or pair of people clinging together in fear of that chaos. As protagonist Lauren Olamina travels north up the West Coast by foot, she gathers followers of the religious doctrine she develops and teaches.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
One of the most well-known books chronicling a trip through the apocalypse is Cormac McCarthy’s standalone The Road, which received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was adapted to a 2009 film of the same name. It’s also one of the darkest, following a nameless father and son as they head south seeking safety.
While several of the books on this list deal with violent topics, The Road is by far the darkest, and it’s a heartwrenching story made devastating by the human reactions to the novel’s apocalyptic event, which is never specified but—based on the level of environmental destruction—is likely to be nuclear in nature. For me personally, The Road was an extremely difficult read on an emotional level, because it lacked a sense of hope that apocalyptic titles like Parable of the Sower leave with readers.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven is ostensibly extremely similar to both Parable of the Sower and The Road in basic premise: a young woman travels through a post-apocalyptic land. But Mandel’s apocalypse is pandemic in nature, and the novel spins together a number of threads both leading up to and away from the pandemic.
Much of the story revolves around a comic, also titled Station Eleven, and as a reader of both prose and graphic novels, I found Mandel’s description of the comic fascinating. This is another award-winner, but it’s definitely at the less graphic end of the spectrum, and the novel absolutely leaves readers with that sense of hope I mentioned earlier. Like The Road, it’s a wonderful speculative fiction title for readers who don’t typically read speculative fiction.