Post-apocalyptic is a term that gets thrown about casually in science fiction, especially in films. Anything that sees a disaster or an invasion, or a war or disease is usually called post-apocalyptic. Films from The Day After Tomorrow (2004) to I am Legend (2007), from War of the Worlds (2005) to World War Z (2013) all come with the p-a tag.
1. The ‘revelation’ of the future granted to St. John in the isle of Patmos. The book of the New Testament in which this is recorded.
Draft additions March 2008
b. More generally: a disaster resulting in drastic, irreversible damage to human society or the environment, esp. on a global scale; a cataclysm.
So what this suggests to me at least is that apocalyptic fiction (and films) should deal with the disaster – the one that changes everything for humans – as it is occurring. Post means ‘after’ and therefore post-apocalyptic means after the event. Only fiction that deals with the aftermath of the disaster can be described as post-apocalyptic.
And let’s not even talk about where dystopia fits in! A dystopia might result from an apocalyptic event but equally, it might not. So, for example, 2013’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is set in the dystopian nation of Panem. This is described as being established in North America after the destruction of the continent’s civilization by some unknown apocalyptic event. However, the events in the film are concerned with the dystopia and not the apocalypse. Margaret Atwood’s 2013 MaddAddam is about the bio-engineered species which were a direct result from the man-made apocalypse described in Atwood’s trilogy (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood 2003, 2009). MaddAddam might be described as dystopian, but in my eyes, it is a p-a novel.
With that all in mind, I present my top 10 apocalyptic and top 10 post-apocalyptic novels.
Apocalyptic: each of these describes a disastrous event, either on a local or a global scale.
- The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
- The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
- The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
- Blood Music by Greg Bear
- The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
- Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear
- The Death of Grass by John Christopher
- On the Beach by Nevil Shute
- Blindness by José Saramago
- Feed by Mira Grant
What is interesting about all of these is that they are contemporaneous. They are all set in the time (roughly) that they were written in, and thus reflecting the fears of the authors at the time.
Post-apocalyptic: each of these describes life in some way after a disastrous event.
- The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
- The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
- Far North by Marcel Theroux
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
- The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
- The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
- Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
- I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
By default, these are all set at some point in the future from when they were written. Even I Am Legend is set a little ways ahead of 1954.
Go on then. Prove me wrong.
Oh, an honourable mention goes to Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, which might be described as a ‘nice apocalypse’ novel.