There are 1000 ways to end the world, and fictional explorations of those possibilities have been popular (more so whenever disaster seems near at hand) for going on 200 years. But why do we love to watch the world burn? Is it a desire to start over? A catharsis for our fears about things out of our control? Or just a fun thought experiment in which we can examine the actions and reactions of humans put in the most extreme of situations?
In order to understand why I love this genre so much and why it has been such an enduring part of popular literature for so long, I have set out on a mission to read All of the Apocalypses and to write about them every Thursday on a column called 1000 Ways to End the World. These ten novels are some of the best entries in the genre—and they all happen to be authored by women.
Into the Forest by Jean Hegland (1996)
One of my favorite post-apocalyptic books of all time, this story focuses on two sisters whose parents’ deaths (one before and one after the collapse of society) leave them to fend for themselves in a house in the woods. Where most apocalyptic literature is obsessed with the recreation of civilization as it was pre-collapse, Into the Forest looks in another direction. It is about family relationships, but specifically those between women, and it has my favorite surprise ending of all apocalyptic reading. It is truly unique among post-apocalyptic novels.
Bones of Faerie by Jani Lee Simmer (2009)
This 2009 novel details a magical apocalypse—another rarity in a genre full of EMPs, nukes, and environmental catastrophe. The world has been destroyed by a war with the inhabitants of faerie, leaving the faerie world completely destroyed and the human world reduced to small agricultural communities deeply suspicious of anything magical. Though written for younger readers, Bones of Faerie manages to have the creepiest enchanted forest I’ve ever read (as a result of the war, plants are hazardous to humans and crops must be wrestled from the fields, trees avoided) and contains more darkness and death than most adult novels. Read my full review of it here.
A Gift Upon the Shore by M.K. Wren (1990)
Two women, an artist and a writer, survive a nuclear event, and together they attempt to save books so that they are not lost to future generations. However, they come into conflict with a group of religious survivors who believe The Bible is the only book that matters. This is the only book on this list that I have not yet read, and I am incredibly excited to find out how Wren deals with so many themes so close to my heart.
Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler (1993, 1998)
Butler’s post-apocalyptic books are my favorite of her many (wonderful) (stunning) works. Lauren Olamina is a teenager when the story starts, and the world is already well on its way to a full economic collapse. As she prepares for the inevitable chaos, she begins to write short poems that become the foundations for a religion she calls Earthseed, which is based on the belief that the only constant is change (an element that, unfortunately, is an irritant for many readers). It’s follow up, Parable of the Talents, is more dystopia than apocalypse, an intelligent decision for a post-apocalyptic follow up as dystopian governments often follow the chaos of a collapse situation in real life. As usual, Butler looks at race, relationships, religion, and women’s stories with depth and nuance. Read my review of Parable of the Sowers here.
Angelfall by Susan Ee (2011)
Fans of Cassandra Clare are likely to love this Biblical apocalypse based on the idea that angels have come to Earth to destroy humanity. No one has been saved, and the angels are cold and violent. After saving his life, Penryn ends up traveling the dangerous country with an angel in search of her wheelchair-using sister (kidnapped by angels) and sometimes her schizophrenic mother (who comes and goes throughout the story).
Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett (2014)
Brissett’s debut is a delightful experiment in fluid identity, gender, and story structure, held together by the idea that a computer program running the stories we are reading keeps rebooting again and again and again. It has been impressing readers all year, and it earned an honorary mention for the Philip K. Dick award. Some sections of the novel contain more apocalypse than others because this is ultimately a story about the end of love as the end of the world, though the literal end of the world also features prominently. Read my review of it here.
The Last Man by Mary Shelley (1826)
What wasn’t Mary Shelly first at? She has been lauded as the mother of science fiction and the first woman to write a post-apocalyptic novel. Though harshly reviewed at the time, it is notable both as an early entry to the genre and for its semi-biographical portraits of Lord Byron and Shelley’s husband Percy. The story takes place at the end of the 21st century and tells the story of a catastrophic plague that, though long-winded, remains an important foundation stone in apocalyptic literature.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010)
I have my qualms with filing Who Fears Death in the post-apocalyptic genre because though the world is technically post-apocalyptic, it is not a story about the apocalypse, nor one that wears that setting on its sleeve. However, it is an excellent book—about magic and the consequences of rape and sexism and power with a focus on women’s perspective and stories—and its prequel, The Book of Phoenix (coming out this year) is likely to bring the story’s post-apocalyptic elements into focus.
The Last Children of Schewenborn by Gudrun Pausewang (1983)
I’m reading on the theory that Germans, particularly Germans who lived through World War II, write some of the darkest apocalypses out there (I’ll get back to you on whether or not that turns out to be more than a hunch). Gundrun Pausewang is a giant in German young adult literature, and she tends to focus on big societal issues with a hope of empowering young people to acting against the wrongs they see in the world. The Last Children of Schewenborn has been translated into English, but its simple language should be no problem even for a beginning German language learner. If you want to watch the world end in a setting outside of America, Last Children will give you a look at Germany at the end of the world, though from a young male perspective.
California by Edan Lepucki (2014)
This recent post-apocalyptic tale represents sexism and women’s lives — as seen through both male and female eyes — at the end of the world really well. Though the first third will be familiar territory for anyone well-read in the genre (people surviving in the woods, and the main drive is the question “what has happened to this world?”), the tension built around a mysterious collective of survivors is gripping and gets into family relationships, dystopias/utopias, and community. It also grapples with the fact that at the end of the world, it might not be possible to make a good decision.
What female-authored apocalypses should I add to my reading list?
Nicolette Stewart is a freelance editor and travel writer based in Frankfurt, Germany. She specializes in post-apocalyptic fiction, alternative dwellings, urban exploration, and time travel. She is the author of The Hunt Frankfurt and her work can be found in Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter, New Escapologist, MOVE Guides, and Mama Liberada. She is the co-editor of Book Punks, and you can also find her writing, editing, and rambling at Young Germany.