The apocalypse in film and fiction

Scientific American put together a list of their favorite apocalyptic plots from fiction and film. The grouped them by category, like astronomical catastrophes, biological calamities, war, geophysical disasters, and machine-driven takeovers. Of course, this is far from a comprehensive list of the greatest tales of the end times. Check out their selections and then add your favorites in the comments below! From SciAm:
  M9G79Sb6Ms8 R9Rabqmpt I Aaaaaaaaabe Asv88U9Mdau S400 410Px-Earth Abides Low Res Biological Calamities

Earth Abides (novel 1949) After humanity is wiped out by a deadly airborne illness, a small band of survivors set about rebuilding civilization.

A Sound of Thunder (short story 1952, film 2005) A time-traveling hunter inadvertently crushes a butterfly during an excursion to the Jurassic period. It causes a succession of “time waves” to batter present-day Earth–and its embattled human occupants–and wrenches reality onto a different evolutionary path. Think baboon-dinosaurs besieging your local gas-mart.

I Am Legend (novel 1954, films 1964 (The Last Man on Earth), 1971 (Omega Man), 2007 (I Am Legend)) One lone man is immune to a pandemic virus that ravages humanity. He struggles to develop a treatment to save the infected.

The Andromeda Strain (novel 1969, film 1971, TV miniseries 2008) A satellite returns to Earth with a deadly microbe that wipes out an entire town except for a baby and an old man.

"Death to Humans! Visions of the Apocalypse in Movies and Literature"

The article quoted above is part of the new special print issue of SciAm about "The End." It also references two new nonfiction books about the end of time that sound terrific: How It Ends: From You to the Universe and Armageddon Science: The Science of Mass Destruction. Once again, nihilism is the new black! Yay!


  1. I’ll withhold comment on the list.

    I’d add Oryx & Crake (by Margaret Atwood; as I recall, a biological disaster), and the terrifying Ice Nine from Cat’s Cradle (by Kurt Vonnegut).

  2. I’m surprised that Margaret Atwood didn’t make it on the list. I enjoyed both The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake.

  3. Okay, missing from this list:

    The Road by Cormac McCarthy
    The Stand by Stephen King
    The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King (lots of worlds in various stages of end-times)
    Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon
    The Left 4 Dead Games (set in a United States utterly ravaged by a zombie plague)

  4. As a kid I read a book called The End of the Dream by Philip Wylie. An utterly crappy bioapocalypse that nonetheless scared the hell out of me.

  5. “Death Dolls of Lyra” by Joan Hunter Holly: A fungus/mold from outer space makes its way to Earth and eventually covers everything in a soft, grey fur. That’s all I remember from it, but that was enough.

  6. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart is one of my all time favorite novels. I have easily read 5 different copies to pieces by reading, re-reading, and passing it around to friends and family members.

    What I find interesting above though is the characterization of the book as “After humanity is wiped out by a deadly airborne illness, a small band of survivors set about rebuilding civilization.”

    When in fact, the story is almost the exact opposite of that.

    True, the survivors come together and they have great plans, such as keeping the water running, or keeping the electricity going… but in the end, it is easier to use gas lamps when the power goes out, and who needs piped water, when you have a stream behind your house… And why plant gardens, when there are all these CANS of food…

    This novel is not about rebuilding “society” but rather the re-tribalization and DE-evolution of mankind as the survivors merely live within the carcass of a dead civilization, without “creating” things on their own… all seen and noted by the main character’s trained eyes as an “Observer” in things.

    It truly is a masterpiece and worthy of reading several times.

    1. Not to quibble, but you can’t really de-evolve. They’re just adapting to suit changing circumstances.

      It sounds like you’re assuming that the way we live is somehow better.
      Scavenging isn’t necessary an ignoble existence.

      1. 1 – The synopsis given in the post states “a small band of survivors set about rebuilding civilization”

        I made no assumption. I stated that was in fact opposite of what occurred in the book.

        2 – Sorry, but to my way of thinking, going from exploring our universe with orbiting telescopes, while cracking the human genome… to being afraid of eclipses is a DE-Evolution of the species.

      2. Not to quibble, but you can’t really de-evolve. They’re just adapting to suit changing circumstances.

        If devolution were to occur, it wouldn’t be in a post-apocalyptic world. It would be in a wealthy, advanced culture where there were no survival pressures of any kind and all heritable traits were passed on.

      3. I am going to revise my answer. Both you, Caribou, as well as Anti, are correct.

        I used the term “De-evolution” and after doing a bit of research, I see I am wrong.

        Let me then change “This novel is not about rebuilding “society” but rather the re-tribalization and DE-evolution of mankind as the survivors merely live within the carcass of a dead civilization,”


        “This novel is not about rebuilding “society” but rather the re-tribalization and societal regression of mankind as the survivors merely live within the carcass of a dead civilization,

  7. They overlooked so many excellent movies, stories and games that I wonder why they even bothered to write the article.


    The description they give for “The Sound of Thunder” is of the film. In the short story, the most dramatic effects are political, not biological; and they are irreversible in the story, and not in the film. (By the way, Bradbury got it wrong by 4 years: the election was in 2000, not 2004).

    Glad that they have *A Canticle for Leibowitz* in there, as it starts with one apocalypse, and ends with another.

  9. I’m with Chupacabara. Earth Abides rocks–I’ve read it at least 3-4 times myself, and often lend it to others. A true, almost forgotten masterpiece. It’s basically Stephen King’s The Stand as written for adults. King himself cited this book as the direct inspiration for his novel. It’s very philosophical and sophisticated, especially for its release date of 1949.

  10. Came here to see what I’m just about to post:

    That George R. Stewart book’s prequel was a short story called: The Dude Abides.

    /leaving a little disappointed:

  11. I would have to add the haunting novel by Thomas M. Disch, The Genocides. The earth as somebody else’s natural resource, humanity treated as agricultural pests.

    Also, Greg Bear’s Blood Music and The Forge of God.

  12. Then there’s that radio series which became a book and then a movie in which the Earth is destroyed in the very first episode….

  13. The JG Ballard Post-Apocalyptic and Apocalyptic novels, The Wind from Nowhere (global hurricane), The Burning World (no rain), The Drowned World (massive global warming due to sun) and The Crystal World (time is running out literally) are all recommended :)

  14. What, no Childhood’s End? Looks like Scientific American is avoiding the alien-originated endings.

    When Worlds Collide should qualify. Film and book.

  15. I must agree, Daneel, The Quiet Earth is a nice little technological puzzle of an apocalypse. Great little flick from New Zealand.

    One more little addition: when you exploit a species, but it fights back and defeats manunkind, you get Karel ÄŒapek’s War With the Newts. (There’s a latter-day sequel called Contract With America, launched by a different Newt.)

  16. Greener than You Think by Ward Moore

    Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

    and I second Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank.

  17. Under “Machine-Driven Takeovers” they should have Walter Tevis’ amazing Mockingbird. Why haven’t more people read this?

  18. Warday by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, 1984. It’s a fictional travelogue of a battered North America. The authors slowly piece together what happened during and after a one-day nuclear exchange between the USA & USSR.

    An EMP attack and a pandemic are also discussed in detail. I wish they had actually written the proposed sequels.

  19. It’s not exactly a list that inspires confidence in their knowledge of sf, is it? There’s hardly a British novel on there for a start: no Russell Hoban or J.G. Ballard as someone has already mentioned, but even worse, no Brian Aldiss, FFS! ‘Hothouse’ and ‘Greybeard’ are both incredibly different yet equally compelling apocalyptic visions, and Barefoot in the Head is probably the only novel in which hallucinogens destroy humanity. In fact there’s hardly anything from the New Wave in the USA either, which is very odd considering that they made a speciality of wiping out humanity in gloomy and just odd ways from Thomas Disch’s satire, ‘The Genocides’ (humanity reduced to the status of pests on an alien industrial farm) to Samuel Delaney’s surreal moebius strip of a novel, ‘Dhalgren’. No Philip K. Dick either – ‘The Penultimate Truth’ is where the apparent apocalypse isn’t really the apocalypse (and that theme or its reverse turns up in several of his works).

    Then there are quite a few idiosyncratic novels that really should’t be missed – particularly William Hope Hodgson’s ‘The Night Land’ as well as Tevis’s ‘Mockingbird’ – an underrated piece of work, I agree. And another vote for the ‘The Quiet Earth’, quite possibly the most subtle and moving post-apocalyptic film ever made. But err, what about ‘Dr Strangelove’???

  20. S.M. Stirling’s “Change” series (which a quick visit to Wikipedia tells me is now known as the Emberverse series… okay.) is all right. I liked the first (“Dies The Fire”) quite a bit, but I’ve gotten a bit bogged down in the second. Gonna have to re-crack it.

    The idea is that some unexplained force (unexplained in the first book, anyway) has suddenly rendered electricity and rapid combustion (gunpowder, internal combustion engines, etc.) inoperable. Bullets go fzzsst, airplanes fall out of the sky, cars stall in their tracks, and all the power goes out. The survivors start living a pre-Industrial Revolution agrarian life. And of course, the best-adapted for this turn of events end up being SCA fighters and assorted RenFaire geeks.

    It’s a hoot. I think I’ll give it another try tonight. It’s right up my alley; I think I got bogged down because my son was just born and sleep was scarce, which severely attenuated my reading for awhile.

  21. Another vote for “Earth Abides”. Even though it was written 60 + years ago it still holds up. It’s a book I keeps popping into my mind over and over.

  22. Yet another recommendation for Earth Abides. I read it as a young teen and was enthralled. Haven’t reread it since, but all these raves are tempting me.

    Lucifer’s Hammer is on the list, and is quite good.

    Interesting trivia about The Terminator: OJ Simpson was considered for the role, but they decided audiences wouldn’t buy nice-guy OJ as a ruthless killer….

    1. Lucifers Hammer!

      Score! Good Call.

      Great fun read.

      Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

      Tragedy, Drama, Escapes, Cannibalism, Biker Gangs… This book has it all.

  23. I loved Earth Abides as well, but remember it more as being about the pain of the first generation of survivors (being people who had been bitten by rattlesnakes) as the next generation emerged without the social and cultural context and background of learning and language of their parents generation. It seemed more about the transition and the ways that things were going to have to be reinvented – for better or worse.

  24. John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Wyndham also wrote an EOD which contains the screed that became Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation lyrics. “You are the crown of creation,” as unlikely as that seems.

  25. My list of post-nuke novels (which have been mentioned already):

    Alas, Babylon: Big credits for preceding some of the more downbeat doomsday scenarios (it was published in 1959), showing the effect of a relatively limited nuclear exchange on the survivors in Florida.

    This Is The Way The World Ends by James Morrow, better known for the Towing Jehovah books; a somewhat surreal fantasia on total nuclear war and its aftermath; sorrowful and macabre at the same time, as a few survivors are tried for war crimes by their never-to-be-born descendants.

    Swan Song by Robert McCammon; it’s been called McCammon’s The Stand, which is both accurate and incomplete because, instead of Good and Evil duking it out in the aftermath, it’s Life and Death. Worth checking out on its own merits.

  26. This is cool…but I am still in mourning for the real Scientific American. I wish the damn rag would have changed its name when it decided to stop publishing real scientific papers (at above a 6th grade reading level).

  27. i second Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

    “Inconstant Moon” by Larry Niven 1971. Only a short story but a good demonstration of Niven’s hard grasp of hard science; also an “Outer Limits” ep.

  28. How about “Mad Max”?
    “Planet of the Apes” (the original movie) You don’t realize you’re watching a post-apocalyptic movie until the very end. Oops!

    Although the movie version of “A Sound of Thunder” was mostly forgettable, the one nugget of awesomeness was the end scene where you see what sort of creature mankind evolves into. It’s sort of a white, fish-like, head-tentacled, dumb looking thing. That rocked. I kinda feel that way myself sometimes.

  29. I’d have to say along with the Left for Dead video game series that someone mentioned earlier, I’d have to add Bethesda’s Fallout series. Particularly Fallout 3!

  30. I should also have recommended Kim Newman’s excellent survey of apocalyptic film, ‘Millennium Movies: End of the World Cinema’ (1999).

  31. “Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb” by P.K. Dick. Also the radio comedies “Steve the First” and “Steve the Second. (Son of Steve)”

  32. “Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em” Australia 1988

    Survivors party in a bomb shelter in the aftermath of WWIII.

    Any film that features people microwaving their heads for fun is well worth watching.

  33. Go to Seattle and check out the Science Fiction Museum next to the Space Needle. They are all there!

  34. Thanks for including the image of the George Stewart book Earth Abides. Stewart remains one of the most prolific and underrecognized writers ever. He was an amazing man. Glad to see him get some exposure.

  35. The Last Ship, by William Brinkley. A lone Navy ship survives a nuclear conflict and later joins a Soviet sub.

  36. Ok. I feel I need to do this:

    Jack London, The Scarlet Plague —> George R. Stewart, Earth Abides —-> Stephen King, The Stand —>James Van Pelt, Summer of the Apocalypse. Just so you know alright?

    Two more things. One, many of you conflating apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. And two the author of this post could write synopses of apocalyptic lit. forever and not get them all. Trust me I know.

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