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Five Apocalyptic Literary Worlds Inspired by Terrifying Scientific Breakthroughs

The publication rate of post-apocalyptic literature has exploded in the past ten years, reflecting a climate of fear in a world still afflicted by war, poverty and social divides despite scientific advances. While it makes many things in life easier, technology doesn’t seem able to solve the fundamental problems that have plagued humanity for centuries. In fact, it is a source of fear for many people – the creation of the atomic bomb, experiments with cloning and genetic engineering, the growing capabilities of artificial intelligence and our increasing reliance on mobile phones have all caused mass panic at various periods – they have also inspired some of the best post-apocalyptic literature of the past century. This list explores five powerful works of fiction to have stemmed from speculation about technology spiralling out of control.

The Chrysalids

Having served in the Second World War, John Wyndham began writing fiction in a genre he called “logical fantasy,” based on exploring what would happen if a specific apocalyptic scenario were to unfold. Written soon after the onset of the Cold War, this novel explores the devastating and long-lasting damage caused by nuclear weapons. Set many years after a nuclear holocaust known as The Tribulation, it takes place in a rural region called Labrador, where more than 50 percent of babies are born with some form of deformity or “deviation.” Ruled by religious fanatics who destroy or sterilize and banish any human, animal or plant that shows signs of deviating from God’s design, this future society is primitive, violent and extremely dangerous for the young protagonist, David, and his friends, who share the ability to communicate telepathically. When one of them marries someone outside the group, their carefully maintained secrecy comes under threat. The power of this novel lies in the way it demonstrates the true destructive power of the atomic bomb, not just when its dropped, but for decades or centuries afterwards as radiation continues to poison the earth.

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Level 4: On The Beach

First published in 1957, this heart-rending novel is set in Melbourne in 1963, a year after a nuclear war has decimate the northern hemisphere. Clouds of fatal radiation are moving steadily south, wiping out every living thing in their path. As the citizens of Melbourne await its arrival, they each deal with impending death in their own way. Commander Dwight Towers, an American submarine captain, is asked to undertake a trip to the coast of his homeland to check for survivors. He is struggling with the loss of his wife and children, but takes comfort in the fact that he will soon be reunited with them. Meanwhile, Australian naval liaison officer Peter Holmes and his wife care for their infant daughter and plant flowers they will never see bloom. What makes this novel so quietly horrifying is its lack of gore and melodrama. The people of Melbourne for the most part carry on with life as it has always been – they go to work, meet up for drinks, go sailing, race cars and spend time with loved ones. Neville Shute rams home the true power of nuclear weapons and their silent, insidious side-effects.

The MaddAddam Trilogy

Described by its author as “speculative fiction,” Oryx and Crake, the first novel in this trilogy, was published in 2003 and inspired by advances in medical science and genetic engineering. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, it follows a character known as Snowman – formerly a boy named Jimmy – who reveals through flashbacks how a friend called Crake invented a new species of peaceful, gentle humanoids called Crakers. He is also responsible for the release of a drug called Bylsspluss, which has devastating consequences for humanity. The second and third novels, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam, delve deeper into a world altered forever by the experiments of a single meddling scientist who believes he had the right to play God. Rich, imaginative and chilling, the trilogy plays on widespread suspicions regarding genetic modification and bioengineering, but it also explores the essentially flawed nature of human beings, with their egos, their weaknesses and their lust for power.

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Published in January 2006, the same week that Forbes ran a story about the dangers of mobile phone viruses, this novel tapped into the widespread fears surrounding increasing reliance on cell phones in the early 2000s. Graphic novelist Clay is in Boston when a signal known as The Pulse transforms everyone using a mobile phone into a sort of zombie. Enraged and erratic, the “phoners” begin attacking anyone they see and civilisation quickly breaks down. Teaming up with other survivors, Clay sets off in search of his wife and son in Maine. As the rag-tag group travels north, they realise that the “phoners” have begun to work together and suspect they can communicate telepathically. When a second, adulterated version of The Pulse begins to spread, they see a chance to save themselves. Stephen King is the master of showy horror, but Cell is quite different from his other novels. Less concerned with primeval forces of good and evil than his more famous works like IT and The Stand, it instead plays on the fears surrounding new technology, exaggerating the idea that it might end the world as we know it.

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The Passage

Born out of conversations between the author and his 12-year-old daughter, The Passage and its follow-up novels The Twelve and The City of Mirrors are among the most inventive vampire stories ever written. Together, the three books cover nearly 1,000 years of history and run to almost 1500 pages. Dozens of characters and a richly imagined futuristic, post-apocalyptic world are conveyed in incredible detail. The plot centres on a little girl called Amy, whose fate is sealed when the government’s experiments with a new drug engineered from a bat-borne virus result in 12 deadly, vampire-like creatures who transform almost all of humanity into blood-hungry, super-strong “virals” held under their thrall. With its message about the dangers of bioengineered viruses and government experimentation, its epic scope, its complex, damaged characters, its unlikely heroes and its reinvention of the genre, it is a trilogy that is well worth the many hours it demands readers spend lost in its cruel yet compelling world.

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India Stoughton is a British journalist who has been writing on books, art and culture since 2011. She is currently based in Beirut and writes for publications including The Economist, 1843 ... Show More