Enjoying Max Brooks's World War Z (2006) and Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) led me to wonder: if I still worked at a bookstore, what would my Apocalypse: Earth! table display look like? I mean, after I placed Zombie Giambi front and center to scare off the young and impressionable, what books would I stock it with?
Much as I love end-of-the-world stories, my knowledge is pretty spotty; I'm always an amateur when venturing into sci-fi, and in a sub-genre as rich as this one, I'm sure to leave out bunches of good books. But here's my initial list, which is guided by a couple of simple criteria: the story needs to be reasonably plausible, and, while I like a bit of politics in my apocalypse, overall I prefer the gory to the allegorical.
George R. Stewart's The Earth Abides (1949) has to be there, as, from what I understand, it kicked off American sci-fi writers' interest in the idea of the end of humanity. The tools for destroying the world were, after all, suddenly at hand; who knew then that we'd succeed in getting through at least sixty years without using them again? And The Earth Abides is still worth reading for a lot of reasons other than its importance in the genre: for the picture it draws of America's pre-interstate infrastructure, the survivors' stubborn insistence on eating canned foods instead of learning to farm, and the post-apocalyptic community's unquestioned privileging of men--all of which place the book clearly in its time; for the scene where the reconstituted community has to decide how to handle a man set on disrupting what they've built; and for the way it highlights the reproductive dangers, both genetic and cultural, that constantly face small populations: if only one person has a particular skill or trait, the chances of losing it forever are staggeringly high.
Going back to the roots of sci-fi, I think War of the Worlds (1898) belongs, but what about The Time Machine (1895)? After all, although it's set in a future that hasn't arrived yet even within the story's own time, it does show us a collapsed society and a lost humanity. I think I'd include it.
Of more recent vintage, I'd have to include The Stand (1978), though I'd never recommend that anyone read the long version, as I did in high school. Even given that time wasted in high school is a lot like time not wasted at all, I'm not sure it was worth it--and that's all before taking into account that, as usual, King has no idea how to end the book. But I would never argue that it doesn't belong on my table; given King's popularity, it's the first apocalypse book a lot of people encounter.
Another contemporary novel I'd make a space for is Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003). Though I was a bit unsatisfied with it overall, I'd include it if only because it's so bleak for so long--and frequently flat-out scary, as the surviving humans spend a lot of their time dodging packs of genetically engineered wolvogs, rakunks, and pigoons. Don't ask me what wolvogs look like--I just know they're very, very scary.
A Journal of the Plague Year definitely gets a place, despite not being about the end of humanity, because Defoe's descriptions of the streets of London are so similar to the descriptions of zombie-ridden cities in World War Z that, as a bookseller, I'd have fun recommending both to people.
World War Z would also go nicely with the five paperback volumes (so far) of Robert Kirkman's comic The Walking Dead (2003) (though I'm beginning to question Kirkman's attitude towards women--being contemporary, he doesn't have George Stewart's excuse for bad gender politics--though since the series is continuing Kirkman still has time, I suppose, to demonstrate that I'm misreading him). The Walking Dead so far demonstrates that zombie stories are well-suited to serial narrative: the world, as it were, can always keep ending. I'd also have to throw in a George Romero four-pack, even if my store didn't generally carry DVDs, because nothing I could do for George Romero would repay him for his role in clarifying the rules of zombification (just as, in a different way, nothing I could do will ever repay him for scaring me so much the first time I saw Night of the LIving Dead (1968)).
As being a good bookseller means knowing books you haven't read, there are quite a few of those I'd certainly think about adding. John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (1951) definitely belongs, but what about Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826)? I fear it may violate my gory/allegory rule. And do I really have to include Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006), even though the lines I've read in praise-filled reviews have been so implausibly overwritten as to make me laugh? If I were really running a bookstore, I'd probably have to.
What about Adam Johnson's Parasites Like Us (2003)--anyone read it? Or two established classics, Nevil Shute's On the Beach and Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon (1959)? Do they hold up well enough to be worth including?
Are there any crucial books I've missed-- like a nice radium-bound edition of The Revelation of St. John the Divine? Any books I've mischaracterized? Imaginary tables are by their nature accommodating, so I'm happy to take suggestions.