Once again I’m gorging on post-apocalyptic novels where a few people survive a horrific civilization-destroying catastrophe. Usually, they hope to rebuild civilization. But not always. I recently finished The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff first published in 1939 which I’ve already reviewed. And I just finished The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson first published in 1936. This has gotten me to think about all the books, movies, and television shows I read or watched because of this theme. I’ve listed and rated all that I can remember in the table below. But what I want to talk about first is the appeal and common plot elements of this sub-genre of science fiction. I have written about this a number of times before and have linked to those essays at the end — just in case this essay got you interested. I do know that other science fiction fans love this theme too.

[HBO just started a new series based on this theme. It appears people never get tired of it.]

There are many kinds of post-apocalyptic novels. See the long comprehensive overview on Wikipedia on Post-Apocalyptic fiction The ones I like best are those that focus just on a few survivors. You might call this version of the theme the Robinson Crusoe Post-Apocalypse. Some people also call them Cozy Catastrophes — but the exact definition is often argued over. For example, I disagree with many of the choices in “Jane Rogers’s top 10 cozy catastrophes” from The Guardian.

Here are my favorite elements in a cozy catastrophe:

Few Survivors

I like stories that follow just a few characters who survive the end of the world and try to rebuild. I would even enjoy it if it was just one person, which happens in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, but usually, these stories start with one survivor who eventually finds a few more.

How They Survive

I also love the details of how they survive, whether it’s raiding grocery stores, becoming a hunter, or starting a garden. I love seeing how people start over from scratch and accomplish all the things we depend on civilization to give us now. This appeals to my younger self who wanted to move back to nature and subscribed to Mother Earth News. I loved the idea of being self-sufficient on five acres.

Social Dynamics

I also love reading about how people get along. In American fiction written by men, the stories can get rather violent. American guys believe the collapse of civilization means no laws, grab your guns, and everyone out for themselves. Think Mad Max or The Postman. Female Americans see starting over as a lot less violent. Consider Station Eleven. English writers of either gender, see post-apocalyptic affairs as being much less violent.

I just read The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson, first published in 1936. D. E. is for Dorothy Emily, and her books were light romances aimed at shop girls. The Empty World did have some violence. Right after the catastrophe we are told two-thirds of the surviving group of men are civilized and one-third are not, and the civilized men must get the few surviving women away from the uncivilized. Stevenson seemed to enjoy showing how the brutish lower-class Englishmen would fight and kill to possess a woman. Stevenson’s early cozy catastrophe anticipated many of the common elements that would emerge in this sub-genre, but her focus seemed to be on the women finding the right husband. Her premise for how civilization was wiped out was mumbo-jumbo science but that didn’t seem to hurt the story. Jo Walton gives a short review of the novel in her Tor.com column. I wonder if Stevenson had read London’s The Scarlet Plague?

My all-time favorite novel of this theme, Earth Abides (1949) by George R. Stewart tells about how Ish, the protagonist wants to educate the first generation after the collapse. He was a college professor who wanted to preserve knowledge but realized the vastness of human learning couldn’t be passed on. My favorite TV show that covers this theme, Survivors (1975 BBC) focuses on how a few people can work together to start a farm, and eventually, build coalitions between survivor groups. Survivors the TV show has an excellent novelization by Terry Nation. It’s currently for sale at Amazon for the Kindle for just $1.99. The complete series on DVD is just $22. But a warning, the production was low-budget and modern TV watchers might not like it. Episodes of the show are available in low-resolution on YouTube, but not streaming anywhere else.

How Would You Do It

Probably the most fun aspect of this genre is picturing myself in the same situation as in the story and fantasizing about how I would have dealt with it. I have to admit, those fantasies have changed over the years. When I was younger, I pictured a post-apocalyptic world as more of an adventure. As I got older, it became more about how to farm and take care of myself. Now that I’m old, I realize if I found myself becoming one of the last people on Earth, my solutions for how to live would be much different. I don’t have the strength to farm. I now see myself just hiding out, scrounging for preserved food, and reading books, while contemplating the end of the world.

Hope for the Future

Another thing I love about this theme is seeing how the characters hope to rebuild things. I believe part of the appeal of this genre comes from disliking the way things are now. And readers love to imagine a better society. One thing I was very impressed with in Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript is how he predicted that people don’t change and we’d just quickly go back to our bad ways. That’s depressing but I believe philosophically correct.

Some stories, like On the Beach by Nevil Shute and The Road by Cormac McCarthy imply there is no hope for mankind.

MisanthropicA Subconscious Urge For Fewer People

I also believe these stories appeal to us because deep down we wish there were a lot fewer people on Earth. The question is how fewer? Would you want to be the last person? Just a few friends? A small community? Maybe a world where the total population is just ten million? And do we want to bring back civilization?

Post-Apocalyptic Stories I Remember

Rating Year Title
*** 1826 The Last Man by Mary Shelley
tbr 1885 After London by Richard Jefferies
**** 1901 The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel
**** 1912 The Scarlet Plague by Jack London
**** 1913 Goslings by J. D. Beresford
*** 1936 The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson
***** 1939 The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff
***** 1949 Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
***** 1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
***** 1955 “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
**** 1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher
***** 1957 On the Beach by Nevil Shute
***** 1959 Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
***** 1959 On the Beach U.S. film
***** 1959 The World, the Flesh, and the Devil MGM
**** 1962 The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard
***** 1975-1977 Survivors BBC
***** 1976 Survivors by Terry Nation
***** 1985 The Postman by David Brin
**** 1985 The Quiet Earth New Zealand film
**** 2006 Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
***** 2006 The Road by Cormac McCarthy
**** 2008-2010 Survivors BBC remake
**** 2012 The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
** 2012-2014 Revolution NBC
***** 2014 Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
*** 2015-2018 The Last Man On Earth Fox TV
**** 2021 Y: The Last Man FX on Hulu

Essays About Post-Apocalyptic Fiction I’ve Written Before

James Wallace Harris 1/17/23

9 thoughts on “What Would You Do If You Were Among The Last Humans on Earth?

  1. <

    div dir=”ltr”>James, I wonder if you’re aware of Brian Stableford’s ‘New Atlantis, A Narrative History of Scientific Romance’

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  2. Many thanks for this piece, Jim! I’ve only read a few of these works (including The Day of the Triffids), but my initial introduction to SF was partly through the Planet of the Apes franchise (the first five films and the TV show), which could be described in part as post-apocalyptic.

    The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has an entry on the theme of “post-Holocaust,” with this fascinating conclusion: “”Life after the holocaust is a theme that reliably continues to grip the imagination. The idea of destroying our crowded, bureaucratic world and then rebuilding afresh offers a dangerously exciting psychic freedom. “

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  3. Suggest you add Aldiss’s GREYBEARD (ca. 1964) and Neal Stephenson’s SEVENEVES (just a few years ago) to your list. Needless to say they are as different as two books could be.

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    1. I haven’t read GREYBEARD but I’ve always wanted to read it. But I’ve read SEVENEVES and it’s not the kind of story I’m talking about. However, it is impressive.

      I was was aiming at post-apocalyptic stories that are closer to cozies.

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  4. Thanks for the list. I’ve read many on it, a few that aren’t. John Wyndham’s “The Kraken Awakes” I found more enjoyable that his Triffids, which is very good. Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend,” although more of a horror story, is a great read and another variant of the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it story. It’s been made into a movie three times, but the source material of the two big budget Hollywood versions was pretty much tossed out — the closest to the book is an early 60s low budget Italian import starring Vincent Price titled “The Last Man on Earth.” Some spooky, and even disturbing, scenes is the old black and white shocker.
    Thanks again.

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  5. Forgot one from the 90s — “One Second After.” The author credits some of those earlier books in his prologue. There’s also a sequel.

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  6. Jim, thanks for writing on this. I have been planning to write about this subject (last man/woman/person/human on Earth) for a while, and I probably still will. I’m still in the middle of reading more pertinent short fiction first. Great essay, and I know I’ll need to read some of the works cited. I know I’ll be referencing this post.

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