For the other side of the argument, check out Chris Schluep's entry Apocalypse Now.
Of all the questions we curious humans ask ourselves, the most potent begin with "What if…?" What if you were trapped on a desert island with only 10 albums? What if you had to choose between dying to save others and living while they perished? And the perennial literary favorite: What if most of the population/world/universe disappeared and only a handful of people survived? How would they handle it?
Wait—we're forgetting the most important question: Who freaking cares? It's sci-fi sacrilege to say, but I am seriously over the hypothetical apocalypse. Believe me, I crave escapism as much as anyone with a stack of bills and a 9-to-5 job. But I'm happy to find it in novels about folks who might reasonably exist, struggling through situations that might actually, you know, happen to them.
Following on the heels of ancient legend (see: Epic of Gilgamesh; Noah and his ill-fated dinghy), post-apocalyptic fiction isn't a new trend in modern literature. Starting in the late 1800s with Mary "Frankenstein" Shelley and her Last Man, writers have obsessed over what goes on in our squirrelly minds when our normal surroundings and routines are blown to bits. Seeing as stories can't exist without imagination, I understand this instinct. But it also seems like kind of a copout: Why do authors need to strip away all of society to figure out who people really are? For my money, it's a much greater feat to make a reader hold her breath as Muriel Glass (the hapless wife in J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories) paints her nails, ignoring the ringing phone.
Granted, the apocalypse makes for a hell of a setting. Epic landscapes full of fire, craters, aliens, zombies, abandoned buildings, the occasional bloodthirsty straggler left to fend for himself. Ripe with possibility! Rife with symbolism! Relentlessly relentless! And so, so, so played out. Give me a gorgeously drawn, wickedly insightful day in the life of Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse or Zora Neale Hurston's Janie Crawford instead. Please.
With all due respect to Cormac McCarthy and his countless disciples, I’d like to recommend a selection of outstanding recent novels (and a handful of classics) that tackle immediate human concerns, rather than hinging on unrestrained viruses or Nostradamus-style prophecies. If you dive far enough into these imagined worlds, you won’t even notice the apocalypse raging outside.
All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, Lan Samantha Chang: Foibles and desires disrupt a hallowed MFA program.
We Only Know So Much, Elizabeth Crane: A hilarious, biting romp through the psyche of a dysfunctional family.
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson: Facing death from natural causes rather than the end times, Allan Karlsson takes his last adventure.
Home, Toni Morrison: The spare, masterful story of a Korean War vet struggling to reconnect.
Love and Shame and Love, Peter Orner: The finest chronicle since Bellow's of a Chicago boy, born and raised.
The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy: The original bumbling It Girl was ahead of her time.
So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell: A tiny gem of a mystery set in 1920s rural Illinois.
A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell: Yes, all 12 volumes—worth every lunch break.
Nine Stories, J.D. Salinger: There are eight other capital tales, but you'll never forget Esme.
Marjorie Morningstar, Herman Wouk: I reread Marjorie's feisty, moving life story at least once a year.