Dystopia. Apocalypse. Death and destruction. There are two problems when you set out to write a book in this vein. The first is that you find yourself very limited as to what you can actually describe. After all, there are so many ways that the world can end – war, disease, alien invasion, zombification etc. And whatever the cause, the end result is going to be pretty much the same: mass starvation, anarchy, long-term suffering and slow death. Unless you're writing a screwball comedy (and there have been attempts), there's hardly going to be much variation in the mood of the book either.
But for the writer, it's the second problem that is more intractable. The ground has been well covered. There are several masterpieces of apocalyptic fiction that have been produced over the last 100 years – indeed, over the last few thousand if you want to go all the way back to The Epic of Gilgamesh. How can you possibly escape their shadow?
I didn't. When I wrote Oblivion, the conclusion to my Power of Five series, I was thinking of several writers who had gone before me; what follows, my favourite dystopias, could be seen as a confessional. I did my best not to steal outright. But all writing is a form of assimilation. How can any writer not be influenced by what he or she has read before? This is what influenced me.
1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Published in 2006, this is the apotheosis of apocalyptic fiction, rightly appearing near the top of every list. It's a grim read, made perhaps grimmer by how little it tells you about the world it describes. The two protagonists, a father and a son, have no names. We never find out exactly what happened to reduce the world to ashes. They carry a gun and two bullets … to use on themselves if they're taken by cannibals. The writing is pared down and poetic. "Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind." It's a short, searing, unforgettable book.
2. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
I don't suppose children read this in school any more but when I was growing up it was pretty much mandatory. The end of the world is ushered in by a meteor display that blinds everyone who sees it. The hero wakes up in hospital. His eyes were bandaged and so he retains his sight (the same opening must surely have inspired 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle's excellent zombie film which begins in much the same way). Poisonous walking plants, triffids, then prey on the survivors. I will never forget the description of a blind man staggering out of a ransacked supermarket with what he thinks is a tub of food. In fact it is a pot of paint.
3. On the Beach by Nevil Shute
Another standby from my schooldays; it was written in 1957 and I think just about every young person of the time read it. It starts with a nuclear war between Albania and Italy (which seems rather unlikely in retrospect). The whole of the northern hemisphere has been destroyed and a cloud of poison and radiation is moving towards Melbourne, where the book is set. It doesn't end happily. Pretty much everyone accepts their fate and most of them commit suicide.
4. The Stand by Stephen King
In my view, King did much of his best work early in his career, and this supernatural thriller from 1978 is simply outstanding, particularly the opening section and the description of the manmade flu epidemic known as "Captain Trips", which sweeps across the world. King chooses his horrors with cold-blooded precision … the sequence that has one of the characters, Lloyd Henreid, dying of thirst and starvation locked up in a county jail is particularly vivid. The end of the book is a touch too biblical for my taste but it's still an amazing journey.
5. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
A book for children – but far more than a children's book. It won both the Guardian and the Whitbread children's fiction awards, and will soon be even better known as it's just been filmed by Kevin Macdonald. The book takes place in the English countryside during the third world war, and centres on a love story between two cousins, Daisy and Edmond, with an unforgettable, bitter-sweet ending. I loved it both for its verisimilitude – the food shortages, the terror of everyday life – and for the fact that (like The Road) it simply presents its world without trying to explain it.
6. When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs
Also, very tentatively, for children, this graphic novel came out in 1982 and featured two stalwart, working-class characters – Jim and Hilda Bloggs – who had already featured in Brigg's rather more cheerful Gentleman Jim. The plot is simple. Jim and Hilda make it to a nuclear shelter just before the UK is bombed. However they have been exposed to radiation and despite their constant optimism and their fondness for each other, they slowly die. It's a brilliant exercise in pathos. What happens to the rest of the UK? We never find out.
7. Childhood's End by Arthur C Clarke
This is the book that Stanley Kubrick decided not to make into a film. He did2001: A Space Odyssey instead. I'm not a huge fan of science fiction but this is an extraordinary novel that starts with the arrival of aliens who, it turns out, exactly resemble the devil. In fact, they're not evil (an early, outstanding sequence has them causing a crowd at a bullfight to share the pain of the bull), but it turns out that they have come to witness the end of the world – which takes place in the final chapters. The final scenes still linger in my mind.
8. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
This, of course, was a major hit both as a book and as a film; I was surprised that both the author and the film-makers were able to get away with such levels of violence. The book presents a brilliantly realised vision of post-apocalyptic America, a country now called Panem, where every year the young are forced to take part in vicious gladiatorial combats (inspired by the ancient story of King Minos and the Athenians). Katniss Everdeen is a great central character and there's a very clever love triangle at the heart of the action. The series ends with revolution and betrayal … the second film is already on the way.
9. The Passage by Justin Cronin
I rather enjoyed this 2010 novel, which adds vampire-like monsters and a lethal virus to the apocalyptic mix. Starting with a top-secret military stronghold in Colorado, where prisoners are being injected with some sort of serum to turn them into super-soldiers, the book leaps 90 years forward to a colony of survivors in a suitably ravaged world. A bit confusing in places, but I'm looking forward to the sequel and to the film which is apparently on the way.
10. The Bible
Perhaps a strange choice to finish with but this is actually where I began. "Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven." It may be short on description, but this still remains one of the most potent end-of-the-world stories, somehow ingrained in my childhood. For spectacular visuals to accompany it, you might look at the works of the Victorian painter John Martin. The story of Noah is equally compelling, but for real gut-churning terror you need to look at the Revelation of St John, with its teeming monsters and buckets of blood. At the end of the day, the bible was the main inspiration for Oblivion.