Survival Books

I just read two books, one old and one new, about a group of survivors trying to create a new life and society after a nuclear holocaust. The old book, new to me, was Alas Babylon by Pat Frank, published originally in 1959. In his foreward, Frank says that he wrote the book to answer a friend’s question: “What do you think would happen if the Russkies hit us when we weren’t looking–you know, like Pearl Harbor?”

I can see that this book, with its doomsday scenarios and talk of survival of the fittest, was and still is a sobering read. It must have scared some people silly when they read it back in the late 50’s/early 60’s at the beginning of the Nuclear Age. Now we’ve gotten used to the idea that a nuclear Armageddon is possible, but most of us still don’t believe it will ever happen. After all, it’s been fiftyplus years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we’re all still here —no nuclear war yet. Still, I guess I tend to think that Alas Babylon is optimistic since it tells the story of a small group of survivors in Central Florida after a massive nuclear strike by the Russians destroys most of the large to medium-sized cities in the United States, including Tampa, Miami, Tallahassee, and Orlando. I doubt very many, if any, people would survive such a strike.

The new book, published in 2008, is The Compound by S.A. Bodeen. In this story, survival takes place at the family level inside a nuclear fall-out shelter, built by the eccentric millionaire Rex Yanakakis to ensure the safety of his family in the event of a nuclear attack. The narrator, Eli, is one of Yanakakis’s twin sons, and as he tells about the six years the family has already spent inside The Compound, the reader can feel the claustrophobic price of the family’s survival.

Both books show the psychological as well as the physical necessities that make it possible to live in a world in which the old has passed away, and all things have become, not so much new, as completely foreign and reduced to the essentials. In both books the laws and social customs that make civilization possible have come into question or been completely destroyed, almost overnight, and the survivors must decide what they are willing to do in order to continue to survive.

As I read these two books, I tried to think of other books about survival when society as we know it has either broken down or been left behind.

Many children’s and young adult books are about survival when a character or group of characters have been stranded away from society, law, and modern technology. Maybe it all started with Peter Pan’s “lost boys” or even with Robinson Crusoe and went downhill from there. Usually, one or two people cut off from the world manage to survive rather well, although not without some harrowing escapes and near misses, but a group of losties tend to discover original sin and groupthink turns to anarchy and survival of the fittest.

Solo (or almost solo) survival:
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell.
Walkabout by James Vance Marshall.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.
Julie of the Wolves by Jean George.
My SIde of the Mountain by Jean George. Semicolon review here.
The Cay by Theodore Taylor

Group survival:
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding.
Children of Men by P.D. James. Semicolon review here.
Hill’s End by Ivan Southall.
Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Read it last month; review coming soon.
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham.
The Compound by S.A. Bodeen.
The Rule of Claw by John Brindley. I just read a review copy of this relatively new YA title, and I’ll be reviewing it soon. It’s a cautionary tale of evolution on steroids.

True Survival:
Alive by Piers Paul Read.
Adrift: Seventy-SIx Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan.
Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World by Jennifer Armstrong.
Into Thin Air by John Krakauer.
Dove by Robin L. Graham.

Nuclear holocaust survival:
On the Beach by Nevill Shute. Semicolon review here.
Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank.
Z Is for Zachariah by Robert O’Brien.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller. Semicolon review here.
The Road by Carmac McCarthy.
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham.
Down to a Sunless Sea by David Graham.

Any additions to the list? As I think about it, I’m coming up with more and more books that could conceivably be classed as “survival stories”. Perhaps it’s an irresistible plot: put your protagonist in a really hard situation and see what he does to get out. What’s harder than a fight for survival? It makes for riveting fiction.

3 thoughts on “Survival Books

  1. Great list! And thanks for the thoughts. My husband keeps telling me I need to read Canticle for Lebowitz. I’m currently reading The Long Walk which is the story of 7 people who trek from a Northern Siberian prison camp down to India.

  2. I have ALAS, BABYLON planned for a challenge later this year.

  3. Thanks so much for mentioning Adrift by Steven Callahan!!!!!! I borrowed a book from my brother in law about 15 years ago which he hadn’t read and I loved it. Since then I’ve often wondered what it was called, he never could remember seeing as he never did get around to reading it and it most likely got sold at a garage sale somewhere along the way. I saw the name in your list and was positive that was the book so looked it up on amazon and bingo! that’s my book! I remember the details to this day. A wonderful true life survival story. Thanks for giving me back the title!

    My son read Dove when he was about 15/16 and he really enjoyed it. He was never a reader but that was one book he couldn’t put down.

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