I haven’t mentioned it much recently but I’m a fan and collector of old science fiction. By old I mean pre-1940. If you conclude from that that I like steampunk science fiction, you’re right—I read Morlock Night, one of the earliest works in the genre, when it was first published in 1979 and loved it. I’ve still got the DAW first edition sitting on my shelf.
When I read this post on post-apocalyptic science fiction, my immediate reaction was that its 60 year horizon isn’t nearly long enough. The first post-apocalyptic science fiction is not only older than that, it’s more than a century older.
To the best of my knowledge the earliest post-apocalyptic science fiction novel is Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel The Last Man. Yes, Percy Shelley’s wife and the same woman who wrote Frankenstein. Like many in the genre in the novel a plague causes the death of most human beings. It’s been many years since I read this work but my impression when I read it was that it was an allegory of the failure of the Romantics’ political ideals.
The late Victorian period was absolutely chock-full of post-apocalyptic novels. Most of H. G. Wells’s most famous works including The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and Things to Come were all apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic in some sense with social conflict (The Time Machine), invasion from another planet (The War of the Worlds), and war (Things to Come) bringing about the end, respectively.
One of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels and, as Frank Belknap Long characterized it the most unutterably terrible book ever written, is M. P. Shiel’s 1901 novel, The Purple Cloud. In it all but a very few people are killed by a mysterious purple cloud of gas. Much of the novel is devoted to the protagonist’s descent into madness and his ultimate redemption. I suspect that Nevil Shute’s On the Beach was influenced by The Purple Cloud but I have no way of proving that.
William Hope Hodgson’s 1912 The Night Land is a real apocalyptic novel, taking place in the distant future as the sun is flickering out. It’s also one of the strangest, written in a made up far future dialect. That makes it rather difficult to read but I found it eerie and fascinating.
Although the Brits invented it, they weren’t the only writers of post-apocalyptic science fiction. Americans wrote it, too. One of my very favorite novels (actually a trilogy) is George Allan England’s 1912 Darkness and Dawn. In this book most of humanity is killed as the result of a meteor strike. Only those at very high altitutudes are saved. IIRC our hero, a modern man, is saved by being at the very top of the Woolworth Building (!), at that point the tallest building in the world, and miraculously placed in a state of suspended animation until he awakens in the distant future. A certain amount of willing suspension of disbelief is required to read very old science fiction.
Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague was also written in 1912 and, as the title suggests, in it a plague kills off most human beings. It takes place in a de-populated San Francisco of 2072.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, one of America’s most prolific science fiction writers, wrote two post-apocalyptic novels, killing off most of humanity by war in 1915 in Beyond Thirty and invasion from another planet in 1919’s The Moon Men. Interestingly, as originally conceived The Moon Men was about an invasion and conquest of the United States by Soviet Russia. It’s one of Burroughs’s finest science fiction novels (IMO The Monster Men is his best). It is very clear that Gene Roddenberry was influenced by Burroughs. The scene at the very end of the Omega Glory episode of the original Star Trek series is a direct steal from The Moon Men.
In Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer’s 1933 novel When Worlds Collide the earth is destroyed by collision with another planet and a small number of people escape by rocket ship to a third planet. The George Pal movie based on it is good; the novel is great. Its influence can be seen in the comic strip and serial Flash Gordon and in the Superman comics.
Finally, no list of pre-1940 post-apocalyptic science fiction novels would be complete without mentioning one of my favorite writers, Stanley G. Weinbaum’s, novel The Black Flame. Search it out—it’s a fun read.
BTW, one of the great things about the earliest science fiction works listed here is that they’re all available online.
Note: I have never read Theologus Autodidactus, a 13th century work claimed by some as the first apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic novel.