Warning! There will be minor spoilers for various books and movies below to explain where they fit into the “Earth/humanity goes boom” scenario.
I cracked open Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars, and in the first pages, a comet hits D.C., dooming the planet—maybe. Read on! I wasn’t prepared for it, but I should be. (The book is brisk and interesting! I’m about to start book 2 in the series.)
But it reminded me how frequently science fiction and fantasy relies on the destruction of all of humanity (on or off Earth), genocide or planet-wide destruction elsewhere, the blowing up of Earth and other planets, or even the end of existence itself—I’m looking at you Doctor Who! And Thanos! And many others.
There was a terribly ghastly silence.
There was a terribly ghastly noise.
There was a terribly ghastly silence.
—Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
I can cite a million books. The Hyperion/Endymion cycle by Dan Simmons (and also his Ilium/Olympos), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings epic. And also TV and movies—seemingly every other week on Doctor Who. Avengers: Endgame. The MCU’s Doctor Strange. Lots of movies about comets hitting Earth as well as plague films. The Expanse.
What, you say? Frankenstein isn’t about extinction?
Even if they were to leave Europe and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.
Of course, because this is about dramatic tension, it’s nearly always the case that the doom in question gets resolved. Hey, humanity (or Ewoks) will live after all! We averted the planet-busting superweapon! We built a new Earth! We rescued another Earth from the folds of the multiverse!
And sometimes, Earth go boom: Greg Bear’s The Forge of God/Anvil of Heaven combo is a pretty good pairing; Androids Dream has a “happy” ending but Earth is increasingly uninhabitable. Meanwhile, THX-1138 indicates and Logan’s Run confirms that Earth can recover.
I put this question to Twitter and received an array of wonderful replies. But I should head the list with two of my favorite fantasy novels of recent years: The Golem and the Jinni by my friend Helene Wecker, the sequel of which is nearing publication; and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (who I do not know at all). Neither involve or require the end of things!
Several people suggested Star Trek, which spans quite a lot of material. To which I would say: V’ger, whales, Borg. But even looking just at ST: The Original Series, you have “Charlie X” (might accidentally wish the whole Earth into a cornfield), “The Changeling,” “Operation: Annihilate!”, “The Doomsday Machine,” “I, Mudd” (at least pacifying humanity), and “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” A few suggested Arrival, but I think even if the timeline works out, the fact that humanity is threatened with destruction still makes that the core point of the dramatic tension as you watch in a linear fashion.
One of the top suggestions for a non-end-of-world-end-of-people scenario was 2001 (the movie), which involves the wacky adventures of a rogue computer, but is about humanity moving forward towards its evolution as a species.
There’s also a lot of dystopia that doesn’t require the threat of utter destruction: most William Gibson, Demolition Man, Robocop, Minority Report, and so on.
Here’s a list culled from suggestion (and suggested by whom or “multiple” for two or more suggestions):
- 1984 by George Orwell (Bonnie Mahlmeister)
- ALF, TV series (Julian Smith). Unless you’re a cat.
- Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (Elliot Kalan)
- C.J. Cherryh’s Alliance/Union books (Just This Guy)
- All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai (Manny Miracle)
- Another Earth, movie (Shee Lue)
- Aria anime (Chris Adamson)
- The Binti series by Nnedi Okorafor (Sandy)
- The City & the City by China Miéville (Bucko). One of my favorite books, which I re-read every couple of years.
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind, movie (Dropped Elbow)
- Cocoon and Cocoon 2, movies (Infojanitor)
- Contact by Carl Sagan; also a movie (multiple)
- Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (Fritz Swanson)
- The Book of the New Sun series by Gene Wolfe (John Berry). Arguably, some catastrophic things happened or will happen, but aren’t currently happening.
- The Color of Distance by Amy Thomson (Greg Pak)
- The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (Brandon Harris)
- Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley (Brett Terpstra)
- Most of Cory Doctorow’s work(Doctor Bad Wolf)
- Earthman Come Home by James Blish (Snaggy)
- E.T., movie (Professor Chime). It’s a horror film!
- Europa Report, movie (Dave Addey)
- Ex Machina, movie (Kylie Sturgess). Bad things might result later, but it’s not the theme.
- Farnham’s Freehold by Robert Heinlein (Alistair Finlay)
- Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes; short story, novel, and movie (Bucko)
- The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (Elliott Kalan)
- Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke (Tom Chwojko-Frank)
- Ghost in the Shell, manga series, movies (Annie May)
- Halo series, videogames (Christian Akins)
- Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins; also a series of movies (Francesca Mele)
- Inverted World by Christopher Priest (Gregory Hays)
- Kindred by Octavia Butler (Torsten Kathke)
- Looper, movie
- Lords of Light by Roger Zelazny
- Mac and Me, movie (Kevin Moore). Like E.T., a horror movie, possibly unintentionally.
- The Martian by Andy Weir; also a movie (multiple). Especially if you like potatoes.
- Moon, movie (Dave Addey)
- The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein (multiple)
- Mork & Mindy, TV series (Julian Smith)
- Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien; also a movie (Greg Pak)
- Muppets from Space, movie (Midwesterner)
- Non Stop, movie (Rocky R)
- Red/Blue/Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (Tom Chwojko-Frank)
- Redshirts by John Scalzi (Matt Skywalker)
- Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (Robert Tarr)
- San Junipero, episode in Black Mirror TV series (Lindsay Blackwell)
- Small Wonder, TV series (Julian Smith)
- Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (multiple)
- Solaris by Stanisław Lem; also a movie (Binary Solo)
- The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (multiple). (I strongly advise only reading the first of the two interrelated books.)
- Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Jason Snell). A lovely and smart book that I read on his recommendation.
- Spy Kids, movie (Julian Smith)
- Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein (Seth Truger). This is just plain old imperialism!
- The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (Brandon Harris)
- Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, a short story and name of a collection, with the story made into the movie Arrival (Bucko)
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein (Jennifer Powers)
- Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosian saga (multiple)
- Unbreakable, movie (Kylie Sturgess)
- V for Vendetta, comic-book series and movie (Rob Mullin)
- Vurt by Jeff Noon (Elliot Kalan)
- Most of Robert Charles Wilson’s books (Eric Meyer)