Ever since I read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, I’ve been on a quest to find the perfect readalike for it. I never expected to love it as much as I do. I checked it out on a whim in 2016 because I wanted to read something written for adults, and I had a hankering for science fiction (I had been reading a ton of other genre fiction and needed something different). This was available on audio and read by one of my favorite audiobook narrators, Kirsten Potter, so I checked it out.
I was immediately blown away. I couldn’t stop listening. This book is how I learned that I love literary science fiction, science fiction that has a speculative backdrop but isn’t necessarily about that backdrop. It’s science fiction that’s driven by character and not plot. Teenage me is giving adult me the side eye right now because for sixteen year old Kimberly, plot was king. No swoony romance? No intriguing plot twists? A story focused on relationships? Teenage me: no thank you. Adult me, though? It turns out I can’t get enough.
Since Station Eleven was a big critical success, many books published since then have been compared to it, so finding recommended readalikes isn’t too difficult. Whether they’re actually good readalikes is another story, though, and it depends on what the reader liked about Station Eleven. For me, it was a number of things: the futuristic/post-apocalyptic backdrop that was detailed but not actually the most important thing about the book, the characters whose stories intertwined, the narration from multiple perspectives, the quality of the writing, the quality of the audiobook narration, and a thoughtful pace that is slower than most without being glacial. This was a story I fell into and never wanted to leave.
I’ve read a bunch of books since then (and went back to a couple I read in previous years) that I’d recommend as readalikes based upon these factors. None of them quite match the quality and feel of Station Eleven and the enjoyment I derived from each has varied, but they get close, and they’re worthwhile, fascinating reads. If you, too, are on a quest for thoughtful, literary science fiction, usually about the end of the world, you might enjoy these as well. I’ve also listed a few titles that have been recommended to me by others and are currently on my TBR. My own opinions are on the first list; the Goodreads synopses are on the second.
Books I’ve Read
I first read this book in a class in college over ten years ago, and it’s stuck with me. I like it better than The Handmaid’s Tale, which to me at the time I first read it felt hyperbolic and now just feels too real/prescient to be enjoyable. Oryx and Crake is about the end of the world, or at least the end of humanity’s rule of the world, brought on by out of control genetic engineering. It features a man named Snowman, who was called Jimmy before the cataclysm and who might be the last person left alive. The novel alternates between the “present” day (post-cataclysm) and the past (which would read more as our present), showing how the world got to be the way it is as well as Jimmy/Snowman’s role in it and the two lives he led before and after.
Atwood’s science fiction premise is fascinating and detailed. I loved reading about the futuristic society pre-cataclysm, its excesses and technological advances, and how it all fell apart. Equally intriguing was the landscape of the world afterward, which is unique enough that it doesn’t really compare with any other post-apocalyptic novel. And while all of this is intriguing and a big part of why this is my favorite of hers, the book is actually primarily about the relationships between Snowman, his best friend Crake, and the girl they loved called Oryx. This may sound like the setup for a melodrama, but it doesn’t read that way at all. This is a book that continually surprised me when I first read it, and I’m looking forward to a re-read soon.
When the world comes to an end, astronomer Augustine is in the Arctic conducting research. Dedicated to his work and not wanting to leave it, he declines to follow his fellow researchers back home as they anticipate the cataclysm, wanting to spend the remainder of their time with their families. But he’s not alone there: he finds a little girl, Iris, who has somehow also been left behind. He anticipates a parent will come get her soon, realizing their mistake, but time goes on and no one does.
During the same time frame, astronaut Sully is on a spaceship on a return voyage from Jupiter when communication from Earth suddenly cuts out. For the remainder of the journey, which has several months left, she and the rest of the crew are unable to receive any messages from any human on the planet. After they determine that there is no error or malfunction on their end, they come to the inevitable conclusion: there is no one left alive on Earth.
Brooks-Dalton follows these two characters over the course of the novel, exploring their failed past relationships, their burgeoning new relationships, and what they come to value at the end of the world. Personalities change and priorities shift. What was once so important is now meaningless. Unlike some of the other books on this list, the connection between Sully and Augustine will likely be apparent to most readers early on. But even if it’s not a surprise, the connection is meaningful and moving. Augustine in particular is unpleasant to read about for a lot of the book – he’s selfish, hyperfocused on his career to the detriment of the well-being of others, and relates how he often willingly hurt other people in order to learn how they would react. But Brooks-Dalton adds depth to him over time, and while my feeling toward him near the end wasn’t exactly sympathy, I felt his regret for his various mistakes – both intentional and not – keenly. The final reveal will likely make your heart squeeze painfully too. The two different settings – the cold loneliness of the Arctic and the emptiness of space – are also exceptionally well-realized.
This is the lightest on plot of all the books I recommend in this post. What precisely has wiped out humanity is never explained. It’s barely even alluded to, with a short reference to whispers of war as the only real clue. The book ends before any of the astronauts land back on Earth, deliberately preventing the reader from discovering what happened. I’m not even sure Brooks-Dalton herself knows; it could be anything. For Brooks-Dalton, it really is completely beside the point. Readers of science fiction may be frustrated by just how nearly irrelevant the SF backdrop is here, but for those who crave the literary more than the SF, this is a good pick.
Byrne’s book, set entirely in non-Western countries, features two young women at two different points in the future. Meena is making a forbidden journey across an energy-harvesting Trail in the middle of the Arabian Sea, a road not meant for human travel, and Mariama is journeying across Saharan Africa toward Ethiopia, running from an act of violence she witnessed. Their journeys eventually converge, and like many of the characters in Station Eleven, the ways in which these two women are tied to each other will resonate as well as surprise.
I loved reading about the Trail and how Meena survived on it (it’s not easy). I also loved that this was set entirely in Asia and Africa, two continents I don’t read much about in my fiction. While it’s not a strictly post-apocalyptic novel, Byrne’s near-future world is much more inhospitable than it is now, and there are signs that a cataclysmic turning point may be fast approaching. The story and its setting are imaginative and deep with lots to discuss.
In the near future, the United States has been nearly overrun by Shreve’s Disease, which is carried by ticks that burrow into the skin. Once bitten by a tick, you have thirty seconds to burn it off with a device called a Stamp. After those thirty seconds, they’ve laid their eggs inside your body, and you have about a 50% chance that they will be carriers of the disease, which is fatal. The country has coped by creating something called the Salt Line, which cuts off the majority of the landmass, leaving it to the ticks, while the rest of the country is divided into strictly-regulated zones that are tick-free. Wealthy daredevils who live in the Atlantic Zone will sometimes pay vast sums of money to go on special excursions past the Salt Line, and Jones’ book follows a group of these people. Each person in the group has their own motivations for taking such a risky journey, which takes a very fast turn into even greater danger soon after they cross the Salt Line. This book is a combination dystopia, survival story, and crime novel, and it mostly melds all three together well.
Like Station Eleven, The Salt Line also alternates perspectives between multiple interesting, flawed characters. The apocalyptic backdrop is creative and probably the most different from any other on this list. Also like Station Eleven, it’s interested in the relationships between its characters, which are complex and often surprising. Jones is mostly interested in the relationships between mother and child, and occasionally father and child, as most of the characters’ motivations involve their children or their desire to not have children. She also delves deep into surrogate parent-child bonds. I particularly liked the focus Jones placed on one character’s decision to not have kids. This character’s reasons go beyond the stereotypical and dig into themes of sacrifice and how a person claims ownership of her life. It’s rare to find a book that treats lack of motherhood as an equally fulfilling avenue for its female characters.
Physicist Philip Steiner has been working on a Causality Violation Device for the past decade. This is really a fancy phrase for time machine, but he hates it when anyone calls it that. A time machine is fiction; the CVD is real. Or it would be, if it worked. He and his assistants are on test number three hundred something and the result is always the same: nothing.
On the surface, Palmer’s novel is about Steiner, his wife Rebecca Wright, Steiner’s lab assistants (also respected scientists), and Rebecca’s best friend Kate. It traces Rebecca and Philip’s meeting and marriage, their respective jobs (Rebecca works for the dating site where she met Philip), their relationships with their friends, and the fallout from Philip’s obsession with the CVD. Like Station Eleven, there are POV shifts at times between all characters, though Version Control focuses mainly on Rebecca (with Philip a close second). The primary relationship explored is the marriage between Philip and Rebecca, which is now falling apart.
But this is science fiction, so that isn’t the whole story. From the beginning, readers will notice small details that are different about the world Rebecca and Philip inhabit. It’s the present-day, but self-driving cars are ubiquitous. The president will pop up on people’s electronic devices every so often, addressing them by name and complimenting them on a particular detail of their dress, for example. It’s…weird. Off-putting. Intriguing. Rebecca has a general feeling that something isn’t quite right, and when others start to feel this too, psychologists put it down to a side effect of the overuse of technology like smartphones. But because this is a science fiction novel, readers will know right away it has something to do with the Causality Violation Device, that folly of Philip’s that has never shown any evidence of actually working.
Palmer’s novel is clever in many ways. It’s divided into three parts, each more intriguing than the last. The finale is elegantly perfect, reasonable in context of the “physics” Palmer has created for his story, and satisfying in a story sense as well. This is the most cleverly plotted of all the readalikes on this list, but it’s still plenty literary, with the focus squarely on the characters and how the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in change them and their relationships with each other.
This is the weirdest book on the list, I think. It’s set in the near future when people start losing their shadows, and soon after, their memories. Humanity learns that our shadows are what held our memories, and there’s no way to stop the loss of the latter once the former is gone. But there is a tradeoff: the Shadowless gain the power to physically change the world around them using their quickly fading memories. When a Shadowless forgets a wedding ring, for example, the wedding ring is suddenly no longer there. It can be very dangerous to be around a Shadowless because of this, and as the phenomenon spreads, so too does violence. The two main characters are Ori and Max, a couple who become separated when Max loses her shadow and decides to save Ori the pain of watching her completely lose herself by setting out on her own. Ori goes after her, and the two eventually fall in with different groups of people, unwittingly heading toward the same destination.
The Book of M has a lot of very close parallels to Station Eleven: the end of human society as we know it, multiple POVs, small groups traveling separately that eventually meet up with each other, dual narratives about the characters’ pasts as well as their presents. At the same time, it’s completely different. Unlike St. John Mandel’s story, this is not something that could actually happen. Memories are not tied to people’s shadows, and shadows cannot be lost like we’re in a horror novel version of Peter Pan. It gets a heck of a lot weirder close to the end of the book, too. Readers will need to cultivate a healthy suspension of disbelief to get into Shepherd’s book, but for those who manage to do so, it’s a worthwhile journey. The end is particularly effective, surprising but also inevitable. Through her fantastic premise, Shepherd explores if and how our memories define us – and how the loss of them can change us and the ones we love.
Books on My TBR
The world as we know it is ending. Evolution has reversed itself, affecting every living creature on earth. Science cannot stop the world from running backwards, as woman after woman gives birth to infants that appear to be primitive species of humans. Twenty-six-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, adopted daughter of a pair of big-hearted, open-minded Minneapolis liberals, is as disturbed and uncertain as the rest of America around her. But for Cedar, this change is profound and deeply personal. She is four months pregnant.
Though she wants to tell the adoptive parents who raised her from infancy, Cedar first feels compelled to find her birth mother, Mary Potts, an Ojibwe living on the reservation, to understand both her and her baby’s origins. As Cedar goes back to her own biological beginnings, society around her begins to disintegrate, fueled by a swelling panic about the end of humanity.
There are rumors of martial law, of Congress confining pregnant women. Of a registry, and rewards for those who turn these wanted women in. Flickering through the chaos are signs of increasing repression: a shaken Cedar witnesses a family wrenched apart when police violently drag a mother from her husband and child in a parking lot. The streets of her neighborhood have been renamed with Bible verses. A stranger answers the phone when she calls her adoptive parents, who have vanished without a trace. It will take all Cedar has to avoid the prying eyes of potential informants and keep her baby safe.
A chilling dystopian novel both provocative and prescient, Future Home of the Living God is a startlingly original work from one of our most acclaimed writers: a moving meditation on female agency, self-determination, biology, and natural rights that speaks to the troubling changes of our time.
Hig somehow survived the flu pandemic that killed everyone he knows. Now his wife is gone, his friends are dead, and he lives in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog, Jasper, and a mercurial, gun-toting misanthrope named Bangley.
But when a random transmission beams through the radio of his 1956 Cessna, the voice ignites a hope deep inside him that a better life exists outside their tightly controlled perimeter. Risking everything, he flies past his point of no return and follows its static-broken trail, only to find something that is both better and worse than anything he could ever hope for.
In four years Prime Space will put the first humans on Mars. Helen Kane, Yoshi Tanaka, and Sergei Kuznetsov must prove they’re the crew for the job by spending seventeen months in the most realistic simulation every created.
Retired from NASA, Helen had not trained for irrelevance. It is nobody’s fault that the best of her exists in space, but her daughter can’t help placing blame. The MarsNOW mission is Helen’s last chance to return to the only place she’s ever truly felt at home. For Yoshi, it’s an opportunity to prove himself worthy of the wife he has loved absolutely, if not quite rightly. Sergei is willing to spend seventeen months in a tin can if it means travelling to Mars. He will at least be tested past the point of exhaustion, and this is the example he will set for his sons.
As the days turn into months the line between what is real and unreal becomes blurred, and the astronauts learn that the complications of inner space are no less fraught than those of outer space. The Wanderers gets at the desire behind all exploration: the longing for discovery and the great search to understand the human heart.
A gripping and provocative debut novel by a stunning new talent, California imagines a frighteningly realistic near future, in which clashes between mankind’s dark nature and deep-seated resilience force us to question how far we will go to protect the ones we love.
The world Cal and Frida have always known is gone, and they’ve left the crumbling city of Los Angeles far behind them. They now live in a shack in the wilderness, working side-by-side to make their days tolerable in the face of hardship and isolation. Mourning a past they can’t reclaim, they seek solace in each other. But the tentative existence they’ve built for themselves is thrown into doubt when Frida finds out she’s pregnant.
Terrified of the unknown and unsure of their ability to raise a child alone, Cal and Frida set out for the nearest settlement, a guarded and paranoid community with dark secrets. These people can offer them security, but Cal and Frida soon realize this community poses dangers of its own. In this unfamiliar world, where everything and everyone can be perceived as a threat, the couple must quickly decide whom to trust.
Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine. With the recent passing of her Chinese immigrant parents, she’s had her fill of uncertainty. She’s content just to carry on: She goes to work, troubleshoots the teen-targeted Gemstone Bible, watches movies in a Greenpoint basement with her boyfriend.
So Candace barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York. Then Shen Fever spreads. Families flee. Companies halt operations. The subways squeak to a halt. Her bosses enlist her as part of a dwindling skeleton crew with a big end-date payoff. Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost.
Candace won’t be able to make it on her own forever, though. Enter a group of survivors, led by the power-hungry IT tech Bob. They’re traveling to a place called the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew. But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers?
A send-up and takedown of the rituals, routines, and missed opportunities of contemporary life, Ling Ma’s Severance is a moving family story, a quirky coming-of-adulthood tale, and a hilarious, deadpan satire. Most important, it’s a heartfelt tribute to the connections that drive us to do more than survive.