Exploring Genre: Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction
by Mary Rose-Shaffer
Review by Mary Rose-Shaffer
SFRevu.com *Essay ISBN/ITEM#: ESAYApocalyptic
Date: 01 March 2009 /
Some say the world will end in fire;
The decision to create apocalyptic and post-apocalypse fictions likely depends on an author's view of the world, highlighting the distinct differences between these two types of fiction. It comes down to degree of optimism: a glass half-full or a glass half-empty person. Are humans as we are now worth saving? Will an altered or adapted form of human be worthy of salvaging? Are humans such rage- and war-driven creatures that humanity's destruction is inevitable? Or, as some have speculated, is the planet better off without us? In purely apocalyptic fiction there is nothing left of humanity; no one to further the story, although the planet may be more or less intact.
The end of the world, specifically of human civilization, has been a popular topic for legend and mythology – the foundations of speculative fiction. Once a culture's members decide to tell the story of creation, the story of its destruction seems inevitable. Historically stories of the total and ultimate end of the world and humanity are fewer (in my research) with most cultures unwilling to eliminate people altogether. In legend and myth the cataclysm is generally temporary, allowing for a cleansing of the planet and the subsequent rebuilding of human society. By definition, in post-apocalyptic fiction something of the human race survives. As negative and depressing as post-apocalyptic fiction may be, there is hope in it.
How the world ends generally varies from generation to generation. The earliest storytellers believed in the more natural catastrophes of flood, earthquake, fire, or some combination of these. Over time other writers offered that humans would destroy the planet through war (or some manner of revolution), plague, overpopulation, environmental devastation, technology gone awry, or through God's intervention – often disguised as natural phenomenon. Additional modes of annihilation include possible collision with some space-based entity, as in Balmer and Wylie's When Worlds Collide for example. Or ruin by an interstellar race of superior beings as described in Clarke's Childhood's End. Modern writers use all of the previously noted "traditional" methods – war, plague, overpopulation, etc. - sometimes in combination, but refuse to limit themselves to these.
Many Cold War era authors were certain that humanity was out to destroy itself and the planet, often considered the inevitable result of human egotism. The destruction generally involved a Third World War and nuclear devastation. Stories such as Sturgeon's "Thunder and Roses" and Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains" highlight this pessimism. Focusing on the psychological and social, Nevil Shute's On the Beach is the primary novel-length example of the last humans coping with the inevitability of certain and fairly immediate death. Although very different, the non-nuclear novels Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle and Aldiss's Greybeard also share the certainty of humanity destroying itself.
Many more authors decided that a portion of humanity should survive a nuclear holocaust or plague or whatever destructive force had been unleashed and, as such, it has been easier to find post-apocalyptic titles and examples than apocalyptic ones. (Having previously addressed dystopias as often founded in the wake of near total destruction, these pieces will be avoided.) Although some catastrophe has wiped out nearly all of the human race and usually destroying a goodly portion of the planet as well, some survive. These may not be the homo sapiens humans we are used to seeing, but there will be some entity left that can be called remotely human.
Certain that human ingenuity and drive would conquer any problems, authors such as Isaac Asimov, James Gunn, and Robert Heinlein generally maintained faith in humanity's survival. Tied to this faith was the belief that technology and science are at our disposal and will lead the way to address any issue. This (some say naïve) certainty in technology and ingenuity as salvation was countered by the pessimism of Cold War era authors convinced that technology would serve as the extermination of humankind.
Authors take a varied view of humanity's post-destruction form. Although some maintain that humans will physiologically remain the same, as a general rule, the humans left in the aftermath are rarely the current model of homo sapiens. Some degree of evolution or alteration as a result of the destructive source or as a reaction to that source seems likely to modern authors. Perhaps there is a plague and only a few are immune but become disfigured or otherwise altered by the disease. Perhaps using science to adapt and modify the physical body for survival leaves the mind and essence of what it is to be human (fairly) intact. Post-apocalyptic fiction shows that while humanity as a whole may have suicidal tendencies, individuals are survivors.
The elements common to nearly all post-apocalyptic fiction address the harsh conditions that will be present following a disaster. It will smell – bad. There will be unburied corpses. There will be collapsed buildings and dismantled infrastructure. It will be messy. There will be food shortages and a dearth of clean sanitary water. Though there are works with comedic elements, writers are certain that the apocalypse will never be pretty or light. Some choose to deal with the filth and destruction directly by having characters or the narrator comment on the environment specifically. Others simply assume the vile and foul surroundings are the backdrop of the story, leaving more to the reader's imagination.
Post-apocalyptic fiction strives to stretch the definitions of society and humanity, often addressing concepts of morality and faith in the face of necessity. The taboos of current society may become luxuries that we cannot afford in the restoration of the race. Cannibalism, incest, fratricide, and brutality without limit are explored. What degree of civilization will exist and by what definition? In the final analysis authors explore the strength of human will in meeting challenges that appear insurmountable. In creating a post-apocalyptic environment, authors address the fundamentals of what it is to be human in the most extreme circumstances.
In many ways, post-apocalyptic fiction begins with Mary Shelley's The Last Man wherein the presumed only survivor of a plague sets out to find other possible survivors. Well's The Time Machine addresses the aftermath of an unspecified war. Wyndham's Day of the Triffids combines both mutant killer plants and cosmic accident. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz has monks studying scraps of text from the 20th Century thousands of years in the future. The determined survivors of nuclear war described trying to rebuild in the southern Florida of Frank's Alas, Babylon became the precursor to Brin's The Postman, and McCarthy's The Road. The doomsday predictions of Nostradamas and the Maya provide additional stimulus. Stewart's Earth Abides and Matheson's I Am Legend pave the way for the present crop of plague-based novels: King's The Stand, Van Pelt's Summer of the Apocalypse, and McDevitt's Eternity Road.
If you prefer your apocalypse in smaller doses, the offerings in Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse and The Apocalypse Reader may be for you. Gathering works by a number of brilliant authors, centering on the main theme of (what else?) the end of the world and what happens next, these anthologies provide a plethora of options for the reader. The approaches to survival in Wastelands range from the irreverent to the sublime. The more practical side of a post-doomsday world is addressed in The Apocalypse Handbook a sort of a how-to survive the apocalypse.