The Apocalypse Ain’t What It Used To Be

I don’t mean to turn StoryStuff into a blog just about stories of the Apocalypse, but my last couple of posts did get me thinking about the various post-apocalyptic stories I have enjoyed in print, film and TV over the years. Thinking over them, pulling them down from the book shelves and out of the comics boxes, and noticing some patterns.

For one thing, there are two very different types of these stories.

There are stories that focus on people living through the apocalyptic event and struggling to not only survive, but reassemble some sort of society out of the wreckage. Probably the first of these I ever read was Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon. Written in the 1950s, the novel follows a family in Florida through a nuclear war between  the US and the USSR, from the lead-up to the war, through the actual exchange of bombs and the attempts to survive in the aftermath. The town the characters live in does not suffer any direct damage, but areas around them are bombed, radiation spreads, electricity and other key services fail. Frank, with a background in military planning and weapons design wanted to give readers an accurate picture of what a nuclear war would look like, as compared to what the government claimed. Or at least as accurate as his late 1950s knowledge would allow. Of course, back then, no one knew anything about effects like EMP and Nuclear Winter. As gripping as it is, the novel also feels charmingly naive about the survivability of nuclear war when read today. A couple of years later, I found Richard Merle’s Maleval, another nuclear war story, but written almost 20 years later with a fuller understanding of what nuclear weapons can do. In this novel, the destruction is almost total, with only a few survivors – the main characters happen to be down in the deepest basements of a medieval castle when the bombs fall, and so are shielded from the blasts and immediate radiation by many yards of dense rock. They have just enough resources to somehow to begin to rebuild a community, while surrounded by hostile chaos. I also found John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids about the same time. In this book, first the vast majority of humankind suddenly goes blind. Those who survive the chaos of the first few days find themselves also facing the menace of the triffids – bizarre, mobile plants with poison sting and a taste for human flesh. No one knows where the triffids came from, though many believe they were created as a bio-weapon that somehow got out into the world. Somehow, the few remaining sighted people have to assist the newly blind in navigating all these new menaces.  A few years later, in grad school, I came across Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, in which a plague kills off 98% of the human population, and the survivors must somehow find each other, scavenge what they can from the gradually decaying remains of civilization. Bit by bit, the tiny communities build anew. A few months after I read that novel my local PBS station aired a BBC TV series The Survivors with a similar premise. One continuing interest in that show was showing how even a small event like a house fire or someone falling and breaking their legs could turn into disaster when you have only a small number of people and resources to draw on. And, of course, recently I came across When the English Fall, which I wrote about in an earlier post.

All of these stories look at questions such as how would the apocalypse happen? Who would survive, and how? They look at how the characters in the story, standing in for us, manage the secondary effects – the clouds of radioactivity left by the nuclear war, the hordes of triffids dominating the landscape, a natural world rebounding from the loss of its most deadly predator (us.) And the inevitable social chaos that follows – the fight for food and other supplies, men who use the chaos as an excuse to grab power and resources, the dilemma of when to sacrifice moral principles for basic survival. And this leads to another commonality: for the most part, the characters in these stories do survive. They hold their communities together, find more survivors, and lead them in building a new community. While the old world is gone, it is clear that a new world will come out of it. These are ultimately optimistic stories – we will go on. These are ultimately stories of Surviving the Apocalypse.

But there is another type of post-apocalypse story. These stories are not about whether and how the characters will survive. The Apocalypse has already happened. The world as we know it is already gone, replaced by some twisted and darker world. The how and why of this does not really matter, except to set up some additional danger in the world of the story. The Mad Max movies are great examples. Max navigates a world gone mad, where strength and power are the only things that matter. In these movies, the nature of the collapse is so irrelevant to the story that the actual apocalypse changes from movie to movie, even though the movies are presented as sequels, and so, presumably, all set in the same world. In the first move, Mad Max, the collapse was social in nature, a growing lawlessness and moral decay unchecked by any authorities. In the second, The Road Warrior, environmental collapse took down civilization, while Beyond Thunderdome clearly suggests a nuclear war. In the most recent movie, Fury Road, the apocalypse is so irrelevant it is never even mentioned. Indeed, if not for the fact that our hero is Mad Max, this movie could be set in a fantasy world that has always been a strange dystopia. Jack Kirby’s comic book series Kamandi is set in a world where some strange cataclysm destroyed humankind long ago, leading to the rise of mutant, intelligent animal races carving out new societies amid the ruins of the human world. The movie Waterworld is also set in a world after an apocalyptic rise in ocean levels, and is the comic Dark Ages, which I discussed in an earlier post, takes place years after the destruction of all metal in the world. The novel The Road, the array of Zombie Apocalypse novels and TV shows. In these stories, the apocalyptic event is not the focus of the story, but rather the excuse for twisting the world. The nature of the event, even how plausible the event might be, is irrelevant. These are stories about surviving a cataclysmic event and rebuilding, but about living in a dystopian world. In these tales of Post-Apocalyptic Dystopia, the world is a dark and twisted place, where evil flourishes and the good suffer. These are ultimately pessimistic stories – the apocalypse pulled the veil off of brutish and ugly human nature, creating a world where you suffer horrors until you die.

Many of the Surviving the Apocalypse stories are older – especially from the 1950s and 1960s. On the other hand, The Post-Apocalypse Dystopia have flourished in the last couple of decades. Most of our stories are now of this type. Oh, Surviving the Apocalypse stories do still appear – When the English Fall came out in 2017 –  and Dystopian visions appeared in earlier decades – Kirby’s Kamandi first appeared in the 1970s – but the over-all trend has been for the pessimistic, fantastical visions increasingly dominating.


Perhaps this shift reflects our growing awareness of the true impacts of the various apocalypses. In the 1950s, Pat Frank could believably portray a nuclear war as simply a more devastating form of world war with bombed out cities and zones of deadly radiation, but plenty of room for pockets of survivors to carry on. As we learned how truly devastating nuclear weapons are, we realized how implausible the intact community of Alas, Babylon truly is. By the early 1980s, Frank’s vision is replaced with that of the TV movie The Day After and its depiction of the mass destruction a nuclear exchange would truly wreak.

Or perhaps this shift reflects the rise of fantasy as a genre. The Surviving the Apocalypse stories are science fiction, based on disasters that could plausibly happen, detailing the effects as best we know, and exploring a realistic scenario of survival. They are stories of what could happen. In contrast, the Post-Apocalyptic Dystopias generally do not explore realistic what-ifs, but instead use the apocalypse as simply a world-building conceit. In many cases, it is hard to see a plausible route from our world into the other. Mad Max could just as easily have stepped through a magic wardrobe to reach the world of his movies, which may be why the fourth movie does not even bother to suggest an origin story. It doesn’t matter. The point of these stories is simply to explore the fantastical world. As the genre of fantasy has taken over book stores, it has taken over the apocalypse as well.

Or maybe the shift indicates a deeper shift in us and our society. We used to be more optimistic. We had faith that science could improve the world, could help us survive even the wounds that science inadvertently inflicted. The world will get better, even after a massive, apocalyptic blow. But now? In our individual lives we see this is no longer true – social mobility has decreased, wages have stagnated, the gap between rich and poor grows ever greater. Politicians routinely get elected by telling us the government is inept, if not out-right evil. The number and scope of potential disasters increases – at one point all we worried about was nuclear war, now we have added climate catastrophe, genetic manipulation gone awry, bioweapons and natural plagues, solar flares, economic collapse. We see other Americans, not as potential allies in a crisis, but as enemies waiting to turn on us. In a world like this, already so apocalyptic in form, how can we muster optimism about what would happen if our increasingly fragile society were to collapse?

Perhaps it is not the apocalypse that has changed, but us.

One thought on “The Apocalypse Ain’t What It Used To Be

  1. There is another Surviving the Apocalypse novel, which I couldn’t include because it has long ago disapeared from my book shelf. Scientists manage to divert clouds of interstellar water to encase the Earth, but when it breaks down, the Earth is hit with a massive deluge, until the flood covers all but the highest mountain tops, where the few remaining survivors huddle. If this story rings a bell, do you remember the author or title?


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