After the World Has Ended
Seeing the world as it is today leaves many fearing for the future. With news of the world reaching us on the airwaves and our social media feeds we see conflict, famine, despots and ecological disasters on a continual basis. Many of us despair about the path humanity is taking and the destructive outcome we may be heading for. Experts’ visions of economic, social and environmental collapse are built upon rational fears and predictions. To some it’s not a matter of if it will happen, but when.
For the past century speculative fiction writers have envisioned post-apocalyptic worlds caused by scenarios both plausible (nuclear holocaust, natural disaster) and outlandish (alien invasion, zombie outbreak). In these stories humanity has not been wiped out, but is on the brink of annihilation, with characters struggling to survive after an earth-shattering, cataclysmic event.
Great works in literature, film, television and video gaming have used post-apocalyptic settings to explore the psychological and philosophical musings concerning humanity’s existence and ending. The popular demand for such stories reveals that a great many of us share in their curiosity and terror — we simultaneously want to be immersed in these worlds, while hoping that they never come to be.
As our quenching for stories set after the fall of civilization is being satisfied we must ask ourselves, what function do they serve? Why have they become so common in our popular culture? And why do we enjoy their bleak visions so much?
The Architects of Fear
With the more feasible explanations of how humanity is destroyed there is a greater sense in the reader of potential realization — they show us possible futures as a result of our present actions. Climate change spiraling irreversibly out of control would render vast regions uninhabitable and destroy ecosystems, global economic meltdown would lead to the collapse of modern infrastructure and government, and nuclear war would result in the indiscriminate contamination and dying of all life.
These are true doomsday scenarios. And they of our own doing.
Characters who live in these post-apocalyptic futures are suffering the consequences of our ignorant, selfish and short-sighted civilization. The present exploitation and stupidity of those in power towards the world and its peoples is the cause of humanity’s downfall and the desolate existence of the remaining world’s inhabitants.
Such stories serve us as warnings. We live in a time when we’re repeatedly being told of the threats our behavior poses, and how we still have time to prevent such nightmarish prospects from becoming a reality. Their writers want us to be enlightened, they want us to make a stand. They implore us to save our future by changing how we live now, before it’s too late.
Notable examples: The Rover (2014), Threads (1984), Raymond Briggs’ comic and Jimmy Murakami’s 1986 animated adaptation of When the Wind Blows
The Nature of Humanity
For many writers their use of a post-apocalyptic landscape serves as a means to an end. It is not the disaster itself that is the subject of examination, but the survivors of the fallout who live among the devastation, and whether they will choose to exhibit the best or worst aspects of our nature.
Without the rule of law or the protections of civilized society, how would humans act in the name of self-preservation? Would we unite together to serve the common good? Or would humanity’s true colours be revealed? Depending on the author’s own values and beliefs the answer can be either hopeful or misanthropic.
Writers who are disparaging of human nature depict violent and desperate characters who have been reduced to barbarism. Without the comforts and securities of civilized society the order of living is to survive by any and all means. Compassion, altruism and decency are weaknesses that cannot be afforded — to survive means having to kill, or be killed.
Other stories present individuals who preserve a moral code in an otherwise savage and cruel landscape. They represent our better selves, displaying charity and selflessness even in the face of adversity and personal suffering. These characters make us believe in man’s ability to transcend his primal and violent past — to act with reason and intelligence.
Notable examples: The Mad Max series, The Walking Dead comic and TV series adaptation, Cormac McCarthy’s novel and John Hillcoat’s 2009 film adaptation of The Road
Better Off Dead
A more recent vision of the post-apocalyptic landscape in film, television and video games shows untouched cities and towns becoming overgrown with plants, with wild animals dwelling among the ruins. In the absence of civilization nature is reclaiming the earth and restoring the balance.
These images contextualize our place on earth as a blight. Because of humans’ disregard for nature, destroying habitats and causing the extinction of thousands of species, authors may choose to cast civilization with a cynical eye — that being removed from the picture is a positive outcome for the earth. In these stories, in spite of all his accomplishments and inventions, man is an inherently destructive force the world is better without.
It may be the end of mankind, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. Life goes on without us.
A similar narrative alludes to humankind’s demise as being a natural progression in the history of life. Vast numbers of species have emerged, evolved and died out on the planet, and humans are not above the order of life. Maybe our time as the world’s dominant species must come to an end, and maybe it’s time for another species to take our place. To these authors our destruction is neither a tragedy or a blessing, but an inevitability that we should accept with stoic grace.
Notable examples: Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and its several film adaptations, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), M.R. Carey’s novel and Colm McCarthy’s 2016 film adaptation of The Girl with All the Gifts
The New Western
During the Cold War civilians took it upon themselves to build shelters in the event of a nuclear war. In the 21st century groups of people who call themselves survivalists and preppers await the global disaster they believe is coming, whether it be a viral pandemic, an economic collapse or zombie apocalypse. They believe the world after will revert back to a time of self-sufficiency and freedom from modernity, where a person hunts and forages for their meals, and lives day to day. They imagine themselves as cowboys in a new and fearsome frontier where they can endure.
Escapist post-apocalyptic stories present characters who live by their own means and choices. They are celebrated as how people are supposed to live, counter to how we exist today in the modern world. Survivalist groups lament how society has ‘softened’ us through urbanized living and a consumerist culture — the fantasy of a global disaster resetting us on a path back to the ‘simple life’ has become an enticing prospect to those dissatisfied with modern living. But it is a fantasy. I’m sure that if the majority of preppers and wannabe wild men were ever faced with living after a cataclysm they would be longing for the old comforts and amenities that civilization provided, just like the rest of us.
Where the western genre was once the symbol of personal freedom and adventure the new generation can watch and read about futures where groups and individuals live as their own masters, surviving through hard graft and rugged determination like their ancestors before them. Like ‘real’ men.
Notable examples: The World’s End (2013), The Book of Eli (2010), The Last of Us video game
The earliest post-apocalyptic fiction, such as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, was written without the anxieties and threats we have today, with their potential to endanger civilization in the future. In the age of information and interconnectivity we know the challenges we face are not speculative; they are frighteningly real. Authors who write about the end of civilization diverge in their outlook of humanity and the fate of the world, but I’m confident they would agree that our current path is the wrong one — that the dark futures they envision must remain fiction. We have the foresight to avert catastrophe, now it’s left to us to decide whether or not to take heed and do something.
Push for change, strive for a better future, or prepare for the fall?
Coming soon: For the Love of Anthology