Why Post-Apocalyptic Fiction is so Fascinating

One of the most popular modern genres of fiction is that which can be classified as “post-apocalyptic.” This class of story involves an “end of the world as we know it” scenario that radically alters the material and/or spiritual world around the protagonists, washing away the old order and introducing one that is profoundly different (and worse) than that which came before. This type of fictional story is common across a wide range of formats – books, movies, television, and so forth. Arguably it can date back to at least the turn of the 20th century with stories such as H.G. Well’s work The War of the Worlds but has become much more mainstreamed in the public consciousness within the past few decades.

The modern world seems to have a particular attraction to post-apocalypticism as a genre. I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that only since the beginning of the atomic age has mankind possessed the technology to actually wipe out his own civilisation worldwide, or at least across a wide swathe of it. Certainly, this genre is probably on the minds of many in recent weeks, especially as we see dunces in Washington DC blundering their way toward a war with another nuclear armed nation in what has the potential to play out a lot like this short video of a realistic lead up to the end of the world.

Typically, a work of post-apocalyptic fiction will fall into one of a few categories, depending on the cause of the catastrophe being depicted. There is, of course, the ever popular nuclear war scenario where the world’s population centres are wiped out, leaving the survivors to scrabble a life out of the chaos and fallout and nuclear winter. Literature invoking post-nuclear themes appeared early on, such as Ray Bradbury’s short story, There Will Come Soft Rains (1950) and later Walter Miller’s book A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959). Movies picked up on these themes, including Threads, a British film depicting both the days prior to and then the gruesomely horrifying world existing after a full-scale nuclear exchange between NATO and the Soviet Union. A more popular and iconic array of films is the Mad Max series, set in a post-nuclear Australia. Not to be left out, computer games such as the Fallout series and its much earlier predecessor Wasteland contributed greatly to our modern conception of what a post-nuclear world would be like.

Another common theme, especially more recently, is worldwide collapse caused by a pandemic plague, often involving biowarfare or a bug that accidentally escapes the lab. This is seen in movies such as 28 Days Later and I Am Legend (adapted from the 1971 novel The Omega Man). One twist on this theme is zombieism. Zombies used to be the domain of dark Voudon magick, but in the past few decades they have become the realm of dark biotechnological magick instead (and probably funded by Fauci to boot). Prominent works along this line include the Resident Evil franchise and World War Z (both the book and the movie).

Other fictional causes for the world coming to an end include climate change and other extreme natural phenomena (which, despite recent political controversies, most likely contributed to past civilisational collapses such as those of the Maya and the Gotlandic Bronze Age culture in Scandinavia). This is seen, for example, in the movie Waterworld and Cormac McCarthy’s franchise The Road, as well as a host of lesser known movies such as Snowpiercer and The Colony. Occasionally aliens are involved (lots of computer games such e.g. Half Life). Dragons can make an appearance (Reign of Fire). Even intelligent ants have been presented as a future potentiality (Phase 4). There are also even more interesting plot devices that can be used, such as a worldwide, artificially imposed technological reverse back to pre-industrial and pre-gunpowder levels as seen in S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire series.

At this point, I’d like to distinguish post-apocalyptic fiction from other types of disaster scenarios. Some works present disasters that are too local or limited in effect to be truly apocalyptic, such as those afflicting a single city or region. Others are SO devastating (such as a massive meteor strike) that they would wipe out life on Earth, leaving nobody to even build a post-Event society from the ashes. When discussing post-apocalyptic fiction, it has to fit into that relatively wide sweet spot that wipes out civilisation but leaves enough survivors to credibly rebuild…eventually.

Now, one of the major commonalities between all of the various types of disaster plots that lead to post-apocalyptic situations is that they involve scenarios in which the apocalyptic event is outside of the control of basically everybody who suffers from it. After all, the common man on the street can’t stop the missiles from flying or a virus from breaking containment. In a sense, we can look at this as a metaphor for the powerlessness of modern man against the forces around him, not just of nature, but especially of his own science and technology. Most discerning observers can see that everything about the modern world – from its plethora of regulations to the very diet it feeds to us – makes homo technologicus weaker and more dependent on the system in which we exist. In this way, post-apocalyptism represents a pervading sense of modern man’s weakness and victimhood in the face of self-imposed limitation.

But it also represents the desire on the part of many in the modern world to liberate ourselves from this weakness and limitation, even if it might theoretically involve nuking the current system out of existence. Even though it can rightly be foreseen that such scenarios of extreme collapse might create conditions of savagery and destruction, these fictional stories nearly always involve some form of struggle by the survivors against these new conditions as they seek first for survival, and then to rebuild. This, then, is a metaphor for the longing of the human spirit to see a restoration of the heroism that is lacking in the modern world, the courage and valour which simply don’t exist in a world of spreadsheets and craft lattés.

Post-apocalyptic scenarios in fiction provide a vehicle for world-building that revolves around the removal of all that modern technology that makes modern man so soft and effete. This technology is part of why our world today lacks heroism. In many ways technology is a good thing, and by itself is not necessarily the problem. However, the fetishising of technology is, the turning it into an end for all things. The dehumanisation that comes with the exaltation of the material and the subsumption of all human endeavour to the profit motive and efficiency regime has taken away the sense of the heroic, the sense of our endeavours as worthy of being seen as larger than life. How many office drones, deep down inside, are at least intrigued by the idea of trading their PowerPoints for a pipe rifle and some leather armour and a life of fighting off mutants and raiders while rebuilding society in their own image?

And this leads to a second, related point. Post-apocalyptic scenarios don’t just involve removing modern technology, but also modern social, political, and cultural standards as well. In a sense, what modernism has engineered into society is forcibly de-engineered via catastrophe. These scenarios provide opportunities to explore different social and political systems that could arise and replace the modern world’s monomaniacal obsession with liberal democracy. In such scenarios, strong men emerge and communities band together to rebuild a new world. This is something that historically happened in many places where long-standing political organisations (such as the western Roman Empire and various Chinese dynasties) were replaced by incomers or upcomers – the political vacuum was filled by warleaders who turned into petty kings who turned into emperors. Two works mentioned above, the Dies the Fire series by Stirling and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Miller, explore this aspect of post-apocalyptism in excellent detail.

It’s not surprising, given the instability of the present Gay American Empire neo-liberal system and its increasingly likely collapse in the near future, that The Powers That Be work assiduously to prevent both the emergence of strong outside contenders for power and the organisation of local communities around various protective and configurational local institutions. They want us to be leaderless and socially atomised. This is not to say that the passing of GAE will be a catastrophic worldwide collapse of civilisation by any means, but it’s not a stretch to think that some of the same lessons from above could apply.

In summary, our civilisation is fascinated by post-apocalyptic fiction because it sees in that something which we have lost in the modern world, namely the heroism and nobility of doing things that really matter. Curse colonialism all you want, but when the West was subduing the world, it provided the opportunity for men of courage to stand out and make a name for themselves. The same may be said for the pioneers of old, who fought, bled, and often died to bring entire continents into the realm of civilisation. Because we live in a world that today seems so secure, so stable, and unassailable, for many the only way that they can imagine this ever changing is through a circumstance so radically destructive that it literally shakes the world to its core. The fact that such literature and cinema is so popular perhaps suggest that a not insignificant portion of our populations might be willing and think themselves ready for exactly that to happen. If nothing else, it reveals the deep malaise that pervades the West and the subconscious desire, perhaps, to regain that faustian struggle for mastery over our circumstances.

Why Post-Apocalyptic Fiction is so Fascinating