What is it that fascinates us as people so much about the end of life as we know it, cataclysm or a serious threat the humanity’s existence? What is it about staring into the face of extinction that entices science fiction writers so much? For an answer to the first question you are best off asking a psychologist, for an answer to the second I will answer from my own experiences.
For me, it is about speculation on two things:
- How it happened and how people react
- What happens next – how does life change (for good or bad) for the survivors?
Science fiction, fantasy and horror under which end of the world fiction is labelled, are speculative. There are countless ways of how the end might come about and an equally limitless number of “what happens next” scenarios. It can be quite a fascinating idea just thinking about the potential disasters we face and how we might react. I’m sure the reality will be different. Perhaps we romanticise the end of the world too much?
End of the World: Which Way Will It Go?
So, the issue I like to mull over are is whether we have a complete nihilistic breakdown of all social norms fighting in a dog-eat-dog world for resources. This was very much the case in A Song of Stone that I finished just the other day. We can also point to The Walking Dead and the BBC series Survivors based on the Terry Nation book (which I will read and review later this year I hope).
Or would we seek to form communities founded on what went before or something entirely new? Would we have a utopia much like Star Trek where we put aside all our differences and come together for the betterment of the galaxy? Or would some tyrant live in luxury while the rest of us starved and feasted on their scraps. Here, we could mean something like The Hunger Games. For the people of the provinces, the new world is a dystopia but for the people of Capitol, it is a new utopia. Post-apocalyptic utopian fiction is sparser than dystopian.
Survival of The Altruist or the Individualist?
Would we be able to survive? And if so, would we be better on our own or in small bands? There may be obstacles – giant man eating plants like Triffids in a world where most people are blind. The political commentary there pits the socialist coker against the pragmatist and realist Bill Mason. The land might be poisoned where nothing can grow, as in The Road. A population reduced to less than 1% having to learn to do so much just to grow enough food in Survivors, or a population suffering the ravages of nuclear war in Threads. Each of these have varying ideas about how to survive – in some cases alone, in some cases by banding together for safety in numbers and workload.
Threads is quite possibly the bleakest film you will ever see. Here is the pivotal nuclear strike scene. Be warned, it is not for the weak-hearted.
The true horror of Threads is what happened next. Those who died in the attack had it relatively easy.
Post Apocalyptic Films and Books
I’m sure I don’t need a comprehensive list but in the last fifteen years we’ve had (in film and TV): The Day After Tomorrow; 2012; 28 Days/Weeks Later; I Am Legend; Dawn of the Dead; The Road; Aeon Flux; The Book of Eli; Daybreakers; Doomsday; Terminator: Salvation; Children of Men; The Road; Knowing; Survivors; The Hunger Games, Divergent, V For Vendetta.
Some of these films were based on books but all had the theme of the end of civilisation and what happened next.
The best known recent example of post-apocalypse novel is Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” which was made into a film a couple of years ago. I know I’ve discussed it before and I still haven’t read it (though I have seen the film). It deals with a complete collapse of society as people struggle to survive. The ground is poisoned and the environment is locked in a permanent winter. Like the TV film Threads before it, it is an utterly horrific existence.
What Possesses People To Write This Stuff?
Although I’ve not written anything as bleak as The Road or Threads, I have dabbled in post apocalyptic fiction. Nothing I have created so far has been that bleak. My shelved novel (which I do hope to submit again some day) is about a medieval society in the future where a new church has risen to power.
There is arguably no more prolific apocalypse scenario than a world over-run by zombies, and even more arguably it is possibly the worst possible outcome to be walled into a fortress unable to leave for the threat of the undead outside. From the first Night of the Living Dead in 1968 to last year’s The Walking Dead, walking rotten corpses have never been very far from popular imagination and for the last ten years, have arguably topped the post-apocalyptic plot device. (I did succumb with my novel Dead Heat).
When you think about it most zombie books and films are the same… a group; of desperate humans walled in somewhere suffer cabin fever and end up being swamped by zombies in their once safe fortress after somebody goes mad, gets desperate, spiteful or negligent. Yet we never grow tired of it and I guess the zombie genre is the one where we might forgive repetition.
I used to think that it was a secret desire on the part of all of us to wipe the slate clean and start again… and to get it right this time. If so, are we that deluded? Even in fiction things are never that simple. If anybody would like to offer their thoughts about why we read it and especially why writers write it, please use the comments!