Rather than going for a broad, cracked.com-style top five list for my Pandemonium guest post, I’m going to do something a little smaller and more philosophical. I’m not enough of an Armageddon expert to be able to proclaim a top five with square-jawed authority, but there’s something about apocalyptic fiction that drives it straight into the territory of the Big Questions.
Of course, just because a story can get there, it doesn’t mean it’ll have convincing answers. Some of the books and films on this list get right to the edge of significance and then fuck it up, like a tourist at the Grand Canyon taking blurry photos of the tour bus. But even these disasters can be educational. So the apocalypses below aren’t necessarily my favourites. They’re just the ones that, intentionally or unintentionally, have made me wonder what’s really going on with post-apocalyptic fiction.
WORLD WAR Z
Max Brooks’ World War Z tells the story of a global zombie apocalypse through interviews with survivors over a decade later. What makes it particularly interesting is the detailed way it depicts the zombie infection spreading and society collapsing, aided by profiteering corporations, inept military strategy, bureaucratic bungling and short-sighted self-interest. It also speculates on the ways that different countries might deal with an extreme threat, recognising the plurality of human cultures. Rather than just saying “the world ends” it takes it apart piece by piece, laying out the parts like a technical diagram. It’s a thoughtful and engaging strategy, and reading the book made me realise something important about apocalyptic fiction: It’s almost impossible to create a story of the world falling apart without revealing, on a fairly deep level, how you see it right now.
Science fiction is mostly about the present to begin with, but apocalyptic fiction takes it a step further. It removes a fundamental part of our lives – civilisation – and then asks what’s left. It’s a great opportunity to reveal the world in a fresh way, and it’s pretty obvious when a post-apocalyptic writer is unable or unwilling to do that.
Contrast the clear-eyed detail of World War Z with…
2012, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, DEEP IMPACT, ARMAGEDDON, ETC
In most disaster movies it takes a staggering effort to destroy the world. Film-makers tear the place up with aliens, asteroids, insta-freezing mega-storms, and in the case of 2012 some kind of, I don’t know, mutated neutrino (Spoilers!) and in the end, mankind (as represented by some family member who loves some other family member just so darned much) will pull through and rebuild.
And yet, in reality, it’d take a lot less to bring us down. We’ve barely survived banking.
Disaster movies are based on an unquestioning and uncomplicated view of the world. Us Strong. Us Not Threatened By Puny Asteroid. Perhaps that’s the attraction: After all, a realistic slow spiralling down into awfulness is precisely the thing we’re trying to escape from. We need simple dumb fun. That’s not necessarily a problem, except… well…
In the AV Club review of the The Core, they pointed out that the movie was wonderfully enjoyable nonsense until the main characters started falling over each other to nobly sacrifice themselves. “If there's one thing dumb, breezy entertainment like The Core can't sustain, it's a reminder of fragile mortality.”
And that’s a problem when the genre you’re writing in relies on seven billion people dying. Existential alarm tends to kick the brain awake. And if there’s one thing you don’t want while watching, say, a Roland Emmerich movie, it’s a wakeful brain.
THE LAST MAN ALIVE
There’s a brief but brilliant exchange in the “Mugging” episode of the TV series Peep Show:
Jeremy: Mark! You've got to toughen up. This is the 21st century. You've seen Mad Max, haven't you? That's what's going to happen!
Mark: Mad Max is not necessarily going to happen.
Jeremy: Oh sure mate. You live in your Hitchhiker's Guide world where you wander around in your dressing gown and have a nice cup of tea.
It’s a great observation. Apocalyptic sci-fi lays bare something fundamental about what we, the writers and readers, believe humanity to be. After the day-to-day stuff of life has been swept away, what have you got left? A tooth-and-nail struggle for a tank of petrol? Or genteel absurdity and talkative doors?
The first book I read that I can recall tackling this question head-on was children’s story The Last Man Alive by A.S. Neill. In it, a green cloud covers the Earth’s surface and turns the world’s population into stone. It was told as a story-within-a-story, and every second chapter had the author telling it to a group of children, and discussing the plot with them. This allows him to dispense with the subtext, and flat-out analyse the questions of the apocalypse.
I remember this book having a great impression on me, partly because it was straight-up enjoyable and partly because, along with the Time Bandits and the TV series of John Christopher’s The Tripods, it had one of the memorably heavy endings of my childhood.
Like any story, the characters in apocalyptic fiction have to behave in a way that’s believably and fundamentally human. If they don’t, then the book’s got until the last chapter to convince the readers that THIS is the way that human nature actually IS.
And if it can’t…
THE CITY, NOT LONG AFTER
Look, I did Drama at university. I’m not proud, but it was the late 90’s and everyone was doing it. One of the things I acted in was a dramatisation of a chapter of Pat Murphy’s The City, Not Long After. The novel was set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco that has been taken over by artists, and which is facing down a military threat with ART.
Naturally I approve of this message, but I would still need some serious convincing before facing down machine guns with cubism. And while The City, Not Long After doesn’t entirely flake out, it does rely on magical realism and the supernatural to stack its deck in favour of the hippies, which leaves me suspecting that, in an actual post-apocalyptic world, art might not entirely be the answer.
Nonetheless, the novel has a lot to recommend it. It’s crammed with striking imagery, and it taps into another deep vein of apocalyptic fiction – the playful sense of freedom after society has collapsed. Without all the pesky citizens milling around, the artists are free to turn the city into one vast art project.
Interestingly, this is one of the few times where this post-apocalyptic freedom is used constructively. In movies like 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead it’s expressed as a shopping spree, and in Zombieland it’s the joyful destruction of a gift-shop. It’s a bit sad to think that, free from other people, all we’d want to do is consume and destroy, but it doesn’t entirely ring as untrue, either.
A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ
After an apocalypse there’s the big question of what’s left, and what’s important, and this is where books like The City, Not Long After and Walter M. Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz kind of bug me. There seems to be an assumption that, once the modern world has destroyed itself, the supernatural will rise like a tree through old cracked concrete.
A Canticle for Leibowitz follows an order of monks as they protect the few surviving remains of scientific knowledge in the millennium following a culture-shattering nuclear war. The novel is methodical and detailed, but, without giving too much away, it puts some weight on Catholic dogma, particularly in its final section.
Still, it does an excellent job portraying the painfully slow reconstruction of civilisation, leading inevitably back towards a nuclear apocalypse. World War Z took the world apart piece by piece. A Canticle for Leibowitz puts it back together, including the seed of its own destruction. In doing so, it reveals Walter M. Miller Jr.’s world view with clarity.
Which brings me back to apocalyptic fiction, and the Big Questions. Even if I believe that a novel like this misses the mark, I’m forced to think, “Well, where should I aim, then? How would I do it right? What really is important after other people have gone?” which makes me engage the Questions myself, until I get overwhelmed and wander off to have a bath.
Which, all in all, isn’t the worst possible outcome for an apocalypse.
Sam Wilson's personal apocalypse, "Postapocalypse", can be found in Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse. At least, for another week, then the book goes out of print forever... His Twitter projects @GenreStories and @ChooseAdvGame (starting Monday) are completely bonkers and totally wonderful. You can follow those and Sam's other writing work on his blog.