Lately, I’ve been reading about the end of the world as we know it. Why is that such a popular fictional theme? Does it reveal a sick side of my personality? Back in 1963, Bob Dylan sang “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” where he dreamed he was the only person left on Earth. A few of the lines that have always stuck with me:
Well, now time passed and now it seems Everybody’s having them dreams Everybody sees themselves Walkin’ around with no one else
No, it wasn’t true everyone was fantasizing about being the last person on Earth, but there sure were a lot of science fiction stories and movies about the end of the world. And I have to admit, I also daydreamed about being the last person on Earth too. I’ve always wondered if many of us, and I include myself, didn’t secretly wish they had the Earth all to themselves. One way of looking at post-apocalyptic novels is to divide them into cozy apocalypses and nightmares. The dividing line is decided by how many people are left. In Mad Max or The Last of Us, there are still too many damn people to make surviving the end world an appealing Walter Mitty escape.
To me, the ideal apocalyptic novel to actually want to experience is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. The runner-up is Survivors, a BBC television series from 1975. But if I was honest, what I really picture is being Henry Bemis in the famous Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough At Last,” but not breaking my glasses. Actually, it wouldn’t matter to me because I’m nearsighted and read with books inches from my face. If you haven’t seen that iconic episode, Henry Bemis is the last man on Earth with all the time in the world to read books without being bothered by other people — until he breaks his glasses.
Both Earth Abides and Survivors cover all the philosophical questions about the human race starting over from scratch. It helps to have read or seen Connections by James Burke, a nonfiction book about how hard it would be to rebuild civilization. It’s really a fascinating problem worthy of endless speculation. Earth Abides and Survivors deal with a very similar apocalypse, one where probably less than 1 out of 10,000 people survive, which in a world of 8 billion would mean 800,000 people or in a city of 1 million, 100 people. I believe in the show they suggest only a few thousand survive in all of England. That’s a survival rate of .01 percent.
The bubonic plague at its worse is estimated to kill between 30 and 50 percent. So stories, where very few people survive, probably aren’t realistic. We’re a tough species to wipe out. It is estimated that WWII killed 3% of the population and we bounced back rather quickly and thrived. Of course, in The Bible, Noah and his family were the only survivors of a worldwide flood. Flood stories are much older than The Bible, and are probably the origin of post-apocalyptic fiction. If you go back in time and explore other cultures you can find stories where humans are nearly wiped out, or completely wiped out, or the Earth is completely destroyed. This represents different levels of apocalypses.
In other words, it will take a lot to kill off the human race. Even the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs didn’t end life on Earth. Some writers have written stories about solar catastrophes that fried our world or wrote about the Moon or a comet slamming into our planet, or even alien invaders blowing us up. Those post-apocalyptic stories deal with starting over on another planet. The first one I read of this kind was When Worlds Collide and its sequel After Worlds Collide by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie.
We can call these stories Starting Over Apocalypses or End of the World stories. These are different from Dying Earth stories, which imagine life in the very far future when our planet slowly passes away and the last remains of life cling still. I rather enjoy that theme too. (No, I’m not depressed.)
However, the post-apocalyptic stories I like best are the ones where a few people survive a plague or a war, and they must rebuild society from scratch. My favorites are the books Earth Abides, which I’ve mentioned, and The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff which I reviewed, and the TV series Survivors, which I’ve reviewed before. They have a similar appeal to Robinson Crusoe-type stories (The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss or The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne), and they also have the related appeal of first colonizers to other planet stories. Think of Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein or Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson.
I believe we can call these post-apocalyptic stories Apocalypse Survivor Stories or Last People on Earth Stories.
However, most post-apocalyptic stories are about the aftermath of political upheavals, wars, catastrophes, plagues, or alien invasions, where a good portion of the population survives. These stories are about how society changes and people have to live under new norms. Most climate science fiction is of this type. Or living under alien occupation after being conquered. Most of the stories in the post-apocalyptic anthologies I listed the other day are of this type. A good example is The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett where people have become anti-science and anti-technology and revert to Amish-style living after a nuclear war.
Some of these stories could also be called dystopian stories and it’s hard to distinguish between the two. Writers often use some kind of apocalypse to world-build their dystopia. I believe the appeal of reading dystopias is identifying with characters that want to overthrow the dystopia. While the appeal of reading gloomy post-apocalyptic stories is imagining all the horrible things that could happen to society. I’m sure it would be interesting to psychoanalyze readers as to why they consume fiction of either theme. I believe for most YA dystopias it’s the vicarious thrill of being a revolutionary. I call this type of story Blows Against the Empire, which explains the popularity of Star Wars. Young people love to rebel against the status quo.
I call the kind of apocalyptic stories like those that predict life after significant climate change, economic collapse, the AI singularity, etc. If This Goes On Warnings.
As I try to read all those post-apocalyptic anthologies I will probably find other types to classify. Maybe I’ll even keep notes and makes charts and graphs.
James Wallace Harris, 2/6/23
3 thoughts on “Thinking About Apocalyptic Fiction”
I remembered reading the story Earth Abides many many years ago and have struggling mightily to remember the name … this post helped me to fix that problem! Thanks for the good writing – although I read much less sci-fi these days than before I find it endlessly fascinating. Somewhere there is an Anthology of Anthropology and Science Fiction that you might find interesting – a novel twist at least.
I vaguely remember that anthropology SF anthology. I’d like to find it. I did just get a SF anthology about Neanderthals.
Apeman, Spaceman ed. Leon E. Stover & Harry Harrison (Doubleday LCC# 68-14170, 1968, $5.95, 355pp, hc)
MASON, CAROL, ed. (stories) (chron.)
 *Anthropology Through Science Fiction (with Martin H. Greenberg & Patricia S. Warrick) (St. Martin’s LCC# 73-92060, 1974, 387pp, hc)
and no doubt others.