MIND MELD: Post-Apocalyptic Fiction and Why We Love It
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
We asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
Of course Cinderella had her fairy godmother and Alger’s heroes were generally befriended by wealthy older men, and neither had to deal with zombies. But they still struggled against great odds and ended in a much better place.
Cinderella and the Alger hero started out in poverty and their problems arose from that. But the popularity of post-apocalyptic stories has grown while the United States has been in recession. I’m willing to believe those floods and plagues and even the zombies are in some ways stand-ins for unemployment, a weak housing market, credit card debt, outstanding college loans, and shrunken retirement plans.
In better times, you’re more likely to have romantic vampires!
Post-apocalyptic stories are a form of survival story. Rather than being a new upstart, I believe the survival genre has always been popular, it simply goes through various guises to match the times. In the age of sail, it was the marooned seaman on the deserted isle: Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Flies, Swiss Family Robinson, Gulliver’s Travels, The Tempest, Treasure Island, and The Count of Monte Cristo to name a few. Plane crashes have more recently served the same purpose, both in fiction and with real-life accounts that capture the popular imagination: The TV show Lost, the book and film Alive, the blockbuster WWII account Unbroken, and Steve Callahan’s Adrift are all examples.
When zombies entered popular culture, writers and directors embraced a new means by which mankind’s cultural umbilical might be severed. Entire continents became deserted isles. Men and women were left to fend for food, shelter, and to protect themselves against savages. Pioneer times turned out hundreds of fictional accounts to rival the real, such as the Donner Party disaster, which riveted a nation. The entire canon of Westerns — very little of which bears any resemblance to the true American West frontier — can be seen as survival literature. These stories enthralled 20th century readers with untamed lands, no rules, man turning on man, and dangerous natives around every bend.
Disaster films hit during more recent times with a vast outpouring in the cinema that soon became its own genre. Volcanoes, meteors, pesky planetary cores, tsunamis, more meteors — whatever it took to return us to a primitive state. In science fiction, stranded astronauts and encounters on alien planets reduced characters to their wits and a handful of tools. Time travel films and stories did the same, sending man back into the wild past. Jules Verne and Robert E. Howard sold millions of books, all of which play the survival theme. The more you look for this trope, the more you see. The Odyssey strands man over and over in one of literature’s oldest and greatest classics. Scanning my own works, I see 10 of my stories adopt the survival theme, most of these quite explicitly.
When something runs through popular culture this rampantly, I always assume there’s a primal reason, an evolutionary reason. Cultural influences don’t explain how the same stories appeal to audiences separated by thousands of years and distant geography. In the case of the survival genre, I believe it has to do with primitive fears. Look at the commonalities: Humans left to fend for themselves in the wilderness; dangerous “others” lurking in the shadows; death at every turn; improvised tools, scavenged supplies, wit, and courage the only things at hand to ensure we live another day. In other words: the very existence we endured day to day.
We read these works because a deep portion of our brain is made to worry over what we will do in the event of a catastrophe. All it takes is a bad harvest, a poor outcome against a rival tribe, a plague, a turn of the weather, and what will we do? We sit around dying fires, huddling for warmth, worried and scheming. We glance around at the dozens of people we rely on. Do we trust them? What was that noise in the woods? How long would I last if I fell asleep and woke up to discover the pack had moved on without me?
Like the monster-selling series of the same name, none of us want to be left behind. And so we’re always imagining it. We’re always playing out the what ifs. And I reckon we always will.
Oh, we humans are such pessimists and worriers, aren’t we? We like our doom and gloom piled on thick. But we also want humanity to prevail in the end, and we expect a spark of hope somewhere in all the darkness.
I think the inspiration that goaded me to write about a Manhattan submerged by rising waters and toppled by cataclysmic hurricanes and earthquakes, and a human race decimated by pandemic disease, is the same reason readers enjoy such dire scenarios. It’s escapism but rather than warm, fuzzy stories, it’s an escape into the worst one can imagine. And that can be quite soothing as well. It’s the old ‘my life sucks but not as bad as hers’ philosophy. Annoyed that you have to pay taxes? Walk the dog? Do the laundry? Well hey, at least you don’t have to fight in a pit for a scrap of bread or battle a ravening zombie horde.
If you read the news, the world is a scary, uncertain place. Maybe we feel a measure of control between the pages of a book. We can be voyeurs without actually having to eat turtle or outrun a tsunami or fight to overthrow a despotic government. Perhaps we require heroes who rise above the most impossible and horrific situations. We can celebrate human spirit, cheer that spark that has allowed us to endure for so long. We do like our rebels and we admire those who prevail despite all odds. A post-apocalyptic setting allows writers to dump all that on our characters and more.
In particular, I think teen readers are inspired and entertained by end of the world books. Teens who may be feeling a complete lack of control in their lives, and exist in environments dominated by various authority figures.- parents and teachers for instance. They have anxieties about what’s out there for them, how will they fend for themselves, what will they do, and where will they go. It’s a comfort to read about other teens who confront big issues — oppression, forces of nature, the end of the world, zombies — and win. And quite possibly find romance too because after all, teenagers are also at the mercy of their hormones. Living in despair, giving up personal freedoms in a totalitarian state, and/or facing possible death at every turn tends to bring out a fierce need for close human contact. A little love at the end of a long day battling the undead.
Survival adventure stories, which post-apocalypse novels tend to be, can exaggerate the awful realities of our lives, exploit our universal fears, pose those ‘what if’ questions we torment ourselves with, but they also celebrate the characteristics of humans which are the most praise-worthy- bravery, kindness, self-sacrifice, a desire to make things better, or fix great wrongs, and maybe they remind us that it is possible to overcome anything if you fight hard enough and remember your humanity.
Or maybe it’s just really really fun to imagine a world groaning with zombies.
When I was a kid, I loved reading books where the characters were stranded in some remote wilderness and had to fend for themselves. I routinely devoured survival stories like My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet, and Swiss Family Robinson because I loved watching these characters utilize their surroundings in order to survive. I think, at their core, post-apocalyptic stories are just survival stories writ large. Instead of one teenage boy living in a hollowed-out tree trunk in the woods, we have an entire society carving out a place for itself in civilization’s wreckage.
One of my favorite things about reading survival stories was wondering what I would do in that situation. And post-apocalyptic stories pose the same question, but again, it’s in the framework of an entire society, which complicates things tremendously. Are you going to be the person who keeps calm in the face of adversity and thus betters the situation of everyone around you — or the person who jump-starts the whole cannibalism thing? And beyond even the individual basis, it’s fascinating to watch how run-of-the-mill human interaction plays out when the characters are struggling to survive while carrying the burden of rebuilding their civilization. Post-apocalyptic settings always seem to highlight the complexities of human interaction. Something about the starkness of the surroundings makes the characters stand out.
I also think these types of stories appeal because of the fantasy of striking the whole messy affair of civilization and starting over. An apocalypse is the ultimate what-if scenario, and there’s so much opportunity for out-and-out weirdness. A few years ago I read a short story by Maryl Jo Fox called “Marker” in The University of Texas’ literary magazine, and one of its central images — that of a post-apocalyptic beauty pageant — has haunted me ever since. In the story, the contestants attempted to beautify themselves with scraps that they salvaged from the wreckage of civilization (to no real avail). It illustrates one of the things I personally love about post-apocalyptic stories: the way the characters will take fragments of their old society and fashion them into something new and alien and strange. It’s like a Cubist painting of contemporary civilization. A post-apocalyptic story shatters the familiar elements of our day to day lives, and when it puts them back together, we see our civilization in a different and unsettling light.
From a storytelling perspective, post-apocalyptic futures provide tons of built in conflict and drama, and they often do it in ways that are relatable to most people. The reset button always involves something nasty which produces a world full of danger, but usually does it in a way that feels plausible. The fallout of a large scale nuclear war was popular when that particular fear loomed in many people’s minds – at the time, nuclear war felt like a real possibility. Nuclear bombs, viral outbreaks, asteroid strikes, and even severe climate change are all things that absolutely could happen and so the premise feels real. It’s easy to get invested when you’re presented with a world that feels possible, even if the chances are remote.
The characters that populate these stories are also easy to get invested in. They tend to fall into the ‘everyman’ category, where ordinary people are tested to such extremes that we see both heroes and villains emerge. Often, characters are struggling just to survive and that’s bringing out both the best and the worst in them. Some prevail, and others fall, and as readers or viewers, we can easily identify with them because the underlying question ‘What if it were me?’ is always present. The Stand had some pretty good examples of this…if you found yourself in the same situation, and you were to be truly honest with yourself, would you be a Stu, or a Harold? Even if we don’t believe we would end up like Harold, we can see how the situation changed him from the man we met at the start, to the man he later became. In The Road, we watch a man struggle to keep his son safe in a very dangerous world, while still remaining something his son will recognize as his father. That same question lingers – ‘What if it were me? Could I do it?’ We all like to believe the answer is yes, but at the same time we acknowledge that when actually faced with the reality of it, many in the story just checked out, or worse, became monsters. That possibility, too, lies within all of us, no matter how small.
Showing the collapse of society speaks to an underlying fear we all have. What if, one day, this comfortable society we’ve managed to build up around us fell? Not over time, even, but one day we just woke up, and it was gone? How would we survive? Could we survive? What kind of person would we have to become in order to survive? The remake of Dawn of the Dead had a scene early on where Sarah Polley’s character, after escaping her zombified boyfriend, flees to her car. In spite of the stress of the moment, she looks around, and is shocked to see that her situation is not isolated, but widespread. Her quiet, clean, suburban neighborhood still looks mostly the same, but with disquieting differences that make it clear that somehow, overnight, her world has unraveled and is continuing to do so before her eyes.
Post-apocalyptic tales provide the same kind of escapism that ghost and horror stories do. They scare us, but still let us remind ourselves that it’s just a story. Seeing such familiar surroundings in a state of ruin makes us uneasy, but it’s uneasiness we can enjoy because, for now at least, it is only fiction.
Let’s take a look – the rise in popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction has coincided with the boom in the Young Adult market. Now, one could point to the Hunger Games series and give it a bunch of the credit, right? Both dystopian and YA, the Hunger Games series seemed to have suddenly created a new market – one hungry for dark, bloody stories of life beyond our own civilization. And it brought YA fiction to the attention of… everyone. Surely there are as almost many 5-star reviews for Catching Fire written by 11 year olds as there are by septuagenarians.
However, I think there’s a deeper reason for the current popularity of the Post-apocalyptic genre – one that is still connected with the YA market. It has to do with the emotional world of the teen reader and specifically with today’s teen reader.
At the end of adolescence, we human beings are ready to strike out on our own. We have been living in a world of our parent’s creation and now it is time for us to forge our own path. Bring on the apocalypse. Engaging with a story about the fall of civilization allows for an imaginative leap into a new world. Chanda Phelan said it beautifully on IO9: “We need to raze the old world and build a new one in its place in order to have a world that is really and entirely our own. The story of the End, after all, is not nearly as compelling as the story of the Beginning that comes after it.”
In Post-apocalyptic fiction, there is always an element of survival. These are stories about how people get by without (without food, without electricity, without family, without law, etc.). As teenagers, we are ramping up our survival skills – getting ready to leave our parents’ care and become independent. Post-apocalyptic stories satisfy our need to figure out how we’re going to make it. Throw in some zombies or a flood or the spill of a chemical warfare compound that divides the population by their blood type and turns some people into bloodthirsty monsters and others into paranoid freaks and others into meat* and now we’re cooking. We have a way to process the impending need to survive outside of the world in which we’ve been raised.
To my eye, the rise in popularity of post-apocalyptic stories is beautifully linked to the age of the most sought-after market – Young Adult. The link is in the inner action brought to a reader by a story about the fall of an old order and the creation of a new one.
Destroying the world we know is the first step to creating a world of our own.
Politically, our country is currently so tangled up with competing ideologies and zero-sum thinking that the whole thing seems to have become completely unmanageable. Look no further than the recent sequester debacle or the post Sandy Hook discourse on gun rights for up-to-the-minute examples. We have huge problems in this country and the people we entrust to fix them are either unable or unwilling to do so. Given this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we’ve developed a culture-wide fantasy that revolves around tearing the whole thing down and starting over from scratch.
We also live in a time when many of us feel disconnected from the world around us. We live and work in climate-controlled buildings, eat processed foods, and depend on technology to an ever-increasing degree. Now, I’m no Luddite. Technology has made our lives better in any number of ways, but still, something tells us that if we could push aside all these modern distractions and focused instead on the basics of survival our lives would be more authentic somehow. We’d be more whole and more satisfied, more centered. (Of course just try telling this to someone who’s actually trying to survive day-to-day. I’m guessing they might have something to say about how much our interest in these back-to-chaos stories is about privilege.)
Luckily for us as writers, either of these fantasies makes fertile ground for fiction. The huge changes that come with stories like these afford writers the opportunity to trace how seismic shifts can reverberate through individuals as well as through society as a whole. You can explore the big and the small, the grand and the mundane. You can build entire worlds, then tear them apart and start over. That’s a huge and exciting playground for a writer and can lead to some really exciting work.
I love watching a characters claw their way out of an awful situation, because it means things can get better. These stories force character development to occur more rapidly, which only increases the stakes and pulls me deeper into the plot. The source doesn’t matter—floods, fires, plague—what does matter is the reconnection of people. The way we learn to continue existing.
These characters have lost their families, friends, homes and stability. In that loss there is a chance for redemption.
We love watching Daryl, Rick and Co. slaughter zombies on The Walking Dead, but the show is so much more than that. The execution of the shambling dead is more cathartic than anything on the show. You spend the majority of an episode drenched in the drama of surviving that the outlet for that tension has to be stabbing zombie brains.
What engages us as viewers and readers is the opportunity to see humanity survive. The possibility that these people had a chance to start over and be something new, someone else, someone braver.
It’s true, things do seem crazy. Opportunities for hysteria abound. Solar flares could wipe our electrical grid! The Ukraine lost track of its nukes! Fiscal cliffs! Dirty bombs! Swine flu! Horse burgers! Gangnam Style ringtones! It’s all one big house of cards. Then again, things always seem crazy. Are we currently more afraid than normal? Hard to say, but maybe what we are is just frustrated. (I read an article today in which a researcher speculates that the popularity of zombies correlates to society’s unhappiness.) I think often what apocalyptic stories really offer are visions of a simpler world. These climate-ravaged wastelands, these zombie-bloated cities, they can be frightening, yes, but they also appeal to our fantasies of a less crowded planet, of obvious priorities, of life-and-death problems whose solutions are clear-cut and demand heroism. The apocalypse is fundamentally reductive. When we’re on our way to the store after work, and we’ve forgotten our list and the car’s making a funny noise, and we remember that the cat’s still at the vet and the credit card company keeps calling…who in those moments doesn’t want to pull the ripcord? Who doesn’t want a world where they could reboot themselves as a shotgun-wielding badass? These stories tap into our desires. They give us a taste of freedom from the tedium and ambiguity everyday life. They let us fantasize of taking decisive action based on moral clarity (fantasies some people even merge with their daily realities). Do I want to go to work and deal with cloudy office politics all day while I stare at a computer screen? Or would I rather brain some goddamn zombies? No, I don’t think we’re afraid the end is nigh. Sometimes, we really just want it to be.
The popularity of post-apocalyptic stories seems to be cyclical – about every 30-40 years or so there’s a resurgence of the sub-genre which roughly matches up with a new generation of readers and writers. Post-apocalyptic fiction gives us the opportunity to experience the horror of survival from the safety of our armchairs and to explore a world without a supermarket down the road whilst we’re safe in our centrally-heated homes. I think deep down we all know that this civilised life is just a thin veneer over our animal instincts and that the system providing easily available food and warmth is actually horribly fragile. It enables us to explore how far we would go to protect ourselves and our families, to consider what we would fight for and try to keep from our current lives should everything fall apart. I also think we’re attracted to the daily struggle for survival as something a world away from hum-drum jobs and emotional flat-lining.
In terms of why we keep writing these stories, I wonder if it’s a way to purge fears that each generation of writers suffers. Whether it’s living through a world war or lying in bed as a child, unable to sleep for fear of having a nuclear bomb dropped on the village down the road, it all bubbles up in our writing, eventually. The end of the world scenario is also the ideal crucible in which to throw characters together and watch how they cope and what they turn into. We can examine the very worst and very best of humanity in that plague-ridden world or nuclear winter wasteland, inviting the reader to explore the best and worst of themselves at the same time.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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