Apocalyptic and Dystopic scenarios are immensely popular, ranging from stories of the Zombie Apocalypse, Alien Invasion, Superflu, Environmental Disaster, or the quite popular “Unexplained.” We asked this week’s panelists:
It’s all too easy in this day and age to imagine our own collective hubris resulting in a barely habitable world or a society that lives in ignorance of the concept of, say, privacy. We brought ourselves to the brink with nuclear weapons, the threat of global pandemic disease, and now the very climate itself is going wrong so slowly that we can all comfortably sit around and debate whether or not it is happening at all. I’m of a generation that grew up living with the concept of the end of our civilization. And the kids today will (probably) grow up in a world where mass surveillance is the norm – not that it matters when we all happily give away our privacy for free shiny things.
Fiction doesn’t often give society enough credit for its ability to recognize such problems early on and thus steer clear of them. Nor do I think fiction should. Fiction that explores dire consequences is, if not responsible for, at least significantly contributing to the zeitgeist that helps push our cultural rudder in the right direction.
So from a pure spreading-awareness standpoint, I love dystopian and apocalyptic fiction, especially those based on scenarios that we caused ourselves. It’s a chance to examine the future ramifications of our actions through fiction, without the awkward uncomfortableness of looking directly at oneself in the mirror. And in this sense I greatly enjoy stories where these scenarios are plausible, if not downright chillingly realistic. Alas, Babylon comes to mind immediately, but there are plenty of others that fall into this category.
At the same time though I really love a good unforeseen, even impossible, cataclysmic event. I’m biased, as my own “DIRE EARTH” books fall into this category. To me it’s endlessly fun (in a morbid kinda way) to throw our entire species into some truly bizarre and unexpected scenario and see how we react. SPIN by Robert Charles Wilson, while not exactly apocalyptic, is a great example. From the dystopian side, there are similar examples of plausible, but certainly not probable, scenarios. Books like Ready Player One, Battle Royale, and The Unincorporated Man come to mind. While none of these are completely unground from the realm of possibility, the feature scenarios concocted to fit the story the author wants to tell. I see no reason to fault these authors for a lack of realism (a standard held too hard against the genre, in my opinion).
I like apocalypses. I write apocalypses. And dystopias. They’re some of my favorite things. Which means that I have a lot of favorites. I should be a Lovecraft fan, probably, but I’ve bounced off of the whole thing. Still, I love that vast, looming horror overshadowing the tiny, inconsequential human thing. What I like even more is when that tiny, inconsequential human thing fights back, but best of all, I like it when the world adapts to its new reality.
Pacific Rim – I can’t think of anything much more apocalyptic than giant monsters running out of the ocean to chomp on cities for breakfast. Pacific Rim has a sense of scale and grandeur that a lot of post-apoc stuff is missing, and society is working the apocalypse into its own fabric. The world-building and detail-focus is fantastic, and it’s great to see a genuinely deadly setting that pays equal attention to the people and evolution of culture that would accompany such events, while demonstrating just how true the phrase “Life goes on” really is.
Pan’s Labyrinth -Yeah yeah, I like del Toro films. Pan’s Labyrinth is set in a brutally dystopic Spain that also happens to be pretty much historical. Creepy, beautiful, horrifically depressing, and one of my favorite fairytales…but I’ve only watched the movie twice, even though I own it in both digital and physical copy. It’s just too heartbreaking.
Greg van Eekhout’s “California Bones” series – Post-apocalyptic, dystopian, water wars, fossils, a corrupt Walt Disney, all sorts of amazing stuff. It’s a rollicking, fun, but dark read, and it’s thoroughly unique. It’s a Venetian sort of California, ridden with stress fractures, wars, political issues, and one very exciting heist.
Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water – This is a new and beautiful Scandinavian fantasy from Finnish author Emmi Itäranta. If you’re a tea person, you’ll love this, it plays a big part in the story! The main character is a smart, kick-ass woman fighting back against a dystopic enemy, while an apocalypse hangs over them.
Fun fact: Emmi wrote the novel in two languages simultaneously, not translating or copying, but writing two separate drafts in two languages. That’s dedication!
The Guilded Earlobe is an audiobook blog run by acclaimed recluse and story consumer Bob Reiss. Years ago he was shocked to learn there was no audiobook blog covering important issues like zombie uprisings, robot attacks, explosions and heartfelt mutigenerational love stories between uprising robots and attacking zombies. The Guilded Earlobe attempts to fill this niche with quality reviews, narrator and author interviews, special features and explosions. He tweet erratically as @guildedearlobe.
Asking me to choose just one Apocalypse is like asking a parent to tell you which of their kids is their favorite. I mean, I love them all. From aliens to zombies, the plethora of ways out world can end offers a smorgasbord of delights for those twisted souls that can’t get enough of the end of the world. 2014 was a great year for apocalyptic novels, from the beautifully written literary plague novel, Station Eleven, to Defenders, Will McIntosh’s homage to pulp alien Invasion novel writers are proving that there is still plenty of space to explore in global devastation.
I decided that for this Mind Meld, I would choose not one of the big main categories, which I have explored on my blog but instead I would talk about the Slow Burn Apocalypse. Most Apocalyptic novels have one big event, the rise of the undead, nuclear war, comet strikes, that are responsible for the end of the world. Yet more and more it seems that when the end does come, it will be a combination of economic breakdown, biomedical experimentation, Jenny McCarthy, global climate change and political unrest, with multiple other causes thrown in for flavor. These novels deal with a more gradual breakdown of civilized society, where the main culprit is the failings of humanity.
Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is a lush tale of a missionary who brings the gospel of Jesus to strange alien species on a far distant planet. It’s touching and emotional, and down-right frightening. Interspersed between the narrative is the main character Peter’s communications with his wife Bea, who he left behind on a Earth that is slowly breaking down. Bea’s reports from earth are disturbing in their believability. From civil unrest to economic breakdown, Bea’s Earth is a reflection of the path we could be heading down.
If you like your Apocalypse with a touch of Bollywood, Hindu gods and donkey slapping, then Manil Suri’s The City of Devi is the book for you. One of the funniest, and most uncomfortable reading experiences I have encountered, it tells the tale of a homosexual man searching through Post Apocalyptic India for his estranged wife.
Math fans, rejoice, there is an apocalyptic vision for you! Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Wish is a funny yet thoughtful look at a young mathematician who is hired to predict disasters, and finds that the perfect storm of social, environmental and economic issues may be leading to something just a bit bigger.
Wil McIntosh is quickly becoming a one of my favorite authors, and his novel Slow Apocalypse may be the quintessential Slow Burn Apocalypse novel. On top of economic and sociopolitical causes, McIntosh’s Apocalyptic tale includes bio-genetics run amok.
The iron of Ben Winter’s “The Last Policeman” trilogy is that it’s a asteroid impact novel, where the actual asteroid strike isn’t the cause of the apocalypse, but it’s the anticipation of the event that destroys the world. Ben Winter takes a look at what out society would be when we lose our future. Mass Suicide, crime without consequence, and loss hope are only part of the menagerie of disasters that befalls Winter’s world.
Finally, George Turner’s classic Australian dystopian novel, Drowning Towers, takes a look at Australia pre and post apocalypse as ecological and economic factors lead to class warfare. Interestingly, the novel looks at Earth from a future perspective of a humanity on the verge of a new Ice Age lamenting us “Greenhouse” people’s steps to avoid economic collapse.
Turner’s novel highlights one of the interesting aspects of the Slow Burn Apocalypse. Will our efforts to alleviate one type of apocalypse, open the door to something even worse?
James Knapp was born in New Hampshire in 1970, and has lived in the New England area since that time. He developed a love of reading and writing early on, participating in young author competitions as early as grade school, but the later discovery of works by Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov turned that love to an obsession.
He wrote continuously through high school, college and beyond, eventually breaking into the field with the publication of the “Revivors” Trilogy (State of Decay, The Silent Army, and Element Zero). State of Decay was a Philip K. Dick award nominee, and won the 2010 Compton Crook Award. He has also written two novels under the name James K. Decker (The Burn Zone and its followup Fallout, as well as a prequel novella titled Ember). He now lives in MA with his wife Kim.
Natural Causes – I don’t think it’s an actual term, but one of my favorite post-apocalyptic scenarios is what I think of as planetary collapse due to natural causes…this can mean environmental changes or asteroid impact, but generally I mean worlds which collapsed for no one specific reason. Maybe our society just got too large, or maybe the dynamics of it shifted such that it morphed into an urban hellscape. I went to college in Bridgeport Connecticut and one of the first things I saw on my way to move into my dorm was a man who may or may not have been homeless severely beating another man under a graffiti-scrawled bridge just off campus. The campus was reasonably safe (though a student had been shot there, I learned, the previous year) but I got to see other parts of the city that absolutely weren’t. A friend of mine and I worked in a restaurant back then and one night we gave a ride home to the dishwasher, a very nice man named Francois who’d come over from Haiti. The place that he took us to was, at that time, completely outside my experience – the homes looked condemned, with plastic sheeting and makeshift plywood repairs. I saw people standing around trashcans with fires burning in them, something I never expected to see in ‘real life’. I realized then that America is absolutely not the same for everybody who lives in it, and as I got older I would come to understand that there are far worse places than that even all over the country and all over the world. I lived in that area for a total of six years and my experiences there left me wondering what America would be like if our society just failed, or degraded to the point where most of it was like the part of town where we dropped off Francois. It’s another scenario that feels a little too plausible for comfort. Collapsed (or very degraded worlds) feature in some of my old favorites such as Asimov’s “Foundation” series, as well as Octavia Butler’s “Mind of my Mind” and “Parable of the Sower”.
Disease – Disease packs the one-two punch of being both terrifying and plausible, which I imagine is why it is used so often and to such great effect. There’s historical precedent for it, and I think for a lot of us the possibility of another major plague lingers in the backs of our minds. One of the most frightening things about this scenario is the fact that there isn’t much you can do about it – there are precautions you can take, but disease is indiscriminant and kills people of all races, creeds, classes, ages, and genders. Immunity is a genetic lottery you may get lucky enough to win, but being around after the fact might be even worse. Some of my favorites include Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (freaked me the hell out as a kid), and Frank Herbert’s The White Plague (which, okay, does only affect one gender – though in the long run both).
Nukes – Okay, I was a child of the 80’s. Nuclear apocalypse became a genre in and of itself, but back then ‘the big one’ was something that felt like it could actually happen at any moment. As time went by and it didn’t happen, I fell in love with Mad Max type stories in part because like the previous entries this one still had (and has) the air of plausibility – there are still tons of nukes out there, and it wouldn’t even take all of them to bring about a major collapse. Wandering the post-apocalyptic wasteland with nothing but a sawed-off shotgun and your trusty dog became a staple in entertainment that I still love, and nuclear devastation factors into one of my favorite SF series “Xenogenesis” by Octavia Butler, an old favorite I read back in high school called Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon, and a slick little short story by Philip K Dick called “Second Variety.”
Hubris – Sometimes it isn’t a plague, or nuclear fire, or even society buckling under its own weight…sometimes the end is brought about by good old-fashioned hubris. These are scenarios where the human elite take us down a path that is meant to improve our lives, but instead ends up making things far, far worse. These are usually accompanied by a Snowpiercer style ‘whoops’ moment where science is meant to solve a problem (in that case global warming) and instead creates a larger one (freezing the whole damned planet solid). Some of my favorite scenarios come out of these types of stories – being turned upon by our own machines as is the case in Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse, genetic engineering gone awry as in the “Beggars” series by Nancy Kress, or even just a group of madmen opting for a ‘better’ way of life like you see in the delightfully sick Hellstrom’s Hive by Frank Herbert.
There is a power to stories about the end of the world. A cleaning of the plate, a shakeup in the batting order of life, a chance to rebuild in the ruins of the wreckage that one finds themselves in. “This time, we’ll build it better.” Or to set things right before the end hits or the final end comes. Or to find the world anew in the ruins of the old, even.
I find myself torn between two classic scenarios. So I will tell you about both.
The first is far from a depreciated one even if there isn’t a cold war in this day and age: global thermonuclear war. The kind of world war that knocks over every government, or at least the government in the vicinity, and the survivors have to try and build all over again.
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller, still holds up as an episodic look at civilization, in the form of a monastery, trying hard to build the world up again piece by piece after nuclear war has wrecked civilization but good. That episode, in turn, is an inspiration for a segment of Babylon 5, “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars” in which we see the future of the world after the show, and the episode shows us what precipitates the war, and a monastery several hundred years later slowly bringing back things to right.
Nevil Shute’s On the Beach is an emotional punch to the gut. “Carry on and wait for the end of the world” is a damn hard thing to do, but by gum, the Australians remaining as the belt of inescapably fatal radioactive dust marches toward them do just that.
It’s a highly divergent adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s original story (and word is the author himself hated it with a passion) but the movie version of Damnation Alley is something that has stuck with me. I mean, Airwolf‘s pilot and Hannibal Smith team up to cross the country, fighting mutants, killer cockroaches and more to get to…Albany in highly armored APCs. Landmaster Two, pick me up when you cross the plains, would you?
The other apocalypse by external cosmic event. Man’s not at fault here, things just went down that we couldn’t handle, and now the world has to suffer the consequences.
When Worlds Collide (both book and movie). and its book-only sequel After Worlds Collide, by Edwin Balmer hit right into the cosmic event jackpot. Two planets hurtle into the solarsystem, one destined to strike Earth, and the other join the solar system family. Cue a race to get a portion of humanity off of the planet and onto Branson Beta before the end. The sequel is a survival story, as those who have made it onto Bronson Beta try and survive a planet somewhat less hospitable than Earth…and previously populated, as well.
S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire/ “Emberverse” novels feature a rather specific and strange apocalypse. Aliens change the laws of physics around the Earth, so that most high technology, and firearms to boot, no longer function. In the midst of a lot of humanity dying as a result of the destruction of modern civilization, the story of the survivors and the worlds they and their descendants make for themselves are compelling.
Thundarr the Barbarian was one of my favorite cartoons, back in my youth. A cosmic event wrecks the moon and half destroys the Earth, causing it to fall into an age of science sorcery and quasi magic. Demon Dogs, I loved Thundarr’s crazy adventures with aliens, wizards, mad scientists, monsters and much more, traveling across a wrecked United States, two thousand years after the disaster.
Either way, by Nuclear War or by cosmic chance, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.
I’m kind of like the Gillette guy in those old razor commercials: I love dystopian and/or post-apocalypse stuff so much I started writing it. I think the first one I ever read was Zelazny’s Damnation Alley. I’d seen to the movie with my dad, who read a great deal of sf, and we both walked out of it kind of disappointed with the whole thing except for the Landmaster. My dad praised the book, and despite the movie rather than because of it I sat down and read the short novel. It was fantastic: a fast-paced blend of road war machinery, monsters out of the 50s “big bug” craze, bike gangs, and a landscape that dumps debris on you from garbage-filled skies. And Hell Tanner was a perfect alter-ego for an eleven-year-old inching into teenage rebelliousness. I started reading other apocalyptic novels at that point, and pretty soon I was coming up with my own scenarios for tabletop role-playing games. Tearing up the world and rebuilding it from various chunks like a huge Lego set can be grim fun. I also enjoyed (and still do) the minutiae of Robinson Crusoe-like survival stories, as you get in the daily routines of the hero in a story like I Am Legend.
Now, some forty years later, I’ve found new favorites. Perhaps it’s aging and thoughts of my own mortality, but lately I’ve been into apocalyptic stories where humanity is facing the final period of the final sentence in the final chapter of our existence. The classic of this genre, and my favorite, is Neville Shute’s On The Beach. It is about as different from Damnation Alley as a Jane Austen novel. There’s no action worth speaking of save for the last running of the Australian Grand Prix, just people going about their daily affairs as radiation from a cobalt-bomb war in the Northern Hemisphere creeps south. Everyone knows when their life is going to end, give or take a few days. The question is what to do with the final months, then weeks, then days, and at last hours and minutes until their end, either from radiation sickness or a suicide pill handed out by the government in the final days.
Another favorite along these lines is King’s Bachman book, The Long Walk. It is a beautifully distressing novel that spins out a simple, could-be-written-on-the-back-of-a-matchbook idea over a couple hundred riveting pages: a group of teenagers are participating in a contest where they walk at a prescribed speed until there is only one left. The rest are shot by troops accompanying them, when they fall off-pace or succumb to exhaustion or injury. The winner gets whatever he wants for the rest of his life from the implicitly fascist government. Like On the Beach, all the characters you get to know are doomed, it’s only a question of when and how. Both stories are wonderful cures, as a perspective fix, for one’s own troubles.
Swan Song by Robert McCammon: I read this when I was very young, and remember thinking (as I did with Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort) that I had no idea books could be LIKE THIS. Of course, this one explores the post nuclear scenario, which usually scares the sh*t out of everyone (it definitely scared the bejaysus out of my 14 year old self.) It’s such a classic, just a phenomenal book. You’ll feel all the feels, then you’ll want to read it again right away. It’s just that kind of book.
Coldbrook by Tim Lebbon: This one explores zombies, but in quite a different way. It begins right at the start of the outbreak and also heads into multiverse territory. You can read my SF Signal review here.
The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell: More zombie goodness, but with a very unusual heroine, pursued by more than just zombies. A disturbing gem.
White Horse by Alex Adams: This one deals with the aftermath of a terrible plague and is nightmarish and hopeful at the same time. It blew me away Still waiting on Red Horse…
Outpost by Adam Baker: This one also deals with plague, but takes place mostly in an oil rig in the Arctic Circle. The crew discovers that plague has decimated the world, and if they think they’re safe, they’re in for a very rude awakening. Fantastic, claustrophobic, terrifying stuff.
Gosh, I’m all over the map, aren’t I? So, I guess I’m a gourmand when it comes to scenarios of the post-apocalyptic sort, and I’m not ashamed to say I still love zombies. Nope, not even a bit.
I spend the bulk of my creative life in an apocalyptic dystopia, and I could not be happier. The universe of Warhammer 40,000 is one where the human experience is limited to a monstrous regime whose only alternative is the end of everything. There is no heroic rebellion possible, not even a doomed Winston Smith. It’s a horrific place to visit and I absolutely love living there. There is nothing surprising (to me) about this: dystopias and ends of the world have fascinated me since elementary school.
I’ve always been drawn to the apocalyptic, and the stories I encountered in turn had a formative influence on my imagination. Many of the early doomsday scenarios that haunted me delightfully were actually risible “non-fiction” – movies like The Late Great Planet Earth (narrated by a most unfortunate Orson Welles) or, even earlier, theories like John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann’s The Jupiter Effect. I was seven when I first read about what amounted to a Jupiter-led cabal of planets aligning to take out Los Angeles. Exactly the right age, I submit, to consume that nonsense.
When it comes to fiction, I again have a deep fondness for the early examples – those movies and books that wound up being very important to my developing imagination. So a beloved early dystopia for me is in the 1976 film version of Logan’s Run. Showing the movie to anyone who wasn’t a kid when it came out is, as I know from painful experience, likely to lead to scoffing at the shopping-mall production design. But my encounter with the City of Domes and the cremation-at-thirty spectacle of Carousel marked me, and I would revisit that location in my imagination for years. I suspect the excitement I felt in this destructible dystopia is not that far removed from that enjoyed by readers and viewers of The Hunger Games today. It’s nasty and brutish, but it looks cool, and it goes out with a big bang.
My first alien invasion in both print and film was H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The experience of apocalypse in the novel and the 1953 movie are different – the former is more personal, the latter more interested in giving us the full panorama of destruction – but both are vivid evocations of the utter collapse of the familiar.
In adulthood, two dooms to which I return again and again are Last Night and The Day the Earth Caught Fire. The first, released the same year as Deep Impact and Armageddon, is a quirky bittersweet comedy, and has been described as the quintessentially Canadian apocalypse. Why the world is ending is never explained, nor why it is coming at precisely midnight Eastern Time, nor why the only visible symptom is the absence of night. There is no stopping what is coming, so our ensemble of characters move through their last six hours in ways touching, humorous and heartbreaking (sometimes all at once). And as funny as the film undoubtedly is, its sense of a countdown to execution is powerful indeed.
Meanwhile, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, from 1961, has a preposterous premise – simultaneous nuclear blasts knock the Earth toward the sun – but its delivery is utterly convincing, due in no small part to its being one of the most accurate portrayals of newspaper life in cinema (a number of the roles are played by actual journalists). And the dialogue is endlessly quotable, with the sort of snap one associates with great films noirs.
Even as I write these words, I feel the urge to watch or read it all go to smash once more.
Melancholia is a new favourite, and I’m eager to see what catastrophes and nightmares are proposed by the other contributors. I can’t get enough of the end.