Seven Things I Love About Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

I love post-apocalyptic fiction. Especially when the apocalypse is recent. Let me count the ways:

1. Post-Apocalyptic Bloomer. When I was a kid, I learned cartography. And I was damned good at it. I could give directions on the fly using paper maps for just about anyone, fast enough for the driver to make the turns, changing my style based on the person for whom I was navigating. And then, cell phones happened. And I haven’t need to navigate since. It is a dead skill! Something that made me very useful for a few years, that now, no one needs. Fortunately, it is a small skill, and not the end all-be-all of my usefulness. I’m not entirely obsolete. Not yet, anyway.

But it made me think. As we’ve progressed as a society, the skills that help a person thrive have changed. I’ve heard so many people say they were born too late or too early, because their greatest talent is something that, for whatever reason, isn’t useful today, but would have totally paid off in another century. In the post-apocalyptic world, however, the tables would turn. After all, how rare would it be, to be perfectly adapted for both today’s modern, technologically advanced society, as well as a post-tech, post-apocalyptic world?

To a certain extent, this would affect everyone. Lives would be divided into before and after. Skills that are no longer useful would have to be unlearned and replaced with new ones. And everyone would have to come to terms with how much their sense of self depended on context, rather than something intrinsic to themselves.

But how tragic would it be, to have a life where you are useful, where you are good at things, replaced with a world for which you are woefully unprepared—or tolerated, but for something completely out-of-sync with your identity? On the other hand, what about those who really only come into their own after the apocalypse? How do they fit in the modern world (if they do at all)? It’s fascinating to me to think about what gifts these people might have, what their lives were like before, and what it would be like to discover who you are only after the world burns.

2. The Motivations of the Post-Apocalyptic Bloomer. This rearranging of identities and societal value would doubtless affect the social pecking order. People who would never become friends, enemies, or frenemies today would find themselves so in the apocalypse. The golden child of the family might find they lose their seat to the black sheep. And someone on the ass-end of society today might be a leader in the post-apocalyptic tomorrow. Their lives–and living situations–might even improve.

But what if the apocalypse were fixable. If you were a post-apocalyptic bloomer, if your life and circumstances improved post-apocalypse, how badly would you want the world to go back to the way it was? At first, sure, but what about once you built a life for yourself, fell in love, became dependent on your new social status? Would you worry that it would all disappear along with the apocalypse? Would you just hope that the world would remember, that your lover would still love you, and that you would be valued despite no longer being needed?

The fundamental follow-up question to “who blossoms in the apocalypse” is who would work to fix it, despite the personal cost, and what is their motivation. The greater good? A sense of justice? Romantic love (despite the risk of its subsequent loss)? Kids (and a wish for a better world for them)? And who would lose their nerve?

3. Survival vs Living. You hear all the time how people are angry that someone struggling to survive has a nice cell phone, or ate a nice piece of fish, when that money would—in their eyes—clearly better be used toward survival. By such reasoning, in the apocalypse, everyone should be focused solely on survival. Right?

But survival is not just about the body—it’s also about the soul. And if you focus solely on the survival of the body—living in a constant state of fight-or-flight, never buying that bottle of wine you crave instead of peanut butter, never flirting with that cute someone when you should be studying/working/something, never allowing yourself a moment of technically illogical pleasure—if you’re always focused on that getting that protein and water, it’s hard to enjoy life. So I guess the question is: how long can you go without, in hopes of a future where you don’t have to? And when is it no longer worth it?

A complex question today. And the apocalypse puts a certain unmistakable emphasis on survival, by reducing the possibility of that future where you don’t have to go without. So, in that case, when your life circumstances are unlikely to change, how much is survival worth? What nonessential risks are worth it?  What’s the balance between survival of the body and survival of the soul?

4. MacGyverisms. This is super silly and super personal. But I really love it when characters are clever and use their environment in innovative ways to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles. Remember when you were a kid? And you made all kinds of cool stuff out of foil and wax string and paperclips? Like a paper-towel-tube periscope, or a compass made from the sweat of your nose, a needle, and a bit of water? This is the time for them!

But hell, even supposing you weren’t blessed with a childhood full of delightful, post-apocalyptic crafts, what about that time you needed a screwdriver, but couldn’t find one, and so ended up using a nickel? That was so fucking badass. And that counts. Because for me, it’s all about that moment, where suddenly something that was just (in this case) money, good for buying things (and not much, at that), is suddenly something more. It’s suddenly the clever answer to your problem.

The apocalypse is a time when the meaning and use of everything is changing. It allows and demands that you look past the symbols you have for things and instead see them for what they really are. The box that is our world is breaking open, and those who think outside that box—those who aren’t trapped by what was and instead see what could be—are the ones who will survive.

5. Seeing the Past. Before a certain age—nine or so, an artist once told me—we draw what we really see. But then, as we get older, we start to codify the world in our heads, and see the world in terms of symbols. A nose looks like this. A mouth like that. The sky is blue, the grass is green. And instead of we draw those symbols. One of the things artists do, I’m told, is teach themselves how to really see again.

I imagine in an apocalypse, you can do nothing BUT see. Because nothing would be what you expected—nothing would fit your symbols. But the symbols would still be there—like ghosts, overlaying reality, reminding you of what came before. The rusty squeak of dead-eyed streetlights. The snapping of the tattered US flag against its pole. The empty husks of cars clustered around a Shell station, like army ants paused in the frenzy of assault.

These everyday things, so mundane in the pre-apocalyptic world that we wouldn’t even notice them, are physical representations of the past—a story so present we can’t help but see it. But to survive the apocalypse, we have to be able to adapt—we have to see not only what things were and are, but what they could be. And that liminal space—that state of seeing what things were and what they are at the same time, and that transition to seeing what they could be… Is fascinating.

6. Scope. Apocalyptic stories have this crazy breadth of scope going on. On the one hand, world-shaking things are afoot, and we’re dying to know what really happened, what’s still happening, and how society could possibly recover. These are issues of enormous scope, and require characters with a certain amount of vision to really encompass.

At the same time, the apocalypse is super personal and traumatic, and fundamentally inseparable from feelings of fight-or-flight, anxiety, and depression. It is, in many ways, a metaphor for our own personal apocalypses. And as anyone who has experienced one of those knows, they narrow your focus to a pinprick.

Which means that just when it’s most important for people to widen their scope farther than they ever have before, every instinct is crying out that all that matters is what’s right in front of them. So we get this epic, sweeping story, but also these incredibly tight, intimate, sensory experiences—like a telescopic lens that’s constantly shifting from macro to landscape. And the picture we get between them gives depth and realism to the epic, and meaning and context to the personal.

7. Stakes. Ditto with the stakes. On the one hand, the world is ending and humanity might go extinct and/or be irreparably changed. On the other hand, you don’t have much, and the loss or threatened loss of any one thing—your only pair of fuzzy socks, your favorite (now irreplaceable) book, a lone truffle, a strong relationship with your sister—is huge and world-shaking in an entirely different sense.

And there you have it! Seven things I love about post-apocalyptic fiction. There are more, I’m sure, but seven is a good number. Hope you enjoyed!

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