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13 Post-Apocalyptic Stories That Actually Teach Valuable Lessons

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A lot of post-apocalyptic tales look really awesome with their explosions and rotting monsters, but they don't have a lot of philosophical depth. Here are 13 stories about armageddon that actually teach valuable lessons about the real world — and its demise.

What's interesting about some of these stories is that they are about anticipating a post-apocalyptic world, or moving through many stages of apocalypse — perhaps it's the long view in them that allows their creators to pull lessons out of an apocalyptic scenario.


1. Dollhouse, "Epitaph"

There is something very valuable about the idea of “birthmarks” found in the two-part series ender “Epitaph.” Birthmarks are a tattoo of a person’s real name, on his or her back, so that people can distinguish between people still in their own bodies and people who have been imprinted. Priya, who had been the doll Sierra, came up with the idea: “So I’ll always know who I am. If I wake up thinking I’m someone else, I’ll have to face up to that hideous lie.” There are two great lessons in the birthmark: no matter what, know who you are; and make sure other people know it, too.


2. Logan’s Run

The ending teaches a lesson that we really shouldn’t forget: Garbage in, garbage out. Computers aren’t infallible, no matter how appealing it may be to let a supercomputer run our whole world, we need to make sure that they’re making determinations based on truth. In Logan’s Run, no one bothered to check to see if the planet was still uninhabitable, just let the computer run their lives based on that assumption.

3. Waterworld

Yes this movie was a trainwreck. But it actually offered a few interesting ideas to mull over, including ones about how humanity might evolve to deal with a world that has been transformed by global warming into a giant ocean. We learn that humans should embrace helpful mutations, like gills, that will help you survive the changed world. Also, don't be afraid to drink your own pee.


4. The Postman

Both the movie and the book teach that symbols are important, and that rebuilding infrastructure and lines of communication are the first steps to rebuilding society. The book focuses more on how people will cling to normalcy to survive and how extreme views embodied by the Holdnists, a group of hyper survivalists, can derail and actively work against rebuilding. Most of all, the story teach us that the true heroes of the post-apocalypse are the humans who fight to help disconnected groups stay in touch with each other.


5. Mass Effect

This is one of those stories that is about planning ahead for the future post-apocalypse. The main lesson is: Always leave a detailed plan for future cycles. You might not be able to survive personally, but you can give hope to the future. It was only by building on the work of previously harvested civilizations that the Crucible could be built and the cycles of galactic annihilation could end.


6. Foundation Trilogy

Like Mass Effect, the original Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov deals with storing up knowledge for future civilizations that will rise from the ashes of a dark age or apocalypse. When the mathematician Hari Seldon discovers that galactic civilization is headed for a 30 thousand-year dark age, he also discovers that if he can build storehouses of knowledge that these dark ages will only last for a thousand years. The books deal with his efforts to build two Foundations, at either side of the galaxy, and the struggle to create a new Galactic Empire after the first has fallen — just as Seldon predicted.


7. Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin

Le Guin's novel is a direct retort to Foundation. Instead of preserving the old civilization in vast storehouses, this book advocates throwing out the old civilization and starting over fresh with new ideas that won’t lead to a repeat of past mistakes. This book’s particular new civilization on a an idyllic, primitive matriarchy. Perhaps a little to Utopian for reality, but it does make a case for not repeating history.


8. Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon

In this classic novel from 1930, Stapledon explores the long future of humanity, which punctuated by many apocalypses and returns from the brink of destruction. Though humanity does continue on, evolving into dramatically different creatures and colonizing the solar system, we don't seem to learn much from our mistakes. Ultimately the sun grows dimmer and humanity faces its demise after dozens of cycles of savagery and civilization. Perhaps it is our fate to never quite get out of the cycle of destruction and rebirth.


9. Canticle for Lebowitz, by Walter Miller, Jr.

An even darker (and less whimsical) version of Last and First Men can be found in this horrifically depressing novel, where humanity is doomed to repeat its mistakes and obliterate itself in war over and over again. There is no hope for us to really evolve beyond where we are now — human civilization is always rising only to strangle itself.


10. Star Trek: First Contact

Leave it to Star Trek to bring back hope out of the post-apocalypse. Even though humanity does go through a dark age in the Star Trek timeline, we finally get a close look at how we pull ourselves out of it in this film. Humans continue to innovate technology in the rubble, despite the witchhunts and hunger and collapse of government. And at last, one man with a vision invents warp drive. That's when the Vulcans arrive and invite humans into a partnership that eventually becomes the Federation. So scientific innovations will save us and lead us forward into a better future, despite our best efforts to sabotage ourselves.


11. The Hunger Games books

There are a number of possible messages to take away from The Hunger Games books. The series, for all its faults, an excellent primer on media manipulation. But what it does, especially in the third book, is remind us that manipulation is not the sole province of one side or the other. Katniss’s allies in the fight against President Snow and the Capital are just as, if not more, willing to use her as a symbol.


12. The Newsflesh Trilogy, by Mira Grant

When the zombie pandemic comes, the only news outlets that report on it truthfully are blogs and social media. This is a simple lesson, but effective. If you want to know what's really going on in the world, don't trust the mainstream media.


13. Zombieland

The movie features 49 rules, including the famous "cardio" and "double tap." These are of course very useful in almost every circumstance.