We're in the middle of a huge boom in post-apocalyptic storytelling, including some of the most acclaimed novels and some of the biggest media properties. Will the apocalypse ever stop? What could replace it? Here's one idea: Instead of the apocalypse, maybe we can start writing about colonizing other worlds, which is much the same experience.
Top image: jfliesenborghs/Deviant Art
Creators say that they want to write about life after an apocalypse, partly to see what happens to people when all of the trappings of civilization, and all our amazing comforts, are stripped away. A post-apocalyptic world contains the remnants of our post-industrial grandeur, and all of the cultural references still apply, but in a lot of ways it's like a world that's gone backwards in time, into a less civilized age.
At a certain point, though, all post-apocalyptic stories share a few characteristics in common, whether the end came from a plague or zombies or a natural disaster. There's a certain grimness, and a sad resignation that we were doomed to fall apart one way or the other.
The good news is, a story of colonizing another world can include pretty much all of the stuff that you'll find in a post-apocalyptic story: 1) People who began in "our" near future, or their descendants, are finding themselves in a barren, inhospitable world. 2) Maybe there's some advanced technology that came from Earth, but spare parts are going to be hard to come by, and when things break they're gone for good. 3) The advanced, prosperous life on Earth is just a memory, and instead, the colonists are going to have to rough it. 4) Terraforming a new planet, the hard way, is probably going to have a lot in common with reclaiming Earth after a major disaster. 5) Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and all of the cozy assumptions people made on Earth will get tossed out and trampled on.
Already, we've seen lots of stories about people leaving Earth after some kind of apocalypse or environmental collapse — most recently, Interstellar showed intergalactic exploration as a response to a blight and famine on Earth.
But chances are, even if Earth itself remains relatively happy and life-sustaining, people will still wind up trying to colonize other planets. And even if we manage to reach an "Earthlike" planet with liquid water and a somewhat breathable atmosphere, life on a new planet is probably going to be incredibly hard for the first few generations of colonists. Quite possibly harder than life on Earth after a plague or global holocaust — no matter what kind of technology you assume these colonists have brought with them.
Scientists are already saying that science fiction (and fiction generally) hasn't kept up with the massive pace of discovery of exoplanets recently.
Sure, the main added challenge of an exoplanet colonization story is coming up with a plausible alien world that's not just a clone of Earth. But that's probably not that much harder, in some ways, than imagining Earth after a nanotech apocalypse or a drastic change to our ecosystem. And with so much variety of worlds out there, creating a plausible alien world, or even a believable alien ecosystem, might not be that hard.
So for my money, the story of colonizing and terraforming a new planet, like Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books or a few others, could be a new way to explore a lot of the same ideas that authors say they're getting at in post-apocalyptic stories. Only, without quite the same feeling that humans are completely doomed to self-destruct.