Most major religions, going back thousands of years, tell stories about the End of the World. And post-apocalyptic fiction is perennially popular. So why, in the last twenty years, has the apocalypse ceased to matter?
I recently finished a thesis project on post-apocalyptic genre fiction, and in my research I made a list of 423 books, poems, and short stories about the apocalypse, published between 1826-2007, and charted them by the way their earth met its demise (humans, nature, god, etc.) to see the trends over time.
It's not the idea of Ending itself that has faded – that will be around until we are actually mopped off the face of the Earth. It's the actual moment of disaster, the blood and guts and fire, that has been losing ground in stories of the End. Post-apocalyptic fiction is a 200-year-old trend, and for 170 of those years, the ways writers imagined the end were pretty transparently a reflection of whatever was going on around them – nuclear war, environmental concerns, etc. In the mid-1990s, though, everything just turned into a big muddle. Suddenly, we'd get a post-apocalyptic world whose demise was never explained. It was just a big question mark.
That was the idea behind this chart – I wanted to see if there were patterns in how writers saw the monster. As it turned out, the patterns were clearer than I imagined. Nuclear holocaust was really popular after 1945; that's to be expected. But the precipitous and permanent drop in nuclear war's popularity after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 (see chart)? That surprised me.
Predictably, the human-made apocalypse is a perennial favorite. The way we go about it, though, is always changing, as you can see on the chart, where I've broken up the "human made disaster" into subcategories.
The post-apocalyptic technological utopias of the turn of the century are replaced by dystopias and robot rebellions after World War I (the first expansion of the green region devoted to human-made disaster), when everyone began to suspect that technology was only going to help us go about killing each other more efficiently, not cure us of the need to kill in the first place. Other trends are there, too: anxiety about pollution and global warming tend to spike whenever nuclear fears fade, for example.
The easily spotted trends make the patterns' total collapse in the mid-1990s even weirder. Human-created apocalypses shrink dramatically, and there's a sudden spike of unexplained apocalypse scenarios at the turn of the century. What happened? One possibility is that every End started to feel clichéd. The terror of a possible nuclear war faded, and no new extravagant ways to kill ourselves appeared to replace it.
That's an overly simplistic way of looking at it, though. It's not that the moment of destruction is boring; it's that it doesn't even matter anymore. There are an increasing number of books and films, like The Road and Zombieland, which pick up after the catastrophe and sometimes don't bother to explain what happened at all.
Disaster porn is no longer the point of the apocalypse. It doesn't matter how the world ends, just that it does. Making it to the End doesn't mean the story's finished; much of the time, it's only just gotten started. Stories of the End have never been about ending – they're about the beginning that comes after.
Preceding victory with annihilation disguises how dizzily optimistic some of these narratives are. Stories about the End are so beautifully paradoxical; they are some of the most powerful affirmation stories we have. They can hardly be classified as optimistic, but no matter what happens, even if the End came by human hands, in most stories we are fixable. For the most part, we have faith that though we may screw up, and very badly, we will learn from our mistakes and the world will be better for it.
When the survivors wander around, they're looking at a burned-out shell of a world, but it's still a clean slate. A clean slate full of radiation and cannibals, maybe, but still. I think everyone's had that feeling of wanting to just heave everything out the window and start over. That's what is at the heart of apocalypse stories: the opportunity to rebuild the world in a radically different way.
During the pilgrimage through the wasteland, the survivors – and the readers – are left feeling ostracized from reality. The characters are probably more concerned with where their next meal is coming from, but the reader sees how they are cut loose from the anchors that previously protected us from being overwhelmed by the meaninglessness of existence. The only way to fix it is to find new ways of looking, new patterns to create meaning in the new world.
Destroying the world in books about apocalypse is one way we can entirely take ownership of it. We can only see the world the way we have been raised to, the way our parents saw it, so 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.
This is hardly the final word; more a collection of observations and theories. I won't claim any more than that, because if there's one thing I learned while researching apocalypses, it's just how much humans like to see patterns in things – and that when patterns start getting too neat, you've done something wrong. There are still some things about the chart I don't understand – the three points where the natural apocalypse overtakes the human apocalypse, for example – and it doesn't take into account the effect that movies or television had on books. As will any discussion of a large genre, there are some necessary overgeneralizations. But it's a starting point – have at it.
Chanda Phelan just graduated from Pomona College, where she completed a thesis on post-apocalyptic literature. You can read her blog at phnuggle.wordpress.com.
Chart by Stephanie Fox!