On the apocalyptic scale of world destruction, when the thing that wipes out civilization doesn’t quite kill everyone, we’re left with an After the End type setting. Depending on where the writers fall on the sliding scale of idealism vs. cynicism, this may range from a futuristic Arcadia to a crapsack post- hell on Earth.
Whatever the case, expect to see lots of modern ruins and schizo tech mashups (horse-driven cars? Wood-wheeled bicycles?). If anarchism reigns, expect to see lots of punks roaming the wastelands in muscle cars and motorcycles. If Ragnarok Proofing is in effect and the ruins of civilization haven’t quite decayed yet, expect some variation of a scavenger world. And if someone from our modern era finds himself lost in this bizarre post-apocalyptic future, expect him to find some sort of constant to reinforce that he’s not in Kansas anymore.
Unlike dystopian settings, where society evolves (or is deliberately turned) into a horrible, hellish place, a post-apocalyptic setting represents a reboot of civilization itself, where one society has passed away and a new one is slowly picking itself up from the ashes. It has the potential to be a lot more hopeful, and to give the reader a lot more wish fulfillment. After all, who wouldn’t want to be one of the lucky survivors tasked with rebuilding civilization? Sure there may be zombies or nuclear nasties wandering about, but on the plus side, you don’t have to worry about your bills or your deadbeat job anymore.
Douglas Rushkoff has some interesting ideas about why this type of story is becoming more and more popular nowadays. In his new book Present Shock which he’s been promoting recently, he argues that many of us are so overwhelmed by a world where everything happens now that we wish we could end it all and start over. When we live in an ever-changing present without a coherent narrative to reference our past or our future, we long for something to restore that sense that we’re part of a larger story, even if that story is racing towards a horrible, tragic end.
But every ending is a new beginning, and that’s what lies at the very core of this trope. When our world passes away, what will the new world look like that takes its place? Will we learn from our mistakes, or are we doomed to repeat our worst atrocities? Will we eat each other like dogs, or will we tap into some deeper part of human nature where mercy and compassion lie?
This is all on my mind right now, because I’m writing a post-apocalyptic novel (with the working title Lifewalker) that takes place in Utah 200 years after the end. Humanity was hit by a plague that kills everyone over the age of 25, so that the only people left are orphans, teenage adults, and their babies. It’s fascinating to wonder what from our era would fall apart and what would remain, or what would be preserved and how the new society will take shape.
But it’s not the apocalypse itself that I’m interested in, so much as what happens after things stabilize. The main character is one of the few people who’s immune to the plague, so naturally he feels like a complete outcast. He’s walking the Earth, riding down the ruins of I-15 with a copy of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn in his saddlebag. And the people he meets … well, let’s just say I wasn’t very kind to Las Vegas.
I think that’s another part of the appeal of this trope: it takes our own world and twists it into something fantastic, so that instead of having to wrap our minds around a whole new set of history and physics, we can build on the familiar in wild and interesting ways. A Canticle for Leibowitz did this very well, with another post-apocalyptic tale set in Utah. However, the most famous popular example is probably the movie I Am Legend. I love those long panoramic shots with Will Smith hunting deer in Times Square, or hitting golf balls off the wing of a fighter jet. Stuff like that really sparks the imagination because it combines something familiar with something wild and different.
Believe it or not, this trope has actually happened in real life. After the bubonic plague swept across Europe, whole cities were depopulated, with as much as 60% casualties in some places. When the Pilgrims settled at Plymouth, they were actually building over the ruins of a large Indian settlement that had been wiped out by smallpox just a few years before. And using DNA evidence, scientists now believe that all of modern humanity is descended from a small group of just 50 females who survived a global volcanic eruption some 70,000 years ago.
So yeah, this is definitely a trope I like playing with. I’m on track to finish Lifewalker by the end of May, so you can definitely expect to hear more about it in the weeks and months to come.
Also, for those of you looking for resources to help you visualize what the world will look like after the end of human civilization, here are a couple of excellent resources I’ve found. First, check out The World Without Us, an excellent book written by an environmentalist that poses a basic thought experiment: what would happen if all humans everywhere magically vanished, and all that was left was the stuff that we’ve built? What, if anything, would remain? (spoilers: not much) If you want to explore that idea but you don’t want to read the whole book, check out this wiki on Life After People, a series of History Channel documentaries that basically posed the same question. The answers may surprise you.