In both fiction and film, the post-apocalypse has always been a popular subject, and with numerous recent releases for both it’s here to stay. The burgeoning communities of fans, and different interpretations of the genre, are evidence of that. This is not a mere modern fascination, though – it’s been a theme in literature for centuries. Why? Because there are many universal themes of heroism and the ordinary becoming extraordinary in these survival settings.
In an apocalyptic scenario, every character has the potential for heroics. Emotions are unavoidable high and, with a new start to everything, the opportunity for rebuilding leaves endless possibilities for creativity. Post-apocalypse is usually marked as science fiction, but as we can see in the book lists and film lists, it spans far more genres from that – from coming of age stories like The Road to family entertainment like Wall-E, the wasteland offers unlimited scope for interpretation.
Often, apocalyptic stories come with a blend of action and adventure or horror, but they are also used for social commentary. Almost universally, though, they are the perfect set up for a deep character study, as the heroes demand so much more focus, and their skills and limitations are really tested.
1. What if we had to fight for survival?
On the whole, 21st Century life is relatively comfortable – certainly for those who can afford to read literature and watch films, at least. There’s still a lot wrong in the world, but for those who have left the troubled times behind we can mostly shrug off First World Problems as inconsequential. The apocalypse shatters this comfort: when the whole world is in danger, nothing is safe, no one can be trusted and every minute brings new challenges. It’s the ultimate survival arena, with the highest stakes, and about as far from aimlessly browsing the internet for amusing cats as anything can get.
This set up raises questions for anyone who’s life isn’t in constant danger. How would we react? Would we survive? What the dangers really be? Even in a zombie apocalypse you’d have to consider the peripherals: unleashed zoo animals, collapsing machinery, nuclear meltdowns – small items of maintenance that could lead to big problems, whatever the cause of mankind’s downfall. This is something addressed brilliantly in The Day of the Triffids, where what appears to be a story of killer plants actually considers the concerns that improper waste management and neglected building maintenance could have on everyday life.
2. What happens when there are no rules?
There is little room for civilised etiquette after the collapse of society, where everyone is fighting for their own survival. Communities would come into conflict with one another for whatever limited resources are left, bringing primal urges to the surface – and harking back to the times when survival of the fittest meant the strongest. Conflict is, really, at the heart of all good stories, and the collapse of rules allows all the conflict in the world. Surviving in a post-apocalypse makes that conflict excusable, whether in physical or verbal fights, in the most natural way: if you don’t fight, you die.
The destruction of rules provides endless possibilities for restructuring society. In a post-apocalypse, we can experiment with new systems of government, new social set ups and even new language. The boldest example of how far this can go, to my mind, is Riddley Walker – a truly complete realisation of how different our world could be.
3. What would we create?
The room for creativity does not stop at merely rebuilding rules and society: post-apocalyptic landscapes give enormous scope for fascinating technology, with strange tools and locations.
It can encompass cross-genre themes, such as steampunk elements arising from a haphazardly reconstructed modern world, or primitive technology such as that of the iron age or medieval times (as was colourfully portrayed in Doomsday). This can be weird and wonderful, savage and macabre, wherever the imagination chooses to go. And let’s not forget the influx of mutants and monsters that might occur.
4. What makes you so special?
Possibly the most important aspect of an apocalyptic scenario, though, is that when the whole world is fighting for survival every single character becomes special. Whatever skills, dreams or ambitions you had before, in the wasteland you are special just by virtue of surviving. Personalities tend to become polarised, and the slightest advantages are pushed to maximum use. The weak have to become strong, trust must be established, evil must be contained. This is part of what gave I Am Legend such lasting appeal, where the scientist protagonist, from a seemingly ordinary past life, becomes so much more than a man in the aftermath of the apocalypse.
Imagining yourself in the position of a sole survivor puts you in a bleak situation, but it is heartening. It makes you feel significant, which can be a feeling that’s all too hard to find in our overpopulated world. The smaller the population becomes, the more important individuals are.