It’s the End of the World as We Know It: Apocalypse Fiction — WWAC Roundtable

The Walking Dead, Shane
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar
Caesar of the new chimpanzee world order. Conveniently named Caeser.

This week the women of WWAC talked apocalypse fiction. What’s it all about? Why are we so fascinated by it? Megan P, Annie, Wendy, Claire, Jamie, Brenda, and Laura all chimed in.

Content Note: Frank discussion of trauma, violence, disaster and apocalypse prepping, end times fundamentalism, and murder.

Megan: I keep trying to write an essay called Your Apocalyptic Essay Is Some Bullshit. The topic is post-apocalyptic fiction and its unrealistic fantasies of total social collapse in the face of challenge. My argument will be that history proves that we are capable of overcoming social or economic apocalypses (apocalae?) and that even in the face of the most terrible circumstances, life continues, and small kindnesses and practicalities continue. Sometimes things really do fall apart, but it’s far from as inevitable as these stories make it out.

What got me thinking about this was the most recent Planet of the Apes movie, where the humans are driven to extremes because of the electrical grid collapsing after a virus has wiped out most of the world’s population. Characters repeatedly say that the apes are much better at surviving because humans can’t survive without electricity and there’s a weird implication that we’re not human without modern technology, idk. And like in many post-apoc stories, human society is in absolute shambles and resources haven’t been inventoried and put to work, despite it being ten years after a disaster.

Anyway! So my question is about the emotion involved here.

What do you get, or not get, out of mad bad post-apocalyptic disaster scenarios like Mad Max, Walking Dead and others, where things never seem to get better? How does it affect you? What do you like and dislike about the genre? Help me out!

Wendy: 1. I recommend Octavia E. Butler’s apocalypses! Parable of Talents in particular, which really reflects our own society. There is a lot of darkness and evils of humanity involved, but the whole Earthseed concept is great. If I were not so lazy, this would be my religion of choice.

2. After reading METAtropolis, I realized that I couldn’t recall any depiction of humanity’s future that doesn’t feature a dystopia where our flaws and hubris have destroyed everything, or a utopia that is too inhuman to be true and must be destroyed. METAtropolis made me realize just how little we think of humanity and our future. It’s not that I disagree with the concept–humans are cancerous assholes–but, as with all fantasy works, it surprises me that authors don’t step away from the concept of everything failing in the future because we suck. Where are the stories where things actually do work out? 

Claire: My favourite post-apocalyptic fiction is The Tribe, where everyone is a teenager and the whole point of the show is “let’s rebuild society and make it not atrocious.” Things don’t get too much better (or they do and then there’s another problem), but the characters are absolutely engaged in the idea that it can! They are constantly active in building. Networks, events, communities, governing trees, virtual reality… you name it. At one point all the angry, scared, maybe-dying kids come together to have a disco. It’s a mega-positive show, even though teenagers are constantly dying and having babies they don’t want and being kidnapped. My eyes are hearts.

Regarding the Mad Max trilogy, I loved watching it for the visuals and the stoicism but it made me feel sick with worry and I doubt I’ll re-watch. The few pages of Walking Dead that I read also did this to me, so I threw it over and never went back. Why would I want that????

Tangent: A thought I was having about post-apocalyptic fiction the other day is that, without fail, it’s better without guns. Guns allow distance into the interaction and that’s basically it! 

Megan: It takes the focus off of character interaction — you’re right, there’s a distancing effect.

Wendy: Hard to avoid guns in apocalypses that take place like now because it’s the logical thing to own when all hell breaks loose and law breaks down. But it does add to the “easy” apocalypsing, allowing the writer to very quickly sink into the evils of humanity concepts.

Claire: I know it seeeeems logical, but I’m not sold, I don’t think.

Wendy: If the shit hit the fan right this second, I am running home to get my katanas because fuck you if you come after my babies. I don’t know how to use a gun, but if I did and had one, then that’s what I’d grab too. That’s my personal reaction, and judging by the apocalypse attire from our art gala, a lot of us put priority on weapons.  The assumption is that we’d be using these on zombies… but yeah, I don’t trust humans. Not that I’m going to be all shoot to kill, but I’m going to think defense. I don’t like the negative view of humanity in apocalypse fiction, but I believe in it, and am not going to be caught of guard hoping for the best.

Wendy's apocalypse prepping.

 Megan: It’s not logical. Ammo is a nonrenewable resource and gun ownership dramatically increases your chances of being shot — often by you. You are so likely to accidentally injure yourself or your family. They’re also not as useful as you might think. You can’t use them to shoot open locks — bad idea. You can’t use them to bludgeon people or bang on things — you might damage the gun. You can’t use a pistol to hunt — you’re probably not that good of a shot. Guns need service, regular cleaning, and many are prone to jamming. Do you know offhand which guns can keep working after being dunked in water or dropped in sand? Hatchets, machetes and a carnival of blunt force trauma forever!

Apocalypse? A basic rifle is a good idea and is pretty all purpose. Anything else is overkill firearms wise.

Wendy: I’m talking logical in terms of the mentality. If the fiction takes place in present(ish) times, then I expect it to involve guns, even if the concept can make things easy. Practically speaking not at all, for all the reasons you express, though most apoc-fic that I’ve read and seen usually addresses these concerns.

In more futuristic apocs, I prefer when the guns are out of the picture (likely removed due to the reasons you express). I like the unique ways they have been introduced in certain stories like A Wind Named Amnesia and The Broken Empire series, and I don’t mind seeing them that way because they aren’t simply tools, and the writer can give them more depth and meaning.

Megan: Well yeah, it’s the likely emotional response of many. But here’s what you should actually do: form a team with your neighbours, bond in some fashion to develop strong ties, and then secure the biggest borders you can defend without stretching. Seize all weaponry, do an inventory and only let it out of your armory for necessary tasks. (Tangent: alcohol too needs to be on lockdown and isn’t nearly as useful as apocalypse fiction makes it out to be. Don’t clean your wounds with alcohol or use it to dull pain, kids! Don’t ever try that at home.)

The Walking Dead, Shane
Exercise some trigger discipline, Shane. FFS.

 Claire: That’s what they do in The Tribe. Best show!

Wendy: I’m taking over the local mall as my base of operations.

You also mentioned the whole electricity thing. I think that is a major factor in our survivability, because we’ve become so ridiculously reliant on modern conveniences, but I don’t think it will be our utter ruin. Some of us are going to have issues, but I think it’s something we’ll adapt to fairly quickly. We’ve had enough black and brown outs in North America at least to have a tiny bit of practice. Though generators seem to be the only option apocalypse stories turn to.

My biggest problem is probably going to be convincing my kids that yes, you are going to have to eat what I put in front of you, without the promise of dessert to motivate them. I have already come to terms with the fact that my picky eating husband who doesn’t like leftovers and adamantly adheres to best before dates is not likely to survive. I will honour and treasure him by smoking him in his blessed smoker.

Megan: Potential problem to consider: many many entrances including loading bays, compactor rooms, and employee hallways. You’d also need to do a sweep for perishables and possible contaminants, and you’d need a good group to keep patrolling it. I blame Romero for popularizng the mall-at-the-end-of-the-world trope, and as someone who’s worked in a mall, I just can’t see it being practical. There are just too many hazards from dead ends, to blind corners, to those many exits. But practical considerations aside, why have so many of us fixated on malls as potential bases? In Dawn of the Dead (1978) the dead come to the mall because that’s what they were used to doing in life — are we the real zombies, Wendy? Are we!? I’d suggest big box stores (ha ha, no better, is that?) as an alternative, but honestly the roofs are godawful and you’d have real problems within months.

Regarding electricity: why does no one build windmills or dams or utilize our existing green energy infrastructure after the apocalypse? These are forms of electricity we could recover. Surely some engineers would survive or we could train new ones — no holds at the library once the world’s ended and plenty of time for reading. Batteries should also be considered for some purposes and local generators could be collected and rationed for emergencies.

Dawn of the Dead 1978
The dead will shop.

Claire: I am preparing my sweetie and I for the oncoming apocalypse by flagrantly ignoring best-befores. If it looks and smells OK, let’s eat it. And happily the Mall in The Tribe has fixable crime-proof metal curtain door things and only one spare exit! Spot of luck. Much like in real life, teenagers who need them rig up generators and water filtration systems to serve their communities.

Laura H: The general theory behind most apocalypse stories where humanity sinks into chaos is that people work on their own, against the good of the group, and ignores the basic evolutionary imperatives that made us into the dominant life form on the planet to begin with. Humans are hard-wired to exist in a group, and if there were no outside force compelling us to obey rules and work for the betterment of all, we would do it anyway.

My favorite apocalypse story is The Stand, where all the survivors gather together and do things like turn the electricity back on and establish a government and rules. As long as humanity exists in some form, my feeling is it could never devolve into roving gangs out to just murder each other. The resources we’d need would be the same as now: food, shelter, communication. Anyone who’s ever been camping knows that’s a whole lot easier to get if you all work together. The premise that we’re all savages on the verge of chaos, barely held in by the rules of government and civilized society is absurd. Of course there will be a few outliers, or people who panic, but in general, everyone’s going to be concerned about survival and learning how to hunt and slaughter or grow their own food. It’s not like we’d be totally screwed without electricity, though I’m sure people would try to turn it back on.

Y: The Last Man is a great apocalypse story. I would also suggest Not A Drop To Drink by Mandy McGinnis.

Wendy: Consensus on preferred apocalypse stories seems to be the ones where, despite possible issues of scary humanity poking at them, there is a solid central group that works together toward both survival and rebuilding.

Now what do you do with people who don’t/won’t/can’t pull their weight? This is where things get tricky for me because I know I will want to be strict, and I admit, I’m likely to be a wee bit callous and selfish. This is where I really struggle with the apocalypse concept because as sympathetic as I can be, I can be just as harsh, which, you know, doesn’t make you lots of friends. But I have to be honest about the kind of person I am. I might not kneecap a liability to aid my escape, but I might consider it.

Brenda: Apocalyptic and dystopian fiction is a favorite of mine. And we’re light urban preppers, mainly because we live in a state where you’re expected to be snowed in at least once or twice a year.

Anywho, completely agree it’s better without guns. The initial shock and panic that would ensue is where the madness lies, then some folks will figure out how to make it work. I’m personally not a big fan of civilizations that don’t get better, like in The Road.

For me, I’m fascinated by the thought experiment; dichotomy of the best and worst of humanity when we’re tested with something so horrible that we can barely comprehend our personal selves, forget about our responsibility to our families, friends, society and other humans.

For initial shock, my favorites are Blindness by Jose Saramgo and the first book in the Emberverse series Dies the Fire by SM Stirling; the Emberverse series is great to show how much can be accomplished and changed in a generation. I haven’t watched The Tribe, but keep meaning to, but did watch Jeremiah which I liked a lot. And Battlestar Gallactica, which is a scif-fi but somewhat counts because of the human genocide. For comics, Y The Last Man is good, DMZ is fabulous, and I’m curious about where they’re going in the new comic, The Woods, and the pre-apocalyptic Sheltered is terrifyingly fantastic.

Blindness 2008
Coping with life after Blindness.

Annie: I was also going to bring up The Stand. I’m in the middle of re-reading it; I first read it twenty years ago when I was just graduating high school. It reads so different now that I’m an adult! I’m loving it all over again.

I hate apocalypse stories where it’s clear there’s no reason to go on. I watch The Walking Dead to keep up on things because I own a comic shop, but I don’t like it much and I don’t read the comic. It’s misery porn and everything is terrible all the time…and I don’t buy it. There have always been bad people, violent people, but civilizations happened anyway. People invented their own flavors of law and order. We still haven’t exactly perfected it, but we’ve had the ability to annihilate all life on the planet for seventy years and we haven’t.

I have a lot of feelings and opinions about people who are obsessed with the end of the world. I was raised by religious fundamentalists who thought we had almost reached the end-times. My father believed God had chosen him to be a prophet. (In fairness, I should point out that he had an extremely difficult childhood, something I didn’t really understand until I was an adult myself and had some perspective.) We stored grain in our house to prepare for the coming famine, when the anti-Christ would prevent Christians from buying food without worshipping him. From the time I was a baby, I was raised to believe that I’d never make it to adulthood. Surely we’d all be tortured and martyred way before that. That’s some heavy stuff to lay on a three-year-old. ANYWAY, that made me a pretty intense person, and I feel like I have some insight into the psychology of people who live their lives like the world is about to end.

Claire: Thank you for sharing, Annie. I wonder if the cause of the apocalypse tends to have an effect on the fiction? Zombie apocalypse is understandably desolate, maybe; ditto nuclear. Less explosive “we meddled with nature” stuff often (in my off-the-cuff recollection) has a more positive thrust. Where do aliens leave us? Day of the Triffids is half/half awful/potential.

Wendy: When there’s an outside force that can kill you on top of potential human evils, it certainly makes for more bleakness. TWD seems pretty hopeless, since even the living have the virus, and at this point, the prospect of a cure seems slim to none, so why bother?

Is that a similarity in the apocalypses we’re favouring as well then? It’s a complete societal breakdown, but there is hope of rebuilding so the focus is on that?

Claire: Hokuto No Ken, despite being famous for headsplosions, is post-nuclear and hella bleak but essentially hopeful, come to think of it. Hummm. There’s planting of seeds, protecting of small communities, nurturing of children who grow to adults and find their own way. Lot (a LOT) of dying too, though. And crying.

Annie: Sorry for over-sharing before, but I thought it was relevant. I believe some of our culture’s fascination with apocalypses is due to more people than you’d think being raised in an environment like mine. And growing up during the Cold War — like my parents’ generation — did a lot of permanent emotional damage to a lot of people, so that’s a factor.

In post-apocalyptic fiction, do you think it’s more common for the work to view the survivors as essentially innocent victims, or rather as people who kind of deserve to live in this horrible wasteland or whatever because they’re bad or humanity is bad and some people just get extra punishment? Or something else? 

Claire: We do not believe in the concept of the over-share at WWAC! Just sharing, which is a good thing.

You may be right about those elements of upbringing, though. It’s hard for me to imagine (international culture clash again?), but if it happens, it happens. Cold War nuclear fears are pretty alien to me too; I didn’t even know that had been a cultural element until I watched Quantum Leap and Mystery Science Theater in my early twenties.

On the whole, I reckon it’s innocent victims. Taking on responsibility for (ex-)society’s ills is seen as a moral feat, I think?

The Day of the Triffids 2009
Triffids at work. /o\

Wendy: For post-apocalyptic, I think the survivors are innocent victims – or innocent survivors, I guess. They have the joys of dealing with survivors guilt and having the weight of carrying on and rebuilding placed on them.

My mom is deeply religious, though not to the extent as Annie’s dad. Your share definitely reminds me of my childhood where I believed the end times were nigh, and though we didn’t get along well, I prayed for my sister like crazy because I was really scared that she wasn’t going to make it when Jesus called the good Christians home in the Rapture. 

Jamie: The Newsflesh books are technically post-apocalyptic. Except we survived, adapted, and we’re not exactly thriving, but we’re getting along. Like The Walking Dead, even the living have the virus, there’s no cure, but our lives eventually returned to something much akin to normal.

The Terminator movies are tougher.  Because everything John Connor did to prevent the apocalypse in the first movie failed. What Sarah and kid!John and nice Terminator did in the second movie also failed.  Failure being the only option is bleak and depressing.

Claire: Terminatoorrrrrrr *shaking my fists* To me Terminator is less a franchise about failure than a failure of creatives to notice that the more they touch it, the less relevant it gets. The story reads less like “they failed,” so much as “they created a time loop, oh well, better just live through it.”

Wendy: I love the way Terminator messes with time. The future remains hopeless, despite the family motto of “no fate but what you make for yourselves.” Everything they do doesn’t exactly fail. It always works, only, because everything is so bound in time and reliant on the existence of both past and future, everything simply happens anyway, just in a different way. Neither Skynet nor the Resistance is able to figure out how to stop the cycle, but they keep trying, which in turn perpetuates the cycle. Someone needs to jump ship. The TV series did a great job of delving into this by having the various characters wake up and realize that simply removing X from the past or Y from the future isn’t good enough, but manipulating it can lead to some interesting developments. But then Fox.

Megan: Thank you for sharing, Annie. As for inherent guilt, that is a theme in some post apocalptic fiction. It runs through Romero’s zombie films for example, and there’s a kind of Feudian death drive that appears in many others. I’m glad that Laura mentioned that many of these stories have people rebuilding only for things to fail because of a small group of losers who behave in anti-social ways. I think that’s a response to contemporary social and political problems. If you’re frustrated and baffled by the terrible thing of the day, a war, racism, oppression, it may look like things would be OK if anti-social politicians and extremists would just get out of the way. Of course, this isn’t the case. There can be major friction in small groups too, and misunderstandings can be just as structural as oppression. There’s also confirmation bias to consider.

But back to inherent guilt. In early Romero the original sins are racism and consumer culture. That’s why the zombies are milling around the mall — they’re embodied (disembodied?) guilt, a reflection of the ill that exists even in the survivors. When they play in the mall after they’ve rid it of zombies, it’s delightful and innocent but the consumer values are still there and being interrogated. This continues through the series and movies influenced by it, and there’s a regular refrain of “We finally did it, didn’t we?” Every Romero cast contains characters who compulsively engage in self-destructive behaviour, characters who are on the brink of giving up, and characters who, well, just want to watch the world burn.

TWD is a pretty transparent man-is-the-real-animal, the monster-is-calling-from-inside-my-body story. It’s not so much that the apocalypse strips the survivors of their humanity as it is that humanity is terrible a lot of the time. The villains are absurdly, bizarrely evil. Just caricatures of villainy much of the time. It’s a pretty miserable story and I got tired of the carnival of misery and failure a few years ago.

But let’s consider disaster movies! There are stories where it’s, you know, nature getting her just desserts, and then there are others where it’s random bad luck. Where do disaster apocalypses fit in?

Annie: I usually think of disaster movies as a way to exorcise fears about everyday dangers. Earthquakes! Tornadoes! Trapped in a burning skyscraper/sinking ship/whatever! Those things don’t end the world, but they can end YOUR world if you’re unlucky enough to get caught up in it.

Brenda: I’m intrigued by the the innocent people idea, but not sure about the guilt of surviving the dead.  Also tied up in those emotions are how disconnected modern folks have become with how to obtain their basic needs from raw materials. All of a sudden you have all that responsibility and hard work thrust upon you and it really is life and death.

Wendy: Natural disaster apocalypses seem to have more hope and rebuilding involved in the aftermath and greater working together efforts and emotional ties leading up to and during the event, which is exactly what we see in natural disasters that occur now. The major conflicts seem to stem from the differing ideas on how to survive, with the main characters usually being the ones with the ‘right’ idea.

Pompell 2013
One of many Hollywood volcano movies — this one is Pompeii.

 Claire: Disaster apocalypse + small numbers of jerks ruining everything = Dreams of A Low Carbon Future!

I’m not keen on currently-explosive disaster apocalypse (a la 2012, etc) or disaster films in general because they focus too much on “oh no, look what’s happening,” rather than “okay, how do we deal with it?”

Annie: Claire, I agree about the disaster movies of the past decade or so. Special effects reached a level where large-scale destruction is fairly easy to render, so filmmakers often focus on the effects and not the story. It’s so bloodless and clinical. You know it’s bad when you can point to Armageddon as a movie with a human focus and hopeful outcome.

For all the “oh noes, modern people are soft and can’t live without modern technology” material you get in post-apocalyptic fiction, I haven’t seen much attention paid to the many people who genuinely CAN’T live without it, at least not very well or long. Many people depend on medications that aren’t easy to manufacture and/or require refrigeration, electronic medical equipment, etc. For instance, I have multiple sclerosis, so I have to take injections that require refrigeration. The manufacturing process for the drug is not something people can replicate without the right expertise, equipment, or ingredients. Without the medication, my condition would likely deteriorate. But even worse would be the lack of air conditioning. I am very sensitive to heat — August in Houston is my nemesis — and can’t go camping permanently. I would start to lose feeling in my arms and legs in a matter of hours, and walking or even staying conscious in the heat and humidity would become difficult and eventually impossible. So if civilization collapses, I need to make sure I’m in a very mild climate, and even then, I’ll be on borrowed time. And I’ll still be better off than anyone who requires a motorized wheelchair, an oxygen tank, insulin shots…

What I’m saying is, if somebody needs to make a heroic sacrifice in the early days of post-apocalyptic living, everyone’s going to look at me.

Brenda: Yeah. When done poorly apocalyptic fiction feels like cheap, shock-value horror. When done well, it gives us a different lens with which to view our society and our humanity and that, for me, is worth reading.

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.

3 thoughts on “It’s the End of the World as We Know It: Apocalypse Fiction — WWAC Roundtable

  1. I haven’t heard of the Storyteller. I’ll put that on my list. Thanks, Claire!

  2. I guess we didn’t touch on indigenous cultural destruction, or lifestyles that currently differ from the average english-language pre-apocalypse description of ~society. Reading a twitter convo between Megan and Brenda I remembered Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller. That’s a book worth reading.

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