Apocalypse is Easy

Science fiction novels about post-apocalypse survival are easy to write. All the big stuff usually takes place before the novel starts, and it doesn’t have to be explained. Sometimes, as in The Road, you don’t even know what happened. All the complications of civilized life are pretty much wiped out, and all the characters have to worry about is survival. Life and death. Maybe moral scruples come in there somewhere, but it’s mostly about scratching a living from what’s left, kill or be killed, and nothing to look forward to but more of the same.

Most dystopian novels aren’t much more complex. The bad stuff is already in place and it’s the duty of the characters to endure. Maybe there’s room for some heroism, which will probably lead to being demised by the bad guys (usually an all-controlling government, usually hand in glove with evil corporations, usually with at least one, preferably two, truly evil power mongers). Again, it’s all about survival for the masses, with some rebellion by brave but hopeless losers thrown in to raise hopes.

There aren’t too many novels that ask how things got to this pass. Even fewer that try to show how it happened. Because that’s difficult. You have to deal with reality, which operates slowly, which hides its most important details in plain sight where they can be ignored in favor of entertainment that keeps the populations nicely sedated and distracted from what’s going on.

Come to think of it, maybe that why we have mostly the kind of novels I described in the first two paragraphs. The writers, being just as oblivious as everyone else,  don’t know how it all happened, so they really have no option except to wave the writerly equivalent of a magic wand. Hocus pocus, it’s now 2063 or 2258 and everything has already happened. Earth groans under the domination of (fill in the blanks), the few survivors are eating each other for breakfast, are killing zombies, or have fled earth to live on (fill in the blanks).



5 thoughts on “Apocalypse is Easy

  1. A long time ago, back in the very early 1960s, I think, a UK author (could be John Christopher) wrote a novel called THE DEATH OF GRASS. In it, we get the sort of thing we get in THE ROAD, but he explains why things have come to this pass: something, can’t remember what, sorry, has caused all species in the botanical family Gramineae to die. It was probably a fungus – bear with me; I read this book > 50 years ago 🙂 Since all the major crops like wheat, rice, rye, corn, etc. are in this species, it doesn’t take long to reach the same kind of state that one sees in THE ROAD. Christopher’s basic idea for the catastrophe held up well to scientific scrutiny. Modern novelists have been heavily influenced by film and now feel they have little time for explanation.

    1. I heard mention of that book somewhere. I’ll have to look it up. That’s a thesis that makes sense. John Christopher of The White Mountains? Not the best writer, stylewise, but the books are still engaging. And I do think movies have a lot to do with how SF is written these days. Have lots of action, characters who have some exceptional, usually heroic, quality, and don’t worry whether the story makes sense. What’s more typical is something along the lines of the death of grasses, and then throw in cannibalism as a means of survival, or the after-effect of a wipeout disease that drastically alters the remaining humans.

      1. Serendipity? Doing my morning blog tour, I found a reference to this ABE post about must-read SF, with a list of 50. And there it was, John Christopher’s Death of Grass. He gave an alternate title: No Blade of Grass. I’ve noticed that British and American editions of books often have different titles.

  2. This is a great analysis of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. I have an idea for a post-apocalyptic novel but have thus far found it too daunting because I thought I had to figure out all the details of how the world got to that point. Apparently not! But skipping over the why and how feels like cheating to me. Still, I do enjoy books like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Oryx and Crake.”

    1. I prefer to know how the world got to this particular place, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go into great detail unless that’s the point of the story. I’m trying to fit little snippets of significant changes into The New Serfdom, just enough so the current state of affairs make sense.

      I love Oryx and Crake and reread it every so often. I hadn’t thought about it before, but it *is* an excellent example of “how we got here.”

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