Buildings crumble. Gangs of marauders roam the roads. Pocket communities of brave survivors comb the hollow shells of ruined cities as they search for water and supplies. Mutated creatures spawned by the cataclysm make meals out of ordinary people, who have been forced into a brutal new existence. Money is no longer the most valued commodity: food, fuel, ammunition, and skills are. Only the hardiest of souls will survive in the ruined wastelands of what remains after The End of the world.
The post-apocalyptic genre has been around for a long time…but why? What is it about the end of the world that so fascinates us, that keeps this strange sub-genre of science fiction literature alive? What is that we, as readers and authors, find so fascinating about living in what would inevitably be a shithole after [insert catastrophe here] occurred?
I’m willing to venture a guess that is has something to do with the sense of freedom that the world after The End would bring.
Freedom from modern constraints, real or imagined. Freedom from the drudgery of our jobs. Freedom from cloying and tedious societal norms. Freedom from worry about mortgages, taxes, who’s going to win the O’Brien Trophy, and how to tell your idiot cousin that his hairdo looks like a small animal crawled on his head and died without getting yourself marked off of your grandmother’s Christmas list.
That’s not to say life in the post-apocalyptic world is free of worry…far from it. But what you’d be worrying about would mean something: survival, food, weapons, shelter, clothing, and whether or not that mutated goat monster is going to skewer you and use you as a human pinata.
Think of it as a “back to the basics” process. Many of us feel overwhelmed by the intangibles of our existence, by car payments and credit cards, by college tuitions and doctor’s appointments, by trying to find a way to squeeze in a day off but also avoid having to go to your nephew’s friggin’ dance recital. When all of the daily worries get to be a bit too much, we have a tendency to strip our lives down and take a look at what’s truly important: the safety and health of ourselves, our families, and our friends (void in Montana).
There’s something refreshing about being able to focus on what’s really important — about having no choice or opportunity to do otherwise — and maybe that’s what this post-apocalyptic stuff finds an audience. It’s hard to be distracted by the “business” of our daily lives when almost every aspect of that existence is eradicated from the face of the earth. Maybe living through the apocalypse is like forced therapy, a way of shrugging off what are ultimately meaningless worries, and instead learning to focus on what matters.
In the world after The End, we’re no longer going to care about showing up to work because, ostensibly, our places of employment were likely destroyed by flaming meteor debris, swallowed up in a toxic flood, or overrun by mutated zombies conveniently armed with chainsaws. We won’t be concerned about money so much as we’ll be concerned about tradeable commodities, whether those are cans of Tofurkey (that stuff will be like gold, trust me), inflatable blow-up dolls (I fear the future will be overrun with those things), weapons and ammunition, or skills that will find value in a post-apocalyptic world. (I’m talking about hunting, building, and other survival skills…your trombone-playing ability might not come in too handy here…)
Any laws and rules you follow in the post-apocalyptic world are going to be pragmatic – if you hook up with others to survive, chances are you’ll all try to follow some basic rules so that you can get along and keep safe. (I, for one, refuse to join any post-apocalyptic survivalist community where “EATING NEIGHBORS PROHIBITED” isn’t posted on a big freakin’ sign somewhere.) What you won’t need to worry about is the 5th paragraph to the revision of the local dog-walking ordinance, or if you’re supposed to be parking on the street between 4:35 and 4:37 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of every month.
Simplicity. Maybe that’s the other part of what the post-apocalyptic world offers in terms of escapism, besides freedom, and that’s simplicity. You fight to survive, and just finding food is a daily struggle. You don’t give two shits about who got eliminated on Biggest Loser, or what such-and-such will think about so-and-so saying you-know-what.
Deep down, I think the notion of a post-apocalyptic world is some sort of twisted wish fulfillment on modern society’s part. Our lives get so busy, so bogged down in tedium, that sometimes it can be difficult to remind ourselves what really matters. (And, no, the NFL Draft is NOT on that list. Sorry.) As anyone over the age of 12 knows, things get compounded. We make a minor change to fix a big problem, and those little changes pile up, making our lives endlessly more complicated. We get to the point that we can’t even see what we were trying to fix in the first place. Such is true of software, of business models, of automobiles, and, of course, it’s true of our daily lives.
Strange as it may seem, I think that’s what’s captivating about the post-apocalyptic genre, once you get down to the meat of things: the best way to get back to what’s important in the first place is to tear everything down and just rebuild, and the best way to do that is to…well, is to blow the whole damn thing up.
So is post-apocalyptic fiction just wish fulfillment? Is it a desire to rebuild not just our lives, but the world that we live in? Are the stories about living in the aftermath of a magical disaster or a nuclear fallout or a Biblical Armageddon really just a way of expressing our desire to start over again? After all, it happens in nature – a forest comes to a point where it must burn before it can grow any more.
Maybe. Maybe I’m thinking about it too much, but I’ll keep trying to figure it out while I check by Bug-Out Bag, sharpen my machete, and check out the newest gas-powered generators down at the Home Depot, because you just never know…