I have to admit I’ve never been a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction. I liked the movies Road Warrior and Mad Max: Fury Road. I liked the first few seasons of The Walking Dead. But beyond that?

I was forced to read a book in high school about survivors of a nuclear war that even at that tender age I felt was pretty far-fetched—not quite the life-changing scare tactic I think the Board of Education was going for. Still, I grew up in the Cold War era, when it was assumed that the evil Soviet Union was going to start hurling A-bombs at us any second, for no reason except, as George W. Bush would later so “eloquently” put it about the next enemy in line, “They hate our freedom.” I was living not just under constant threat of nuclear apocalypse but in the seventies we had one foot in the end of civilization already. If you don’t believe me, watch the movie Taxi Driver then any movie set in New York made in the last few years. Which of those two New Yorks would you rather live in?

But now it’s 2019 and we’ve not only avoided World War III but survived the crime waves that backed up the absurdity of Escape from New York (and yes, I do have a dog named Fresno Bob), the over-population that made Soylent Green (maybe my actual favorite dystopian apocalypse of all) seem like a documentary, got through (though hardly un-scarred) the feared species-killing AIDS plague… all of this and more good news goes largely unreported not just in the “news” (and yes, I’m going to keep putting quotes around that until the reestablishment of journalism) but in fiction as well.

Post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction is stronger than ever, especially in the young adult space. Though I think books like 1984, Fail Safe, and others had something to do with the way we came together to get through or get past or grow out of potential disasters, is all this “the world is ending” fiction good for us? Is it good for our kids?

“I worry that the flood of dystopian fiction has changed the definition of normal—that it has acclimatised younger readers to an atmosphere of corruption and lying,” [Dorian Lynskey quoting Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the children’s author and screenwriter in “Is the Political Novel Dead?”]. “I do believe that one important duty which fiction seems not to be fulfilling is painting a picture of what good looks like. I guess to be truly political a work of art should be offering at least the possibility of change and a way forward.”

That does seem to be the case, with study after study showing that people all around the world believe that life is getting harder for everyone but themselves, the world is getting more dangerous except where they live, and no one is doing anything to stop the impending doom except them.

Weirdly, in his New York Magazine article “The Uninhabitable Earth,” David Wallace-Wells pondered what he and Amitv Ghosh see as a lack of post-apocalyptic fiction with climate change as its cause:

So why can’t we see it? In his recent book-length essay  The Great Derangement,  the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh wonders why global warming and natural disaster haven’t become major subjects of contemporary fiction—why we don’t seem able to imagine climate catastrophe, and why we haven’t yet had a spate of novels in the genre he basically imagines into half-existence and names “the environmental uncanny.” “Consider, for example, the stories that congeal around questions like, ‘Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?’ or ‘Where were you on 9/11?’ ” he writes. “Will it ever be possible to ask, in the same vein, ‘Where were you at 400 ppm?’ or ‘Where were you when the Larsen B ice shelf broke up?’ ” His answer: Probably not, because the dilemmas and dramas of climate change are simply incompatible with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, especially in novels, which tend to emphasize the journey of an individual conscience rather than the poisonous miasma of social fate.

Surely this blindness will not last—the world we are about to inhabit will not permit it.

But… The Wind-Up Girl, Memory of Water, Waterworld, Mad Max: Fury Road, AI’s flooded New York… and so many more post-climate change apocalypses than I could possibly list here. Once again we see the likes of New York Magazine criticizing science fiction without actually, y’know… reading or watching some.

Starting into this subject I was all ready to make a case against the post-apocalypse story. After all, I read Steven Pinker. I know things are actually much, much, much better than the twenty-four hour news networks or pretty much everyone else seems to want us to believe.

In his almost desperate sounding plea to try to get people to stop and see what has actually happened and what is actually likely to happen, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker drives a stake into both nuclear and climate change apocalypses:

As societies have become healthier, wealthier, freer, happier, and better educated, they have set their sights on the most pressing global challenges. They have emitted fewer pollutants, cleared fewer forests, spilled less oil, set aside more preserves, extinguished fewer species, saved the ozone layer, and peaked in their consumption of oil, farmland, timber, paper, cars, coal, and perhaps even carbon. For all their differences, the world’s nations came to a historic agreement on climate change, as they did in previous years on nuclear testing, proliferation, security, and disarmament. Nuclear weapons, since the extraordinary circumstances of World War II, have not been used in the seventy-two years they have existed. Nuclear terrorism, in defiance of forty years of expert predictions, has never happened. The world’s nuclear stockpiles have been reduced by 85 percent, with more reductions to come, and testing has ceased (except by the tiny rogue regime in Pyongyang) and proliferation has frozen. The world’s two most pressing problems, then, though not yet solved, are solvable: practicable, long-term agendas have been laid out for eliminating nuclear weapons and for mitigating climate change.

Zombies, on the other hand, are still an unsolvable problem. Maybe because they’re completely imaginary. Still, isn’t it nice to know that the root causes of apocalyptic nightmares that ever might have happened are on a steady trend in the direction of non-existence?

One of the things that Steven Pinker cites as a possible reason things have been getting better is that we’ve gotten better at talking about things. We communicate about crime and violence, race and gender relations, sexuality and gender identity, and other things that used to be shunned in “polite company.” We know each other better, we read more, we have access to more people and more information, and so on. Why haven’t we already fallen into some kind of totalitarian dystopia? Because we’ve read 1984—and now The Hunger Games—and have decided not to allow that shit to actually go down. And we are aware of climate change, which is happening and is our fault, and we’re demanding something be done about it, while at least trying to do our individual part by maybe buying a more fuel efficient cars or eating less beef or voting for fewer Republicans.

Steven Pinker invokes Enlightenment ideals to show that we can and have and are thinking our way out of disasters, and oddly enough, the mad genius Alejandro Jodorowsky explored the same territory in his introduction to Screaming Planet:

If we consider that we humans also belong to the animal kingdom, we could well hope that, unable to stop the proliferation of the pollution of our water, land, and air, we might begin to beget children endowed with a different set of lungs, their now reptile-cold blood allowing them to resist global warming; or perhaps they would gain the capacity to quench their thirst with a single drop of water per day, etc. The key to our survival resides in future generations’ ability to adapt.

I won’t tell you not to write a post-apocalypse story. Yours might be the next 1984—the next book that sends thousand and thousands of readers out to try to make the world a better place. Just, whatever you do, make it original, and listen closely to this advice from the editors of Book Viral, who offered “The Most Important Top Tip For All Apocalyptic Fiction Authors”:

Be it famine, virus, genocide, natural disaster, alien invasion or hordes of rampaging Zombies the most important thing for an Apocalyptic fiction author to do, the one thing they must get right to really stand a chance of having a bestseller is to ensure they capture the human consequences. The choices, the hardships and the innermost feelings of the characters they create and it’s the authors who master this that really stand out.

All fiction, pre- or post-apocalyptic alike, are about people. And people in difficult, unusual circumstances tend to make the most compelling stories.


—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Axiom says:

    Interesting thoughts. As a guy who writes post-apocalyptic fiction, I think there will always be room for it. Heck, a lot of the sci-fi pulp novels I read at least skirt the end of days in some ways.

    Plus, food and shelter is a great motivator for your protagonist. 😀

  2. Janetta Maclean says:

    As always your update made me think. Although I don’t believe in Stephen Pinker (or science) in the early 80s I decided the nuclear catastrophe we were waiting for in Europe was not going to happen. Apocalyptic Lifestyles tend to be dull after a while like the genre. The human spirit needs to imagine the hope and the possibility of the good otherwise how will it happen? Thanks. Munirah

    On Tue, Sep 24, 2019, 5:53 PM Fantasy Author’s Handbook, wrote:

    > Philip Athans posted: “I have to admit I’ve never been a huge fan of > post-apocalyptic fiction. I liked the movies Road Warrior and Mad Max: Fury > Road. I liked the first few seasons of The Walking Dead. But beyond that? I > was forced to read a book in high school about survivo” >

  3. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writers Links | No Wasted Ink

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