Right from the start let me make sure you know that I in no way subscribe to any version of the “Satanic Panic” or its second incarnation, which was to blame “violent video games” for any and every real life act of violence, suicide, etc. This is nonsense. The Satanic Panic was entirely fictional, as was the story of the troubled D&D player who died in the steam tunnels or whatever, and, in fact, the release dates of what the PTA warned were the worst of the violent video games matched on a month-by-month basis to the greatest decrease in violent crime in American history. So, no, this post is not going to be any version of “violent media creates violent kids.”

Can I say that and then ask the question: Should we stop conjuring the apocalypse?

Well, I think I can at least ask the question. We need to be able to ask questions, think and discuss, and all that, yeah?

So let’s.

I don’t tend to be a big fan of what I think we can call the “standard” post-apocalyptic story, which follows this simple, four-step formula:

1. There’s some kind of serious disaster.

2. All of our institutions, already hanging on a knife’s edge, immediately and thoroughly collapse and disappear, often within the space of a few days or weeks.

3. Ordinary citizens descend into a lawless rabble, punctuated by a very few decent people who try (often in vain) to fight the good fight amidst gleefuly murderous lawlessness because, apparently, the only reason we aren’t wontonly murdering each other over a box of Twinkies is because of the afformentioned edge-teetering institutions and not because people have any internal sense of decency and community.

4. The biker (or prepper or other hyper-masculine violent sociopath) shall inherit the Earth.

You’ve seen this in The Walking DeadThe RoadThe Book of Eli… and so on and so forth, ad nauseum.

The first problem I see is that this formula has played out in actual human history exactly no times, including during times of spectacular political and economic upheavel including World War II, which was measurably the worst thing that ever happened in all of human history. It didn’t happen in Ancient Rome, believe it or not, nor during the Black Plague and the so-called Dark Ages. That inexplicable disconnect between the way we all seem to assume we’re going to behave and the way we actually do behave, or have behaved, is the central assumption that drives this whole sub-genre.

Okay, but with all honestly the fact that it makes no logical sense and has no actual historical or sociological precedence  doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting, fun, entertaining , and even  enlightening to think about. A lot of speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, horror) starts with the completely impossible and then tries to work out how we’ll handle that. Having written some deeply cynical fiction, and being a lifelong fan of same, believe me it’s odd for me to start questioning the idea of the genres as broadly realized warnings. Some of the great classics from Frankenstein  through 1984 and The Stand not only rank among my all time favorites but are enduring stories that all say, in one way or another: Watch out! Watch out with all these experiments in medicine and biology—that might go terribly wrong. Watch out, everybody, because governments are becoming more and more oligarchical and restrictive in nature. Watch out, a serious pandemic might  just lead to the collapse of law and order and invite the Devil into the world.

Got it. Loved them all.

Of the three of them, Orwell was way more on the nose than the others. Medical research has eliminated an awful lot of suffering and early death in the very long time since Frankenstein was written. We got through a global pandemic just recently and the people who were trying to make it worse (if only by trying to ignore it) were pushed aside (sort of) and anyway, inflation and ill-explained “supply chain distruptions” aside, we’re fine. The whole totalitarian oligarchy thing from 1984…?

Let’s talk about that a minute.

Was it just me, or did you think, the first time you saw a commercial for the interactive workout screens, that some asshole in Silicon Valley read about that in 1984 and thought, Hey, I can make that! all the while ignoring that Orwell was clearly trying to say that having someone yell at you while forcing you to excersie was, y’know… a bad thing. This is part of the point I’m trying to make.

Orwell imagined a dystopian future that a bunch of otherwise smart  people then seemed to take on as a challenge. They’ve though, Yeah, we can totally do that, and created either very small versions of INSOC as things like NXVIM or Peloton, slightly larger versions like Scientology or CPAC, and much larger expressions like post-war America from McCarthy through Nixon and on to Trump and the rise of the Objectivist/Libertarian thing and a generation of people who seem to at once despise government as a high demand or high control group and engage with each other via one high control group after another. The American right learned the lesson of continuous warfare from Orwell while the American left blissfully adopted Newspeak.

Do we have a whole cadre of Americans who not only believe in that four-step process of apocalypse-to-dystopia, but are, seemingly intentionally, trying to push it forward? Wasn’t that what was happening at the Capital on January 6th? Isn’t that what’s behind the so-called “preppers” and the whole insane gun thing? Real people in real life are arming themselves against the inevitable apocalypse, which they know is right around the corner and if it isn’t then we’ll God damn well make sure it is. Why would anyone do this? In his book The Unidentified, author Colin Dickey started to narrow in on this.

In the decade after World War II, masculinity itself was undergoing a crisis. Men who’d fought in a great war were now readjusting to a life of domestic placidity and workplace drudgery. The 1950s were a time of economic prosperity in the United States, to be sure, but such economic gains came with a radically reenvisioned sense of a man’s role: no longer someone who worked with his hands, he now worked a desk job, he was tethered to a suburban house and familial obligations, and his world was one of consumerism. This malaise helps explain the massive popularity of men’s adventure magazines, with their tales of flesh-eating weasels, quicksand, and cobras. Magazines with names like True Adventures and Real Life Action played to the nine-to-five stiff, giving him an alternative fantasyland in which to reimagine himself as liberated from the womanly bonds of the material world, living off the land with only his skills and his hands. Free once more.


This is NOT aspirational!

Is all of this reactionary vs. progressive, right vs. left, and the assumption of the apocalypse  because of the stories we tell, from the biblical apocalypse onward?

Have we been telling each other the same science fiction story so many times, for so many thousands of years, that even though it can be proven to be bullshit it not only won’t go away but we just keep doubling down on it so that apocalyptic cults that used to be rare, bizarre things, have now become… a majority of Americans to some degree?

I don’t know, but it’s sure starting to seem like it.

Or am I just seeing a present day dystopia where none exists, and imagining  an impossible apocalypse caused by victims of high control cults like QANON and the Republican Party just finally wanting to get to the world of Mad Max  because it looks like fun or something? Am I just blaming those high contol groups for imaginary bad things because some other high control group I don’t even know I’m a member of is telling me to fear the reactionary harbingers of the apocalypse?


But what if we all, as purveyors of speculative fiction, take a deep breath, look to examples like Gene Roddenberry and Iain Banks, and start imagining futures where we can finally all just get along? I asked myself a few weeks ago if I should try to cheer up, and I guess all this is part of that thinking. But hey, let’s do that thinking. We won’t be the first.

“But why do human beings expect an end to the world at all?” Emmanuel Kant wrote in “The End of All Things,” “And if this is conceded to them, why must it be a terrible end?” 

—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, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Lyri Ahnam says:

    Fabulous, thought-provoking post.
    If the New Age movement is correct, and our conscious intentions can shape our reality, then we as SFF writers have a moral responsibility to be mindful of the futures we create. I for one have no delusions that I’d be one of the “lucky” ones who’d survive the apocalypse.
    Thanks again for your post.

  2. I loved this post. 🙂 I’m all for imagining a better future and writing it into being.

  3. Michael Anderson says:

    During the bronze age collapse and the fall of western Roman empire, this appocolypse did happen. The lawlessness was abound and warlords fought for their power. Local authority in some towns did not fall, but as new ambitious leaders came to power, they did it with extreme violence. In England, when the local Romans left, locals were often forced to follow the rule of whomever had the most soldiers. The Hun were what you would call Biker Raiders, and the various warbands that rose to abundance durning these times would later turn into new kingdoms. The fact that kingdoms were formed show the reality of a preceived lack of power. Also, the expansion erra with the scandinavian raids, we call Vikings, would have seemed to be an appocolyptic event to those enduring it. Just saying, there is some precident to the psychoness of people.
    Another example, during hurricane Katrina rescue effort, many of the helicopters report and show being fired upon by the people on the ground. So even there in modern history you have the examples of a loss of power systems turning into those types of events.

    • Philip Athans says:

      All of this is true. There have been and still are localized dystopias (North Korea, much of the Middle East) and there have been terrible wars, traumatic shifts in the power structure, isolated areas and moments of lawlessness, but other than being horrified at the failure of our government to respond responsibly to Katrina, it otherwise had no effect on me at all in Seattle. Likewise, the Mongol hordes had no effect on the populations of, say, the Americas, most of Africa, etc., even if it was all terribly traumatic to Europe and the Middle East. What we have never seen is a fast and permanent global collapse of human civilization, and we’ve, in fact, been moving steadily farther away from that possibility century by century. That doesn’t mean we’re living in any form of a utopia, of course, and oh, boy, do we have a long way to go before we can reasonably think that’s happened. But that doesn’t mean we’re hanging off the edge of an apocalyptic cliff, which I maintain is an imaginary construct.

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