Why do we love the Apocalypse in fiction? I’m sure I’m not alone in noticing the bloom in popularity of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction over the last decade or so. More interestingly, the genre has experienced a general shift from being on the fringe of sci-fi to the mainstream in a multitude of mediums. Hollywood has provided us recently with The Hunger Games, Mad Max, Planet of the Apes, The Book of Eli, World War Z, and The Road, name a few. Television has given us the wildly popular The Walking Dead, along with less successful shows such as Revolution and Falling Skies. The number of popular post-apocalyptic video games is too numerous to mention – Fallout, Rage, Wasteland, The Last Of Us, and countless generic zombie survival games.
Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction is nothing new. Writers have been variously penning tales of the devastated future for hundreds of years; apocalypses feature in many of the world’s major religions. In the Cold War, apocalyptic fiction was almost inevitable, with the new doomsday prospect ushered in by nuclear arsenals. Dozens of films and books were created on the subject. However, even at this time, when the threat of apocalypse seemed greatest, the genre was still generally consigned to the fringes and cult status, with a few notable exceptions. So why is it now, when the threat of nuclear apocalypse seems least likely, that the genre has suddenly become so popular and mainstream?
One reason, of course, is that though nuclear armageddon is now less likely, other forms of impending doom have taken its place. Global warming and climate change is one; the threat of the technological singularity is another. More importantly, perhaps, is the general depression and hardship caused by the Great Recession. Is it a coincidence that the upturn in the genre’s popularity has come in the aftermath of the economic collapse? I think not. Economic hardship, combined with the constant assault of negative news from around the world – the crises in the Middle East, growing superpower rivalry, scares over viruses, etc – has led to a surge in thinking depressing thoughts. This of course is coupled with the rise in mainstream popularity of extremely escapist films, such as the explosion of superhero movies. Why not combine depressing thoughts of the future and our desire for escapism to make more action-orientated post-apocalyptic fiction?
This genre has become especially prevalent amongst young people, as indicated by the rising popularity of what I like to call “Hunger Game Clones”. I think this is perhaps because we Millennials tend to think more about the future. Our thoughts are constantly on what comes next – graduate school, graduate university, get a job, etc. This is compounded with the fact that for young people especially, getting work is now harder than ever. Fewer people get decent jobs after leaving university; getting a house is even less likely. According to the BBC, these worries are not going to be disappearing any time soon, if the stats are to be believed.
All this seems rather reasonable. But it does not explain the root of the issue – why do we embrace apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction? What is it about society collapsing, millions dying and the Earth in crisis that we find appealing? Are we all secret sadists and misanthropes?
I find it unlikely. Rather, let us look at what apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction often offers us. As I see it, the core of the genre is what I call reversion. The reversion to a basic, more primitive form of humanity, where the most important task day-to-day is survival, where the pressures of modern-day society seem trivial and petty in comparison to finding your next meal. We all appear to find something romantic in this notion of a primitive humanity – the trope of the Noble Savage and so on. In today’s world, so much seems trivial, unnatural and insubstantial. Food is more and more packaged and preserved. We spend ever greater amounts of time sitting in front of screens and immersed in the digital world rather than nature. We have lost the basic skills that we need to survive in the wild.
The appeal of apocalyptic fiction is that it often puts everyday people like us in a terrifying situation, and asks them to adapt in order to survive. The protagonists of the genre are rarely heroes with incredible talents and abilities; rather they are Everyman, an ordinary person put in extreme circumstances – someone we can all relate to. Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction allows us to experience that reversion from modern-day society to primitive man at a safe distance.
Reversion then often leads into another element that is popular with us all – the chance for an entirely new beginning. This is especially true on the societal level, in an age when so many of us are dissatisfied with our political and economic system. In post-apocalyptic fiction, society as we know it has gone, but the humans remain. Eventually, a new society will rise from the ashes – what will it look like? Predictions range across the genre from utopian communes to Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest gang warfare. Almost always, however, it raises people who in our current society would never be in positions of power. Power gained from education, wealth, and nepotism is replaced with the purer form of leadership by ability and personality. The corporate and political elite are no more, and Everyman once again steps up to take upon the mantle of leadership.
I believe this is the main reason we find apocalyptic fiction so appealing. It seems to let us enact fantasies – however brutal and terrible they may seem – of reverting to a simpler, purer age. The Apocalypse gives us the chance to throw off the shackles and burdens of the modern day, and focus on the more natural, primitive elements of the human condition. It is the updated version of the myth of the Phoenix – the old, tired, decadent society burns to a cinder, and a stronger humanity rises from the smoking ashes.