Why do post-apocalyptic stories appeal to us so much? After all, they tend to be dark; plot-lines are limited by the situation; and at this point there’s a bit of a glut out there, which is a problem for us as writers as well as readers.
Bring’em on. I want more: more zombies, pandemics, and grid failures. Alien invasions!
Frog in hot water
I’m fascinated by how characters react in the frog-in-slowly-heating-water scenario. Your phone has no bars. Then your power goes out. Next, you hear wild rumors of people looting supermarkets. Finally, like our frog, you realize: I’m screwed.
In some stories, this early period spawns an elaborate dystopian society. In the books and shows that draw me, the fight to survive itself becomes the new normal.
I asked my husband Kevin (also known in this column as Hwong the Cleric), a fellow scifi fan, why he thinks we are attracted to these stories. He answered, “Because then none of us would have to go to Thanksgiving.”
He continued on a more serious note: “I think it’s because all synapses are in play and there’s no safety net. Everything you know is wrong. We all wonder what we would do in a situation where we are fighting over basic resources. Would we help others? What would it take to make us do things we would never have imagined doing?”
An author’s perspective
I also spoke with Melissa Dickerson, author of Cured, a wildly funny, fresh YA zombie apocalypse in which the teen heroine is…or was…one of the zombies (not a spoiler). Before I read this gem, I would have said the only way I want to encounter zombies is in my sights while wearing a VR headset.
“Modern life is stressful and complicated. We’re multitasking and so engrossed in technology that we’re suffering overload. Social conventions and expectations change so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. A lot of today’s changes are great, but others are making us more unhappy.
“Young people especially are feeling powerless. Many want to change the world for the better, but either don’t know how, or their efforts are disregarded. Others don’t know where they want to go in their lives, or how to figure that out.
“In a post-apocalyptic world, the shades of gray fall away. You’re back to basics, in ultimate control of your life. Your close-knit group works together. Distractions are minimal. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and your goals are clear. Survive. Defeat the bad guy. Find love in a world where you’re more than a photo on a dating site.”
She finished with this insight: “And really, who doesn’t occasionally fantasize about a little cathartic violence?”
Exploring our dark side
The darkest story I’ve ever written, “Prom Night”, takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting. It’s also the story closest to my heart, for two reasons.
First, I enjoy the stretch of portraying everyday life under extreme conditions. You still get up in the morning. You crush on people. The trash has to go somewhere. More than ever, you feel the need for some form of family unit, even if it’s one of your own making.
Second, putting extreme stressors on my characters freed me to explore my own dark side—a freedom I should give myself no matter what I’m writing, but usually don’t.
A little light reading
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven received critical acclaim that it well deserves. The book tells the unlikely story of a wandering group of actors performing Shakespeare in the remote outposts of what is left of civilization in the Great Lakes region of the U.S., twenty years after a pandemic. Lots of other stuff happens too.
“What’s key here, I think, is that Mandel doesn’t dwell on the apocalypse,” says Todd VanDerWerff in his review in Vox. Instead, the author paints a vivid portrait of the every-day existence of her characters, bringing the sense of what this would feel like so much closer than a more violent, extreme portrayal.
Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
Two teen girls and their dad live in an idyllic woodsy grove, but with all the conveniences and technology to which we’re accustomed. Slowly they begin to see things crumbling around them. They’re not sure why, but after a while, the “why” no longer matters. It’s a scary, beautiful, realistic portrayal of how regular people can reach beyond themselves in the face of fear and uncertainty. If you need something for movie night, Patricia Rozema wrote and directed a movie based on this book starring Evan Rachel Wood and Ellen Page. It’s well done and true to the book.
Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton
This is quite simply one of the best books I have ever read. The apocalypse, as with Station Eleven, is in the background, yet it propels the story arc. The book follows two isolated groups of people—one in space, one in the Arctic—who begin to suspect that something terrible has overcome the Earth, but are limited in their communications with the rest of the planet. I’ll stop here to avoid spoilers.