Post-apocalyptic fiction deals, as it names indicates, with the aftermath of a catastrophe which affects a very large territory or even the whole world. Typically, an individual or a small group of survivors narrate their efforts to rebuild civilization, or to accept reluctantly that it is gone for ever. In some extreme cases, only one person survives (Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826)). Post-apocalyptic fiction flourished in the 1950s and 1980s as a consequence of fears connected with nuclear weapons, and is now undergoing its most productive period or ‘golden age’ (post 9/11 2001). Yet, Mary Shelley’s novel suggests that the secular fear of total annihilation is older than we think. I emphasize ‘secular’ because, of course, Bible readers are only too familiar with Saint John’s lurid description of the end in his Apocalypse. Funnily, ‘apocalypse’, a Greek word, does not mean ‘catastrophe’ but ‘revelation’.

Essentially, post-apocalyptic fiction imagines three types of total destruction: one originating in natural causes, the second caused by man’s intervention and the third by an intelligent, non-human enemy. Natural causes include comets and asteroids crashing against Earth, our own planet going berserk, an unexpected mutation causing a plague. Man-made disasters include, as I have noted, the feared nuclear holocaust, unstoppable environmental damage or irresponsible experiments (Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, 1990). The third case responds mainly to alien invasions (though in Octavia Butler’s late 1980s Lilith’s Brood trilogy the invasion appears to be a solution of sorts to the nuclear apocalypse).

Those of use who were young in the 1980s surely can still recall the intense fear of total nuclear wipe-out. 1984, in particular, the year when the first Terminator movie was released, is not for me an Orwellian year but rather the culmination of the madness that led Cold War leaders to amass enough nuclear power to destroy the world several thousand times over. Here in Barcelona, then a pre-Olympics nonentity, we wondered whether we were important enough to deserve the attentions of a Soviet missile. It is in human nature to control our worst fears by imagining terrifying catastrophes and this is what fiction did then copiously. We could choose between the 1980s terrifying productions (Robert McCammon’s very long novel Swan Song of 1987 became my absolute favourite as I loved the girl protagonist); or read the quaint fiction of the 1940s and 1950s, when a nuclear planetary Judgment Day was still fantasy and not a daily possibility.

With almost 16,000 nuclear bombs right now on Earth (93% in the hands of the USA and Russia, the others in those of France, China, United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea… some list) we cannot really say that the 2010s are substantially different from the 1980s, they are perhaps even worse. Yet I am sure that for most earthlings all the other potential catastrophes I have named are more likely to happen, particularly the (unlikely) zombifying plague as seen in The Walking Dead. In the best post-apocalyptic tale of the 21st century, so far, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) no specific cause is named as the originator of the dreadful life to which the father protagonist so fiercely clings (for the sake of his son).

I have the impression that the United States have been narrating their own decadence since 2001, when a very small group of terrorists launched an attack that, seen on TV, seemed bigger than any alien invasion (think Independence Day, 1996). American fiction, whether it is The Hunger Games trilogy or the action film San Andreas, is imagining with rabid insistence what it is like to go through unthinkable destruction (with abundant technological glee) and to adapt to a civilization which has little to do with the one before apocalypse. I am fascinated by this already long-lasting phenomenon but I am wondering when it is going to end, since a consequence of post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction is that it increases depression. This need not be so. The wonderful Mecanoscrit del segon origen (1974) by Manuel de Pedrolo, which taught me to love science fiction, is post-apocalyptic fiction of the alien obliteration variety. It is meant to give hope in human resilience even in the face of hyperbolic destruction, which also used to be the case in older post-apocalyptic tales. Hope is today small and waning, or plain incredible.

Let me name a few post-apocalyptic novels that we, the depressive paranoid types, indulge in (apart from the ones I have already mentioned and excluding alien invasion stories for the sake of brevity):

After London (Richard Jefferies, 1885)
The Scarlet Plague (Jack London, 1912)
Earth Abides (George R. Stewart, 1949)
I am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954)
The Chrysalids (John Wyndham, 1955)
The Death of Grass/No Blade of Grass (John Christopher, 1956)
On the Beach (Nevil Shute, 1957)
Alas, Babylon (Pat Frank, 1959)
A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, Jr., 1960)
The Drowned World (J.G. Ballard, 1962)
Lucifer’s Hammer (Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, 1977)
The Stand (Stephen King, 1978)
Riddley Walker (Russell Hoban, 1980)
The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1985)
The Children of Men (PD James, 1992)
The Road (Cormac McCarthy, 2006)
World War Z (Max Brooks, 2006)
The Passage (Justin Cronin, 2010)
Wool (Hugh Howey, 2011)
Seveneves (Neal Stephenson, 2014)

No, I have not read all of them, just about two thirds. And if I am writing this post today it is because of two strange feelings associated with, in particular, Seveneves and the novel I finished yesterday, Earth Abides (soon to be a TV mini-series). In Stephenson’s massive book a micro black hole disintegrates the Moon, whose pieces destroy Earth by setting the atmosphere on fire as they fall. Two years mediate between our satellite’s collapse and apocalypse and, this is very odd, I felt relief. Oh, well, two years to go, how many stupid things can be finally left undone…

Stephenson imagines that mankind’s ingenuity (women’s mostly) allows human beings to re-make themselves and eventually reconquer Earth in fabulous high-tech style. Yet, unexpectedly, I don’t believe a word of it. In contrast, the far more modest Earth Abides (which inspired King’s also massive The Stand and probably also Seveneves) deals with the possibility that no adequate leader is found to reboot civilization. Ish Williams cannot cope nor can his small community understand the need to educate its children at least to be literate. The young quickly forget 20th century life, yet having been born after the ruinous plague and having missed the comforts of this by-gone life, they quickly adapt to the new circumstances. Just like our own young people, a friend tells me, are adapting to our post-crisis, post-apocalyptic times. No doubt.

I am told that not only extreme-right survivalist groups in America but also common citizens here in the little corner of the world where I live are preparing for world-wide catastrophe. People stupidly chose to believe in the recent past that an underground shelter would protect you from nuclear catastrophe, as they now seem to believe that learning basic survival skills (lighting a fire with two sticks) can protect you from the terminal destruction of Earth by the very obvious climate change. In Earth Abides the protagonist is a scholar (a geographer) who soon realizes that his scavenging community is no good; also, that urban dwellers too specialised in one task (like selling perfume) cannot survive. I have no illusions about my own usefulness yet I still see no point in learning to survive in caves. What you learn from reading post-apocalyptic fiction is that survival is not always the best possible option.

Having said that, this post has not been motivated by my apocalyptic fears about what the current political circumstances right here right now may bring (perhaps my reading list has) but by the tiny hope that apocalypse can be prevented and post-apocalyptic fiction be read as just a nightmare. Hopefully.

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