Seeing the Hopeful Side of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction
Megan Hunter Wonders What It Is We Crave About the End of the World
I can chart the progress of my life through the types of apocalypse I have feared. As a child, the endings I imagined were natural, even cosmic: the land swallowed by the sea, the sun swallowing the earth. When I was an adolescent the man-made came to the fore, as I searched for mushroom shapes in clouds and imagined the exact moment of an explosion: would I know it was happening, I wondered, or would there only be after; dimness, blood, confusion.
As a young adult, I would visualize the carcasses of the planes I traveled on, post-crash, the way their bellies would be lifted from the sea with a winch, spun around like part of a whale. This was a smaller-scale disaster, but I could also imagine all the planes falling from the sky at once, dropping in a synchronized movement to the land below.
When I had my first child, my visions took on a new realism: the key dates of climate change no longer had a vague, post-death strangeness to them. They were the likely years of my son’s life. Now, I imagined him walking through a world too hot to exist in, or living in a city that had become a new Atlantis, its underwater streets swum through by fishes, its buildings draped in seaweed.
As a writer, I might have a particularly dramatic or florid set of scenarios at my disposal, but I am far from alone in having an apocalyptic imagination. Even the briefest of glimpses at recent books published or movies made shows that these nightmares are part of our collective consciousness, a near-universal sense that the world might, at any moment, be about to tip into oblivion.
Etymologically, the word apocalypse contains the meanings to uncover, to transform, and to reveal, rather than simply denoting the end of things. Its origins in Judeo-Christian religious traditions mean that the endings it originally described always contained a beginning: the destruction of the world heralded the arrival of a new—holy—era. Even in its modern usage, the term post-apocalyptic contains within it an implication that even in the worst of circumstances, some form of life continues. There is, perhaps surprisingly, an afterwards, a world for humans to inhabit, and books to be written about them.
The most recent flourishing of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction—genres that have been popular for a long time—could be associated with the particularly depressing state of our current politics. In the midst of a rise in intolerance and inhumanity, we look for books that will reflect our realities. Such is the degradation of our society, the most realistic fictions are those that speculate about (previously) inconceivable situations. The control of women’s bodies in a world ravaged by toxicity is recognizable enough for women to take to the streets dressed as Offred and Ofglen, for The Handmaid’s Tale to come to the fore of literary and televisual culture 30 years after it was published. Prominent post-apocalyptic books of the last decade depict a variety of scenarios, each more detailed and prescient than the most vivid anxiety dream. America is devastated by violence and climate change in Omar El Akkad’s American War, illness wipes out (nearly all of) humanity in Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a father and son walk through nothingness in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But despite its popularity, the genre has its detractors; Slavoj Žižek has remarked on its conservatism, whilst Jill Lepore in the New Yorker recently described contemporary dystopian literature as the “fiction of submission,” in which “cowardice suffices.” For its critics, post-apocalyptic fiction amounts to little more than a wail in the darkness, a pessimistic resignation to the worst in human nature.
Another perspective could take as its starting point the original meaning of apocalypse, trying to see how fiction in these genres uncovers or reveals the ways in which our society dreams—however darkly—of being changed. As ever, dystopian and utopian visions are closer together than we might imagine: in Station Eleven the plague reveals a world that still, despite its collapse, holds on to the importance of art. In The Handmaids Tale, a birth is now a communal female event, in which women support each other rather than laboring alone, or being instructed by male doctors. As Atwood writes: “You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one.” This is not to say that either scenario depicts a good or desirable society—only that the bleakest of narratives can still reveal ways in which we want our world to change, and the nature of our future priorities.
Just as science fiction television programs set in space can’t help but mimic the fashions and haircuts of their contemporary moment on earth, dystopian fictions say more about the times of their production than a distant date. They are often particularly revelatory of the things that are still deemed to matter after everything else has been destroyed, of the most basic and essential components of human life. Indeed, it could be said the emotional impulse behind much post-apocalyptic fiction is not despair but hope, the will to identify what persists in the face of devastation. Alongside a fear of destruction, there is also a certain longing for the simplicity and clarity of a life lived without modern comforts and distractions; dystopian fiction both meets this longing and undermines it, by reminding the reader that such an existence is often a dangerous struggle for survival.
Of course, cataclysmic visions of the future of humanity are not new. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) is often cited as the first post-apocalyptic novel, but apocalypse was a prominent theme in literature long before this, with imagery of the last judgement and its aftermath adapted from Jewish and Christian eschatological writings. But neither did it begin there; many of the earliest myths of the world’s creation contain within them the prediction of its demise, as well as a striking lack of pedantic certainty. One West African narrative begins with the moon bearing stars, the children of the sun, and ends with the sun devouring his own progeny. Afterwards, the speaker is asked of the tribe’s fate, and answers with a sigh: “Who knows? Who knows? I do not know.”
In the midst of uncertainty we want to envisage how we will react to the scenarios of the future, and if these reactions hold any trace of hope for a different outcome. When I had my son, at the same time as absorbing the new closeness of the dates of possible cataclysmic change—2.6 degrees hotter by 2050, 88 centimetres wetter by 2100—I was struck by how much the state of motherhood mirrored my apocalyptic imaginings: the sense of complete newness, of a total re-appraisal of the world. I began to speculate on how someone like me would actually cope if her worst fears came true, and the new reality of motherhood was mirrored in the actual disintegration of the physical world. I began to think about the limits of maternal love, which seemed boundless but also held in such a tight space between the members of a nuclear family. And amidst the guilt of having children at all in a world on the brink, there was a new, forceful presence of the future: a being that walked and talked, that developed whatever my fears might be. Somehow, it was more difficult to be completely pessimistic about the future in its living and breathing presence, in the mystery of its unfolding.
The continued openness of history to change is at the root of our greatest hopes as much as our greatest fears. In presenting worst-case scenarios for our future, dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction can be seen to be opening up possibilities for a re-imagining of our response to devastation. If a novel is being written, people are still present, living their complex, difficult lives. Fiction seems to me an ideal medium for processing our anxious visions into a more creative test of the limits of our imaginations, and of the world’s capacity for transformation. As the philosopher Ernst Bloch has written, “The most tragic form of loss isn’t the loss of security; it’s the loss of the capacity to imagine that things could be different.”
It is often said that we live in an anxious time, both at the personal and political level: rates of anxiety and depression continue to rise, and we find our inner state reflected in the world around us. Our fears can lead us to resist change and long for the status quo, and it is famously easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But in fiction the former usually entails the latter, and in the strongest dystopian narratives life does not return to normal at the end of the story: it is changed forever. In the act of writing—and reading—altered worlds into being we transmute anxiety into something more powerful. In these changed places, a radically different future has already arrived, revealing the provocative nature of even the darkest of our daydreams.