Friday, 18 January 2013

The appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction

Having recently published Ice Diaries, which tells the story of a small group of survivors in a 2018 London under twenty metres of snow, I got to wondering about the popularity of post-apocalyptic novels. Why are we so willing to imagine the end of our civilization, when for most of us in the West we have never had it so good?

What is the attraction of losing everything that makes our lives easy and getting back to basics - sometimes with added zombies?

Here are my theories as to why we find a post-apocalyptic scenario appealing:
  • In an increasingly Nanny state, the disappearance of tiresome rules and bureaucracy. No more parking tickets or obsessively checking the speedometer to avoid a fine or remembering to put the rubbish out on a Friday, after 5.30 but not before.
  • The chance to have adventures and move out of one's comfort zone. Farewell nine to five.
  • The novelty of being in a familiar setting but under hugely different circumstances.
  • There is a looter and pillager deep in all of us, just waiting for an opportunity. The collapse of civilization makes looting acceptable, even necessary.
  • You can, like my heroine Tori, get to choose an opulent flat to live in that you could never normally afford.
  • Having to be resourceful, and having more control over one's life.
  • Immediate and rough justice, instead of our flawed and expensive judicial system - whose results often, after an agonizingly long wait, amount to rough justice.
  • The planet getting a rest from its biggest depradator, man.


  1. I'm not sure I'm really into post-apocalyptic fiction, any more than I'm into military-style sci fi. But when favourite authors write in a genre that isn't my favourite I still tend to read their books.

    What I like in sci-fi (my preferred genre) is the "what if?" element. If you have a great plot and compelling characters, then we're all set! Oh, and humour. I do like a bit of humour.

  2. And I had you down as a zombie enthusiast, FH :o)

  3. When I went to live in central Africa back in the 80s, it was a bit of a shock. If I wanted to eat something, I first had to grow it - that meant getting the seeds too. Stocks of dried peas ran low before any signs of carrots or cabbages appeared. It was a similar pattern for most aspects of life.

    Initially, it was the challenge that spurred me on but, as Tori found, it is time consuming, and after a few years, I was very pleased to run back home to England and Marks and Spencer's food.

    I haven't finished Ice Diaries yet (probably will over this snowy weekend) so I don't know the ending and I look forward to seeing how it all works out.

  4. Dried peas, carrots and cabbages - Baldrick's very small casserole, perhaps?

  5. Yes, indeed, small but healthy.

  6. I'd agree with fairyhedgehog in that I tend to read books by authors I like whatever genre they choose... It did take me a while to buy this one, though because I'm not big on dystopian, at all.

    However, for what it's worth, I read fantasy and sci-fi because they take me away from the boring real world into another one that is infinitely more interesting.

    I, too, love a bit of humour. Especially if it also contains sarcasm.

  7. Got to choose a genre for my next book. Maybe I should try to stick to one this time...

    Is sci-fi a lot of work? Would I have to look up quantum theory, black holes etc. on Wikipedia, or could I just make it all up?

  8. Hard sci fi with black holes is good - but so is soft sci-fi, full of handwavium.

    Why not just write the book you want to read? I'll read anything you've written and I bet a lot of other folks feel the same way too.

  9. PS Zombies are my least favourite trope. I much prefer vampires!

  10. Where do you stand on werewolves? (Not their toes, obviously...)

  11. As far away as possible.

    I'm not really into shapeshifters, but if you've read Kim Harrison's Hallows series, I've seen shapeshifting done rather well there, albeit with potions. And Charlaine Harris does it pretty well in her Sookie Stackhouse series.

    I can't wait to see what you come up with.

  12. I've never read a shapeshifting book. I wonder if potions have side effects, like medicines do?

  13. I don't really like post-apocalyptic scenarios. I remember one by Terry Brooks 'Armageddon's Children' which I disliked intensely and didn't finish. There are however some authors that I will follow to the ends of the earth, whatever they write!

    Is sci-fi a lot of work? Would I have to look up quantum theory, black holes etc. on Wikipedia, or could I just make it all up?

    Asimov invented the laws of robotics without having working robots to study and John Wyndham wrote the Triffids with no simillar plants to study. You could do this Lexi. You have after all already invented a matter replicator .... did you patent that!?

    Please don't break any fundamental laws though. I wouldn't like it! LOL

  14. Oh Q, I wouldn't know a fundamental law if it bought me a drink and chatted me up.

    But if you want anything replicated on the quiet, reasonable terms, I might be able to oblige. (Nothing inorganic, though. Doesn't work on the current OMD model.)

  15. Lexi, My blog runs a series in which one entry addressed a similar topic:
    While you focus on individual motives, I treat the genre as more of a collective fantasy. Nice observations. -Shawn

  16. Very interesting and thought-provoking article, Shawn, I enjoyed it.

  17. Lexi, what about pure, unadulterated fear? Kind of like dreams that try to deal with our personal fears, I think apocalyptic tales (among many of your points as well) try to deal with our insecurities about change, particularly massive, fundamental change.

    Have you read Cormac McCarthy's _The Road_? A VERY dark, unpleasant ride, but at the same time brilliant. And, even more frightening than lumbering zombies: quick-witted humans who have resorted to cannibalism.

    PS I'm disappointed that no one really addressed your question. Because I think it's a great question.

  18. I haven't read The Road, and you've now put me off it :o) These days I like escapist literature that's still based in reality and try to avoid anything too dark.

    But I'm sure you're right that post-apocalyptic fiction addresses our fear of massive change.

  19. Yeah, McCarthy's definitely an acquired taste. _The Road_ is particularly grim. It's probably the father-son relationship at the heart of it that I responded to, having a son myself.

    I also think post-apocalyptic stories can be instructional, depending on how realistic they are. The reader hopes to get some answers to those difficult questions: What would it take to survive in a post-apocalyptic world? Could I manage it?

  20. Though it would be a harsh life post-apocalypse (no dentists would literally be a pain) I think some authors overdo the grimness. One friend in America who lost electricity for eleven days after Hurricane Sandy said how everyone went out of their way to help each other. There'd be that aspect, as well as mayhem.

  21. Post Apocalyptic stories share some commonalities with amnesia stories. It is the big reset.

    But then amnesia stories create new (often more idyllic) complexity to the blank slate. At some the past-forgotten complications make a reappearance and must be overcome so that the new idyl can be said to be fairly one.

    Post apocalyptic novels generally have much more straightforward obstcles to overcome. But they often also end in a new idyl - thus the cosy (cozy) catastrophe.

  22. 'The big reset' - nice way of putting it - and 'the cosy catastrophe'.

    I'd never thought of amnesia stories as being a genre, though I'm currently listening on the radio to an old favourite of mine, Traitor's Purse by Marjorie Allingham, which qualifies. Perhaps I should try my hand at one with the next novel...