Post apocalyptic (PA) literature is an interesting genre in which to write. Modern examples of this genre go back to the thirties through the fifties with Brave New World, 1984, Alas Babylon, The Earth Abides and others. They are the grandparents of the modern tale.
The interesting element for a writer is that the world as we know it is stripped away. The author can insert whatever he/she wants. In this respect, the genre is a form of science fiction where the author has a free rein to create his/her own worlds, even though fantastic, non-existent, elements may not be a part of the story.
The challenge for the author is to not stop at describing the details of the destruction and chronicling the protagonist’s reactions to the apocalyptic event, but to go deeper; to examine what happens to society when its supports are stripped away.
In western society we live (as does the whole developed world) in a web of dependency. That web supports the smooth functioning of our large suburban and urban areas, allowing people to live in close proximity with a modicum of privacy, and an amazing level of cleanliness, hygiene and health. This all happens so smoothly and behind the scenes that most of us are oblivious to the unseen support systems and workers that sustain the marvel that is a modern city and its suburbs. In the nineteenth century everyone was more connected to the systems needed for humans to survive: growing and preserving food, making clothes, making shelter, repairing tools and self defense. Today we can be ignorant of such skills and still function quite well.
Take the modern grocery store for example. It is a marvel of just-in-time inventory containing a bewildering array of choices, many fresh, seemingly always available for you to put in your cart. The economics consist of very low profit margins but very high turnover rates (how many times the whole inventory is turned—sold and replaced). Due to those high turnover rates and the demands of freshness, the average grocery store has only a three day supply of food on hand. That is why you see empty shelves when a snowstorm is coming.
Now, insert some apocalyptic event and have transportation cease. Just to make things more interesting, have all communications cease (as with an EMP attack as I postulated in my novel). Now the cities become centers of starvation, panic and mayhem.
One reader asked why writers in this genre seem to always describe civilization becoming violent, going so bad when structure and authority break down. What lies behind the question may be a belief in the perfectibility of humans; that we are essentially good in nature and this goodness can come out just as easily as the bad side of our nature.
It seems to me that history doesn’t support this idea. A review shows civilizations arising and suppressing some of humanity’s bad traits, but only through the pressure of laws and regulations backed with force and punishment that keeps everyone in line. Take that control away and anarchy breaks out. Consider utopian societies; they attempt to establish groups that can achieve harmony. Most are driven by the belief in the perfectibility of humans. But, as C.S. Lewis put it, they form, thrive and then it all seems to go wrong. Greed, lust, aggression assert themselves, a “strongman” emerges and they slip into some form of totalitarianism.
Groups organized around religious doctrine, which establishes a uniformity of view and purpose, a monoculture so to speak, seem to last the longest, but they generally become stagnant, not evolving and growing in intellectual or material achievements.
This is all no surprise for those of the Christian faith. The Christian believes that humans are “fallen” creatures and so need the help of God to attain their true (original) nature, which probably cannot be realized in this lifetime. They do not expect perfectibility and recognize the futility of trying to achieve it through human means alone.
The secularist retains a belief in the perfectibility of humans (we can be better) in spite of the overwhelming evidence of history. Great efforts are put into society’s structures (many to good effect), but they keep coming up short of the goal in the end. Still the effort goes on. Back in the sixties, Lyndon Johnson, set up a group of programs called “The Great Society”. He was going to win the war in Vietnam and the war on poverty. He accomplished neither, but we still spend billions and even trillions on the legacy programs that he created to eliminate poverty.
Personally I think politics can only put band-aids on society’s ills; it is only triage. Society cannot be fundamentally fixed or healed until people’s hearts are changed. Politics cannot do that. Maybe only God can; I’ll leave that your judgment.
So for the novelist, the PA genre allows one to dig through the collapse, when the thin veneer of civilization breaks down, cracks and falls away. The theme of breakdown and collapse evidences the writer’s assumptions that humans are not perfectible, or have not yet achieved it. Our baser instincts come to the fore and have to be dealt with by the protagonist.
Bad people thrive because they are used to operating outside of the structure of laws. They are practiced in taking advantage of their fellow human beings and do not shy from violence to achieve their ends. They are well equipped for anarchy.
A writer’s challenge and enjoyment is to describe this conflict, showing how those deeper tendencies, the “fallen” side of our natures, come to the front and how we have to defend against those who give into them and then learn how to create space that allows for the “better” parts of our natures to emerge. In short, we must begin to erect the “structure” of civilization through which people can again begin to flourish.