by Phil Williams
A story’s timing in relation to an apocalypse, for me, says a lot about the nature of that story, and why we want to read it. Broadly speaking, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction tends to fit three rough areas – stories surrounding the apocalypse, those in the near post-apocalyptic future and those in the far post-apocalyptic future. So what does each periods offer?
The Apocalypse Itself
The stories depicting an apocalypse could cover almost any large-scale disaster or war story. What lumps a book in with the apocalyptic genre, though, is the scale of destruction caused. When enough damage is done that the world will never be the same. The best apocalyptic fiction is about something capable of destroying everything. More crucially, it’s about what can survive something capable of destroying everything. These stories are the domain of unrelenting action and adventure. They’re also the stomping ground of romances surviving against the odds – or tragically being cut short. They’re even an area of existential musing – looking at the inevitability of death. Zombie fiction like World War Z provide adventurous or horror examples, while more literary approaches like The Age of Miracles use the apocalypse in parallel to coming of age. Many stories in this field also take us right through to the aftermath – Stephen King’s The Stand is classic in this respect, and one that perhaps belongs in both the first and second category.
The Near Post-Apocalypse
In the immediate aftermath of an apocalypse, we’re still obsessing over what survives – though we shift towards how life goes on. The near post-apocalypse is concerned with how we start again, which can either be with hope and original ideas or, more commonly, with barbaric fighting for survival. The near post-apocalypse, more than anything, tends to be the time when the world is least populated, so it’s the ideal place for stories of loneliness and the importance of individuals or small groups. It’s a great area for stories that celebrate ordinary people being forced into becoming special by their circumstances. It’s also a great change to ask what we would do if our world lost its rules. Books like Day of the Triffids, The Road or I Am Legend are tremendous examples that touch on all these ideas.
The Far Post-Apocalypse
Post-apocalyptic fiction set in the far future, long after a disaster, may be more generally associated with dystopian stories than ones about the apocalypse. This is a realm of creative and unusual ideas – essentially sci-fi or fantasy with the barest roots in the world we know. It’s also where you find sweeping societal ideas – if stories about the apocalypse judge the current world, the far apocalyptic future is often used to ask questions of what could emerge if things were completely different. A Canticle for Lebowitz, for example, spans centuries – while Riddley Walker, the book I most frequently recommend in this area, completely reimagines language. Many examples only loosely use the old world disaster to explain the rise of a dystopia (my own Estalia series included). It’s an area where we can explore our fantasies of regression, in contrast to the science fiction that assumes we’ll continue to advance.
Whatever the timeframe, of course, good apocalyptic fiction depends on its characters. That’s what we really want from all apocalyptic fiction – a look at how extraordinary circumstances impact interesting characters. Whether we’re looking at the end of all things, the start of something new or surviving in a dystopian civilisation, it’s being able to relate to these stories that makes them successful. For each of their purposes, they help us question how we behave and survive right now.
Phil Williams is an author of dystopian and contemporary fantasy fiction, whose work includes the post-apocalyptic Estalia series and the urban fantasy Ordshaw series. Find out more about him at: www.phil-williams.co.uk