Ep 27: Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

What Happens after the End of the World?

What would happen if humanity ceased to exist?

Well, assuming, of course, that earth itself has not been destroyed in this hypothetical apocalypse, the world would continue quite happily without us.

People have long speculated about what would happen in the weeks, months, and years after the end of humanity. There is an obvious perverse pleasure in seeing the world we have destroyed, and continue to destroy, getting its revenge. There’s a misanthropy in this type of speculation, what’s sometimes called “catastrophe porn”, but there’s also a humble recognition that ultimately we are, as humans, largely insignificant in the vast scale of things.

Whatever we feel, we are definitely attracted to exploring the idea; apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction has been around for a long time. We like to imagine the end of the world, but it’s quite hard to write a narrative with no people, so what we also like to do, is to imagine what would happen if just a small number of people remained.

Not quite the end of the world, but the end of world as we know it.

Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

Post-apocalyptic stories combine so many fascinating elements: there’s the speculation about the future, the frequent sense of adventure and problem solving in a new and dangerous world, the science fictional world building, the appeal to our curiosity about the future of our species.

And the profound, complex questions about us, about our relationship with our planet, and with each other, and the huge societal issues that we face.

In conversation with Professor Heather Hicks, from Villanova University, this episode explores the end of the world, from plagues to nuclear war, drought to zombie hordes, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man to the best contemporary post-apocalyptic fiction.

Post-Apocalyptic Fiction (Words To That Effect Ep27)

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Guest

This week’s guest was Professor Heather Hicks. She is the Chair of English and Professor of Contemporary Literature at Villanova University, in Pennsylvania. She is the author of The Post-Apocalyptic Novel in the Twenty-First Century: Modernity Beyond Salvage (New York: Palgrave, 2016). You can find more about her research here

Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

Works Mentioned

Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville. The Last Man (Le Dernier Homme)

Mary Shelley The Last Man

Lord Byron (George Gordon) “Darkness”

John Wyndham The Day of the Triffids

Cormac McCarthy The Road

Margaret Atwood Oryx and Crake

Claire Vaye Watkins Gold Fame Citrus

Paolo Bacigalupi The Water Knife

Emily St John Mandel Station Eleven

Octavia Butler The Parable of the Sower

Colson Whitehead Zone One

Octavia Butler Other Book

Music

Music this week was by Saso, all from their fantastic album Mysterium.

Saso - Mysterium words To That Effect Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

Sound Effects

All recorded by Conor Reid, except “Crowd in Medium Dense Busy Packed Bar”. Freesound.org

Robinson Crusoe is the inspiration for so many post-apocalyptic narratives. Have a listen to the WTTE episode on Crusoe here.

There’s lots of overlap between post-apocalyptic fiction and climate change fiction. Have a listen to the climate change fiction episode here

Or maybe you just want a bit more science fiction? Here’s an episode to keep you happy

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Full Episode Transcript

I’m Conor Reid, with Words To That Effect

What would happen if humanity ceased to exist?
If everything we make and do every day came to an end.
If alarms and morning coffee
And traffic, noise and morning commutes
Phones and emails and mundane meetings
The smell of a homecooked meal
Friends and the buzz of a busy pub
Music, and tv, theatre and film, and podcasts

If it all. Stopped.

Well, assuming, of course, that earth itself has not been destroyed in this hypothetical apocalypse, the world would continue quite happily without us.
People have long speculated about what would happen in the weeks, months, and years after the end of humanity. There are so many variables, of course, so a lot of it is just guesswork, but there is a fairly reasonable timeline of events:

One of the first things to happen is that the world would get very dark. Without a steady supply of coal, power station would quickly shut down and the lights would go out. No street lights, no electricity in homes or offices, or anywhere else.
Animals – with no humans around – would suddenly lead very different lives. Pets, and zoo animals, who couldn’t escape confinement would die of starvation, but the others would go feral. Many farm animals, too, would die without humans (such as cows) others would roam free, or be preyed upon by newly wild packs of dogs and other animals.

And all these animals would have hugely expanded territories because the world’s cities and towns are no longer out of bounds.
At some point fairly early on, nuclear power stations, without a supply of cold water, would explode. Clouds of radioactive gas would spread across the world. Not to mention the other toxic chemicals and gases that would be released in the absence of humans to maintain where we store them.
Huge numbers of plants and animals would die out.
Eventually, though, natural life would adapt and flourish. The world’s oceans, without fishing trawlers, would be restocked with fish and other marine life.

After just a few years, nature would begin to retake all our great cities. Roads and buildings would slowly become covered in vegetation. Many buildings might last hundreds of years, but most without maintenance would begin to collapse and disintegrate as the decades wore on.
Barriers against flooding and other artificial means of keeping disaster at bay would no longer function. Cities would be flooded, destroyed by fire, battered by hurricanes and never rebuilt.

After only a century, the remains of humanity would be recognisable but, often, only just. The world would be covered in rusted hunks of metal – the hardly recognisable remains of millions of cars.

After just a few hundred years almost everything humanity has created would be lost. Major roads and great walls, grand skyscrapers and ancient monuments, cultivated land and artificial waterways.
Our presence on this planet would be all but lost, and earth would go on without us.

I don’t know how you feel about this. About the end of humanity, the flourishing of nature in our absence.
There is an obvious perverse pleasure in seeing the world we have destroyed, and continue to destroy, getting its revenge. There’s a misanthropy in this type of speculation, what’s sometimes called “catastrophe porn”, but there’s also a humble recognition that ultimately we are, as humans, largely insignificant in the vast scale of things.

Whatever we feel, we are definitely attracted to exploring the idea. The History Channel in the U.S. made a documentary about this a few years back – Life After People. The opening episode became the most-watched show ever aired on the channel. There are thousands of videos and articles online exploring similar ideas.

And then there’s the fiction.
Post-apocalyptic fiction has been around for a long time.
We like to imagine the end of the world, but it’s quite hard to write a narrative with no people, so what we also like to do, is to imagine what would happen if just a small number of people remained.

Not quite the end of the world, but the end of world as we know it.

*

I love reading post-apocalyptic fiction: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Emily St John Mandell’s Station Eleven and so many others.

There’s been a huge boom in post-apocalyptic fiction in the 21st century. And that’s just literature. Film adaptations of The Road or I am Legend, the zombie apocalypses of The Walking Dead comic book series and phenomenally popular TV show. Even comedy series like The Last Man on Earth.

And I got thinking. What is it exactly that draws me to these stories? Why do I enjoy reading them? I mean some of them are pretty grim.
So I thought I’d ask someone who knows quite a lot about this: Professor Heather Hicks, author of the “The Post-Apocalyptic Novel in the 21st Century”.

That is a great q. All the things that draw other ppl – combo of desire to think thru all the kinds of problems that could develop as a consequence of some of the major effects of modernity like nuclear weaponry, pollution, and believe that there would be some way of surviving that and moving forward and having some kind of hope so there’s that
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Professor Hicks is the Chair of English and a Professor of Contemporary Literature at Villanova University, in Pennsylvania .
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There’s the element of problem solving that’s fascinating, an adventure element that’s irrefutable, goes back to Crusoe, exciting to read
Gives you an occasion to examine what works now what you might wish to change or not in society that we live in
I’ve always loved sf, there’s an appeal to world building that’s happening in these works even if it’s sometimes repetitive
Trying to look forward into the future is an exciting process
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So post-apocalyptic stories combine so many fascinating elements: there’s the speculation about the future, the frequent sense of adventure and problem solving in a new and dangerous world, the science fictional world building, the appeal to our curiosity about the future of our species.
And the profound, complex questions about us, about our relationship with our planet, and with each other, and the huge societal issues that we face.

When the world ends, it really focuses the mind.

“Adrian and I rode for the last time through the streets of London. They were grass-grown and desert. The open doors of the empty mansions creaked upon their hinges; rank herbage, and deforming dirt, had swiftly accumulated on the steps of the houses; the voiceless steeples of the churches pierced the smokeless air; the churches were open, but no prayer was offered at the altars; mildew and damp had already defaced their ornaments; birds, and tame animals, now homeless, had built nests, and made their lairs in consecrated spots …”

Think about how often you’ve watched or read this scene. It’s the mystified Cillian Murphy wandering through a deserted London in 28 Days Later, a resolute Will Smith driving his car through an overgrown and abandoned New York in I am Legend.

The quote you just heard, however, is from quite a bit earlier, 1826 in fact.
It’s from Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. Shelley is of course far better known as the creator of Frankenstein, but The Last Man is extremely important in the history of post-apocalyptic fiction. There is actually a whole sub-category of “Last Man” stories, dealing with the last remaining person on earth.
Shelley’s book was not particularly well-received at the time and it has never received the attention of Frankenstein, but then again that’s a big ask when you publish one of the most important novels in the English language at the age of 20.

There is also the fact that The Last Man is not really a great novel. It’s so unnecessarily long and contains so many passages extolling the virtues of characters who are these barely disguised versions of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. It’s a bit of a slog to get through, but as you read it you start to recognise all of these tropes and conventions of post-apocalyptic fiction. This was the time when they were all taking shape.

Before all this, though, there was Robinson Crusoe. A lot of things have a habit of coming back to Robinson Crusoe (and, indeed, you can find out about those very thing on the WTTE episode about Robinson Crusoe in season one):

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I think in the western tradition many scholars see Defoe’s Rob Crusoe as a precursor or pioneering text in this field even though he obviously isn’t experiencing the global apocalypse that later works will look at the kinds of probs that he faces in that text wind up getting used in later work
And the kind of alienation or loneliness that he suffers gets borrowed over and over again in this form later on
And then more generally there are some early books that start to explore what it would mean if the worlds was collapsing

*
The Last Man, an 1805 work by (ahem) Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville is one of the most important. It’s also called The Last Man, seeminly everyone writing about the topic at this time called their work The Last Man
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It’s an amazing book I highly recommend it – overlap of religious concerns
He was actually a priest – its really an early attempt at sf – its got airships in it and other kinds of tech
It’s to some degree one of the first man-made disaster narratives – its imagining a world where overpop and overuse of resources has collapsed the pop and an infertility plague has descended over the pop – they can’t reproduce anymore , that’s the premise

That obviously inspired to one degree or another a whole series of other narratives – essentially it’s the last man narrative in the same way as Crusoe
There were lots of other novels as well of lots of poetry imagining a disaster which left a single person left in the world.

“The world was void,
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—
A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirr’d within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp’d
They slept on the abyss without a surge—
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave”

*
Although,
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Although one other weird thing about LM is that there’s almost never an actual last person – person who feels alone or is alone for a long tine and the n finds other or is with people then finds ppl

*
Now I’ve been talking about Last Man novels, post-apocalyptic novels and so on without any huge distinction. Firstly “The Apocalypse” is a biblical term, from the Book of Revelation, with all the associated imagery and religious faith that that entails. But, the way most people use it is really just as a good word for a huge disaster which ends, or almost ends the world.

You could distinguish between stories about the time before an apocalypse, during one, after one, but they kind of blur together really.

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Essentially most apocalyptic narrative share some sort of surviving voice, describing the apoc, in other words there has to be someone recalling the apoc events, which winds up creating a post apoc element. And vice versa – most post-apoc narratives incl a description of an apoc that took place, in the contemporary sense of a disaster
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So, the distinction between apocalyptic & post-apocalyptic, a single remaining person, or a small community of people is maybe not too important.

But, before we decide how to end the world, I want to tell you about another show. This show is part of the Headstuff Podcast Networt, and I wanted to play our a trailer from one of our other shows

AD BREAK

So. Back to the end of the world.
There are a lot of ways to end the world – asteroid strike, nuclear war, horrific plague, something which is basically a plague but in supernatural form, like zombies or vampires, a catastrophic natural disaster, alien invasion, or maybe we all go blind and weird, carniverous plants take over the world (in case you are wondering this is not my imagination, that’s The Day of the Triffids)

The way we end the world at any given time tends to reflect our preoccupations. In the 19th century it tended to be natural, rather than human-made disasters. During the Cold War there were lots of works set in radioactive wastelands following nuclear war. As an awareness of climate change has grown, so too have post-apocalyptic stories set in future worlds ravaged by climate change (and for more on that, you can go listen to my climate change episode, part 2 of the double episode on utopias from last season – so many interconnections today). Plague narratives have kind of always been around, as you might expect.

And all these different apocalypses can push a novel in a certain genre direction too. Certain apocalypses might lend themselves to a more science fiction treatment (like, say an alien invasion) or perhaps something more realist set after a global pandemic, or the story might veer into horror with a plague of zombies. And there are certain things you tend to find in each:

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The plague narrative – you do get the you often have formulaic elements like characters get to move into really nice houses and go to nice restaurants and eat what they like
When they realise they have more supplies than they could ever need, enough clothing and caned food to last into the distant future
Cold war narr were formulaic in a diff way – terrified of nuclear effects, things like radiation and mutation so took you in a different direction towards horror and massive destruction
The Road is like that – ppl have argued about what has happened – was it a nuclear wat but there are no references to radiation at all in the book
Eg of effect that you got in earlier cold war narratives – everything is destroyed, theres no living matter at all the landscape is just ash – that creates a certain set of problems and you get things like cannibalism
There’s a lot of formulaic

*
The other thing to remember is that it’s an important choice for the author, which type of apocalypse you go with. Do you want your characters resorting to cannibalism and rejoicing when they find an unopened can of beans? Or have you other things you want to focus on?
One point is that plague narratives proved convenient for writers because they leave the physical infrasructure intact, food supplies intact
For writers who go that route you don’t have to have writers searching for food

To some extent, though, all apocalypses are the same:

*
I think that to some degree they all lead to the same fears about the collapse of all the institutions that organise society and the kinds of struggles for survival that ppl might have

*
And what about those institutions? The end of the world is a great time to reorganise society. So how subversive is post-apocalyptic literature? Or does it tend, by and large to be conservative? Are hierarchies of race or gender questioned or undermined, or do narratives of this type tend to fall back on traditional values and ideologies?
*
I change my mind – Its both – it can be a revolutionary form, takes away all the things that are structuring a society and opens door for radical change -some feminist writers who have imagined future worlds that are really different –
On other hand some of the books get caught in patterns or problems that have beleaguered cultures forever and just start rehearsing them in the same terms – one eg in that the language is of an old world and a new world, drags up colonial imagery – threatening Others that main characters have to battle -starts to look like the Heart of Darkness or older narratives – that there are good and bad ppl. Some sort of hierarchy that is natural that ppl will fall back into this hierarchy
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And obviously it very much depends who is writing the novel in question
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These novels and films cut in different directions and it does break down to some degree as to whose writing – female, African American. Apocalyptic event is an occasion to reorganise, you can give POC or women more power
One trope at this point is the woman warrior film – back to Sarah Connor from Terminator – incredibly strong female figure- but that doesn’t also preclude the same narrative really conventional gender roles
Reverts back to format where women are supposed to be doing domestic chores
Haven’t been a huge no of African American writers yet although Colson whitehead – Zone One – chose not to name the race of his characters in that novel
Other hand Octavia Butler who is famous for writing post-apocalyptic – Parable of the Sower – was already imaging climate change –
Butler in those narratives winds up imagining really extreme duress for pop that were already in a state of economic marginalisation, vulnerable to crime – writer that really helps to suggest how striated the culture is already before an event
Also imagines the empowerment of her main character in this one narrative who is a black woman – shows as additional victimised but imagines there can be an upheaval in the power dynamic

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Octavia Butler is going to be top of a lot of people’s lists when it comes to fiction of this type. So, what else should you be reading?
In the recent period I’ve been really impressed by Oryx and Crake – I read the first time and didn’t find it compelling and then every time I’ve read it since I’m more impressed by it – economic critique, globalisation to the really frank effort she makes to think about human trafficking to ideas about genetic engineering – really remarkabl
The Road is inescapable – taking the genre as f r as it can go – freebasing postapocalyptic misery – admire sb for being so unironic, so
*
Yeah, The Road is such a relentlessly depressing book. It’s so beautifully written, which kind of stops you from flinging it across the room in despair. But, yeah, freebasing postapocalyptic misery is a great description
I also read Station Eleven recently, which I really liked. Considerably less bleak (even though, you know, most of the world has been killed off in a horrific plague.). There’s plenty of violence and fear, but it’s also about art and loss and m emory.
*
Claire Vaye Watkins ‘ Gold Fame Citrus– one of the new clifi nooks – series set in California. There’s The Water Knife Paolo Bacigalupi)
Interesting eg of climate change novels that is very specific in its location – tries to resist conventions of the genre, creates a fascinating immersion in world that is defined by drought

*
It can seem, at times, like the end of the world is not too far off.

You’ve probably heard of The Doomsday Clock, a way of representing how far off we are from human-made disaster and global catastrophe. Various world events are examined and an estimate is made. As the hand gets closer to midnight, the end of the world gets nearer.
It was first set, in 1947, at seven minutes to midnight. It has been moved forward and backwards 23 times since then, reflecting advances in nuclear technology, tensions around the cold war, non-proliferation treaties, and other events. In 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union. It was moved to it’s further ever point from midnight – 17 minutes to midnight. This century is has mostly moved around between 5 and 7 minutes to midnight
Until most recently.

In 2017, reflecting the denial of climate change by the Trump administration, modernisation of nuclear weapons by the US and Russia and other factors, the clock was moved to 2 and a half minutes.

Today, it’s at 2 minutes, the closest its ever been to the end of the world.

Post-apocalyptic literature, stories which allow us to imagine our future, to plan for a better world, to avoid a global catastrophe, are more important than ever.

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That’s it for another episode of Words To That Effect, thanks so much for listening.
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If you want to add your name to that list, then head to Patreon.com/wtte or click the link on the WTTE website.
Special thanks this week to my guest Professor Heather Hicks. There’s a link to buy her book and more information on her and her research on wttepodcast.com
The great music you heard was by Saso. Links to their/his work are on the site too
Thanks also to Sarah and X for being the voices of Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley
This podcast is part of the Headstuff Podcast Network – go check out all the great shows are Headstuff.org
That’s it, see you in two weeks.

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