There seems to be a lot of Post-Apocalyptic shit going on lately.
Over the past few years Ive been involved as a coordinator or judge of a number of wide-reaching writing development programs and competitions; the Immersive Writing Lab UK, the Storyworld Studio in Sydney and Platform X for the Australian Writers Guild and so on. Each of these has seen me wading through deep piles of submissions covering every conceivable form, style and genre of narrative. What was interestingly consistent through all of these was a rich vein of Post-Apocalyptic story ideas.
Is there something in the air? Is there a vapour in the zeitgeist compelling emerging writers to grapple with the aftermath of the end of civilisation? I too have been involved in producing and writing some post-apocalyptic goodness recently with the Wastelander Panda project. So Im not outside looking in, but clearly immersed in the radioactive fallout.
Like any narrative genre, Post-Apocalyptic fiction can be understood as a response to social fears - a metaphoric framework for exploring ideas about humanity that stem directly from where we are in the present day. So in this vein it’s worth interrogating what exactly Post-Apocalyptic fiction is and what it needs to be compelling and relevant.
Post-Apocalyptic fiction is often viewed simplistically as part of a broader sphere of science fiction with dystopian and speculative elements thrown in. But to see the Post-Apocalyptic genre as simply a mish-mash of these forms is to fail to do it justice and confuses a more articulate understanding of both the mechanics and the appeal the post-apocalyptic stories.
The great novelist Neal Stephenson framed Science Fiction effectively when he proposed SciFi as a sub-genre of the larger sphere of Speculative Fiction. This recognised the breadth of Speculative Fiction as stories that ‘speculate’ on a possible, and in some way plausible, world connected to our own (either literally or allegorically). Speculative Fiction stories are hence based on that plausible ‘What If?’ scenario and this possibility and plausibility is what clearly separates Speculative Fiction from Fantasy. So following this line of thinking we can define SciFi as the form of Speculative Fiction that ‘speculates’ on a world through the presence of a futuristic or otherwise unknown (but plausible) Technology or form of Science.
By contrast, Dystopian (or its more up-beat brother, Utopian) Speculative Fiction has a basis which is Sociological rather than Technological - stories based not on the presence of a particular technology but rather on the presence of specific Social structure, belief system or government.
These two arms - Science-Fiction and Dystopian-Fiction - frame two modes of Speculation. Certainly the two often mix together; the presence of a particular science or technology leading to a specific social, cultural or governmental dystopian/utopian System. Hence the great George Orwell’s ‘1984’ is clearly a dystopian fiction about the presence of a totaliarian government. But that oppressive regime is enabled by the presence of technologies - the ‘tele-screens’ that can watch people through every moment of their lives. Similarly the wildly compelling video game Borderlands is post-apocalyptic in form and tone, but is clearly predicated on Science-Fiction ideas of inter-planetary travel and colonisation (with a healthy dose of ‘Western-Frontier’).
But just because the two forms of Science and Dystopian fiction can freely mix doesn’t mean that understanding the distinction is irrelevant. Rather, for writers and creative producers it’s crucial to be able to clearly articulate these forces in order to shape and define post-apocalyptic storyworlds which are fresh and exciting but which still satisfy the demands and expectations of the genre.
So where does that leave Post-Apocalyptic fiction? Just like its cousins, Post-Apocalyptic is a from of Speculative Fiction - stories that speculate on a possible and plausible world. However that world being ‘post’, i.e. ‘after’, an apocalyptic event is an inversion of both Dystopian and Science fiction. Where Dystopian and Science fiction rely on the Presence of specific speculative forces (the presence of a particular Science or the Presence of a particular Social Order) Post-Apocalyptic fiction relies on the Absence of these things. (the absence of social order the absence of technology). That absence might be partial or total, but it’s the Vacuum that creates the Drama in a post-apocalyptic world.
So in designing a Post-Apocalyptic Storyworld the key elements a writer has to be conscious of defining and articulating are those that are the result of the absence of technology and social order and how this vacuum creates a dramatic engine that compels characters and communities. The obvious conclusion is ‘Resources’. Any good post-apocalyptic storyworld needs to be specific about its available and valuable resources and how the scarcity, control and possession of these resources generates dramatic conflict.
So, the primary questions for post-apocalyptic world-building…
What is Valuable but Scarce in your post-apocalyptic world?
Which communities or groups have these resources?
Why do they have them and not others?
Which groups want them?
How bad do they need them?
What’s the consequences of not having them?
Water, Food, Energy are the three obvious ones; the three that dictate the ability for communities to grow, re-civilise and ‘progress’ after an apocalypse. But there are many other potential scarce-resources which may generate interesting combinations and fresh Post-Apocalyptic perspectives. People themselves are often a post-apocalyptic scarcity - towns, communities, gangs may survive on their numbers and may set to conflict or war to protect, control or acquire people (witness Children of Men and The Walking Dead which interesting value systems placed in people and numbers, or the Fallout games where gang size and slavery are the major forces). Information can also be a powerfully scarce resource and in the context of our known modern world being a knowledge-society, the idea of world with a collapsed civilisation makes for a great conceptual inversion - a post-apocalyptic world where knowledge is scarce, prized and fought for. (we see this in films like The Book of Eli and La Jette where a gang hungers for books in the former and knowledge from the past in the later).
Whatever the ‘resources’ are, until your storyworld is specific about its resource-scarcity, any character journeys and story ideas will be largely vacuous and empty of substance. And in in many ways this is exactly what was so often missing in the Post-Apocalyptic submissions, proposals, scripts and stories I’ve read in recent years. All the motifs of the genre (gangs, violence, lo-fi weapons and fighting pits) but without any of the substantive, logical and dramatically sustaining guts of the genre.
So if we want to understand the DNA of Post-Apocalyptic narratives, how they work, what they mean and why the hell we feel such widespread urge to tell them, it’s worth looking to the narrative themes such stories deliver. By designing a post-apocalyptic narrative from this macro-level perspective of world-before-plot, writers can put themselves in a position to fully engage with the Thematic frameworks that are intrinsically woven into Post-Apocalyptic fiction.
Post-Apocalyptic stories are those set in a time and place where humanity has been reduced to base instincts and urges, where the social contract is broken and where the order of civilisation gives way to chaos. Post-Apocalyptic stories are those where technology (as a symbol of ‘progress’) and Civilisation (as a result of ‘progress’) have been removed; hence Progress is over and the central struggle is to reinstate civilisation and return to progress. All this points to the core of Post-Apocalyptic stories being invariably about Humanity struggling to survive against its own nature.
This is important to recognise because it points to an underlying premise beneath almost all post-apocalyptic fiction; that these stories assume human beings are NOT by nature Civilised or Humane. That Civilisation and Humanity (empathy, loyalty, community) are things that must be struggled for, faught and strived for. ‘Civilisation’ and ‘Humanity’ are goals without any inevitability of being achieved. If you have a post-apocalyptic narrative that isn’t thematically drawing on this premise then you run the risk of creating a story that is empty of the good shit that makes the post-apocalyptic genre so compelling and significant.