Before reading this article, I would suggest playing this song as you read, entitled I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire by The Ink Spots.
With the recent success of the reboot of Mad Max and the recent and highly anticipated announcement of Fallout Four, I think it is appropriate to talk about a commonly recurring theme is mainstream culture, whether if it is in novels, movies, and television shows. The reoccurring theme that I am talking about is the apocalypse and the world that follows it. The concept of the humanity falling to ruin has captivated millions of people for several years as has always been a topic of conversations as people ask, “What would you do if the world came to an end?” and “If society fell, what would happen if…”. Well, without hesitating, let’s take a proverbial walk into the wasteland.
A Brief Overview of the Apocalypse
The concept of the world ending is not a new one, but has been an ever expanding idea from the earliest moments of mankind’s history. Each of the early religions and faiths had their own depictions of the ‘end of days’ where humanity would succumb to the worst evils. In Christianity, the end days would be described as Judgement Day, where the people who believe in Jesus Christ will rise up unto Heaven and the sinners will burn on Earth. In the Norse mythologies, the end of days is referred to as ‘Ragnarök’, where a great battle between the Gods (ex. Thor, Odin, Freyr, etc.) will take place and the world will be submerged into the oceans, only to be reborn anew. Though later on, the modern portrayal of the apocalypse would come into being with novels such as Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949), On the Beach by Nevil Shute (1957) and The Postman by David Brin (1985). It was from this that the modern perception of the apocalypse would come into play and become embedded into the mindsets of millions.
The Causes of the Apocalypse
In every example of the apocalypse, there is always a root cause to it and how it transformed the world.
- Nuclear War – Ever since the discovery of nuclear energy and the first use of the nuclear bombs Fat Man and Little Boy, the world would learn to fear the destructive power of the atomic bomb. Within years, other countries would begin the construction of their own nuclear weapons and stockpile them as they prepared for the third world war that may never come. What makes nuclear weapons more intimidating as an weapon of the apocalypse is that if the initial blast from the weapon doesn’t kill you, the following radiation would kill you. The fear of over exposure to radiation poisoning through exposure actually caused people to purchase thousands upon thousands of potassium iodine tablets during the Fukushima Power plant incident thinking that the radiation would kill them even overseas. But the idea of countries using atomic weapons against each other would inspire writers of novels, games, and movies to create worlds where the bombs have been dropped and the once proud cities of the world have turned to rubble. Radiation poisoning would also play a part in inspiring writers as they thought about the shifting clouds of radiation moving from nation to nation and what it would do to people, whether if it was killing them or mutating them.
- Biological/Chemical War – Much like nuclear war, biological/chemical war is based on the fear that a country or countries using weaponized strains of diseases or viruses, either natural or man-made to kill others. Historically, this was seen during the middle ages where pestilence filled bodies were used as ammunition for catapults against enemy strongholds in order to weaken the soldiers inside. Though the problem with biological war would be that it could easily get out of control and kill people on both sides. Biological warfare would become a staple in novels as it played on people’s fears of not being able to see the thing that could kill them either instantaneously or over time.
- Disease/Virus Outbreak – Unlike biological war, the outbreak of illness is not a result from man made causes, but happens by itself through methods of transportation such as through airways or water. Diseases such as Swine or Avian Flu would plant themselves in American culture as a disease that would cause mass panic and speculation.
- Interplanetary Invasion – A more common theme of Science fiction, the cause of the apocalypse and the following end of humanity would be the invasion of aliens, that would start an unwinnable war where humanity is decimated. The notion of an alien species wiping humanity away can partially be due to the dramatic reading of War of the Worlds by Orson Wells (1938), which cause America to go into a panicked state. This would allow writers to create stories where humanity had to ban together to fight the unknown enemy.
- Supernatural/Theological – Often pertaining to magical means, the end of the world is started by otherworldly means that humanity will often have no control over. This is commonly associated with religions and mythologies as powerful beings such as God or Lucifer allow the world to fall to ruins.
- Zombies – I am not going to go into much detail about how zombies would bring about the apocalypse, though if you like to read up on the undead, please refer to my posting Are Zombies Officially Played Out?. People in this scenario would either isolate themselves or join together with other survivors to face the undead. In the end, zombies would eventually outnumber mankind and humanity would die out whether in months or years.
Why is the Apocalypse/Post Apocalypse loved by Writers?
The reason that I would think that writers of all mediums enjoy delving into stories that involve either apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic situations would be because it gives us endless potential and allows us to fully use our imagination of what the world could be like if everything fell to ruin. Just world creating alone can be endless as you think of how cities and governments alike would fall within a period of time and how they would try to survive or prepare for the worst. Following the apocalypse, the world can become anything that the writer thinks it would be like after the bombs drop or a disease wipes out humanity. Plant life can overgrown and consume cities, transforming the urban jungles forever. On the over hand, the once lush green landscapes of countries could be turned to barren wastelands where no life could survive.
With stories that detail the end of humanity, it would also allow authors to depict humanity as they change to their new world and environment. Authors can show the transformation of people as they either slowly or quickly come to terms with what has happened and the toll it takes on them. They can illustrate how someone can struggle to maintain their humanity despite the turmoil they face on a daily basis or how they will descend into madness over time. It would also allow authors to test the bound of their characters as they have to do things that they would never have to do in order to survive such as steal supplies or kill another person.
The concept of the world we live in coming to an end will always be around for us to enjoy for years to come and until the end of days, all I can say is this; I dream of Post Apocalyptia.