Madeleine Robins October 30th, 2007
Over in my LiveJournal someone kindly mentioned her enjoyment of The Stone War and noted that “I love a good post-apocalypse.” My first thought was: gee, so do I. ‘Kay, not certain what, if anything, that says about me personally. But as a writer I can think of several reasons to love the end of the world.
First: you get to have your cake and consume it as well, setting-wise. You can set your story in a real world, trash a couple of well known local landmarks (how often has the Statue of Liberty shown up in destroyed-New-York movies?), and use that as a base for your invention. Depending on the sort of work you’re writing, you can get as interesting as you like: when I wrote Stone War I was deliberately going for weird, which meant that I could knock a whole city block of brownstones askew, or have the West Side Highway tie itself into knots. But you can also be hard-headedly logical about what would survive and what would not, depending upon the mechanism of the apocalypse and the time elapsed since the event.
Second: There’s the memento mori factor. Seeing the world brought low is a metaphor for dealing with our own inevitable deaths–and seeing something grow out of that. Who knows what part of our lives will be remembered in fifty years or a hundred or a thousand? Shelley’s Ozymandias tells us to look upon his works and despair, but the works are gone and nothing but the warning itself remains: “Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.” Post-apocalyptic fiction trades in what is left behind and what meaning it has (remember that a shopping list is a sacred text in Canticle for Liebowitz).
Third: There’s the opportunity to see what an individual can do after the end of the world. Humans have at least as much interest in creating order out of chaos as they do talent for creating chaos in the first place. This can lead to Lord of the Flies scenarios, but it also lends itself to your plucky protagonist or band of protagoni going up against the Bad Tribe. A post-apocalyptic setting adds a frisson of extra meaning, with our knowledge of the past a palimpsest, the action and reality of now overwritten on everything we know about the past. In near-event post-apocalyptic settings, your characters are dealing with the disaster itself, and their own survival. Just as intriguingly, in a long-past post-apocalyptic setting, the characters deal as much with the meaning of the old world and its demise, and that can make for really interesting fiction.
Sure, I love the End of the World: what’s not to love?