I Love the End of the World

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?

19 Responses to “I Love the End of the World”

  1. Jesson 30 Oct 2007 at 12:16 pm

    I was all set to make an insightful appreciative comment on this post until I saw the word “protagoni” and burst out laughing. That’s awesome. I think a bunch of protagoni would be a pride, not a band, eh? Like lions. :D

  2. Charleson 30 Oct 2007 at 1:39 pm

    While I haven’t reach much in the genre of post-apocalyptic science fiction I do have a couple of favorites.

    DHALGREN by Samuel R. Delany is perhaps my favorite, and still to this day probably the strangest book I’ve read. It is only sort of post-apocalyptic and definitely makes up its own rules in terms construct, movement through time and the interconnectedness of author and characters.

    I picked up this book in the book store, having already read TRITON, and opened up the cover to discover the book opened up in mid-sentence:

    to wound the autumnal city.
    So howled out for the wind to give him a name.
    The in-dark answered with wind.

    Right away I was hooked.

    Also, I read a pretty cool short story — I believe by Arthur C. Clarke — in which an alien civilization believes they have discovered a film that shows them what human society was like. After a description of wild events contained within the “documentary” only then do you discover at the end what the aliens are actually watching.

  3. Constance Ashon 30 Oct 2007 at 2:53 pm

    Nix end of the world.

    It’s all too possible these days.

    And if by chance anything is left over it will be vermin.

    Love? Not so much.

    What’s really hard to figure out some plausible scenario where the world doesn’t end and in which things get put more right.

    Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s what I’m wrestling with in da book. Sometimes it really seems impossible. Apocalypse, here we come.

    Love, C.

  4. Madeleine Robinson 30 Oct 2007 at 5:16 pm

    I only meant the fictional apocalypse, Constance. Frankly, I find apocalypse fiction a comforting escape from contemplation of the real-life apocalypses confrontining us: in fiction mankind endures, and scrabbles up from the ashes. I eye the Pacific shoreline and think about glacial melt-off, and want to read again…

  5. Constance Ashon 31 Oct 2007 at 10:53 am

    You are a stronger woman than I, Mz Madeleine! {smooch}

    Love, C.

  6. Jannion 31 Oct 2007 at 2:27 pm

    The thing about end-of-the-world fiction is, there’s something strangely hopeful there. It’s like we’re saying, okay, the worst things have already happened; now, here’s what survives after.

    (In real life, of course, I’d rather avoid the end times myself, too.)

  7. [...] I Love the End of the World [...]

  8. Brendan Podgeron 01 Nov 2007 at 7:14 pm

    One of the things I like the best about post-apocalypse writing is the freedom the author has to recreate the world. Sometimes there is the struggle to just survive, sometimes to liberate people from the old faulty powers and authorities that came before. It can be intensely personal or an epic saga, hard SF or fantasy.

    Sometime I think it needs its own sub-genre. Is it SF without any science, can it be fantasy if the characters talk about “before” when they sent men to the stars and lived in communities 20 million strong?

  9. Kate Elliotton 03 Nov 2007 at 9:16 pm

    Really grim post-apocalypse stuff I tend to avoid, but end of the world with new rules and new landscapes can be more, um, fun – is fun the right word?

  10. John Joseph Adamson 26 Nov 2007 at 5:00 pm

    Madeleine, you might find comfort, then, in my new anthology, Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. More info here: http://www.johnjosephadams.com/wastelands

    You can read the introduction on the anthology’s website (http://www.johnjosephadams.com/wastelands/?page_id=8), which ties in directly to the subject of discussion here. (There’s also three full stories you can read for free.)

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