A Brief History of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction
What is it about the end of the world that fascinates us? Why are we drawn to these dark stories of apocalyptic chaos? Maybe it’s because we always wonder: What happens next?
If the world as we know it collapses, if governments and civilizations fall, if a new ice age dawns or entire swaths of people go extinct… Where do we go from there? It’s fertile soil for storytellers because it’s a clean slate. Suddenly you have an Earth where all of history as we know it happened, yet the canvas has been cleared for something new and different. Rules, laws, relationships, etiquette, habits — everything about society can be remade from scratch.
It is by definition, speculative fiction because there are no precedents in human history for writers to draw upon when considering what might happen if a technologically-advanced, largely democratic world, were to fall apart. All they can do is look at the current state of the world, the mindset of culture, and society’s trends, and follow these things to a logical — if extreme — conclusion.
But watch closely, and you’ll see a recurring theme in post-apocalyptic fiction: the rise of the worst failings of human beings — cruelty, greed, suffering, a desire for power, self-preservation. Basic animal instincts of survival take over when people are stripped of all pretenses and facades. Writers, it seems, tend to believe that without the strictures of society, Earth’s population will quickly descend into anarchy.
And there lies the answer to the question of why post-apocalyptic stories fascinate us. It’s because the real danger doesn’t come from the end of the world. It comes from the people left behind in it.
Major spoilers are ahead for a number of books, movies, and more.
Tales of the apocalypse can be traced back centuries, but post-apocalyptic stories are a more recent phenomenon. Probably the earliest known work of post-apocalyptic fiction is Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel, The Last Man. It follows the lives and loves of the European nobility of the 21st Century, which is shattered by the arrival of a plague that wipes out mankind. As the plague slowly consumes the world, men and women turn on one another, spiraling into madness. Some seize power they have no right to, others flee to isolation in fear, and only the novel’s main heroes manage to maintain their compassion and humanity.
Richard Jefferies introduced the motif of nature reclaiming man-made constructs in his 1885 novel After London. The triumph of nature over man is another frequent theme in post-apocalyptic fiction — whether nature itself is the cause of the apocalypse or not — and this story seems to the very first example of it. After London tells of an England that has suffered through some terrible catastrophe (which is never explained). The few remaining survivors revert to a primitive culture, absent of technology and democracy.
In the wake of H.G. Wells’ 1898 drama War of the Worlds, several writers were inspired to imagine a world living in the aftermath of a global disaster. The first few decades of the 1900s thus saw an explosion of post-apocalyptic creativity. M.P. Shiel’s 1901 novel The Purple Cloud depicts a world in which just one man (and later, one woman) survive the spread of a mysterious purple cloud that wipes out everyone else on Earth. The novel introduces another familiar trope we know well today: the “lone survivor’s fall into insanity,” with much of the story focused on the main character’s unbearable loneliness resulting from being the only person still alive.
William Hope Hodgson imagined an Earth of the far distant future where the sun has burned out, in The Night Land. It’s noteworthy because the scope of his imagination was all but unprecedented when the book was published in 1912; no one had ever pondered the continued existence of Earth after the sun went out. Hodgson had to do a great deal of world building to justify his characters’ ongoing existence, and he imagined a darkened planet full of monsters always waiting to destroy the last remnants of humanity who have taken refuge inside a massive pyramid.
Many classics followed in the coming decades, including Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and others leaned heavily on post-apocalyptic fiction across their careers, each authoring multiple stories centered around the premise.
1949 brought about George Orwell’s seminal work of dystopian fiction, 1984. The dystopia it depicted existed in what was left of Britain after wars and revolutions had resulted in a brutal totalitarian state. 1984 was so influential, it contributed new terms to society, like “Big Brother” and “Thought Police,” which are still used today.
Richard Matheson turned the survivors-vs.-monsters notion on its head in 1954’s I Am Legend, creating a lone human protagonist in a world full of people who’ve been turned into vampires by a plague. At first, it chronicles his attempts to diminish the vampire population and/or cure them, but by the end of the story, this “hero” has very nearly become a villain, the very kind of “monster” to this new race of people that the vampires had been to him. He rails against the peaceful new society that some of the vampiric humans are building, and unsurprisingly, it doesn’t end well for him.
Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s beloved 1960 classic A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the most important post-apocalyptic stories of all time. It introduced the idea of cyclical history, positing that mankind’s predilection for violence will result in it repeatedly destroying itself. Canticle begins 600 years after a nuclear holocaust when scientific knowledge and history are suppressed to the point that a religious order begins collecting artifacts and documents from our time in the hopes that humanity will one day be ready for it again. By the end, the story has fast-forwarded some 1,200 years, to the start of another nuclear war.
One of the most-loved modern examples of the genre is Stephen King’s seminal 1978 work, The Stand. King is no stranger to post-apocalyptic tales, but this book is considered one of his greatest novels of all time. It concerns the remnants of humanity after a deadly strain of flu decimates the population. These remaining few, quickly find themselves caught up in a battle of good versus evil, the latter of which is represented by a supernatural being named Randall Flagg. Incidentally, this epic gave birth to Flagg, but the character would return in numerous other King novels, including most notably, The Dark Tower series — which also leaned on post-apocalyptic overtones.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was released in 1985, pondering a dystopia caused by infertility, in which an evil government forces young women to bare children for powerful families. Its dark, uncompromising vision of an extremist, oppressive society can currently be seen in the acclaimed television series based on the novel.
In recent years, the post-apocalyptic genre has been widely adopted by Young Adult fiction. From Jeanne DuPrau’s City of Ember in 2003, about an underground city 200 years after a nuclear war, to Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular series The Hunger Games in 2008, the line has proven very malleable for Young Adult writing — a subsection of fiction that has become among the most imaginative in modern storytelling. Divergent, Maze Runner, The 5th Wave, and many more followed. The Hunger Games remains the best known of them all, telling of a new nation called Panem, born in the wake of a series of vague, world-altering events like disastrous weather, wars, and ecological disasters. Its tale of a totalitarian government that forces children to fight to the death as a form of subjugation is a frighteningly plausible parable on the psychological affects of war.
In 2006, Max Brooks released his novel, World War Z. This compellingly original take on the global zombie apocalypse was written as a series of interviews with survivors who recount, in their own words, how the war began, was fought, and ended. The 2013 film based it was not as well received as the book.
2006 also saw the publication of one of the most celebrated post-apocalyptic novels of modern times: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Proving that no explanation for the end of the world is necessary to tell a compelling post-apocalyptic story, The Road follows a nameless man and his son as they wander a desolate landscape covered in ash and freezing temperatures. Its haunting, literary realism and unflinching look at depravity that descends even further into cannibalism may have redefined the entire genre.
Justin Cronin’s The Passage arrived in 2010, followed by its two sequels in subsequent years. This rollercoaster thrill ride turned the “vampire apocalypse” on its ear, using many of the tropes from the “zombie apocalypse,” such as a viral infection, the collapse of society, and small bands of survivors congregating in colonies. The ambitious series spans a full millennium, chronicling the fall and eventual return of human civilization.
Where to start: If you’re looking to dive into post-apocalyptic reading, you can’t get much more literary than A Canticle for Leibowitz. For something a little more relevant to today’s pop culture, go with The Hunger Games.
By the 50s, Hollywood was starting to catch up with the written word, as movies were being produced that drew upon the same “after the end of the world” ideas that the literary world had been employing for years. Both adaptations of existing works (including many of the books listed in this article) and original screenplays were filmed. By the 80s, the number of post-apocalyptic television and film productions were catching up to novels and short stories, and would soon surpass them.
The 60s, 70s, and 80s saw many a cautionary tale against the potentially world-ending dangers of nuclear warfare, reflecting the Cold War political climate of the time. Planet of the Apes was one of the first, and a big box office hit in 1968, spawning multiple sequels and not one but two reboots — the second much better received than the first. Set in the distant future after mankind destroyed itself, apes have become intelligent, and the dominant species on the planet. Despite its outlandish premise, the film is an effective warning against the supposed “security” provided by nuclear weapons and the moral self-righteousness of 1960s America.
In 1975, A Boy and His Dog was released, based on stories by legendary science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. Nuclear war is again the culprit, this time leading to a lawless wasteland where some animals have become intelligent and telepathic, and a teenage boy wanders aimlessly, looking to satisfy his need for food and his adolescent sex drive. The story slides into crazy land when the main character literally descends into an underground city, where he’s been lured to forcefully populate the city.
Logan’s Run put a new twist on the dystopian civilization premise in 1976, creating an isolated city comprised of hedonistic individuals no more than 30 years old. At that age, they’re forced to be euthanized via vaporization, which would supposedly “renew” them. The main character escapes the city to discover that humanity had been destroyed decades ago by a (you guessed it) nuclear holocaust, leaving the rest of the surface in a nuclear winter. Logan’s Run also attempted to address other issues relevant to the time, including consumerism, female sexual liberation, and social nonconformity.
1979 introduced the world to George Miller’s Mad Max, a policeman in a collapsing world who loses his family to a vicious gang and takes bloodthirsty revenge on them. Its 1981 sequel, The Road Warrior, picked up after society had fully fallen apart thanks to nuclear war, with survivors constantly fighting over the precious few remaining resources. A second sequel wasn’t as well received, but the 2015 return to the character in Mad Max: Fury Road was one of the best received and highest grossing films of the year. The series redeemed the “depravity of man” conceit as Max was repeatedly shown to be a hollowed-out shell of a man who would, despite himself, help a group of survivors and in so doing, reclaim his humanity.
By the 80s, if you didn’t have a unique twist on the formula, there was little point in bothering to produce your movie. James Cameron provided one of the all-time greatest takes on a post-apocalyptic world in 1984’s classic, The Terminator. The future was shown only in glimpses, revealing a world in which a sentient computer program had rebelled against its creators and created humanoid machines to hunt down and kill all remaining survivors. It was one of the first “robot uprising” films, which would inspire many storytellers for years to come. The big twist in The Terminator is that it was set in the modern day, as one of those killer machines was sent back in time to kill the mother of the man who would one day lead the human resistance. The resistance sends back its champion through time, a human soldier assigned to protect the woman and stop the Terminator. It was followed by a superior 1991 sequel that subverted the original by making the Terminator the woman’s (and her young son’s) new protector. Terminator 2 ended on a hopeful note that suggested the apocalypse may have been averted; this was countermanded by subsequent sequels.
1995’s Twelve Monkeys followed a similar time travel-based formula, with a protagonist sent back in time to prevent the destruction of the world. But this cult classic from filmmaker Terry Gilliam was based on the idea that the past can’t be changed, that whatever you do to try to change it only furthers the very thing you’re trying to alter.
The robo-pocalypse would be revisited in the Wachowski’s 1999 cyberpunk masterpiece, The Matrix. This wildly inventive flick borrowed from numerous genres, comics, and manga to create a virtual world unlike anything audiences had ever seen. A lengthy war against artificially intelligent machines had led to the subjugation of humanity, who were placed in a dream state, their minds active inside a simulated reality while their bodies provided power to the machines in the real world. The Matrix mixed big philosophical ideas with superhero-style action in a concoction that viewers found irresistible. A pair of sequels, while full of innovative ideas, failed to live up to the first movie’s standards.
Where to start: It’s hard to top Planet of the Apes. Its dramatic impact still holds up, despite its yesteryear production. Try Twelve Monkeys if you’d like something deeply thought-provoking.
COMICS & TELEVISION
Comic books were ushered into the post-apocalyptic club in the late 60s, Jack Kirby’s classic Kamandi series being a standout, debuting in 1972. Judge Dredd and its totalitarian Mega City One followed in 1977, the cyberpunk manga series Akira in 1982, and Brian K. Vaughan’s modern classic, Y: The Last Man, in 2002. It was about a world in which a mysterious plague has killed every male on Earth but one, and it consistently surprised readers with its thoughtful examination of what a world made up only of women would be like.
The best-known post-apocalyptic comic book has to be Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, which debuted in 2003. This ongoing saga about a Georgia law man trying to survive the zombie apocalypse with friends and family has proven incredibly popular and influential, thanks mostly to the 2010 television series based on it. Unapologetically gruesome and riveting in its realism, the show has become one of TV’s biggest hits, despite its relentlessly bleak tone. In Kirkman’s world, the zombies are dangerous like force of nature, but the most severe threat comes from the living.
Another big hit for television was the reimagined Battlestar Galactica in 2004. Borrowing only loosely from its 1980s namesake, it presented a small remnant of humanity, forced from their twelve colony worlds by the machines they’d created, who detonated nuclear bombs on all twelve planets. A ragtag civilian fleet was protected by the lone remaining battleship, the Galactica, while the population searched for a new home. Incredibly smart and full of shocking, emotional twists, audiences were captivated by this parable about the meaning of survival and who was truly worthy of it.
Where to start: Give Y: The Last Man a shot, since it tells a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. If closure isn’t so important to you, try The Walking Dead — the comic or the show.
Video games offered some arcade classics like Robotron which were set in post-apocalyptic scenarios, but they were so rudimentary, their storytelling possibilities weren’t exactly compelling. An early PC game, 1986’s Might & Magic, dipped a few toes into post-apocalyptic waters but relied mostly on high fantasy. Probably the first example of true post-apocalyptic storytelling in a video game setting was the 1990 cult classic Crystalis. It’s set a century after a nuclear war, where the world has reverted to Medieval sensibilities.
Other games followed, increasing in sophistication as technology advanced. The Resident Evil series kicked off in 1994, creating a world ravaged by zombies at a time before the world was even familiar with the term “zombie apocalypse.” Nuclear apocalypse was the cause of an irradiated wasteland populated by survivors and mutated monsters in 1997’s Fallout. 1998’s gaming landmark Half-Life introduced an alien invasion that led to an alien occupation in its celebrated 2004 sequel. Many more would be developed in the years to come, including hits like Deus Ex, Guild Wars, and Gears of War.
One of the most acclaimed video games in recent years was 2013’s The Last of Us, about a United States that has been partially reclaimed by nature after a fungal infection mutates a large percentage of mankind into zombie-like creatures. It’s been called one of the best-written games of all time. Similar in structure to McCarthy’s novel The Road, the story follows a man and his young female charge, who is genetically immune to the infection, as they travel across the country.
Where to start: Skip the first few entries and jump straight to Fallout 3 or Fallout 4. They’re action-packed and smart, with terrific world-building and a quirky sense of humor.
The post-apocalyptic landscape has come a long way from its meager beginnings in the 19th Century, today becoming a commonplace branch of every form of storytelling and entertainment there is. You might be tempted to write off many of those earliest works as inferior to the sublime stories we enjoy now. But any examination of the history of the genre shows that virtually every speculative idea used today about what life might be like after the end of the world traces its origins back to those initial works of fiction.
It also shows that post-apocalyptic stories are relentlessly bleak, universally depicting a grim, joyless world. They’re tragic, horrific stories about humanity’s darkest impulses, in which you shouldn’t bother hoping for a happy ending. (To be fair, hope can be in very short supply when the world has been destroyed.) On the surface, they appear to tell of the fall of civilizations. But what they really draw attention to — and what we find so captivating about them — is the fall of man.
Is this selfish, self-serving outlook owed to the cynicism of the writers? Or is it a logical assumption that humans default to? Until and unless someone comes up with a post-apocalyptic tale that dares to dream of a better, happier world after the fallout, where people display kindness and selflessness toward each other, you’ll just have to decide for yourself.