Post-Apocalyptic fiction seems to be enjoying a successful run at the moment, and I wanted to explore my own interactions with the genre and perhaps in the comments section we can explore and discuss your own.
My first exposure to the genre was with the old animated cartoon of Watership Down. Now you might not consider Richard Adam’s seminal tale of rabbits a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction, but consider the fact that the rabbits are running from certain death and inhalation. They only escape the coming destruction because Fiver has a vision of something bad coming their way.
“The fields… the fields are covered in blood,” he says.
After leaving there they eventually come across a community of rabbits who seem to have accepted man’s power over them. He comes, feeds them, and occasionally kills a few of them and they have come to terms with that in a way that our band of rogue rabbits find distasteful. This is not unlike the Eloi in ‘The Time Machine’ who live in a state of mindless peace, never fully contemplating or comprehending the horror that is feeding on them.
We then have the rabbits finding their new home, high above everything else. Soon after settling in, their thoughts turn to reproducing. It’s then that they set about trying to free some captive rabbits from a farm, with disasturous consequences for Hazel.
And at the end, a band of military rabbits ( which can be seen as having established a ‘new order’, similar examples of which can be seen in anything from ’28 Days Later’ to the Night of the Living Dead films ) comes to fight them at Watership Down – where of course, our hero’s are victorious against them.
I recognise in the triumph of the rabbits over General Woundwort and his militia, the typical fight within Post-Apocalyptic fiction of the ways of old versus the new order.
This is something I encountered in watching the movie ‘The Omega Man’ and then reading the original Richard Matheson novel ‘I Am Legend.’ The two versions differ quite dramatically, and the novel is the better form of the story even though I have an admiration for Heston in the movie. Robert Neville is the last surviving human being – everyone else has been turned into a vampire. By day he gets the city to himself – and it is during the day that he finds their lairs and stakes them through the heart as they rest. But by night they all come alive and bombard his house, calling him out “Come Out Neville!”
Eventually he is captured and put on trial, and we realise that the new order IS the vampires, and that they are not the horrors to be feared in the story. It is HE who is to be feared. As much as Dracula and the mythology of Vlad Tepes is a legend, so too is Robert Neville in his relentless, solo pursuit of the un-dead – a pursuit that he could never accomplish given how much he is outnumbered by them. The book has perhaps one of the best endings ever of a book when he realises that fact and simply states ‘I Am Legend,’ knowing that he will fall to their history as the very monster he thought he was ridding the world of in the first place.
A different type of post-apocalypse story is ‘On The Beach’. Following a massive nuclear conflict the world has been nearly completely wiped out of all life due to huge radioactive contamination and fallout. Only a community in Australia still survives, free until now of the fallout. They rig their last submarine for a mission across the globe to see if anything still exists of humanity. What they find is empty cities, and automated radio signals. Meanwhile, in Australia the survivors come to terms with the fact that the impending atomic cloud is headed their way and with it comes certain death. In a heartbreaking sequence in the book, the parents prepare poison to euthanise their children and then each other when it hits to spare them all from an agonising death. What frightens about the book is not the fact of a dead world, filled with radiation. But knowing that the cloud is headed for them, and that it will kill them, and the preparations they make for that final moment on the beach.
The Stand has to be the most famous post-apocalypse novel ever written, surely. In it, Stephen King kills of about 99% of humanity. the survivors split into two groups, one led by Abigail Freemantle and the other led by the evil ( and devil-incarnate ) Randall Flagg. What follows is their story of how they get their lives back to some sort of normal rythm, and how the flow of destiny works to gradually bring together good and evil for one big final showdown. It’s a great book, and some of the ideas King has of what happens after the end of the world have never been matched in their scope and in their intimacy; not even by him, I don’t think. I also love the rule of thumb King states at the beginning, before the novel starts:
At the end of the world, there is magic.
This let’s you know that when he’s done killing everyone off, anything might happen. And whilst all of the characters are well drawn and brilliant, the one person everyone remembers from it is Tom “M-O-O-N, that spells Moon!”
Worth noting also is King’s ‘Cell’ where he explores slightly similar territory but on a far smaller scale, as the populace is turned into zombies following a zombie-making planet-wide phone signal – although ‘Cell’ is more of a foray into the worlds of George Romero than anything else it still shows his knack and flair for portraying characters faced with the end of the world.
One of my favourite books ever, and a direct inspiration on ‘The Stand’, is ‘Earth Abides’ I can’t remember every detail off-hand, but the main character receives a snake bite just as a plague descends upon humanity, wiping nearly everyone out. Only a few survivors remain. We follow his journey as he tries to see what has become of mankind, as he sets up a small community of survivors, and as those survivors try to carry on with life as they knew it. There’s a few poignant scenes that never quite leave you. One is of him sitting in a house as the last of the electricity drains away and he watches as a lightbulb grows steadily dark before dying altogether. Another is a scene where the survivors decide what to do with a new addition who had raped one of their women. They decide that he must be hanged, and the decision is not an easy one for them.
‘Earth Abides’ carries many of the same themes and ideas present in ‘The Stand’, or perhaps that should be the other way since ‘Earth Abides’ is a precursor to the latter by perhaps twenty years. Above all the book does a great message of conveying the meaning of it’s title, that Earth will continue whether we are on it or not. Everything grows back, life survives, time goes on. And in the end, most of what was built by Man’s hand will eventually crumble and fall under the steady spell of nature.
I want to mention one more: ‘The Ultimate Warrior’ with Yul Brynner and Max Von Sydow. I watched this the first time when I was younger, it wasn’t until recently that I was able to get hold of a copy of it.
Following a global pandemic which devastates the population, Baron (Sydow), the leader of a tribe of survivors, has established a small fortified area in the ruins of New York City. Cal (Kelton), a former scientist and a member of Baron’s tribe, has developed plague resistant seeds which allows the tribe to grow vegetables in the barren soil. Their small garden has become an oasis in the ruined city, coveted by the packs of starving, lawless gangs outside.
Needing to increase security against the raiders, especially a gang led by Carrot (Smith), Baron recruits a deadly warrior named Carson (Brynner), who has put his skills out for hire.
While Carson’s presence has some of the desired effect, the daily raids against the sanctuary makes Baron realize their only chance of hope for a better life, including his pregnant daughter Melinda (Miles), for everyone involves leaving the city and living in the country. Once out of the city Baron plans to use Cal’s skills to protect them while they establish a new society in a more secure setting on a small island off the coast of North Carolina.
Escaping from the city is more difficult than anticipated, resulting in the deaths of Baron and many of the tribe and costing Carson his hand. Carson finally kills Carrot and most of his followers. He also gets Melinda and the precious seeds out of the city. In the end the survivors head off to establish a new colony and better life in the countryside.
It’s a great movie, and if you haven’t seen it, worthy of your time. ( Another great one along the same sort of lines, is ‘Children of Men’ ).
What are your experiences of the genre? What has had an impact on you? I could have cited more examples, but I wanted to give the ones that had had the biggest effect on me. They’re also the ones I suggest the most to others.
Leave your suggestions and feedback in the comments below!