Apocalyptic Fiction: Experiencing the End of the World

What is Apocalyptic Fiction?

image: Pinterest

Apocalyptic fiction is literature about the end of the world. Whether the world is ending or the characters are trying to prevent it from happening.

As literature, it is not new. The ancient Sumerians wrote about it in the Epic of Gilgamesh. So did several of the Greek and Norse myths.

Revelation, the Christian Bible‘s last book (called Apocalipsis in Spanish), is about the end of the world too, except in dramatic Saint Michael versus Satan battle, with seven seals and trumpets, dragons, monsters, giant serpents, and the second coming of Jesus with an army of angels and a reborn New Jerusalem.

Wow. How do you compete with that?

image: El Chilango

Although some argue apocalyptic fiction is a subgenre of science fiction, I disagree.

It is its own genre within speculative fiction since these stories can be sci-fi, thrillers, horror, or a combination of all three (Dying Earth genre, anyone?).

As a genre, apocalyptic fiction has always been popular. Although critics say the modern apocalyptic fiction started with Mary Shelley‘s The Last Man (1826), this book was never as popular as Frankenstein. Nevertheless, many authors would borrow from her premise.

What it is about the end of the world and the collapse of civilization we find so appealing? Because in honestly, if there is a book of the Bible that scared me as a teenager, it was Revelation. And yet, we cannot stop reading.

We love the end of the world. Let’s try to examine why.

Our Fascination With Doomsday

Nuclear apocalypse image: Wallpaper Here

Fascination with the end of the world is ancient. And yes, it is morbid. Why look forward to the end and destruction of everything?

Doomsday is the last day of the world’s existence, quite a place to begin a story. Did you want to start in media res? Feel the explosions and suffering.

I can understand Medieval people’s obsession with it since those were extremely difficult times to be alive. I can even understand Evangelicals’ interest because of End Times Prophecy. But what about us secular, 21st-century readers?

And yet, these stories keep gaining popularity. Perhaps something to do with the mood of the new century.

We do live in uncertain times. Uncertain security–our identities can be stolen with a few key pushes; people being displaced by robots, uncertain economy, the memory of September 11th and similar terror attacks around the world, this neverending pandemic…

image: Wallpaper Access

It is almost like we are living the apocalypse and the Four Horsemen are galloping. We the mega-rich building underground bunkers and preppers going mainstream, is it surprising we are reading apocalyptic fiction?

Ultimately, we read to cope as much as entertaining.

If you want to read apocalyptic fiction, there are hundreds of novels to choose from. I highly recommend these three:

  • World War Z (2006) by Max Brooks
  • The Book of M (2018) by Peng Sheppard
  • Leave the World Behind (2020) by Rumaan Alam

The Themes of Apocalyptic Fiction

image: Taringa

First, when we speak of apocalyptic fiction, we speak of stories where the end of the world is happening, where society is disintegrating. If a story’s focus is on what happens after the collapse, it is post-apocalyptic.

The focus of these stories by necessity is survival. If your character dies, there is no story. Period. Even if an ensemble, someone must survive at the end.

Nonetheless, there are several themes writers can explore while the apocalypse is happening.

Whether doomsday is caused by climate change, nuclear holocaust, a meteor strike, an alien invasion, the always popular zombies, a world war, a robot takeover, or a pandemic, the cause will give writers the theme.

image: IStock

The environment striking back against human pollution? Is Mother Earth getting revenge against capitalist consumerism? Human greed and obsession with power? Humanity playing God (i.e., genetic manipulation), or simply the Universe’s uncaring nature?

Hence, it is not only about destructing the planet but showing readers the why and how, and make them reflect on how could we have stopped it from happening.

Dystopian government? Sure. Destruction of major cities and landmarks? Bring them! But remember, it is in those moments you make the reader reflect on the causes where you will find your story’s theme.

Nevertheless, as interesting as the story’s themes are, the philosophical debates they provoke are even more interesting.

The Philosophical Debates of Apocalyptic Fiction

image: Freepik

Who said speculative fiction could not be literary? They are wrong. These stories make you think.

Before you dismiss apocalyptic fiction as mindless destruction, the popcorn summer movie of fiction, let us consider the philosophical debates provoked by these novels.

Again, the human question and the human condition are essential to speculative fiction. What better place to explore the best and worst of human nature than during times of extreme duress.

Speculative fiction is about what-if scenarios. Apocalyptic fiction goes further, what if? What now? What’s next?

image: Wenell

For example, if a nuclear holocaust happened, what d we do and where do we run to? What happens to the government? To society? To us?

Could we survive? How far would we go to survive? Are we willing to kill? To eat human meat? What lines will we cross? Which ones we wouldn’t? Who gets to choose who survives and who does not?

Is civilization done? Is it every man for himself? Do we cooperate?

There is a centuries-old debate among philosophers, is mankind inherently good or evil by nature? Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau could not agree. But we writers can choose a side on this debate.

wallpaper from the Fallout video game

Ideally, we should have our characters embody through their actions each side and have them clash over it. That will make for compelling reading.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Lawless times even more so. Pushed to survive or die, no state, no police to stop you, how far can our characters go? Scary.

To conclude, apocalyptic fiction will remain popular because, in a chaotic modern world, it shows we can retain control and have agency while questioning if it is worth surviving.

Reader, are you a fan of apocalyptic fiction? Which novels would you recommend?

3 Responses

  1. Magnus Lukoma says:

    It’s so sad

    • Albizu73 says:

      Magnus, that’s the point of this type of fiction.

      • Malcolm says:

        Fiction like this serves as a warning and character study of the human condition. Its grim, sad but some have a silver lining. In the end, all we have, is each other. If the world breaks, we must fix it or survive it.

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March 2023