In Five — the first post-apocalyptic Hollywood film — the characters rationalise their experience and ponder their future in a world destroyed by nuclear war. With civilisation in ruins, they must figure out what kind of society they wish to rebuild. This dilemma typifies many post-apocalyptic stories, which go beyond the immediate loss and, instead, explore cultural values: what values are necessary to create a decent and just society? What areas of our existing culture must be jettisoned to ensure human survival?
The post-apocalyptic story originates in myth, and literature; appearing in the catastrophic floods of the epic poem Gilgamesh (2100 BC), and the story of Noah and his ark in the Bible. Where civilisation exists there is a reciprocal fear it may somehow collapse, and the world will return to barbarity. Then, with industrialisation, a fear emerged that the increasing mechanisation would be unsustainable: morally, and in terms of the sheer cultural upheaval and drain on natural resources.
Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin De Grainville’s prose poem Le Dernier Homme (The Last Man), published in 1805, depicted the end of the world (a ‘dying earth’). Influenced by the biblical story of Adam and Eve, the Book of Revelation, and Milton’s poem Paradise Lost, the story is set in a distant future where the world has become sterile and mankind can no longer reproduce. The last (fertile) man has to choose between fathering a child with the last fertile woman, or allowing mankind to become extinct. He chooses not to father a child and consequently the end of the world takes place (which, according to the story, is what God wishes). And, in the first ‘modern’ post-apocalyptic novel, Mary Shelly’s The Last Man (1826), the world is destroyed by a devastating plague.
What sparked these writers to pen their stories?
It’s difficult to say 200 years later, but De Grainville, a priest with a strong moral outlook, committed suicide in 1805; and Mary Shelly struggled as a mother with infant mortality, financial difficulties, and the loss of her husband in 1822 (when his ship was sunk at sea). Death by drowning takes its toll in her story, where drowning is the final tragedy that leaves only one survivor. Judging by the intense subject matter, these fictional worlds had great personal meaning to their respective authors.
Around them, the world was going through a period of dramatic change: the French Revolution, followed by the Napoleonic Wars, rapid scientific advances, and the expansion of the British Empire. In a world increasingly dominated by science, and suffering the social upheaval of the agricultural revolution and industrialisation — combined with Shelly’s personal loss, and De Grainville’s fear of a collapsing moral order — it’s understandable why they might have written these stories.
What brings about a post-apocalyptic event?
There are many causes: the divine (paranormal forces, the ‘end of days’), nature (flooding, meteorites, a dying earth), mankind (global war, or climate change brought about by industrial pollution), and alien life (invading Earth). The typical Cold War post-apocalyptic story involves a man-made destruction of the planet through nuclear, chemical or biological war. While post Cold War stories often favour a leak at a medical research laboratory (which leads to genetic mutation or a modern ‘plague’), or the sudden and unexplained arrival of zombies (echoing the Biblical end of the world).
Typically, in the post-apocalyptic story, a small group of survivors struggles to eek out an existence as they complete for resources with a larger, more aggressive group. The hero, or main characters, face tough challenges in a cruel and amoral world. They hope to re-establish a civilised society; and work together, striving for human survival in the longer-term. But their enemies are actively thwarting their activities, prioritising selfish needs and short-term advantage.
Post-apocalyptic worlds commonly suffer from: toxic environments, plagues, disease, severe pollution, sterility, and radiation. The cities quickly become unliveable, with the survivors escaping to the countryside where they can begin again. Once the megalopolis is destroyed the story reverts to the primary story setting: the wilderness. The lone hero wanders through the wild; or a village settlement is forced to defend itself from external threats. And the means of modern technology may be lost, destroyed, or shunned in favour of a simpler life.
In the The Time Machine global war has destroyed civilisation, leading to passive ground dwellers and an underground race that preys on the people above for food. In the Terminator the machines have run amok and threaten human survival, and in 28 Days Later humanity is in peril due to a modern-day plague which produces zombies. In When Worlds Collide an astrological event threatens the world, while alien life dominates humanity in Independence Day and The Day of the Triffids. And war, along with competition for resources, leads to mass social collapse in Mad Max, where oil is more valuable than gold, and a lone hero battles gangs of amoral thugs.