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The Post-Apocalyptic Club
The club is an ongoing monthly meeting to discuss how novelists and short story writers (and occasionally nonfiction authors) have employed the post-apocalyptic tale. There is no shortage of debates over what defines the category (see the excellent piece by Scott Timberg that differentiates between “hard” and “soft” scenarios: Welcome to the Soft Apocalypse).
Among the books we have discussed so far are: The Last Man by Mary Shelley, Dhalgren by Samuel Delaney, Liberation by Brian Francis Slattery, Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe, Mara and Dann by Doris Lessing, The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, The Stand by Stephen King, Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson, The Book of Dave by Will Self, and Blindness by Jose Saramago.
Though the point is to better understand why the sub-genre is so oddly appealing through the many interpretations of writers, we make no claim to have all the answers. Here is a broad run-down of what the theme often contains:
1. An apocalypse of unexact origin
Post-apocalyptic scenarios are not bound to the same strict rules of science fiction, allowing the subgenre to glide across many categories (fable, satire, horror, existentialism). The point is not to determine the possibility of an armaggedon but to understand its aftereffects. Though many stories are the outcome of contemporary anxieties (over world war, nuclear proliferation, environmental disaster, economic collapse), they seek more abstract truths about survival, society, human weakness or strengths
2. The will to survive
Each story needs a strong central figure or companions, in part to be surrogates for the reader. The underlying fantasy of any post-apocalyptic fiction is how a world devoid of modern conveniences can be navigated. The drama often stems from the protagonist’s knowledge of how much has been lost. They must use their own wits to face down each challenge, whether to overcome the diminishing material resources or the psychological torment of isolation.
3. The resurgence of primal instincts
An important plot point is that an apocalypse leads to the collapse of society and social norms. Most tales revolve around a group of survivors who battle over the remainders of civilization, frequently to the death. Since the notion of culture, religion, government, and ethics have been destroyed, survivors must readjust their own moral compass. Paranoia, betrayal, lust, megalomania, superstition, and self preservation are ever present dangers.
4. A journey
A common compenent of the post-apocalyptic story is that a journey, figurative or not, must be made. The journey is in part the tale’s mechanism for creating conflict. Physical travel provides obstacles the protagonists need to overcome in an ever changing and degrading landscape. But the journey also suggests hope (quite possibly misplaced) by escaping hardship or seeking sanctuary. The journey can be interior as well, as a character discovers inner wisdom when faced with complete isolation.
5. Lessons learned or ignored
Though the apocalypse or its causes need not be named in detail, the victim (and aggressor) is humanity. In a post-apocalypse universe, the tales are always cautionary. Societies rebuilding from scratch are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. Individuals stripped of all material and emotional worth will sink to terrible depths. Pride comes before the fall. Nature always has the last laugh.