Are We Gonna Make It: Optimism and Pessimism in the Apocalyptic/Post-apocalyptic Sub-genre

by Auston Habershaw

The idea of the world ending is an old one. Stories of Ragnarok and Revelation, of the Kali Yuga and the Niburu Cataclysm—every religion, every culture, and every mythology has wondered how it is all going to end. Some are even convinced of the coming end—they’re betting on it, preparing, readying themselves for Judgement (or Death, or what-have-you). It should come as little surprise, then, that such stories are still popular today. Instead of death on a pale horse, though, we fear the coming of the zombie plague or the superflu. We imagine the descent of a planet-killing meteor or the realization of nuclear war. Perhaps, merely, the environment will kill us, our planet growing steadily uninhabitable until we all eat each other out of despair.

No matter how you conceive of the end, though, it’s hard not to see it as dismal, depressing, and even terrifying. This world you live in—and just about everyone in it—will die and be wiped away and the only thing left will be the mutants rooting about in the ashes of civilization. I don’t know about you, but stories like that really bum me out. I’m there reading McCarthy’s The Road and wondering to myself “in what possible way is this fulfilling?” Everybody’s dead, they’re eating babies, and the world is over and . . . that’s it?

It forces one to wonder what it is we see in these tales. Why can’t we look away? I think there is a kind of latent unease that comes with living in civilization. I don’t mean that in the sense that we are all beasts in human clothing and long to beat our breasts and howl at the moon—no. I mean that living in any successful society leaves you painfully aware that things could be so much worse. That we, in our modern and comfortable society, are violating the Laws of Nature. Who are we to cure diseases and eat candy bars and fly to the other side of the Earth in a day? Surely something must be amiss. Peter Firchow, in his analysis of Wells’s The Time Machine, writes:


That is, the Time Traveler’s experience is quite literally parabolic, for it demonstrates that what goes up one side (namely, the past) must come down with precise symmetry on the other side (the future).


When the Time Traveler goes into the future in The Time Machine (which can be categorized as post-apocalyptic in many senses), it is clear that humanity has had its fun and is now in a steady process of devolution. It is a balancing of the cosmic scales; it is catharsis on a civilizational scale. We know how the story ends now. We can be at peace and enjoy the time we have.

Then, of course, there is the warning aspect of these stories: the author as prophet, waving us away from catastrophe. In past eras, the warnings were not to turn away from God—the ancient Israelites are always getting themselves in deep trouble, forgetting their covenant with the Almighty, and out of the woods comes a crazy-eyed, bearded fellow warning of famine and plague if they don’t repent. Same thing among the ancient Greeks—you’d better not be talking smack about Athena, friends, or you can kiss a decent harvest goodbye. You still see these guys today, standing outside subway stations handing out pamphlets describing how you’d better find Jesus or else.

In our modern era, these prophets spend a lot of their time telling us how science and technology are going to kill us all. The Machines will rise and put us in death camps, obviously. Our tinkering with the human genome will result in an unstoppable epidemic. The further we sink into our smartphones, the more humanity will lose its will to live. Next thing you know, we’ve all got mopeds, wearing spiky football pads, hunting for fresh meat out along the wastes as we worship the God of All Gasoline. If only we’d listened, right? If only we’d stopped trying to cure cancer or stopped developing helpful robots, but no—we didn’t. We arrogant fools messed with the laws of nature one too many times and you see what happened? We’re all dead now. Serves us right.

I don’t much care for that aspect of the genre, either. Not because they’re necessarily wrong (because, yeah, nuclear weapons are a terrible idea and climate change is a serious problem and polluting our rivers and clear-cutting our forests can’t possibly be a good long-term plan), but because I know very well that it just isn’t that simple. We aren’t all going to die as a result of climate change. We aren’t all going to die in a nuclear holocaust. A lot of us are, sure, but not all of us. There’s always what comes after, and I just don’t see the Mad Max future as the most plausible one.

To quote Firchow again, he says “Utopia . . . is and must be a condition of stasis. It represents, almost by definition, a state of perfection, but perfection . . . refers to something finished or ended” (pg. 131). If we see our society as pressing toward utopia (and isn’t that the essential goal?), we can see that utopia represents a kind of death—its own kind of apocalypse. The Eloi and the Morlocks live in a state of perfect harmony—perpetual and balanced—but their “society” also represents the end of humanity itself. This, then, leads us to a third way of approaching the apocalypse. Maybe the danger is not the catastrophe that destroys civilization, but rather civilization itself.

To this end, we find ourselves in the odd position of considering the apocalypse in a positive (if perverse) light. A utopian society—or even just a developed one—exists to perpetuate itself, thwarting the perceived march toward humanity’s “true destiny” (and take that however you like). Civilization is too rigid to allow massive change. Herein enters the catastrophe. Cara Murray, in discussing the role of catastrophe in Victorian adventure fiction, writes:

Assets are produced, in other words, by destroying what already exists. . . . Thus spaces of the globe are laid waste for future use: they are taken out of circulation—only to be reincorporated at a later date. (pg. 156)

Murray is discussing all this in the context of late British imperialism and also capitalism, but the sentiment stands outside of politics and economics: the apocalypse gives us all a chance to build anew.

Into this mold, we see a variety of post-apocalyptic stories that don’t usually get much fanfare within the genre—things like Wall-E and The Postman—and are fairly rare beasts, especially lately. These, though, are the post-apocalyptic stories I like. These are the ones where I get engaged and interested in the outcome, because I know there’s hope. Human beings are innovators—they are clever and tenacious—and I like to believe we can survive what the Universe throws at us with our better angels intact. I don’t think we are a corrupt species or a doomed one. I refuse to accept the idea that we must return to a state of nature lest we destroy ourselves. I am a believer in progress. But, of course, I must accept the possibility that catastrophe will strike, just as it has in the past. And in that instance, I believe that humanity will rise to the occasion and come out stronger than it did before. I have to believe this, because to think otherwise is just giving into despair.

Apocalyptic literature tries to answer the question “Are we gonna make it?” with a resounding “No.” But it doesn’t have to be thus. There are those of us who say “Yes.” May we speak with a louder voice in the future.

Works Cited

Firchow, Peter. “H. G. Wells’s Time Machine: in search of time future and time past.” The Midwest Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 2, 2004, p. 123+. Expanded Academic ASAP, Accessed 4 May 2018.

Murray, Cara. “Catastrophe and development in the adventure romance.” English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, vol. 53, no. 2, 2010, p. 150+. Expanded Academic ASAP, Accessed 4 May 2018.


A native of Boston, MA, Auston Habershaw is a winner of the Writers of the Future contest and has published stories in Galaxy’s Edge, F&SF, Escape Pod and other places. His epic fantasy series, The Saga of the Redeemed, is available from Harper Voyager. You can find him on the web at aahabershaw.com, where you can find him talking about writing, his novels, and lots of tabletop RPGs.

3 comments

  1. I often felt the post-apocalyptic appeal was similar to that of a western or classic fantasy story. The excesses of modern life stripped away and a focus on community and basic survival. The feeling that if you have the skills necessary to survive, that itself is a significant accomplishment. The conflicts of existence at their most essential. I have considered that many Jack London stories could easily be ‘lifted’ for a post-apocalypse story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would generally agree that this is a potent aspect of the conflict, but I think we really can’t remove it from the context of the “end of the world.” How it ends, why it ends, and what the characters think about that end are inherently value statements on our current civilization. That, I feel, keenly separates it from a lot of Jack London’s work and other survivalist genres, where the frontier is hard, but there is always somewhere to go back to (however theoretical/assumed). The conflicts of existence in such stories are generated, more often than not, by the courage (or foolishness) of the characters as they test themselves against nature. The conflicts of existence in apocalyptic stories are because civilization failed them. That seems a very important difference.

      I think the probable exception would be a post-apocalyptic story that never discusses how the world ended in the first place and does not dwell on the hows and whys of the apocalypse, but such discussions seem inherent to the genre to me.

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