A Brief History of the End of the World

The author of ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ on what your era’s favorite apocalypse tells you about its anxieties

To say that the apocalypse is a modern obsession is like doing a shock exposé about the Pope’s religion. Just in terms of sheer volume, there has never been a time when apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories have been produced in greater profusion and variety than we’re seeing now. I’m not complaining, being right in line with the zeitgeist here. I’m just stating a point.

Partly, of course, this is a case of taste being informed by fashion. You read a book, enjoy it, and go looking for something in a similar vein. And partly it’s publishers responding to and accommodating that taste. But I’d argue that these are both reactive processes. They kick in after something has already begun to happen. And in this case, the something was writers turning to the end of the world as a theme that needed to be explored.

We’ve been here before, of course. The end of the world holds a perennial fascination for us, and we just can’t keep ourselves from going there, time after time. But the modern era is different in a lot of ways. Until recently those end-of-the-world narratives were mostly the province of religious texts, which having told us how things got going in the first place seemed to feel obliged to wrap up all the plotlines at the end. But after we invented the novel (early eighteenth century) and universal literacy (work in progress, TBC) an inexorable shift began. It was slow at first, but gradually those themes and ideas became the province of popular fictions consumed by large numbers of people.

At that point they were free to evolve. Bibles don’t, very much, except through the vagaries of translation. There are always fundamentalists ready to hand to get outraged if you shift a comma. Novels, on the other hand, because of the way in which they’re produced and consumed, proliferate like rabbits, swap DNA like viruses and change more rapidly and unpredictably than Darwin’s finches.

That’s also true of genres, none more so that the apocalyptic novel. Each wave of doomsday plot devices is different from the one before, and I think those changes tell us something about ourselves. Or at least, something about our nightmares and neuroses, which the apocalyptic novel both plays on and partially assuages.

Each wave of doomsday plot devices is different from the one before, and those changes tell us something about ourselves.

Every generation sees the end of the world through the prism of its own day-to-day reality. And the popularity of apocalyptic fiction seems to rise and fall in line with real-world fears and tensions and insecurities. Taxonomy only takes us so far, though. What’s remarkable about the best post-apocalyptic narratives is what they do with their initial premise — what kind of stories they launch from the springboard of global catastrophe.

1960s: Eco-Apocalypse

Barring a few nineteenth-century outliers (Mary Shelly gets there first, as usual, with The Last Man in 1826) science fiction doesn’t begin to address itself en masse to the end of the world until the 1960s. The pulps flirted with it, but the few doomsday scenarios were far outweighed by the bright, millennarian visions. Most future Earths from the ‘30s to the ‘50s had tidy little galactic empires with well-manicured lawns. The aliens would get a little frisky from time to time, but there was almost always a Buck Rogers or a Kimball Kinnison to put them firmly in their places.

The writers who were coming to the fore in the ‘60s had experienced World War Two firsthand; they had seen how a seemingly stable world order could tear itself apart in a sudden paroxysm. But if their uncertainty about the future was rooted in the past, their main reference point was still a contemporary one. Their biggest nightmare, time after time, was environmental disaster.

It’s easy to see why. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, released in 1962, blew the lid off the pesticides industry and brought the term food chain into everyday use. Revealing how chemicals like DDT built in concentration as they worked their way up from plants to herbivores to predators, Carson changed the way most people looked at the natural world. It would be another decade or so before James Lovelock proposed the Gaia Hypothesis, but the idea of the environment as a system of complex interdependencies whose ability to self-repair might have limits arguably starts with Carson’s passionate wake-up call.

The science fiction writers of the day answered and amplified that call. J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World was the first of many novels of the time to take the theme of eco-catastrophe and run with it. In Ballard’s book, global warming has caused the ice caps to melt, shrinking the habitable land mass of the world and overwhelming entire countries. In the same year, John Christopher’s The World In Winter pushed in the opposite direction to imagine a new ice age, while Ballard went on to make eco-apocalypse a recurring theme with stories like The Wind From Nowhere (super-hurricane), The Crystal World (a mysterious phenomenon that crystallizes living tissue) and The Drought (guess).

Obviously Carson’s work identified the human impact on the natural world as the real problem that needed to be addressed. Sixties sci-fi took that idea on board too, imagining worlds in which overpopulation, pollution, and resource depletion were the catalysts for global meltdown. John Brunner’s work stands out here, particularly Stand On Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, and The Sheep Look Up.

1970s and 1980s: When Two Tribes Go to War

Man-made disasters continued to be a dominant theme in the science fiction of the ‘70s and ‘80s. In fact, the cinema of the day, playing catch-up with the previous decade’s prose fiction, was making up for lost time with movies such as Silent Running, Soylent Green, and Zardoz.

But themes like deforestation and global famine were gradually eclipsed by a new sort of end-of-the-world McGuffin, one that depended on the ever-more-plausible scenario of global nuclear war. Nevil Shute had led the way with On the Beach, much earlier, and the nuclear apocalypse had never really gone out of style, but the late ‘70s and ‘80s saw an unprecedented spike in such stories. Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley dates from this time, as do David Graham’s Down To a Sunless Sea, David Brin’s The Postman, and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

Themes like deforestation and global famine were gradually eclipsed by a new sort of end-of-the-world McGuffin.

I remember very vividly how ubiquitous that fear was. It became such a dominant cultural meme that it was no longer the province of science fiction. Pop music paid homage to it in songs like “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,” “99 Red Balloons,” and “Let’s All Make a Bomb.” Sober, realistic TV dramas like Threads and The Day After brought the idea into the post-watershed mainstream, and Raymond Briggs reduced it to its heartbreaking basics with When the Wind Blows. Whatever medium you worked in, whether it was film, TV, prose, or comics, if you wanted to imagine a future that was dislocated from the present then a nuclear war was the only entry ticket you needed.

This is where the generational model starts to break down a little, for an interesting reason. The sheer volume of texts produced in prose and other media had been climbing exponentially ever since the start of the twentieth century. As a side effect, influences get faster and faster and cycles get shorter. Ideas that were fresh and new become familiar cultural shorthand, then cliché, in the space of a few years.

With no Soviet Union to hang our anxieties on, we invented new ones. It’s around about this time that the zombies come lurching into view.

Human mutation is one of many ideas that suddenly becomes ubiquitous — a universally available trope that needs no explanation. Earlier novels such as John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids had for the most part stayed closer to the known scientific facts, portraying mutation as something that was random and for the most part unwelcome. But the super-powered mutant now becomes a staple in popular fiction. The link to atomic radiation as a mutagenic agent is often forgotten, but it persists for example in the perennial tagline for Marvel’s mutant X-Men, “the children of the atom,” and in 2000 AD’s Strontium Dog.

With the end of the Cold War in 1991, the fear that it would suddenly turn hot dissipated too. With no Soviet Union to hang our anxieties on, we invented new ones. It’s around about this time that the zombies come lurching into view.

1980s–2000s: Evil Dead

The zombie apocalypse presents a special case. For one thing, it exists at the contested border between horror and science fiction. And for another, it has proved to be uniquely versatile, splitting into sub-genres of its own and (arguably) becoming more intensely self-referential than any other type of genre text.

The shading from classic horror zombies to the more nuanced zombies of today took place gradually and subtly, and with a minimum of fuss. Where 1978’s Dawn Of the Dead assured us that “when there’s no more room left in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth,” the zombies in 1985’s Re-Animator were created by a serum devised and administered by a scientist, and Joe R. Lansdale’s Cadillac Desert (1989) had zombies spawned by a bacterium — an innovation that changed the whole fictional landscape. 28 Days Later, in 2002, locked in this idea of the zombie plague with its vivid imagery and Wyndham-inspired plot, and most zombie texts that have followed (including my own The Girl With All the Gifts, 2014) have been strongly influenced by this template.

Surely the zombie apocalypse   isn’t a rational thing to be afraid of? Well, you’d think that.

But what do zombie movies tell us about our fears? Surely the zombie apocalypse — unlike eco-collapse or nuclear war — isn’t a rational thing to be afraid of? Well, you’d think that, but a lot of people do seem to be afraid of it just the same. Here in the U.K., the Daily Mail ran a story last January with the headline A ZOMBIE OUTBREAK COULD COME CLOSE TO WIPING OUT HUMANITY IN 100 DAYS. A similar article in the Huffington Post offered tips for survival under the sub-deck quote “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

So zombies work surprisingly well on the literal level, but they’re also a great vehicle for other fears. In the horror milieu, they were often a vehicle for barely-veiled jeremiads against the ills of modern society, confronting us with a distorted mirror of our own instincts and drives. The shopping mall in Day Of the Dead, to go for everyone’s favorite example, continues to dominate the ruined suburban landscape as the world falls apart. It’s a refuge for the living and a weird lure for the undead, who dimly remember that everything they ever wanted was once contained within those walls. Director George Romero followed that dark vision in 2005’s Land Of the Dead with an allegorical fable about the class struggle in modern America and the growing wealth gap.

Zombies remind us that our own personhood can be rescinded.

In science fiction, I think the zombie apocalypse presents differently and carries a different freight of meaning. To make an obvious point, the rationale for the existence of zombies in the first place usually relates not to the lack of available storage space in Hell but to a plague — the work of a bacillus, a virus, a fungus or an alien mind-worm. Modern fears of a pandemic, stoked by near-misses with SARS and H1N1 are obviously very relevant here.

But there’s also an existential aspect to the threat zombies pose. Zombies are people in shape only; they look like us but they don’t have any spark of consciousness. They remind us that our own personhood can be rescinded. To become a zombie is to lose what makes you human — so these apocalypses tear us down from the inside, replacing the heroic property damage of (say) a Roland Emmerich movie with something subtler but much more devastating, the inexorable crumbling of your own selfhood, your soul. Hence the counterpoise in a novel like Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies between the familiar genre furniture of ruined urban landscapes and survivalist enclaves, and the precarious affection that forms between R and Julie. The abyss, here, is wholly internal.

2000s and 2010s: Slouching Towards Bethlehem

That seems to have taken us past the dawn of the new millennium, where apocalypses come in every flavor to suit your pocket and your taste.

The plague-based apocalypse isn’t limited to zombies. Novels such as The Space Between the Stars and Louise Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy both dramatize very vividly the widespread societal collapse that a pandemic might bring.

Eco-catastrophe has returned — but with more teeth, informed by the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming and a shedload of incontrovertible evidence. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi offers us a near future where water scarcity has made the U.S.A. a union in name only, pitting the Western states against each other in vicious legal and paramilitary skirmishes. In The Stone Gods, Jeanette Winterson hauntingly invents a migratory past for the human race, suggesting that this isn’t the first time we’ve devoured an entire planet’s resources out from under ourselves. And let’s not forget Wall-E, whose garbage-choked cityscapes were one of the most haunting visions Pixar’s brilliant animators have ever produced.

Eco-catastrophe has returned — but with more teeth.

Global war (nuclear or otherwise) is still contending strongly, although these days it seems mostly to express itself through massive franchises like The Hunger Games, Mad Max, and Planet Of the Apes. Actually, in saying that, I’m ignoring Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), one of the most powerful and affecting post-apocalyptic novels ever written. And I guess there was The Book Of Eli, too, however much we might wish there wasn’t. In that movie, in case you don’t remember, the power of God’s guiding hand allows a blind man to fight his way (with ninja warrior skill levels) across a blighted America to bring a copy of the bible to a miraculously intact printing press on the West Coast. The Almighty may have allowed the human race to descend back into barbarism, with incalculable loss of life, but at least He still gets to tell His side of the story. Yay.

We’ve also got a growing trend for stories where humanity is destroyed or superseded by its own technology, with the emergence of artificial intelligence research proving very fertile soil for paranoia. The Terminator movies had already given full vent to these concepts back in the ‘80s, but Robert Cargill’s Sea Of Rust (2017) goes one better by setting its narrative after the human extinction event has already happened. In shifting the never-ending struggle for survival from us to the beings who exterminated and replaced us, Cargill offers some startling insights into the way ecosystems work and our place in Earth’s so fragile yet so resilient biosphere.

What’s the Point of It All?

Looking at this cornucopia of cataclysms, you could be forgiven for thinking that in the modern era we’re afraid of pretty much everything — or at least that our end-of-the-world presentiments are reaching an unprecedented high. I wouldn’t argue against either of those things. In the wake of the financial collapse a decade ago, the prospect of having your life suddenly and spectacularly become non-viable has become a day-to-day reality for many — and the world’s political systems have largely been put into the hands of rogues and fools (I don’t mean either rogues or fools, I mean people who are both), so it’s no surprise if we keep probing the sore place to see how badly it hurts.

But apocalyptic fiction is far more than a sort of psychic immunization program, giving us little disasters so the big one won’t hurt so much when it comes. For one thing, apocalypses are a good place for conducting thought-experiments. By clearing away the inessentials they make room for searching questions about who we are and what we’re for. So much of our behavior and our thinking is dictated by the social roles we play. We move through our days like actors crossing a stage, all our moves blocked and all our words cued up for us in advance. If society breaks down, there’s nobody left to prompt us. We suddenly have to improvise, and in the process we discover ourselves, as the American poet Wallace Stevens put it, “more truly and more strange.”

Apocalypses are a good place for conducting thought experiments.

That’s certainly true of Cormac McCarthy’s masterful The Road, in which a father and son journey through a landscape so depleted by catastrophe that food is almost entirely exhausted. Their humanity and their love for each other is tested beyond every conceivable limit, but it holds. “If he is not the word of God,” the father thinks as he looks down on his sleeping child, “then God never spoke.” In N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth books, by contrast, the focus is on racial tensions and divisions seen through the lens of a society hardened and coarsened by regular apocalypse events. Jemisin brilliantly dissects the way mistrust between groups can be fomented to serve political agendas that have nothing to do with survival and everything to do with power and advantage.

In some stories, the end of the world functions as metaphor. Kurt Vonnegut’s early masterpiece Cat’s Cradle is a darkly hilarious fable about the arms race and its logical end point, but it’s many other things besides and one of them is a meditation on human mortality. The book is full of deaths that are tragic, absurd or both, and though in due course it builds to an end-of-the-world moment (“the great ah-whoom”) it also reminds us poignantly that every death is the end of a world. That’s literally one of the tenets of the novel’s invented religion, Bokononism, which also gives us the novel’s closing lines and humanity’s defiant response to the arbitrariness of the universe.

Post-apocalyptic narratives differ, too, in where they position themselves relative to the end of the world. Many show it happening in the narrative present (which means they’re not post-apocalyptic at all). Most jump forward a generation to show the new world order that’s forming, and make that the central focus. That’s become a staple of YA fiction in recent years, with many writers following the trail that Suzanne Collins blazed in the Hunger Games trilogy.

But some writers go off-piste. Jasper Fforde’s brilliant Shades Of Grey (a title he must regret every day of his life) takes place many centuries after its sundering apocalypse, which is referred to only as “the something that happened.” The new society that has risen up is profoundly ignorant of its own past, and so is the reader. We see the end product, but we don’t see the process, so we’re false-footed again and again by the novel’s brilliant reveals.

And some novels don’t announce themselves as apocalyptic at all, but are still suffused with the elegiac sense of an era, a way of life, a civilization winding to its close. Foremost among these implicit apocalypses is Claire North’s wonderful The End Of the Day, whose point-of-view character, Charlie, acts as the harbinger of death. When death is coming, Charlie is sent before, sometimes as a courtesy and sometimes as a warning. But the deaths he is sent to mark aren’t always the deaths of individuals, and as the book progresses we start to see patterns and correspondences that foreshadow a bigger, more profound death. The personal, the global and the cosmic overlap and interpenetrate, as they do in Cat’s Cradle.

Perhaps, if there’s a common thread running through apocalyptic fiction (and I admit that’s a big if) then it’s novels like Cat’s Cradle and The End Of the Day that give it its clearest expression. There’s a scene in the latter book where Charlie attends a funeral for someone he has got to know in the course of his work.

The Harbinger of Death sits quietly and nods at the words that come… and cries with the rest of the room, not in raging grief that shouts and screams, but at the size of the hollow left behind, which no one now can fill.

And outside the church…

Death waits, but does not enter. Her work is done, for today, and funerals she feels are a ceremony for the living, not the dead. She has no interest in corpses.

That exquisite tension defines apocalyptic fiction for me. It always gives us a split focus, on “the hollow left behind” and on the living who now have to reach a new accommodation with a new reality. That’s a crucial and complicated part of being human, and we need all the help we can get. Perhaps that’s why we turn so often to stories that take us to the edge of the abyss and hold our hands as we look down.

More Like This

A Starter Kit to Help You Pack for the Apocalypse

7 books by feminist science fiction and fantasy authors that prepare us for impending doom

Aug 21 - SE Fleenor

A Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy for the Post-Truth Era

Peng Shepherd’s “The Book of M” envisions a society where reality is malleable—and it’s more plausible than it sounds

Nov 15 - Theodore McCombs
Thank You!