Category Archives: Genres

Apocalypse By Type

We have so many ways to end civilization now that we’ve had to break them down into sub-categories. Here are the types of apocalypses we might expect:

  • hard apocalypse — “The living will envy the dead” (The Road, Mad Max, Terminator)
  • soft apocalypse — It’s over, but it still goes on (Alas, Babylon, World Made by Hand, Earth Abides)
  • happy apocalypse — It might be over, but now we’ve got something better (Always Coming Home, Ecotopia, and various other utopias)
  • cozy catastrophe, where apparently you get to ride out the apocalypse in a comfortable country house (The Day of the Triffids)

“Welcome to the Soft Apocalypse” lists media that you might enjoy if you favor the middle ground.


Apocalypse vs. Dystopia: Some Definitions

Cover of "The Children Of Men"

Cover of The Children Of Men

In doing research for this blog, I have noticed that two sub-genres frequently get confused: the dystopian story and the post-apocalyptic story. While these two areas of future storytelling may overlap, they don’t mean the same thing at all. So let’s define some terms, shall we?

We’ll begin with apocalypse. An apocalyptic story is one that depicts the end of modern human civilization as we know it, usually due to some cataclysmic event. A nuclear war, a meteor impacting the Earth, a zombie uprising, a 99 percent fatal epidemic — all of these things can usher in the apocalypse. A post-apocalyptic story concerns itself with what happens after that apocalyptic event, whether immediately following it or far, far in the future.

Often what happens is the rise of new societies. These societies may sometimes be dystopias. A dystopia is the opposite of a utopian society. Utopias are pretty much perfect, providing for the needs of all of their citizens. Dystopias, on the other hand, are usually oppressive, totalitarian and violent.

Utopian and dystopian societies do not have to arise out of an apocalyptic event, however. 1984 and Brave New World are both classics of the dystopian sub-genre that do not depict an apocalypse. Or take, for example, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which is often mis-classified as post-apocalyptic. In that novel, a fundamentalist Christian group overthrows the current government and establishes a totalitarian society that enslaves women. Although environmental degradation has caused widespread infertility, no true apocalypse takes place. In fact, the primary point of view of the novel is of a future society looking back on this time in history.

Compare that with The Children of Men by P.D. James (or the movie based on it). In that case, although the apocalypse has not yet occurred, it is anticipated, because every person has lost the ability to reproduce and no children have been born in a generation. The novel could even be classified as pre-apocalyptic in that sense (see my previous post). This situation has directly created a dystopian government, which took power to enforce order on the growing chaos and anarchy occurring ahead of the apocalypse. So The Children of Men is an apocalyptic novel, whereas The Handmaid’s Tale is not, even though the subject matter is similar.

Sometimes the dystopian society is the cause of the apocalyptic event. This is the case in Margaret Atwood’s companion novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. The futuristic society she depicts is overwhelmingly consumerist, with a huge gap between rich and poor. One character takes it upon himself to engineer a virus to wipe out humankind and start all over again from scratch.

While I enjoy dystopian novels of all kinds, I am most interested in those dystopias that directly arise from an apocalyptic event. There are numerous examples of these, which may be why the two terms are so often confused. One I recently finished reading was The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper. After a devastating war, a society of walled cities based on ancient Greece arose. The cities are governed by women, while the men are forced to live outside the city walls as soldiers. Another good example is Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm, where the human survivors rely on cloning to reproduce. The cloned generations gradually change, losing their individuality and other essential human qualities, and oppressing anyone who differs from the norm.

Or if it’s a post-apocalyptic utopia you’re looking for, you might try Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin. Set in the far future California, it depicts an agrarian, idyllic society. Although they have access to technology — computer networks that survived the pre-apocalyptic civilization record their stories and occasionally provide information — they maintain an pre-Industrial Age way of life. Such an idealized lifestyle certainly seems unattainable without an apocalypse to first wipe the slate clean and allow us to start all over — and do it right this time.

What is the Pre-apocalypse?

You’re probably familiar with the term post-apocalyptic as applied to fiction and movies. Post-apocalyptic stories take place in a world after an apocalyptic event has occurred and civilization has collapsed. But here’s a new one on me: pre-apocalyptic fiction.

The pre-apocalypse would be similar to what I called in my last post “last days” stories. By using the term last days, I expect the story to meet two specific conditions: 1) the characters know that the earth is going to end; and 2) there will be no post-apocalypse. Whatever event is going down, no one is going to survive it. I could only think of two examples — the book On the Beach and the movie Last Night — that fulfill both these conditions and qualify as true “last days” stories, but I haven’t done much research yet and could probably dig up more in this sub-genre.

The pre-apocalypse, according to i09, depicts the time leading up to the apocalyptic disaster, but survival may be possible, or the event itself may still be averted. This is where the conflict comes from. The most obvious example of a pre-apocalypse story is the Terminator series, which keeps posing the question of whether the overthrow of humans by sentient machines is inevitable, or whether the actions of the characters who know what the future will be can actually change that future. Along similar lines is the film Twelve Monkeys, in which a time-traveling Bruce Willis is charged with gathering information about the engineered virus that wiped out most of humanity. Once in the past, he tries to prevent the apocalypse from ever occurring but fails — or perhaps his attempts to avert the disaster are necessary for it to actually take place. Again, the question of whether the future is fated is not comfortably resolved.

I haven’t done a lot of delving into this sub-genre yet. Living in uncertain times, as we do, with so many threats facing us, it’s no wonder that apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction has been so popular lately. Probably, the number of pre-apocalyptic stories will also increase along with our sense that the world is rapidly sliding into the void.

On the other hand, there have probably always been people who felt certain they were living in the last days, that the end was drawing nigh and only they were smart enough to see it. I feel like that myself some mornings when I read the news, especially with our leaders trying so hard to ignore climate change and its possible dire consequences. Yet somehow that great disaster never quite arrives. In my own memory, Y2K — which was supposed to bring about the collapse of a civilization overly dependent on computer technology — was a dud, and I don’t think much of anything is likely to happen on December 21, 2012, except it will probably be warmer than the previous year.

Still, it only takes once.