Tag Archives: Apocalypse

Music for the Post-Apocalypse

Here’s a playlist for the end of the world:

  • David Bowie, “Five Years”
  • Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction”
  • Blue Oyster Cult, “Don’t Fear the Reaper”
  • Bob Dylan, “All Along the Watchtower”
  • Coldplay, “A Rush of Blood to the Head”
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Bad Moon Rising”
  • Crosby, Stills and Nash, “Wooden Ships”
  • Crowded House, “Don’t Dream It’s Over”(because of that scene in The Stand miniseries)
  • Morrissey, “Everyday Is Like Sunday”
  • Neil Young, “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “The Weeping Song”
  • Nick Drake, “Pink Moon”
  • Peter Gabriel, “Here Comes the Flood”
  • Pink Floyd, “Two Suns in the Sunset”
  • Prince, “1999”
  • Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter”
  • Ryan Adams, “Afraid Not Scared”
  • Sisters of Mercy, “Black Planet”
  • Steeley Dan, “King of the World”
  • Talking Heads, “Swamp”
  • TV on the Radio, “Staring at the Sun”
  • White Stripes, “Seven Nation Army”

A more complete list of apocalyptic songs at Wikipedia.


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.


The Cycle of Collapse

Diamond says Easter Island provides the best h...

Image via Wikipedia

The “apocalypse” can refer to the end of the natural world, but it usually doesn’t — at least, not in the stories we are constantly telling about it. After the world literally ends, there’s not much left to say, is there? In fact, I can only think of two examples off the top of my head of this kind of “last days” story in fiction, when all life ceases to be: On the Beach by Nevil Shute, in which radioactive fallout from a devastating nuclear war kills all animal life on Earth; and Last Night, a film about the Earth’s last six hours before it is destroyed by either a meteor or the sun going supernova (the movie doesn’t specify). In both cases, the story is about how the characters, who know the end is coming, deal with that knowledge and live out their last days. (There is a whole sub-genre of “dying Earth” stories, as well, but these are typically set far in the future and depict a gradual end, rather than an abrupt one.)

More often, apocalyptic stories assume there will be at least a few survivors.  The apocalyptic event is not “the end of the world,” as the cliche goes, but rather the collapse of human civilization due to some catastrophe. Those who do survive must start all over again from zero. Usually, this struggle for survival is what the story is actually about, and the apocalypse is just the means to getting there.

We’ve seen these collapses of civilizations in our history. Examples include the Anasazi of the American Southwest, the Indus civilization, the Mayan civilization and the extremely isolated society on Easter Island. This last example serves as a microcosm of societal collapse due to environmental destruction. Over time, the islanders cut down all the trees on Easter Island. This led to soil erosion, making agriculture more difficult, and with no wood, the islanders could not build boats for fishing. The population plummeted: a mini-apocalypse. (For more on this subject, see the book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond.)

In fiction, one of the most memorable portrayals of civilization collapse is in The Mote in God’s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. In this case, the civilization is alien, not human. The collapse was always caused by war, brought about by the pressures of overpopulation, and always resulted in total decimation. Survivors rebuilt society, which inevitably led to another collapse. Because the cycle continually repeated itself despite all efforts to prevent it, the aliens became fatalistic and even developed a class of worker whose sole job was to ensure the survival of all knowledge so that civilization could be rebuilt after the next collapse.

The natural world seems to operate on cycles. Day and night, the seasons, the “circle of life,” in which death and decay lead to birth and growth, are all familiar to us. Even the universe itself may be caught in a continual cycle of destruction and rebirth. In human history, we can see how a pattern in how civilizations grow rapidly, reach a zenith, and then either decline or collapse. If an apocalypse does occur, but there are survivors left to start all over again, it seems logical to assume that the cycle would begin again as well, leading to yet another apocalypse. And another. And another. Unless we can find some way to break the cycle, which may mean changing our basic human nature.


Why the Apocalypse?

The Revelation of St John: 4. The Four Riders ...

Image via Wikipedia

Human beings are fascinated by beginnings and endings. Every culture has an origin story to explain how humans came to live on Earth in the first place. And many cultures make apocalyptic predictions about how we’ll go out as a species. In contemporary times, there are enough apocalyptic books and movies to deserve their own genre. Artists and musicians tackle apocalyptic themes as well. Why does the idea of apocalypse — the end of the world as we know it — fascinate us so much?

Rarely do the apocalyptic events in these stories bring about the absolute end, though. Some remnants of humankind usually survive to rebuild. We sometimes forget that we constructed the cultures in which we live, that we made up all the rules that govern our lives. A catastrophic event is an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, to press the restart button. Whoever survives gets the chance to start from zero and rewrite all the rules. And the apocalypse enables us at one fell swoop to solve the massive problems that confront us. Humankind is forced to return to the basics of survival, perhaps making our lives more meaningful — or at least more interesting. It’s an appealing fantasy.

But our fascination with the apocalypse is more than just a fantasy about starting over. I think, at its roots, exploring the possible scenarios for the end of human civilization gives us a way to confront our own mortality. We each face a personal apocalypse. We don’t know when or how it will come, or what — if anything — comes afterward. Just as each of our lives has a beginning and an ending, so it seems that the human race should have one too. Imagining that ending possibly makes it easier to  accept our own endings.