If you’ve visited a bookstore recently, you’ve probably noticed an increase in the number of post-apocalyptic books on the bookshelves. Most notable of those titles is the Hunger Games trilogy, and as the 2nd movie in the series opens in theatres this weekend (a guaranteed box office smash), it’s clear that the post-apocalypse has joined vampires and zombies as a trend in pop culture. But what can reading post-apocalyptic fiction tell us about the world we live in today? About ourselves? Brent Bellamy, a PhD candidate in the Department of English & Film Studies, studies the role of narrative in U.S. post-apocalyptic fiction.
“Apocalypse is a steady feature of culture all the way back to before the Revelation of John and that biblical story of the apocalypse,” says Bellamy. Although the definition of post-apocalyptic fiction is fairly broad, Bellamy focuses on U.S. texts that deal with survival after an apocalyptic event, when civilization is trying to “re-build” itself.
Bellamy notes that there are common themes that resonate through most of the texts—a type of “residue” that clings to the genre. For example, most post-apocalyptic fiction features groups of people coming together. Most times it is a family, but in novels such as The Postman (1985) by David Brin, it is the Nation that unifies people. Bellamy suggests that the theme of coming together becomes a “beacon of identity” for characters, and emphasizes “how we’re stronger together in a group than we are on our own. We can accomplish more.”
Another common theme is the frontier. “There’s a sense of rugged individualism and the wanderer figure comes back. There’re no laws [in these worlds],” says Bellamy. However, the genre is problematic as issues of race and gender—such as the absence of women and negative outcomes for people of colour—typically accompany the residues of the family, the nation, and the frontier.
The popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction
Although the novel form of post-apocalyptic fiction has been around at least since Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), the genre gained popularity in the U.S. after World War II as anxieties about nuclear weapons and technology became heightened. Today, the genre seems to be more popular than ever: while looking at the bibliography of post-apocalyptic fiction, Bellamy noticed that the number of titles released between 1945 and 1999 is less than the number of titles written and released between 2000 and 2013. Some of this can be attributed to “niche” markets—book publishers that exclusively print fiction of a certain genre—and fan-fiction written by authors who are just starting out.
“There used to be a motif that these narratives were supposed to teach a lesson, they were supposed to offer some sort of moral.”
“Another reason [could be]: if you look at the crises of the present, of course we want to imagine what would happen after an ecological disaster. Or after some sort of plague or something like this. The present seems ripe with catastrophes,” says Bellamy. He noticed there was a particular upswing in post-apocalyptic fiction after the financial collapse in 2008. “It’s not necessarily the end of the world that these novels are thinking about, but the end of American hegemony, American supremacy in the world…the US is facing all this debt and perceives threats from everywhere.”
Although older post-apocalyptic fiction can be read as a cautionary tale, the ethical or moral lessons in more recent books are less obvious. “There used to be a motif that these narratives were supposed to teach a lesson, they were supposed to offer some sort of moral. And sometimes [the texts] still have that, but it’s less evident now. Or the lessons are subliminal ones or ideological ones,” says Bellamy.
The appeal of the genre
The popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction suggests that readers enjoy reading about disaster-torn societies, despite the grimness. While some readers simply enjoy the entertainment value, others are attracted to the perceived “simplicity” of a technology-free life. “You get to see the structures that affect your daily life destroyed. You get to see buildings collapse; you get to see this return to a simpler way of life. Post-apocalyptic fiction gets rid of a ton of complications. It simplifies things down to a really elemental degree…So that’s satisfying. And then you also typically get to see this triumph of survivalism,” says Bellamy.
“Even if they don’t explicitly map out a certain state of things, they help us get a sense of the present,” adds Bellamy. “They point out that we seem to be out of options for the future, and this is something you can see in The Hunger Games too. [For example], the choice is between the intensive control of capital or the rugged individual’s rebellion against the state. Where is the collective option?”
“You get to see buildings collapse; you get to see this return to a simpler way of life. Post-apocalyptic fiction gets rid of a ton of complications.”
He hopes that his research will provide a critical lens to analyze the role of narrative in this genre. “I want to pull back the veil…. It seems like post-apocalyptic fiction is offering these alternatives to the present, but they’re really problematic for [reasons such as] the return to the family, the return to the nation, and the way racism and sexism resurface. I want to develop a broad study that is useful to other people who are interested in science fiction and cultural forms today, especially in the ways that they imagine the future.”