While literature dealing with apocalyptic events has always been with us (see flood narratives, for instance, or plague narratives), apocalyptic fiction became much more popular in the 1950s, during the Cold War. What was the cause of this sudden profusion of gloomy literature?
· the horrific events of WWII – soldiers and civilians who had suffered through that war had their specific traumas to work out
· the cultural anxieties of the post-war world (which included a return to rigid social expectations after the relative freedom of the war years and, at least in the USA, the growing threat of McCarthyism)
· the looming threat of nuclear war
· growing social tensions related to racial and other inequities
· A frightening rise in crime, at least through the early 1970s (and later, a perceived frightening rise in crime)
· A rapidly increasing population growth and the social complications that come with such growth
· A scary increase in pollution, especially through the early 1970s (when the EPA was introduced)
· Rapid technological advancement and the anxieties that come with such a rapid advancement
· Loss of the extended family and the accompanying social isolation, for many people
We can see the cultural anxieties attached to these causes playing out in many apocalyptical works of fiction.
Apocalyptical works all follow a specific pattern (though not every step here is always present)
1. Event: An event occurs that changes the world: this event deals with a cultural anxiety / cultural anxieties
2. Survivors react: We follow a small set of characters who react to the event – their reactions inform or explore the cultural anxiety and how we might be expected to behave (rather than how we are now, pre-apocalyptically, behaving)
3. Cause: The work examines the cause of the event, and tries to decide what or how humanity might have avoided the event / or how humanity might avoid the event in the future
4. Rebuild: The work seeks to show us how to rebuild – what the world should look like – by showing us our small group of characters are they rebuild the world.
5. Closure: The work seeks to give us closure, by demonstrating through the characters what we should have learned.
Apocalyptic fiction is, therefore, a kind of morality play.
Interestingly, we often see apocalyptic fiction written as a sort of wish fulfillment. That is, writers will describe an apocalypse, but – at least for their group of characters – the world is made better, or at least feels better.
For instance, in Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959), it is true the world undergoes a nuclear war, and that most of the USA and the Soviet Union, as well as much of Europe, are destroyed. But! Our Hero, Randy Bragg, loses a ton of weight, and his life (he was a languid playboy before, a rich lay-about) now had purpose and meaning. Plus! He finds true love. And the kids in town stop watching so much TV and start reading books again! Also the lazy trash in town all die of radiation poisoning, so that’s good.
We see the same sort of “good news” in John Barnes’ Directive 51 (2010). Here, civilization is destroyed by terrorists, not nuclear fire, but once again, the outcome is good news for at least some of our main characters. They end up in a cozy community where they all have good meaningful jobs and good meaningful relationships and their kids are also working hard and reading books instead of talking back. Also everyone loses weight. (This is just a constant with these books. Everyone always loses a ton of weight and feels great about it. The apocalypse diet! There’s your cultural anxiety. Americans and their cultural anxiety about their bellies.)
In other works, the apocalypse is not so cozy. For instance, in Crazies (2009), an apocalypse (or at least the start of one) is brought about by a government program – the government has been working on a biological weapon, “Trixie,” which gets loose in the water system of a small idyllic town in Iowa, and one by one turns everyone in the town into wild psychopathic killers.
The cultural anxieties here are obvious: we can’t trust our government, and we can’t trust our neighbors, and we certainly can’t trust our families. (The first and most frightening killers we see are abusive husbands.)
The ending here is also frightening, since no heartening resolution happens. There is no sense that we retreat to a safer, happier time (like the 1930s) when families pulled together and kids rode bikes and read books. That was the small town we saw at the start of the movie.
No, at the end of Crazies we’re left with the sole survivors fleeing the government, which is about to nuke an entire city to destroy them.
This second kind of apocalyptical text is much darker, and the only lessons it has to teach us are very dark ones indeed. Basically, it tells us, if it we wait until the apocalypse comes, we’ve waited too late.
See The Day After (1983), The Road (2009), and Threads (1984) for other examples of this sort of movie. Both Y: The Last Man and Station Eleven, on the other hand, are in the middle-ground between these two extremes. That is, they are neither cozy nor bleak.