I’ve been reading a fair bit of post-apocalyptic fiction lately. I’ve said before that I like a good disaster movie and a decent disaster novel is no exception. I think they stand as a testament to the power of the human spirit that no matter what kind of disaster is faced, there are always survivors – well, that and the fact that without at least a couple of survivors, the plots would be pretty thin.
The book I’m reading at the moment, Metro 2034 by Dmitry Glukhovsky, is set in the Moscow Metro twenty years after a disagreement between superpowers turned nuclear and annihilated – or mutated beyond recognition – anything above ground. It’s worth noting that the Russian Metro system doubled as a nuclear bunker, so it could be sealed off in the event of a nuclear attack. For a novel written in 2009, it’s got an alarmingly Cold War feel to it – let alone being utterly plausible in its reasoning.
Anyway, this got me thinking. How would humanity survive if the world really did end? Naturally, the answer would depend entirely on the kind of disaster that befalls the planet- I expect an asteroid strike would pretty much obliterate the very ground we walk on – but there are a few ideas that seem to recur more often than others.
During the 1950s and 1960s, unsurprisingly one of the most common backgrounds to apocalypse was a nuclear war. This surfaced again briefly during the 1980s before the collapse of the Berlin Wall caused the Cold War to start thawing. Some people – presumably the very rich or intellectually important – would emerge from their bunkers into a scorched wasteland and start to rebuild the society they had lost along idealistic lines. Inevitably, however, some people had would have survived the massive doses of radiation, nuclear winter and acid rain to cause trouble for the boffins and drama ensues.
A variation of this is an Armageddon caused or manipulated by aliens – John Wyndham was especially good at this, to the point where his novels were termed “cosy catastrophes” by Brian Aldiss. I can honestly say that they certainly weren’t stressful reads.
In later years, the trend for wiping out the human population turned towards disease, either through genetically modified viruses released by accident or design, or by a previously unknown or forgotten plague striking humanity. No disease being 100% fatal – although some come pretty close – there will always be survivors or people who are naturally immune (or just don’t catch it) – but will they be the same? Offshoots of this idea lead to vampires or zombies; indeed, this is exactly how World War Z starts, with Patient Zero being found in China and the zombie plague spreading exponentially. Society rapidly divides into the “infected” and the “clean” and the battle for survival commences.
Less common is the climate change disaster, although more writers are looking at the implications of this as a basis for a thumping good dystopia. One of the earliest that I can recall is JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, but in recent years the idea has been revisited by films like The Day After Tomorrow or the novels of Paolo Bacigalupi.
With climate change, there is always the argument that humanity may be able to adapt to a rising temperature and sea levels so some form of civilisation may continue. What it would look like is anyone’s guess, but it would exist. The drama comes from change that is sudden and far-reaching, not allowing humanity time to adjust.
You can add to this list everything from global power failure due to solar flares, the moon leaving its orbit (changing the tides and possibly the seasons) to fundamentalist Christianity turning out to be right and the godly all disappearing in the Rapture. While people can think of a global disaster to wipe out the populace, they can usually think of a way it might be survived if we put our minds to it.
Let’s just hope that these global disasters remain works of fiction, shall we?