Below, Peter Wood answers the question, “What makes an apocalypse story worth following to the ends of the Earth?” Throughout are many examples you might want to add to your reading list, but first—be sure to check out Peter’s story, “Why I’ll Never Get Tenure,” in our July/August issue [on sale now]!
by Peter Wood
Growing up, nobody liked science fiction in my house except me. My parents had exactly one science fiction book. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957). I read it in high school and, to this day, still think it’s the best book about the apocalypse ever written.
With a shout out to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Douglas Adams classic (1979).
Both have the world ending in fairly believable fashions.
What makes a great end of the world story? No preaching. Great characters. A plausible enough premise. And a plot that doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence.
No idiot plot, in other words. There are a lot of great examples and I can’t possibly begin to name them all. I’ll focus on a few.
In On the Beach, a nuclear war has wiped out the Northern Hemisphere, and radioactive winds will soon eradicate everywhere else. The residents of a small Australia town have, at most, months left. Full-fledged characters make the nightmare scenario all too real. And Shute doesn’t resort to preaching. The scene where a nuclear sub discovers that radio transmissions from North America have been caused by a soda bottle caught in a set of blinds, not survivors, speaks volumes and is a real kick in the teeth.
The movie version (1959) stars Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire and is rightfully considered a classic. Although snubbed by the Oscars, it is worth viewing still. Just read the book first.
Then there’s Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank (1959). A limited nuclear war cuts off a small Florida town from the rest of the world. Frank, though, presents the day after the holocaust as a rollicking adventure. Yeah, it’s not all peaches and cream, but Frank’s characters seem to welcome the apocalypse. They can finally achieve their potential, unfettered by civilization’s restraints.
I’ll accept almost any premise for an apocalyptic tale. Virus. War. Alien invasion. I draw the line at zombies, though. I don’t understand the obsession with zombies.
The oddest take on nuclear Armageddon has to be Robert Heinlein’s Farmham’s Freehold. (1955). The bomb shelter holding tough guy Farmham and his long suffering family gets shot hundreds of years into the future somehow by the force of the exploding nuclear bombs. Don’t ask. He discovers, to his horror, that Black people now run the planet, thanks to the atomic war that largely left Africa alone. Never mind that the new ruling class has apparently had peace for dozens of generations; Farmham wants WASPs running the joint. He finds a way to travel back to the past where his goal isn’t to prevent the nuclear war. He can live with that. He just doesn’t want those uppity Africans in charge. A very racist book that has not aged well.
A plague is also a good cause for the apocalypse. Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912), George Stewart’s Earth Abides (1959), and The Stand (1978) by Stephen King are well known examples.
King’s novel might be my favorite of the plague subgenre. A fatal miscue at a military lab releases a deadly virus that kills over 99% of humanity. What’s not to like? Great characters, a slam dunk premise, and an epic battle between the massed forces of good and evil. And King avoids my least favorite trope of the fictional apocalypse. The characters neither devolve into savagery nor turn on each other. They work together and act pretty damned sensibly in trying to keep civilization afloat.
Aside from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), I can’t really think of many examples of this trope that works. Ray Bradbury pulls it off in The Smile. Maybe the Mad Max franchise. Revolution (2012-2014), the abysmal science fiction series, would have us believe that everything would collapse and warring bands would take over just because the power stopped working. Uh huh.
The Scarlet Plague has people just lose interest in reading and learning for no apparent reason. Same with Earth Abides. Neither book justifies why people would do that except to imply that somehow it’s inevitable. This begs the question of how civilization and modern technology ever developed in the first place.
Carmac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) pulls it off. I buy his savages making life unpleasant for everything for three reasons. One, the prose is perfect. Two, the story is kinda allegory and doesn’t need to be taken seriously. And, three, he, like King, balances out the bad guys with good guys who are just trying to raise their families and keep the fires of civilization going.
Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John tells several simultaneous narratives covering from the start of the plague to the survivors trying to cope. She presents a world where people don’t turn on each other just for the hell of it. Aside from a religious cult that rocks the boat, everybody tries to get along. And to her credit, St. John presents the religious zealots as fully developed, sometimes sympathetic, characters with back stories. Imagine that.
I’ll accept almost any premise for an apocalyptic tale. Virus. War. Alien invasion. I draw the line at zombies, though. I don’t understand the obsession with zombies. A world where dead bodies can survive indefinitely without breathing or food makes about as much sense as cars tooling up and down the highways without engines or fuel.
I guess it’s unfair of me to pick on zombies when the science in most of my stories is balderdash. And Phillip Dick’s 1953 apocalyptic novella, Second Variety, has a preposterous plot when you think about it, but it’s such a masterpiece of Cold War paranoia that I don’t care.
I like the take of the film 28 days Later (2002), where survivors aren’t dealing with zombies. They’re fighting infected people who are very much alive, but act like zombies. There’s plenty of idiot plot to go around, but the film at least tries to present a plausible science.
My favorite zombie story is I am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson. The last man of Earth deals with plague victims who have mutated into zombie-like creatures. But they’re not caricatures. They can think and don’t have that Space Invaders death wish of many movie and literary monsters. The hero behaves in a very logical way and, although not an educated man, he painstakingly tries to understand the science of these new humans. Don’t waste your time with the movies by the way. All three versions stupidly ignore the plot of the novella. The Vincent Price version, The Last Man on Earth (1964), comes closest, but the book is still far superior. Charlton Heston at least makes The Omega Man (1971) fun. I am Legend (2007), the Will Smith version, is just insulting, with an ending that undermines the entire movie.
The characters in the novella I am Legend, even the zombies, act like people. They have backstories, flaws, and an inherent logic that made me want to keep reading. I guess that’s what it boils down to. Give me good solid characters and I’ll follow a story anywhere. Even to the end of the world.