Why we love the apocalypse in fiction

Stalker, classic post-apocalypse image from the game.The apocalypse in fiction and film is a very popular subject, obvious by how frequently it comes up and how strong communities of fans for it are. In an apocalyptic scenario, every situation is a fight for survival, and every character becomes special. Emotions are high and, with everything starting anew, the opportunity for rebuilding leaves endless possibilities for creativity. As a genre, it is usually placed under science-fiction, but in fact tales leading into an apocalypse and set in post-apocalyptic scenarios can cater to a variety of themes. Most commonly, apocalyptic stories are mixed with horror or action/adventure, but they are also frequently used for social commentary and deep character study. As a writer of apocalyptic fiction myself, I’d like to explore some of my ideas for what makes this genre so appealing.

1. The great fight for survival

Life in the 21st Century, on the whole, is quite a comfortable affair. Certainly there’s still a lot wrong in the world, and a great portion of humankind is still suffering, but the chances are if you’re reading a blog about fictional genres you’re not worrying about where your next meal will come from or if your neighbour is plotting to behead you. In an apocalypse, nothing is safe, no one can be trusted, and every step you take might result in a new crisis. It is the ultimate realm of danger and uncertainty, the highest stakes of peril, as far from browsing the internet for pictures of cats as you can get. If you’re looking for adventure and excitement, survival in a world that has been destroyed is bound to deliver.

An apocalypse usually presents ongoing dangers, either the cause of or caused by the scenario. This article, a nice reflection of our Beach of the Dead in Brighton, discusses a few of the reasons that these themes appeal from the zombie perspective. Even without a horror creature on the loose, the downfall of man presents dangers at every turn. Unleashed zoo animals, collapsing machinery, nuclear meltdowns, there’s all sorts of little things whose everyday management we take for granted.

2. There are no rules

When society crumbles, it takes everything you hold dear about civilised etiquette disappears. Repressed primal urges such as physically fighting for dominance and eating one another rise to the surface in a viable scenario where people’s inner-animal is unleashed. And let’s be fair, much as it is morally wrong and deplorable, mankind likes a good fight. Surviving in a post-apocalypse makes that fighting excusable in the most natural way: if you don’t fight, you die. Cannibalism less so, but you know…it might happen.

On top of giving an excuse to get in a few dust-ups, the destruction of rules also leads to endless possibilities for reforming society. In a post-apocalypse, you can experiment with new systems of government, new social stratum and even new language. If you want an example of how far this can go, check out Riddley Walker – an incredible realisation of just how different society could be.

3. Room for creativity

Alice fights a steampunk snail on a steampunk tower, looking apocalyptic.You can rebuild society, yes, but you can also rebuild technology. Post-apocalyptic landscapes leave room for all sorts of fascinating tools and locations. It can encompass cross-genre themes, for instance forming steampunk elements from a haphazardly reconstructed modern world, or even medieval themes where technology has been less carefully preserved. It can be weird and wonderful, savage and macabre, wherever the imagination chooses to go.

4. Everyone is special in the apocalypse

Probably the most important aspect of an apocalyptic scenario, though, is that when the whole world is fighting for survival every single character becomes special. With emotions high, personalities are polarised and become crucially important. Character development is a must for survival, the weak must become strong, trust must be established, wickedness must be dealt with. This is part of what made Cormac McCarthy’s The Road so successful: as well an incredible brooding atmosphere, it presented a coming-of-age story, where a child’s usual coming-of-age anxieties meant the difference between life and death.

Imagining yourself as a sole survivor is heartening, too. It’s easy to feel like an insignificant part of society in this overpopulated world, and the smaller that population becomes, the more important individuals are. A prime example of this is Richard Matheson’s classic I Am Legend, in which the protagonist, coming from a fairly ordinary past life, becomes so much more than a man (something the film really failed to capture).


A combination of all these themes helped inspire the writing of the novel Wixon’s Day. It is set in a world where society has been reconstructed under new rules (raising questions about the viability of anarchy), where everyday life can lead civilised people into violent circumstances. Everyone has their part to play in rebuilding the world, and the main character cannot remain apathetic if he is to survive. If you are a fan of the genre, or just looking for something new to read, please check it out and let me know what you think.

4 thoughts on “Why we love the apocalypse in fiction

  1. Pingback: Revisiting old writing: Sickness and Sin in the Middle Ages

  2. Yes I agree, I suppose people enjoy confronting themselves with survival, at least in theory. And there is the mystery issue…what’s beyond all these…is there something else or this is all?

  3. Pingback: 9 stand-out post-apocalyptic novels - Write Right Now

  4. Pingback: Why you should read Riddley Walker by Russel Hoban

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