The Post-Apocalypse in Sci-Fi

Thanks to the announcement of “Revolution”, and my impending lawsuit against NBC, JJ Abrams and anyone else who ripped me off, I’ve been thinking a lot about post-apocalyptic stories. This is a very fertile area, and some friends here once again had the foresight to mention examples in advance which I was sure to include. I tell ya, the more time I spend with people, talking about creative stuff, the more we seem to be on the same wavelength… creepy!

I sense another story in the making, so I better patent it soon lest someone try to steal it. You hear that NBC? PATENT PENDING! You too Abrams!

Anyhoo, here is a list of all the post-apocalytpic tales I was able to find from over the years. As usual, this list is just a sampling of some of the ones I and other people have read, watched, and generally enjoyed. In truth, there are far too many examples to list. So, also as usual, any additional suggestions are welcome.

A Boy and His Dog:
This novella, and the 1974 movie which it inspired, takes place in an alternate timeline where JKF survived his assassination attempt and history followed a different course. For starters, instead of the space race, western society focused on the advancement of other technologies, such as household androids, ESP, telepathy, and even animal intelligence.

This new tech race intensified the Cold War, which resulted in WWIII breaking out. This war lasted for many years and was fought with conventional weapons, until a peace was brokered by the Vatican in 1983. After 25 years of uneasy truce and economic turmoil, WWIV broke out in 2007 and nuclear weapons were used, leaving the Earth desolated and scarred. As such, the story takes place in 2024, where the survivors are forced to forage and fight for survival and men outnumber women by a significant margin.

The main character is Vic, a young man who lost both parents in the war and never received any real education or upbringing. As such, his only real concern is gratifying his sexual urges. His companion is a wise-cracking telepathic dog named Blood, the result of genetic engineering in the previous century. While he depends on Vic for food, Vic depends on him for guidance and education, which he accepts only reluctantly.

The plot revolves around the couple’s discovery of a place that is known in myth as “Over the Hill” or “The Promised Land”, an underground colony that survived the nuclear war. Vic finds himself lured in because, in spite of their self-sufficiency, the colonists need sperm donors to keep their reproductive cycle going. He learns that a totalitarian council rules the place and maintains authority by “disappearing” anyone who resists them.

After meeting a young woman named Quilla, he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy to overthrow the council. She asks him, “Do you know what love is?”, something which he has never before pondered. The two have a short-lived affair, which seems to be out of necessity since she soon needs to escape when their conspiracy is foiled and her friends killed. They escape to the surface to find that Blood has nearly starved in his absence. In a twist ending, it is implied that Vic kills Quilla and cooks her flesh to save Blood. He contemplates the question she asked him, and concludes that “A boy loves his dog.”

Chock of full of dark humor, irony and a pretty low appraisal of human nature, a Boy and His Dog remains a cult-classic amongst cinema buffs and fans of the post-apocalyptic genre. Though it was by no means as commercially successful, amongst its fans it is right up there with films like Mad Max and other such classics.

The Hunger Games:
Following in the tradition of such greats as Brave New World and 1984, The Hunger Games presents us with the a world where apocalyptic evens have given rise to dystopia. Though it not fully specified what these events entailed, it seems relatively clear that it involved nuclear war or some kind of global fallout, possibly economic in nature. It is for this reason that a tyrannical government has taken over control of the 12 districts in the future, ruling the nation of Panem with an iron fist.

Naturally, this oppression involves both police action and forced deprivation, with people in “the capitol” enjoying a lavish, comfortable life while people in the districts live in varying degrees of poverty. However, the truest symbol of the capitol’s power comes in the form of the Hunger Games, a death-match style tournament where every district must send two “tributes” – young people who either teens or pre-teens – to compete for the prize.

The story focuses almost entirely on Katniss Everdeen’s trials as she is unleashed in the arena, trying to survive against the other competitors while at the same time outwitting the game masters. Through all of this, we are made aware of the relationship between the Games and Panem’s odd social structure, where favoritism is common and it is treated as entertainment. We also see how it is used to keep the population of Panem divided, in a state of fear, and otherwise distracted.

Combining gladiatorial combat with the concept of making the oppressed fight each other for the scraps from the head table, the games act as a form of dystopian social control and are also a very apt metaphor for teenage angst and coming of age! In the end, even those who survive are forever marked and must still fear for their lives, knowing that they are never entirely beyond the grasp of the capitol or the rulers who fear and oppress them.

Mad Max:
The franchise that made Mel Gibson’s career – may God have mercy on their souls! – Mad Max takes place in a post-apocalyptic Australia where law and order have broken down. As the franchise goes on, we learn that this was the result of a nuclear war which began after the world’s oil supplies ran out. As a result, gasoline is the most precious commodity of all, with roving bands of thugs and mercenaries fighting and raiding just so they can keep their vehicles running.

The story’s main character, Max Rockatansky, is part of the Main Force Patrol (MFP), a police force that is dedicated to maintaining order on the highways. After his family is murdered by gang members, he hijacks their fastest car and heads out on a personal mission of revenge. Having killed them all, he becomes a roamer, going from place to place in his V-8 Pursuit Special with only a dog as his companion.

In all subsequent movies, events focus on him becoming embroiled in adventures where he must help people in need, all the while looking out for himself as well. More often than not, his journeys take him to shantytowns that have been built around refineries, where small colonies of people are ruled by matriarchs, patriarchs, and are threatened by roaming hoards who want what they have.

In essence, Max’s journeys serve as a vehicle for the story which enable the audience to get a first hand look at what a post-apocalyptic landscape would look like. Key to this is the strange balance of modern and primitive, where gasoline engines, electrical appliances and guns co-exist with improvised weapons, brutal gangs, and lawlessness. All the while, you’ve got bands of people desperately seeking deliverance either in some fabled utopia or safe haven. In the end, the tone and feel of this movie set a new standard for apocalyptic movie making, one which has been imitated many times since.

On The Beach:
Next up is Nevil Shute’s classic tale of nuclear war and how Australia became the last remaining outpost of life and civilization. Published in 1957, during the height of the Cold War, this book was required reading when I was in school, and for good reason! Far from merely telling a tale of nuclear war and the fallout that resulted, it also delved into the psychology of the survivors, how they chose to live out their lives knowing that sooner or later, they would die like the rest.

Taking place in Australia, the story focuses on the lives of people and families who have relocated to the last safe place on Earth. This includes native Australians, ex-pats, and several American military officers who have fled south. Knowing that the Northern Hemisphere has been devastated and is now devoid of all life, the people initially resort to binge drinking and partying, but eventually turn to improving their lives through education, hobbies, and spending time with their families.

Things come to a head when a garbled Morse code reaches them from Seattle, prompting Towers (the American commander) and his fellow officers to mount a mission in their sub. When they arrive, they find that the signal, which is coming from an abandoned naval headquarters, is the result of a broken window sash swinging around and hitting a telegraph key. Their trip also determines that contrary to some hopes, radiation levels are not dissipating.

In the end, all services grind to a halt, people take their suicide pills, and Towers and his officers decide to sail their sub out to international waters and scuttle the ship. In the end, Towers chooses die still serving his country, and avoids having a romance with a woman (Moira) who loves him out of loyalty to his dead wife. The story ends with Moira watching from the beach, imagining him with her as she pops her suicide pill and dies.

What is most interesting about this story is not the plot per se, but the realistic tone it strikes. For starters, how the people of Australia and the government choose to confront the inevitability of death was told with a fair degree of understanding. Instead of looting, rioting, and generally resorting to barbarity, the people, by and large, choose to spend the time they have left enjoying themselves, being with family, and then ending it all painlessly. And the contrast between the people who chose to spend their time partying, versus the stalwart nature of Towers, was also a nice comparison, showing the range of reactions.

It is also interesting in how it speculates on how WWIII began. Rather than being the result of a stand-off between the US and the Soviets, the war began when second-parties, such as Albania and Italy, began bombing each other, forcing their allies to intervene. China and the Soviets even bombed each other when territorial disputes and the general chaos resulted in them invading one another. Thus, much like in WWI, we see a general state of war resulting from tangled alliances and arms races. Oh, the lessons of history…

Planet of the Apes:
Originally a novel that was published in 1963, this book went on to be adapted into film twice, first in 1968 and again in 2001. The story tells the tale of a group of explorers who go into deep space on an exploratory mission, but who end up finding a world where chimpanzees are capable of speech, build cities, wear clothing, and hunt humans for sport. In the end, the explorers flee back to Earth, only to discover that a similar fate has befallen it as well.

Ultimately, the story is being told in a note left by the protagonist, which is uncovered by a young couple who are taking a vacation in their space ship. It is only at the very end that it is revealed that they are intelligent apes, and they conclude that no human could have written this note, as they are not believed to be intelligent enough.

Though different in terms of its overall plot, much of the original story survived the movie adaptation. Here, the explorers were scientists who entered cryogenic sleep, hoping to wake up in a future where mankind was more evolved. Instead, they wake up to find that they are (seemingly) marooned on a mysterious planet where humans live in a primitive state and intelligent apes rule.

When they are attacked, all of the protagonist’s (Taylor, played by Charlton Heston) friend are killed, leaving him alone in a compound where humans are experimented on. He finds an unlikely ally in an ape named Zira who seeks to prove that humans are intelligent and hence worthy of rights (echoes of animal rights activists). All the while, Dr. Zaius, a conservative scientists, expresses strong doubts, though it is clear he is trying to bury Zira’s evidence.

In time, Taylor escapes with the help of the two scientists – Zira and Cornelius – who sought to prove his intelligence, and they flee to the Forbidden Zone. This taboo area contains a cave where Cornelius claims to have found the remains of a non-simian civilization a year earlier. They are intercepted by Zaius and some soldiers, but they manage to convince him to enter the cave and see what lies within. There, they find a number of artifacts, including a set of dentures, a pair of glasses, a heart valve, and (the real prize of the collection!) a talking doll.

Zaius reveals that he already knew of this, and that the Forbidden ZOne was once a paradise that human beings turned into a wasteland. He lets Taylor and his new female companion go, but orders the cave be destroyed and Zira and Cornellius brought back to stand trial for treason. Taylor travels up the coast and eventually reaches the remains of the Statue of Liberty and realizes the awful truth. His party never left Earth at all, but has entered a future where human civilization fell, most likely after a nuclear war, and apes have evolved to take their place.

Between the novel and the film adaptations, the evolutionary allegory is clear. Due to its inherent barbarity, human civilization is destroyed, its people fall into decline, and nature is left selecting from its predecessors to fill the void. In a sense, Boulle and the film adaptations his book inspired were mocking the idea of humanity seeing itself as being at the top of the evolutionary pyramid. In another way, they were demonstrating that the very excesses that make humanity corruptible (i.e. vanity, anthropocentrism) are not reserved to them.

The Postman:
This science fiction novel, written in 1985 by David Brin, tells the story of a post-apocalyptic United States where warlords rule the countryside and terrorize the local people. Enter into this a drifter who stumbles across the uniform of an old US Postal Services letter carrier and begins using it and a letter bag to bring hope to a small community.

Initially, he trades the letters in his mail bag for supplies, not intending to take part in a forgery. However, the letters give people hope that there is a “Restored United States of America”, which eventually leads him to maintain the illusion. He then stumbles upon a facility in Oregon State University where scientists are apparently pretending that an AI they built is still working, as a means to maintain people’s hope that knowledge and science are being kept alive.

Together, they face off against a group of ultra-survivalists who are moving south through the region. The Postman and the scientists join forces to fight them, and in the end find that the survivalists are being beaten back from the south as well, by armies bearing the standard of the State of California. Apparently, the intersection of these symbols, the letter, the scientists, and the state flag, act as a synthesis to show the path towards rebuilding the shattered nation.

This book is not only a celebrated example of a post-apocalyptic tale of hope and redemption; it’s also a fitting commentary on politics and ideology in the modern age. Many times over, the super-survivalist Nathan Holn is parodied in the book, with the survivalists of the story being called Holnists. It is even suggested that it was the followers of Holn who destroyed the government in the not-too-distant future, not nuclear war, biological agents, or even economic fallout. So in the end,  we learn that the nation is wrecked by brutal and ignorant minds, and saved by a combination of true patriots, keepers of knowledge, and those motivated to help their fellow man.

The movie adaptation that was released in 1997 did very poorly, with many critics seeing it as the latest in a string of flops for Kevin Costner. Having not seen the movie, I can’t comment on its quality either way. All I know is, it’s a shame given the value of the source material.

Second Variety:
This short story by Philip K Dick, which was adapted into the movie “Screamers”, deals with the line between artifice and authenticity and is set in a post-apocalyptic world. Hence, much like Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, it is all about machines that can impersonate humans and what happens when technical progress gets away from us.

Though the movie was set on a distant world, the original story takes place on Earth, where World War III has taken place and Soviet forces occupy much of the US. This has prompted the US to develop a race of self-replicating robots that tunnel underground and pop up to slice the enemy to pieces. After many years of death and brutality, where the machines have turned the entire countryside into a mess, the US government has relocated to the moon, leaving what forces they have left on the ground in a series of bunkers.

The story begins when a unexpected message arrives in the US camp from the other side, asking for a ceasefire. The commander heads out to the enemy bunker to speak with the soldiers, who claim that new breeds of robots that can imitate humans have infiltrated them. Apparently, the underground facility that is making the machines has been producing all kinds of upgrades, consistent with its autonomous nature and aim to create better killing machines.

Suspicion soon turns everyone against each other, and eventually only the commander and a lone woman make it back to his bunker. There, he finds that humanoid-machines have taken over the base. They fight their way free, and the commander determines that they must fly to the Moon base and alert the government that the machines are threatening to take over Earth. When they make it to an emergency craft, the commander finds that it has only one seat and gives it to the woman. Shortly after she flies away, he is attacked by a group of robots, many of which look exactly like her…

Basically, this story tells the tale of how desperation led to the creation of a technology that was so effective, it threatened to completely destroy humanity, friend and foe alike. Much like nuclear devices and biological weapons, the “varieties” of killing machines proved to be a breed of weapon that was designed to fight a war, but eventually turned and consumed its own makers.

The Stand:
Stephen King’s classic tale of mankind’s fall and redemption, all taking place against the backdrop of the American countryside. Written in 1978, this story is based on the now classic concept of a government super-virus that got out and wreaked havoc on society, and those survivors who were left to pick up the pieces. Adding to this the theme of the Rapture and a post-apocalyptic war between good and evil, this book was steeped in metaphor and was a fitting allegory about good and evil and the eventual redemption of humankind.

The story begins when a government facility suffers a fatal accident with the release of an influenza virus, a strain of super flu that is 99% infectious and fatal. Once it gets out, society begins to fall to pieces as everyone, including the government agents responsible for containment, become infected and die. Those who are left behind begin to be contacted in their dreams by one of two people, an old lady and a strange man, each telling them to make their way to one of two places.

The old lady, named Mother Abagail, clearly represents good and is inviting people to form a commune in Boulder, Colorado. The man, named Randall Flagg (who clearly represents the Devil) is bringing people to Las Vegas, where they are arming for an eventual war. In time, the two sides come together after a terrorist attack leaves several dead and Mother Abagail suffers a heart attack and dies. She asks that the main characters walk to Las Vegas to confront the evil there. They do, and become prisoners upon their arrival.

However, things come to a head when the Trashman, one of Flagg’s minions, shows up in the city with an atomic bomb. Obsessed with fire and having suffered a psychotic break, he seems intent to detonate the bomb. The heroes experience a vision where a hand composed of white light and the voice of Mother Abagail appears to them, telling them they will be delivered. The bomb detonates, and Las Vegas and all of Flagg’s followers are killed.

The story ends with the surviving heroes bringing the first post-apocalyptic baby into the world, a baby which is apparently immune to the super flu. With evil vanquished and the knowledge that subsequent generations will survive the plague, humanity’s future seems safe at last.

And that’s the first installment. Tune in again soon for part II, featuring more examples of post-apocalyptic tales. As I said, suggestions are welcome. Get em in before its too late!

4 thoughts on “The Post-Apocalypse in Sci-Fi

  1. Love the list matt. What about the handmaids tale by margaret atwood? The movie sucked but the book was fantastic. At your suggestion i will be heading to my favorite used bookstore for a copy of on the beach. Cantbelieve i havent read it yet. And yes this entry makes me hawt too. I love it!

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