Thursday, January 26, 2012

Jonathan: It’s the End of the World as We Know it (and I Feel Fine!)

Books about the end of the world are hot. Movies, too. And comics, and video games, and TV shows, and…

Well, there seems to be a trend-- or, perhaps a fascination—with the coming apocalypse. Or even the thought that there might be an apocalypse looming.

Adults are hooked, and in recent years teens have been devouring anything related to the end of days.

Viewed from a distance this looks like evidence of a serious psychological and emotional downturn. A cultural cry for Prozac. It looks defeatist and nihilistic and sad.

But looks can be deceiving.

There’s actually a healthy and even optimistic lining to this cloud.

So, let’s poke a stick at it and see what flies out.

In terms of pure genre, there are actually four separate aspects to the genre. They are pre-Apocalyptic, Apocalyptic, Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian. Over the last six years I’ve written variations of all four. And I’m a happy guy. I don’t shovel down anti-depressants and writing this stuff isn’t a cry for help.

PRE-APOCALYPTIC novels are often thrillers built around a race to prevent something very big and very bad from happening. That could be anything from an outbreak of a killer plague, the rise of a dark supernatural force, or something equally destructive. Even when these stories are violent and have high body-counts, they don’t revel in the destruction. That isn’t the point (though, admittedly, some Hollywood apocalyptic films do seem to be geared toward the ‘how cool is this!’ aspect of mass devastation). Pre-apocalyptic are about how things can get worse (or go straight into the toilet) if the hero/heroine doesn’t cowboy-up and stop it. These stories are about people –often quite ordinary people—rising to take a stand against the Big Bad, and by doing so they often prevent the end of everything they hold dear.

This speaks to a question I’m often asked: “Why do you write about monsters?” My answer is in harmony with the theme of the better pre-apocalyptic novels. I tell them: “I don’t write about monsters. I write about the people who fight monsters.” Big difference; and that difference is an aggressive optimism, a belief that there are some things worth fighting for. And that by taking a stand against evil, corruption (or whatever the metaphorical Big Bad stands for) we can effect positive change.

Some pre-apocalyptic novels to explore are The Maximum Ride series by James Patterson, the Alex Rider novels by Anthony Horowitz, the Young Bond series by Charlie Higson, the Cherub series by Robert Muchamore, and others.

APOCALYPTIC novels are a bit different. They’re about enduring the unendurable. They’re about discovering how courageous and resourceful we can be in a time of great crisis. And, sure, they’re metaphors as well. In an apocalyptic story the world is actually crumbling around us. It’s happening right now and it’s a runaway train. Stopping it is no longer an option. These stories often start with a character trying to survive this catastrophe; and the openings are very personal. They almost appear selfish and even downbeat, because in the first flush of crisis the central character is frequently terrified (even cowardly), in shock, and clumsy in their attempts to get through the moment. But that isn’t the whole story. As an apocalyptic tale unfolds, the central character learns from his/her own survival. They become stronger from every experience –no matter how terrible—that they’ve had; even if they also experience deep and lasting hurt. We all have scars. Only fools ignore the lessons from how each scar occurred. These stories are about growth as an individual because the infrastructure of daily life has been forcibly torn away. No one is coming to help, and so the character earns the right to survive by the act of surviving. It’s rugged self-validation. Other characters may also rise, but some will not. Once the central character has his foot, he generally extends his protection to others. Sometimes it is the act of protecting another that reveals personal strength to the protagonist.

That’s a fact of crisis, and it’s the basis for all real drama. Storytellers generally don’t write novels about happy people having a good day. We tell stories about good people having a really bad day. The incidents of that day, the stresses and calamities, strip away our personal affect and reveal our true nature and qualities. A bold captain of industry may be truly weak and ineffectual when it comes to a catastrophe; but the minimum-wage gal in the steno pool might have what it takes to save the day. Without crisis moments we have no opportunity to discover who we really are, and apocalyptic fiction lets writers and readers explore that.

Some of my favorites in this genre include Apocalyptic: Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer, Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, The Stand by Stephen King, Swan Song by Robert McCammon, Dies the Fire by S. M. Stirling

POST-APOCALYPTIC fiction takes us a few more steps down the road. Once the immediate crisis is at hand, the characters have to learn to remain strong, to continue to be smart and resourceful, to work together for the common good. Post-apoc stories are often about the value of human life and the benefits of civilized behavior. In these stories we explore the question of how far each of us is from the brute, the primitive. In times of crisis do we collapse, do we become predators who prey on the weakness of others, do we become leaders, or are we parts of a collective whose goal is to re-establish the best of what was lost? Sometimes we are a bit of all of these. These stories allow for us to explore the nature of ‘hard choices’, sacrifice, and what it means to do ‘what’s necessary for the common good’. We see old traits –from compassion to greed—reemerge once the immediate threat is over, and that brings up its own set of questions. Will we be better than we were? Worse? Or just the same? More very tough questions.

Some significant Post-Apoc novels include The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch, The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, The Pesthouse by Jim Crace, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, Alas Babylon by Pat Frank, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.

DYSTOPIAN fiction is a related category. In these stories the old world has fallen and a new society has been built on its bones. Unfortunately this new society is far from ideal and we enter the story through a proxy character who is about to confront the nature and constraints of this new society. Sometimes the character is one who was not aware of the destructive or oppressive nature of the society –such as in Ray Bradbury’s landmark Fahrenheit 451, William F. Nolan’s Logan’s Run, George Orwell’s 1984—and reaches a moment of epiphany that makes them want to escape it or change it. Sometimes the character has always been aware of it and bucks that system, which is the case in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. In any case, we follow this person as they take a stand against society gone awry. These books are often criticized as being politically subversive; some have even have been banned for that very reason. I say, ‘Bravo!’ Taking a stand against political oppression and corruption was how America was born. It’s in our nature to speak out and to work for positive social, economic, and political change. These books allow readers of all ages to explore how that process works, and both the dangers and benefits of such a struggle.

Some other recommendations for dystopian fiction: The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, and many others.

End Notes

I’m actually encouraged by the popularity of apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction with young readers. It shows that they are smart enough to understand that the world in which they live is far from perfect and is, in many uncomfortable ways, broken; but they expect a future. They know that they are inheriting something that is deeply flawed but full of potential. They plan on surviving anything that comes –surviving and thriving. The more they read, the more they feed that dream.

As much as that makes me feel hopeful that they will, in fact, survive anything that comes –be it an apocalyptic event or a lot of minor calamities and crises—it also encourages people of my generation to cut them a break and maybe hand them a less deeply flawed world.


  1. Excellent, insightful post, Jonathan. I'm currently writing something I think will be labeled "dystopia," but it happens in the present. It envisions our world right now, if a particular event in history had led the world down a different political/sociological path (the outcome is miserable, but not apocalyptic). At first I was calling it an "alternate universe," but my son claims you have to see our universe, or the two universes have to interact in the story, for it to fit that label. What's your opinion? Will Sara have to pitch it with a made-up label?! "Alternate history?" "Present-day dystopia?"

  2. Alternate history doesn't have to be a clash or intersection of universes. What you're describing could fall under alt history, much in the way that some of the uptellings of Shakespeare place those stories in somewhat different versions of known places (as with the recent CORIOLANUS).

  3. You bring to light a seldom realized point about such YA books -- they are meant and do have an affect on adults. I've been to quite a few book clubs who read YA books. Ahh, not a single teen there. I'm wondering how unnoticed this little fact is in the industry. What do you think? Could even be a title for a blog in itself: YA for the adult market. Would be interesting to see the stats for Hunger Games, Twilight, and others, all of which I know have avid adult followers.

  4. Gah, this is such an excellent post! A must read for writers. The terms 'post-apocalyptic' and 'dystopian' are thrown around a lot, and sometimes the labels are confused and misused. Thanks for sorting things out so succinctly. Bravo!

  5. Love this encyclopedic exploration of these genres, Jonathan, thanks! Will bookmark this for my clients' future reference. Particularly love the fine delineations you explore, so often ignored: that you write about the heroes and not the monsters, and that facing the dark days can bring a message of great optimism.

  6. I needed this - thank you! I had just wrapped my head around Dystopia and thought I was all that... then the Apocalyptic (pre - post) popped up and I was confused....

  7. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often

  8. This is an excellent look at these types of books. Thanks for the post and for the shift in my own viewpoint as I read the post.

  9. You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and found most people will agree with your blog.Keep sharing and posting articles like these.This article has helped me a lot.Keep posting this stuff

  10. End of world was always a hot topic, is a hot topic, and will be a hot topic. Simply because people are curious how it might look like.