With the coronavirus upon us, I thought that we should take a look at apocalyptic fiction. It’s been a long time since I’ve done an in-depth look at a genre, so for those of you who are unfamiliar with how this goes, let me give you a breakdown.
We’ll start off as always with a definition of what the genre is all about. Then we’ll get into the history of the genre, and I’ll take you through how and why certain tropes developed and who developed those tropes. After that, we’ll look into how to write apocalyptic fiction.
Why am I doing a post about apocalyptic fiction? According to Ph.D. candidate Katherine Shwets, people are turning to apocalyptic fiction as a way to understand what is going on around them as the COVID-19 outbreak continues to sweep across the globe. Books, such as Stephen King’s The Stand, have seen sales spike by 27 percent within the first eight weeks of 2020.
That’s a huge spike! It’s also an excellent reason for you to dip your pen into the apocalyptic fiction market or to get that book you’ve been writing out there. In its essence, apocalyptic fiction provides us with a way to explore different responses to our subconscious fears, which Shwets believes is contributing to the increase in this genre’s consumption.
What is Apocalyptic Fiction?
Without further adieu, let’s define what apocalyptic fiction is:
Don’t get this confused with post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction, they’re entirely different things (we’ll cover them in the next two weeks). The main difference between apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic/dystopian novel is that apocalyptic fiction typically tells the story that comes before the apocalyptic event.
It shows our vain attempt to stop the imminent disaster only to find out at the last minute that there was nothing we could do to stop it.
Another hallmark that sets apocalyptic fiction apart from the two other subgenres is that life is threatened on a global scale by disease, natural disaster, war, or aliens, for example. The characters are looking to outlive, outlast, or outsmart the threat to the planet, which is unlikely as more and more people fall victim to the threat. This focus puts the threat at the center of the novel, making it plot-driven instead of character-driven.
Predominantly, apocalyptic stories express a pessimistic view of the present and treat the final events as imminent. Examples of apocalyptic fiction include Outbreak by Robin Cook, World War Z by Max Brooks, and the movie Contagion (2011).
The History of Apocalyptic Fiction
As many of you might have guessed, the apocalypse had featured in numerous religious texts before it ever made its way into fiction. In fact, most of my research focused on its spiritual roots, which is where we’ll start our tale.
According to the Britannica Encyclopedia, the first references of the apocalypse originated in Jewish works published between 200 BCE and 165 BCE. Before this time, Jewish prophets predominately used esoteric language to relay information about upcoming disasters, but the prophets, however, did not place their warnings within a narrative framework. It wasn’t until the Hellenistic domination of Palestine and the revolt of the Maccabees that a negative narrative got coupled with an apocalyptic scenario.
The most notable texts to come out of this period include the Book of Daniel (c. 167 BCE), which outlines the rising of four terrible beasts. Other Jewish apocalyptic texts include the first Book of Enoch (c. 200 BCE), the fourth Book of Ezra (c. 100 CE), and the second and third Books of Baruch (c. 100 CE). After the Jewish revolts failed to overthrow the Roman Empire, the rabbis decided to turn towards upholding and interpreting the law of the Pentateuch. The imaginations of the Christians were caught by the Jewish depictions of the apocalypse and integrated into Christian theology.
Early Christianity is thought to be rife with apocalyptic meaning and symbolism as the religion is intent on the imminent Second Coming of Christ. It was believed that Christ would return to Earth to preside over the Last Judgement and the end of the world. Early Christian apocalypticism is evident in the Gospels, which are permeated with language taken from Daniel.
Between 100 CE and 400 CE, several other Christian apocalypses were written, including the Apocalypse of Peter, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Ascension of Isaiah, and the Testament of Abraham. These works predominately refer to an individual’s salvation and lack the apocalyptic content typically found in texts dealing with collective history and salvation, despite the heavy reliance on supernatural visions and esoteric language.
As Christianity evolved, the Church Fathers started to move away from apocalyptic visions as they thought that the last act of history was “utterly uncertain.” However, the beliefs inherited from Daniel and the New Testament carried apocalyptic thinking into the Middle Ages. They led to the creation of new apocalyptic works, such as the Revelations of Pseudo-Methodius (mid-7th century) and the Vision of Brother John (late 13th century). Many medieval authors also wrote pseudonymous prophecies that foresaw imminent crisis, judgment, and salvation.
The apocalyptic genre died out after the Middle Ages as society moved towards the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. It didn’t rise again until the development of the novel ushered in the next phase of the apocalypse in the early 18th century. The first author to tackle an apocalyptic novel is none other than Mary Shelley, beloved author of Frankenstein.
In 1826, Shelley released The Last Man, a post-apocalyptic novel that takes place in a future world that has been torn apart by a plague. The book was not well-received at the time and did not gain notoriety until the 1960s. What makes this post-apocalyptic novel an apocalyptic one? Well, the main character, Lionel Verney, narrates a tale of complicated, tragic love and the gradual extermination of the human race by a plague. It is the focus on what is happening before human existence is wiped out that makes this an apocalyptic novel.
The Last Man captured the imagination of many writers and did not die a swift death, as most critics thought it would. Richard Jefferies was the next author to tackle the genre with his book After London (1885). This was followed up by H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) and War of the Worlds (1898). Both of Wells’ books brought apocalyptic fiction into the realm of science fiction, creating our modern-day version of not only science fiction but apocalyptic fiction.
Despite the success of Shelley, Jefferies, and Wells, apocalyptic fiction didn’t gain popularity until the 1960s. Up until this time, you had a lot of authors bringing in apocalyptic events that were always stomped out or solved. This had to do with the rise of comic book superheroes, but also with the need for hope.
Many of the writers in the 1960s lived through the horrors of World War II firsthand. This created some unease about our futures being rooted in our past. The introduction of nuclear bombs and Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book about pesticides also fed into fears about environmental disasters. From this fear was the birth of the environmental apocalypse and sparked the writing of The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard and The World in Winter, The Wind from Nowhere, The Crystal World, and The Drought by John Christopher.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the fear of global nuclear war rose up to capture readers’ attention. The nuclear apocalypse had never disappeared from center stage during the 1960s, but the late 1970s and 1980s saw an unprecedented spike in such stories. Nevil Shute led the way with On the Beach, followed by Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley, David Graham’s Down To a Sunless Sea, David Brin’s The Postman, and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.
This theme was not just limited to fiction. It also penetrated television, film, music, and comics. But after a while, all of this nuclear war talk became a cliche, making writers look for a new way to end the world with a nuclear weapon. In turn, this unique opportunity marked the birth of the idea of nuclear and atomic alterations.
The idea wasn’t a new one, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids had come out years before and provided a basis for what was to come. From the birth of the mutations theory, came Marvel Comics’ X-Men, and its popularity remains in mainstream culture today.
The Cold War ended in 1991, and so did the fear of nuclear war. With no Soviet Union to blame our anxieties on, we invented new ones. The end of the Cold War ushered in a new evil intent on destroying our world. Zombies shuffled onto the scene and into our hearts.
The zombie apocalypse decided to bring horror and science fiction together (with a dash of dancing). While not a rational fear, it does instill feelings of dread in us humans in the dead of night.
Personally, I think it goes back to Frankenstein and being afraid of science and humanity’s progress to some degree. In contrast, others believe that it ties in with our near misses with viruses like SARS and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Others, yet, still think that zombies challenge our perceptions of the existential self and raise questions about whether our personhood can be taken away from us or not. No matter what the reason, that angst has given us a new subgenre that is self-aware and ever-evolving.
Zombie tales started with the release of the movie Dawn of the Dead in 1978. The movie left us with the assurance that “when there’s no more room left in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” The film was followed by other releases in both the print and film world, including Re-Animator (1985), Joe R. Lansdale’s Cadillac Desert (1989), and 28 Days Later (2002), among many others.
Our zombie friends, or enemies, did eventually give way to another era in the apocalyptic fiction timeline, which the good people at Electric Lit term the “slouching towards Bethlehem” period, which starts in the 2000s and continues into the 2010s. Our plague-ridden stories don’t just begin and end with zombies. They have also looked at what the plague can do in general without the benefit of zombies. Novels such as The Space Between the Stars by Anne Corlett and Louise Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy look at these themes in depth.
Within the past 20 years, we’ve also seen a re-emergence of the eco-apocalypse trend from the 1960s as fears of global warming run rampant around the internet. And let’s not forget that the fear of nuclear war has reemerged with North Korea making threats and Donald Trump inflaming situations before diffusing them. The Rise of the Machines is another trend rising up to claim its spot on Hollywood’s walk of fame, leading many to think that our reliance on technology may come back to harm us in more ways than one.
Writing Apocalyptic Fiction
Alright, we have defined what apocalyptic fiction looks like and how it came to be an essential part of our reading world. Now we’re going to look at how to pull all of this together and write a successful novel. Here are my tips for writing an apocalyptic story:
- As always, I implore you to please do your research! This means going out there are reading some of the stories that I highlighted above, watch the movies, and find more stuff to watch and read.
- Speaking of doing research, you should also figure out what is currently making people anxious. I can give you a hint: it’s going to be either climate change, COVID-19, or zombies. Once you figure it out, try to figure out why it makes us wary.
- Play out those humanly fears in your novel. You know what we’re afraid of, and you think you may know why. Now show us how those fears are going to play out at the end of the world.
- Cliches. They’re easy and convenient, and because of this, they are everywhere. Try to come up with something new. Your readers will thank you.
- Cliches are bad, but not always. Prophecies started all of this. It’s nice to include them – whether they’re based on real-life examples, such as those found in The Bible, or wholly made up.
- Use strong imagery. Strong imagery is going to make everything feel more real, not only to the characters but the reader as well. You want to stop and take a good look around you to give that clear picture of what is going to be lost.
- Add a human element to your story. Yes, apocalyptic fiction is plot-driven, but ultimately the story is about human fears, emotions, and reactions to the end of the world event. That human element can be the salvation of the planet, or it can be a poignant moment. For example, at 7 PM each night, Vancouver takes to its balconies to bang pots and to hoot and holler in support of all the health and grocery store workers. Why not turn something as sweet as what’s happening in Vancouver and make it the last act humanity has before the invading aliens wipe us out?
- Is someone going to live? You have to really pay attention to your point of view here and when this is starting. For Shelley’s The Last Man, she left one survivor. The entire story has to come from that character’s point of view. If you don’t want to have a survivor, then you’re going to have to look at using an omniscient narrator.
- Because apocalyptic plots aren’t character-driven, it makes it easier for you to explore other overarching themes and ideas in depth. An apocalypse is just an event that drives the plot of your story forward. You still need to look at some character development, but a lot of the focus can be placed on specific ideas and themes. Mary Shelley did this time and again in The Last Man. She wanted to “kill off” romanticism as much as it had killed her husband and many of their contemporaries.
- Is there hope? You have to determine if there is a way out of the mess that we have gotten ourselves into. You have the choice to decide whether our blundering mistakes can be undone. In other words, you can give your story a moral. Just try not to beat your reader over the head with it.
- Keep your tension up. This is a tightly wound story. Emotions are running high, and survival is questionable. You want to keep your readers in suspense over whether everyone is going to survive or not.
I know that was a lot to take in, and I am going to give you that space to think this over before we dive into the post-apocalyptic world. That’ll be coming your way next week at the usual time. I won’t be going into too much depth over the post-apocalyptic fiction timeline, so don’t forget to look here for a refresh.
Until next week though, I do want to hear your thoughts about apocalyptic fiction and what your favorite novel or movie is. For me, I have a fond spot for Warm Bodies. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a post-apocalypse zombie movie with a romantic twist. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Also, let me know if you’ve read The Last Man, and what you think of it! I liked it better than Frankenstein.
Stay safe, everyone!
Until next time!