Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction

Apocalyptic fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction that is concerned with the end of civilization due to a potentially existential catastrophe such as nuclear warfare, pandemic, extraterrestrial attack, impact event, cybernetic revolt, technological singularity, dysgenics, supernatural phenomena, divine judgement, climate change, resource depletion or some other general disaster. Post-apocalyptic fiction is set in a world or civilization after such a disaster. The time frame may be immediately after the catastrophe, focusing on the travails or psychology of survivors, or considerably later, often including the theme that the existence of pre-catastrophe civilization has been forgotten (or mythologized). Post-apocalyptic stories often take place in an agrarian, non-technological future world, or a world where only scattered elements of technology remain. There is a considerable degree of blurring between this form of science fiction and that which deals with dystopias.

The genres gained in popularity after World War II, when the possibility of global annihilation by nuclear weapons entered the public consciousness. However, recognizable apocalyptic novels have existed at least since the first quarter of the 19th century, when Mary Shelley's The Last Man was published.[1] Additionally, the subgenres draw on a body of apocalyptic literature, tropes, and interpretations that are millennia old.


Ancient predecessors

Numerous societies, including the Babylonian and Judaic traditions, have produced apocalyptic literature and mythology, some of which dealt with the end of the world and of human society.[2] The scriptural story of Noah and his Ark describes the end of a corrupt civilization and its replacement with a remade world. The first centuries AD saw the creation of various apocalyptic works; the best known (due to its inclusion in the New Testament) is the Book of Revelation (from which the word apocalypse originated, meaning "revelation of secrets"), which is replete with prophecies of destruction.[2] In the study of religious works, apocalyptic texts or stories, are those that disclose hidden secrets either by taking an individual literally into the heavens or into the future. Most often these revelations about heaven and the future are used to explain why some currently occurring event is taking place.[3]

Outside of the corpus of New Testament apocrypha also includes apocalypses of Peter, Paul, Stephen, and Thomas, as well as two of James and Gnostic Apocalypses of Peter and Paul. The beliefs and ideas of this time, including apocalyptic accounts excluded from the Bible, influenced the developing Christian eschatology.[citation needed]

Further apocalyptic works appeared in the early Middle Ages. The 7th century Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius includes themes common in Christian eschatology; the Prophecy of the Popes has been ascribed to the 12th century Irish saint Malachy, but could possibly date from the late 16th century. Islamic eschatology, related to Christian and Jewish eschatological traditions, also emerged from the 7th century. Ibn al-Nafis's 13th century Theologus Autodidactus, an Arabic novel, used empirical science to explain Islamic eschatology.[4]

Modern works

Pre-1900 works

The first work of modern apocalyptic fiction in English may be Mary Shelley's 1826 novel The Last Man, the story of a man living in a future world emptied of humanity by plague.[1]

The 1885 novel After London by Richard Jefferies is of the type that could be best described as genuine "post-apocalyptic fiction"; after some sudden and unspecified catastrophe has depopulated England, the countryside reverts to nature, and the few survivors to a quasi-medieval way of life. The first chapters consist solely of a description of nature reclaiming England: fields becoming overrun by forest, domesticated animals running wild, roads and towns becoming overgrown, London reverting to lake and poisonous swampland. The rest of the story is a straightforward adventure/quest set many years later in the wild landscape and society; but the opening chapters set an example for many later science fiction stories.

Published in 1898, H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds depicts an invasion of Earth by inhabitants of the planet Mars. The aliens systematically destroy Victorian England with advanced weaponry mounted on nearly indestructible vehicles. Due to the famous radio adaptation of the novel by Orson Welles on his show, Mercury Theatre, the novel has become one of the best known early apocalyptic works. It has subsequently been reproduced or adapted several times in film, television programming, radio programming, music, and computer games.

Post-1900 works

Nuclear war

The period of the Cold War saw increased interest in this subgenre, as the threat of nuclear warfare became real. Paul Brians published Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, a study that examines atomic war in short stories, novels, and films between 1895 and 1984. Since this measure of destruction was no longer imaginary, some of these new works, such as Mordecai Roshwald's Level 7, Nevil Shute's On the Beach and Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, and Robert McCammon's Swan Song shun the imaginary science and technology that are the identifying traits of general science fiction. Others include more fantastic elements, such as mutants, alien invaders, or exotic future weapons such as James Axler's Deathlands. A seminal work in this subgenre was Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), in which a recrudescent Church (Catholic or other), pseudo-medieval society, and rediscovery of the knowledge of the pre-holocaust world are central themes. Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (1980) also has religious or mystical themes. Also, Orson Scott Card's post-apocalyptic anthology The Folk of the Fringe deals with America post nuclear war.

According to some theorists, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in its modern past has influenced Japanese popular culture to include many apocalyptic themes. Much of Japan's manga and anime is filled with apocalyptic imagery.[5] Andre Norton wrote one of the definitive, post apocalyptic novels, Star Man's Son (AKA, Daybreak 2250), published in 1952, where a young man, Fors, begins an Arthurian quest for lost knowledge, through a radiation ravaged landscape, with the aid of a telepathic, mutant cat. He encounters mutated creatures, "the beast things," which are possibly a degenerated form of humans. Most notably, the 1954 film Gojira (romanized as Godzilla) depicted the title monster as an anagram for nuclear weapons, something Japan experienced first-hand.

In 2003, children's novelist Jeanne DuPrau released the first of four books in a post-apocalyptic series for young adults. The City of Ember has since been made into a film starring Bill Murray and Saoirse Ronan.

Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road (2006) is a recent work of post-apocalyptic fiction, which was made into a film by director John Hillcoat starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee. The cause of the event that partially destroys the world is never explained in the text.

William W. Johnstone wrote a long series of books over the course of twenty years (35 books all containing the word "Ashes" in the title) about the aftermath of worldwide nuclear and biological war.

CBS produced the TV series Jericho in 2006-2008, which focuses on the survival of the town after 23 American cities were destroyed by nuclear weapons.

In 1984 BBC made Threads, a television program showing the Before/During/After a nuclear bomb is detonated over the British town of Sheffield after the Soviets refused to dismantle a nuclear launch base in Iran.

The series of post-apocalyptic video games Fallout focuses on a world after a massive nuclear war destroys most of the great powers in 2077. The games are usually based around "vaults", safe underground bunkers for long-term survival, and exploring the outside wasteland, in locations such as California or Washington DC.


The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel, published in 1901, is a "last man" novel in which most of humanity has been killed by a poisonous cloud.

The Scarlet Plague by Jack London, published in 1912, is set in San Francisco in the year 2072, 60 years after a plague has largely depopulated the planet.

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949), deals with one man who finds most of civilization has been destroyed by a plague. Slowly a small community forms around him as he struggles to start a new civilization and preserve knowledge and learning.

Survivors was a 1970s BBC television series, recently remade in 2008. The series focused on a group of British survivors in the aftermath of a genetically engineered virus that has killed 99.9% of the world's population. The first series examined the immediate after-effects of a pandemic, while the second and third series concentrated on the survivors' attempts to build communities and make contact with other groups.

Empty World a 1977 novel by John Christopher about an adolescent boy who survives a plague which has killed off most of the world's population.

In 1978, Stephen King published The Stand, which follows the odyssey of a small number of survivors of a world-ending influenza pandemic. Although reportedly influenced by the 1949 novel Earth Abides, King's book includes many supernatural elements and is generally regarded as part of the horror fiction genre.

The award-winning novel Emergence by David R. Palmer (1984) is set in a world where a man-made plague destroys the vast majority of the world's population.

The Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago wrote Blindness in 1995. It tells the story of a city or country in which a mass epidemic of blindness destroys the social fabric. It was adapted into the film Blindness in 2008.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood is an example of dystopian post-apocalyptic fiction.[6] The framing story is set after a genetically modified virus wipes out the entire population except for the protagonist and a small group of humans that were also genetically modified. A series of flashbacks depicting a world dominated by biocorporations explains the events leading up to the apocalypse. This story was later followed up with The Year of the Flood.

Atwood's short story "Freeforall" deals with a totalitarian society attempting to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Richard Matheson's I Am Legend deals with the life of Robert Neville, the only unaffected survivor of a global pandemic that has turned the world's population into vampire-like creatures.

The White Plague (1982) a novel by Frank Herbert. When a bomb planted by the IRA goes off, the wife and children of molecular biologist John Roe O'Neill are killed on May 20, 1996 in a terrorist attack. Driven insane by loss, he plans a genocidal revenge and creates a plague that kills women. O'Neill then releases it in Ireland (which he hates for supposedly supporting the terrorists), England (for oppressing the Irish and giving them a cause), and Libya (for training said terrorists); he demands that the governments of the world send all citizens of those countries back to their countries, and that they quarantine those countries and let the plague run its course, so they will lose what he has lost; if they do not, he has more plagues to release.

Y: The Last Man comic series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra deals with the life of Yorick Brown and his monkey Ampersand after a plague wipes out all but three male life forms on the earth, leaving the whole planet to be controlled by women.

Author Jeff Carlson wrote a trilogy of novels beginning with his 2007 debut, Plague Year, a present-day thriller about a worldwide nanotech contagion that devours all warm-blooded life below 10,000 feet (3,000 m) in elevation. Its two sequels, Plague War and Plague Zone, deal with a cure that allows return to an environment that suffered ecological collapse due to massive increases in insects and reptiles.

"Zombieland" (2009) is a film in which a disease mutates most Americans(rest of the world is not mentioned) and turns them into feral animal like creatures hungry for human flesh. The story is about a group of people who stick together to try survive against the zombies.

Failure of modern technology

In E. M. Forster's 1909 novella The Machine Stops, humanity has been forced underground due to inhospitable conditions on Earth's surface and is entirely dependent on "the machine," a god-like mechanical entity which has supplanted almost all free will by providing for mankind's every whim. The machine deteriorates and eventually stops, ending the lives of all those dependent upon it, though one of the dying alludes to a group of humans dwelling on the surface who will carry the torch of humanity into the future.

In René Barjavel's 1943 novel Ravage, written and published during the German occupation of France, a future France is devastated by the sudden failure of electricity, causing chaos, disease, and famine with a small band of survivors desperately struggling for survival.

Half a century later, S. M. Stirling took up a similar theme in the 2004 Dies the Fire, where a sudden mysterious worldwide "Change" alters physical laws so that electricity, gunpowder and most forms of high-energy-density technology no longer work. Civilization collapses, and two competing groups struggle to re-create medieval technologies and skills, as well as master magic.

Afterworld is a computer-animated American science fiction television series about the failure of modern technology.

Harlan Ellison's short story "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", published in 1967, is set after the Cold War, where a super-computer, named AM (Allied Mastercomputer/Adaptive Manipulator), created to run the war office, becomes self conscious, and destroys all but five human beings. In a vast subterranean complex, the survivors search the shadow of the former world in search of food, whilst being tortured by AM on the way.

Extraterrestrial threats

Edgar Allan Poe's 1839 short story "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" has two souls in the afterlife discussing the destruction of the world by a comet that removed nitrogen from earth's atmosphere; this left only oxygen, resulting in a worldwide inferno.

In the 1933 novel When Worlds Collide by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, Earth is destroyed by the rogue planet Bronson Alpha. A selected few escape on a spaceship. In the sequel, After Worlds Collide, the survivors start a new life on the planet's companion Bronson Beta, which has taken the orbit formerly occupied by Earth.

In the 1954 novel One in Three Hundred by J. T. McIntosh, scientists have discovered how to pinpoint the exact minute, hour, and day the Sun will go "nova" – and when it does, it will boil away Earth's seas, beginning with the hemisphere that faces the sun, and as Earth continues to rotate, it will take only 24 hours before all life is eradicated. Super-hurricanes and tornadoes are predicted. Buildings will be blown away. A race is on to build thousands of spaceships for the sole purpose of transferring evacuees on a one-way trip to Mars. When the Sun begins to go nova, everything is on schedule, but most of the spaceships turn out to be defective, and fail en route to Mars.

Lucifer's Hammer by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven (1977) is about a cataclysmic comet hitting Earth, and various groups of people struggling to survive the aftermath in southern California.

Falling Skies by Robert Rodat and Steven Spielberg is a 2011 TV show that follows a resistance who are fighting to survive after extraterrestrial aliens destroy and attempt to take over Earth. The resistance force in the story bases its operation in Massachusetts.

Cosy catastrophe

The "cosy catastrophe" is a name given to a style of post-apocalyptic science fiction that was particularly prevalent after World War II among British science fiction writers. A "cosy catastrophe" is typically one in which civilization (as we know it) comes to an end and everyone is killed except for the main characters, who survive relatively unscathed and are then freed from the prior constraints of civilization. The term was coined by Brian Aldiss in Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1973). Aldiss was directing his remarks at English author John Wyndham, especially his novel The Day of the Triffids, whose protagonists were able to enjoy a relatively comfortable existence with little associated hardship or danger despite the fall of society.

The Catalan author Manuel de Pedrolo wrote Mecanoscrit del segon origen (Second origin typescript). It was published in 1974 and is a post-apocalyptic novel where two children accidentally survive an alien holocaust that eradicates all life on earth. They take up the mission of preserving human culture and repopulating the Earth.

Post-peak oil

James Howard Kunstler has written a novel World Made By Hand that imagines life in upstate New York after a declining world oil supply has wreaked havoc on the US economy and people and society are forced to adjust to daily life without cheap oil.

Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland's 2010 book Player One deals with four individuals taking refuge in a Toronto airport bar while a series of cataclysmic events occur outside.

Last Light and its sequel Afterlight by Alex Scarrow narrate the fall of British civilization after a war in the Middle East eradicates the majority of the Earth's oil supply.

See also


  1. ^ a b M. Keith Booker, Anne-Marie Thomas The science fiction handbook John Wiley and Sons, 2009
  2. ^ a b Zimbaro, Valerie P. (1996). Encyclopedia of Apocalyptic Literature. US: ABC-CLIO. p. 9. ISBN 0874368235. 
  3. ^ http://www.theology.edu/revappen.htm
  4. ^ Dr. Abu Shadi Al-Roubi (1982), "Ibn al-Nafis as a philosopher", Symposium on Ibn al-Nafis, Second International Conference on Islamic Medicine: Islamic Medical Organization, Kuwait (cf. Ibnul-Nafees As a Philosopher, Encyclopedia of Islamic World).
  5. ^ Murakami, T.: Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture, Yale University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-300-10285-2
  6. ^ Guardian book club: Oryx and Crake, The Guardian, April 11, 2007.


  • Wagar, W. Warren (1982). Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253358477. [1]

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