Sunday, October 13, 2013

Cast in Ruin: A Taxonomy of Post-Apocalypses

This week, Charlie Jane Anders wrote an article about the disappearance of the "advanced civilization fallen to barbarism" story that used to be so prevalent in popular genre media. She considers a couple of reasons, one of which is that it has been supplanted by the post-apocalyptic story.  That got me thinking about whether those sorts of stories might be related in some way, and that led me to hypothesize a taxonomy of post-apocalyptic tales.

The first thing to consider is: Did the apocalypse happen to the viewpoint characters or their culture or did it happen to someone else?

Happened to the viewpoint characters/their culture:
If it happened recently you're dealing with a standard post-apocalyptic (or perhaps apocalyptic, if it's ongoing) tale. Examples would include The Walking Dead, I Am Legend, and Night of the Comet, just to name a few.

If it happened in the remote past, then we're dealing with post-apocalyptic fantasy like Thundarr or the Heiro novels of Sterling Lanier. There is a variant where the apocalypse is really slow moving: the dying earth story. It's tempting not to consider these post-apocalyptic stories at all, except for the fact that at least some of them (the Zothique tales of Clark Ashton Smith and The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson, to give a couple of examples) seem very concerned with pointing out how things are winding down to their inevitable end.

Happened to someone else:
If the apocalyptic event happened recently, and the viewpoint characters have arrived to discover this, we're probably dealing with a science fiction mystery or horror narrative. The Star Trek episode "Miri" probably falls into this category. (Some will protest that the apocalypse in "Miri" hardly counts as recent, being hundreds of years ago. I'd argue the extremely slow aging of the surviving children and the resemblance of the fallen culture to the culture of Star Trek's reviewers in the sixties, gives the story an immediacy that it's internal chronology doesn't reflect.)

If the fall is a remote event, then the "civilization fallen to barbarism" story comes into play (showing up in numerous Star Trek episodes like "Omega Glory" and "Spock's Brain" and as a backdrop in a lot of lost world or planetary romance fiction). If the civilization is mostly gone, but it's influence can still be felt, we're probably out of the post-apocalyptic genre and into science fiction, horror or a combination of the two--but not necessarily. The science fiction and/or horror option is exemplified by works like At The Mountains of Madness, Forbidden Planet, Quatermass and the Pit, and (again) a number of Star Trek episodes like "That Which Survives."

The stories in this category I would consider as in the post-apocalyptic genre itself would be of the "cautionary tale" or "sins of the past" sort. Ralph Bakshi's Wizards fits here, as do two unusual, effective, and Oscar nominated Christmas cartoons from MGM: Peace on Earth (1939) and Good Will to Men (1955).

There are less clear-cut stories that are inbetween these two poles. In this group are stories where the relationship of the viewpoint characters (or the viewer) to the apocalypse or the occurrence of the apocalypse, itself, is saved for a reveal at the end. The original Planet of the Apes is a classic example here, but Teenage Cave Man (1958) also fits the bill.

Also, we can place many so-called "Shaggy God" stories here, as the apocalypse leads to an Adam and Eve scenario. The Twilight Zone episode "Probe 7, Over and Out" is practically the archetypal version of this tale, but it has turned up as recently as Battlestar Galactica (2004).


Chris C. said...

Nice taxonomic break-down.

Added bonus: there are some examples I wasn't aware of and that I get to add to my "to watch" list.

Dyvers said...

Great breakdown, plus, I got some new book titled to look up out of it!

Trey said...

Glad to be of help, guys.

Jim Shelley said...

Thinking about it - the Planet of the Apes series is several Post Apocalyptic stories isn't it?

With the latest movie, they've flipped the formula so that it's Pre Apocalyptic.

Trey said...

@Jim - Well, it's apocalyptic, since the apocalypse beings during it. You have a point about the PoTA series. That's also true of Battlestar Galactica (2004).

bombasticus said...

Nice! I wonder if the "who fell" distinction is actually a subset of the larger "how distant" taxonomy. If it was "my" civilization that fell, it was within living memory and the viewpoint still remembers Big Macs, malls, flush toilets.

Move too far out and the past is (almost?) always "them." The Romans. Hittites. Mountains of Madness. Engsvanyali. People separated by a catastrophic gulf from the present-historical "us" the narrative is concerned with. On Thundarr, for example, it wasn't his people who built the ruined cities. It was the Ancients. Thundarr would act shocked and huffy if you told them his great-great-grandfather once ran a hedge fund out of that building.

I might add another axis for the reader's identification as us versus them. A lot of the compelling narratives are set after the end of "our" -- the reader's, not the characters' -- civilization so the context is clear to the reader but not your Heiro or Thundarr or other Gamma World types. Sometimes the two perspectives converge, like when Charlton Heston sees the statue or Cleopatra 2525 figures anything out. Sometimes the protagonists stay in the dark and the jokes about Yangs and Comms are only for the modern reader's benefit. And sometimes you explore a dead world that looks nothing like our own.

Good to think!

Trey said...

@bombasticus - I'm not sure the past is always "them": there are often people in "fallen future" sort of stories bemoaning what has been lost and looking to revive the past(though admittedly, it isn't often the main protagonist.)

There is a clear distinction between a "dying earth" story and a "visiting ancient ruins" story--so I don't believe remoteness of the fall is the main criteria.

However, I think you're on to something there regarding reader's identification. Maybe it's "could this/could this happen to us?" versus "this happened to them?" that is the main issue?

bombasticus said...

Good points. Might be as simple as how broadly we construct the "us" -- humanity's achievements or even the viability of life on earth are obviously going to remain a personal stake for longer than the Hittites.

The compare/contrast on the romantic gothic and the dying earth would be good to see, especially in the light of the wasted deserts from Ozymandias through Poe to non-cycle CAS. The obvious distinction is that the romantic gothic trip to the ruins contemplates "their" downfall but the tourist's heart will go on. At best, the story of them is the story of us, how our civilizational parents were engaged before we were born. Move far enough out that the species, biosphere or planet are gone and yes, it's all about "us." I Am Legend.

Not the pro critic but I do suspect it's hard to write about "them" in any way more compelling than history, whereas writing about "us" allows for a greater range of tragicomic effects. A lot of people enjoy fantasizing about what the world would look like after they're gone -- will people cry, will their hearts go on, will the Earth Abide?

It might be a dumb question but if it happens to other people is it ever really the apocalypse or just a bad day?

Trey said...

Very good points--and I think why the "civilization fallen to barbarism" is a different sort of story than the post-apocalytpic story, even though they both deal with the same matter of aftermaths of apocalypses.

bombasticus said...

... and to bring back the recency axis, I wonder if the salient thing is how well they in the narrative present remember me (the reader) and my world. So in the Crossed comics or Night of the Comet, they still pine for hot showers. By the time you get to Engine Summer, baseball is a myth, and then from the perspective of the Fifteenth Men on Uranus, "autumn in New England" is just a nonsense phrase.

This may or may not illuminate the appeal of archaic apocalypses in which the implied "us" has become quaint and their hopes and fears are no longer quite so urgent. We got over it. We're the barbarians [spacemen] now.

bombasticus said...

Oops, stepped on your line but the comments tool ate my next bit so I've been chastened. Owning my agree with you and the io9 writer that there's a difference between digging through other people's trash (fun and sexy) and inheriting my own. Wonder if there's an HPL angle there: occupy, oil crash, future shock, Ping Island Strike, the hereditary curse.

Talysman said...

I once used the terms "near apocalypse" and "far apocalypse" to describe the distinction you make between "happened in recent memory" and "no one really remembers what it was like before". And "mid-apocalypse" for something that begins in the story or just before the events of the story. I'd probably add "slow apocalypse" for the dwindling of civilization over many generations, and "semi-apocalypse" for something regional, or cataclysmic but not a total showstopper.

What I'm unsure of is whether there needs to be a separate term for when the apocalypse is officially over and no longer relevant, but you inject a character into the world who remembers the pre-apocalyptic civilization. Usually the character is a time traveler or has been in suspended animation; Planet of the Apes sort of qualifies, but as we see in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, really there's just been a lull in the apocalypse. Cleopatra 2525 and The Stone God Awakens would be other examples.

Trey said...

What's funny is several "recent apocalypse" stories play the game of injecting a character that doesn't know much about it: Walking Dead and 26 Days Later have protagonists waking up from a coma. Def Con 4 has astronauts arriving back of a fairly recently post-nuclear war earth having missed the war.

Tallgeese said...

Very nice. Just started the novel "I Am Legend" today.