The notion of the end of the world, or the end of the world as we know it, has existed for centuries. Indeed, the concept of an apocalypse has existed in literature since the advent of the bible. Professor L. Michael White, in an article on PBS’s Apacolypse! website states:
The word [apocalypse] itself is Greek in origin, apokalypsis and literally means "something uncovered" or "revealed." It emerged as a new genre of literature in early Jewish tradition commencing sometime in the third century BCE. The full flowering of apocalyptic, however, required other elements, and chief among these were influences from first the Persian culture and then the Greek. In this vein, apocalyptic has also been called "a product of hope and despair; hope in the eternal power of God and despair over the present evil conditions of the world." This sense of dualism is characteristic of the genre, but specifically looks at time and history in dualistic categories: the present evil age will give way to a glorious new age.These ancient texts of apocalypse are typically referred to as apocalyptic literature whereas the modern, fictional genre is referred to as apocalyptic fiction. It often deals with events such as nuclear warfare, pandemics, extraterrestrial attacks, climate change, and other such catastrophies. In some instances the world in the story ends, whereas in others, always near the conclusion of the book, life struggles on in a broken but hopeful way.
A prime example of apocalyptic fiction in the young adult market is The Last Survivor series by Susan Beth Pfeffer, the first of which, Life As We Knew It, is summarized below by author Ed Sullivan in Life As We Knew It: A Guide for Book Discussion and Classroom Use:
When Miranda first hears the reports of an asteroid on a collision course with the moon, it barely rates a mention in her diary. When the asteroid hits, pushing the moon off its axis and causing worldwide natural catastrophes that result in horrific global devastation and death, all the things Miranda took for granted begin to disappear. Her priorities radically change. Miranda's riveting day-by-day journal entries reveal her family's harrowing struggle to survive extreme weather changes, loss of utilities and public services, food and gas shortages, and injury and sickness in their small Pennsylvania town. (1)Another example in young adult literature is Meg Rossof’s, Printz Award-winning, How I Live Now which deals with the beginning, middle, and end of World War III through the eyes of a fifteen year-old girl.
Concerning this genre’s recent past, Walter Miller and Martin Greenburg, in their book Beyond Armegeddon: Twenty-One Sermons for the Dead explained, “The up well of [post apocalyptic] novels in the mid-1900’s evolved from the realization that global destruction was not only possible, but also plausible” (3). Such novels include The Scarlet Plague by Jack London and The Star Man’s Son by Andre Norton.
Bringing the genre up to modern times, professor Glenna Andrade from Roger Williams University stated, “This second resurgence [of post apocalyptic fiction] may derive from a newer fear of world devastation such as created by humans as in the 9/11 tragedy or by a seemingly impending and unsolvable disaster such as global warming” (1). A powerful, modern example of the post apocalyptic genre is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in which a father and son evade roving cannibals and a harsh winter in the wake of a nondisclosed catastrophe that destroyed much of the earth and consequently, civilization.
True post apocalyptic books are set in devastated or burgeoning agrarian or civilized settings with little to no advanced technology. Jeanne DuPrau’s The City of Ember is an example of this in which a colony of survivors of some international disaster lives underground in a flimsily structured society awaiting the day that they can live above ground once again.
When a reorganized, advanced civilization lead by a government that desires to prevent another catastrophe at any cost is brought into play, the story crosses the threshold of post apocalyptic to the genre of dystopian. Dystopian is sometimes a sub genre of post apocalyptic. Indeed, there are dystopian books such as The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins that are set in a post apocalyptic world, but because of the main plot point of morally unacceptable government control, the series is no longer categorized as post apocalyptic, but dystopian. The same holds true for the Matched series by Ally Condie. The world is post apocalyptic, but civilization has been reorganized under a totalitarian government, thus putting it in the dystopian genre.
The line between post apocalyptic and dystopian is easily blurred and many people mistake one for the other. Suffice it to say that a book is dystopian when unrighteous government is present in the story. This may or may not be after a world-wide catastrophy. Post apocalyptic literature deals with the struggles of humanity specifically after a devastating event, before civilization has fully restructured, if it ever will.
What apocalyptic, post apocalyptic, or distopian stories can you think of? Any favorites?
Andrade, Glenna M., "The Road to Post Apocalyptic Fiction: McCarthy’s Challenges to Post-Apocalyptic Genre." (2009).
Feinstein College of Arts & Sciences Faculty Papers. Paper 20. Print.
Miller, Walter M. and Greenberg, Martin H. Ed. “Forewarning,” Beyond Armageddon: Twenty-One Sermons to the Dead.
NY: Primus/Donald I. Fine, Inc., 1985, 3-16. Print.
Sullivan, Ed. "Life As We Knew It: A Guide for Book Discussion and Classroom Use". NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publishing Company. Print.
White, L. Michael. “Apocalyptic Literature in Judaism and Christianity.” Apocalypse!. Public Broadcasting System, 2005.
Post apocalyptic image from Curating Creativity
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