As much as stories are about stepping into the role of the characters to experience a different life, to instigate some thought into how you’d behave in similar situations, when it comes to Post Apocalyptic stories it’s paradoxically not about you. Because when the world ends, you die. There’s been countless claims that Post Apocalyptic stories are about wish fulfillment, about resetting the world to a “better time” where the “right people” are able to “rightfully take their place”. But the thing is, in a Post Apocalyptic story it’s usually the case that more than 95% of the world’s population has been wiped out. What’re the chances that you’re one of the five or less out of a hundred that survived?* The story isn’t about you, it’s about the people that survived in a world where you didn’t.
I understand how hypocritical it seems for a guy to write this when he’s also written a Post Apocalyptic novel about a fictional version of himself who survived the end of the world… but that actually gets directly addressed in the sequel. So try not to freak out about that apparent discrepancy too much. Also, despite how esoteric this will get, I promise that I’ll try my best to bring it home.
There’s no shortage of people who are so down and out on their lives that they actually hope for some sort of apocalyptic event to happen. They’re so at odds with modern society that they think the end of the world would give them a greater chance of success than just delving into the realm of self improvement. In this way, I can totally understand how Post Apocalyptic fiction could be seen as wish fulfillment. “Screw actually trying to succeed, just burn the whole thing down and let me survive by luck - then, when I’m the best by default, everyone will finally see how truly great I am!”
While a zero who survives the end of the world suddenly being forced to step up and make something of themselves can make for an interesting story, it has the potential to enable zeroes to stay as they are. That’s when Post Apocalyptic fiction becomes wish fulfillment. Why try to evolve and improve when you can just sit and hope for the apocalypse? I dunno, maybe because it’s better to be an active participant in your own life, rather than a passive one? Go out and do shit, rather than waiting for shit to happen to you.
Ah, there we go - that’s the link that’ll let me bring all this together.
Season one of The Walking Dead starts off in the ruins of Atlanta, and the show generally sticks to Georgia and Virginia. Jericho is primarily based in the fictional town of Jericho in the state of Kansas. Fear the Walking Dead starts off in California, then they travel down south. Jeremiah is mostly set in Colorado. The Mad Max series is set in the ruins of Australia. The Road takes us through unnamed states in the United States. The Last Ship takes its survivors all around the world.
I know this was a weird list of Post Apocalyptic stories and their settings to rattle off, but there was a point. Unless you’re actually from one of these locations when you watched the show, it probably never clicked that you’re dead in that universe. You’re not Daryl Dixon, Vanessa Van Helsing, or Jake Green. You’re not special. You’re not the hero. You didn’t survive by luck, and you didn’t hide out in some bunker. You just died. You’re one of the innumerable dead digits that shows just how bad the situation is for the characters, that’s it.
Most stories are presumed to occur in the real world, or at least a parallel universe where everything is the same except for the fact that the story is happening. Now, this doesn’t matter that much for most stories because you can watch the show and just assume that a fictional version of you is out there, somewhere, in fiction land. You’re actually in all the CSI’s and Law & Order’s, you were also in Breaking Bad and True Detective, you were just in the far background and never seen. Now, by little more than random luck you might be able to presume you’ve died in said world if your home or place of business is destroyed, but usually your fictional self is fine and dandy and doing what you’re doing. That’s not so much the case with Post Apocalyptic stories.
When the world ends, especially when the story is set within your area, you can safely assume that your fictional self has been killed off. The death-toll of an apocalypse is so bad that they don’t even try to name the dead, they just number them. You become a digit in a statistic. Unless you see a fictional representation of yourself walking through the background of a scene, your fictional self is pretty much a goner. So much like with science fiction stories set in the far future, even when a Post Apocalyptic story is set in the modern day, it’s safe to assume that while you were once alive you’re now dead. Except, instead of it being the usual passage of time that killed you off, it’s the events of the actual story that did it.
As much as you’re reading/watching a story about people struggling to survive in a harsh world, you’re also reading/watching a story about a world in which you didn’t make it. You can identify, and connect, with the characters on screen, but you’re one of the billions that got bitten and turned into a zombie, got vaporized by nuclear hellfire, froze in their beds when the weather changed or were torn apart by demons.
Post Apocalyptic stories are an exploration of the world without you; and just like you can’t alter the events of a story, you also can’t alter the events of the real world after you’ve died. You can watch from some version of Heaven, or Hell, or as a lingering ghost who’s tied to your place of death, or simply as a soulless and rotting corpse... but you can’t influence things. The world ends when you die, for you, but it keep spinning for those that remain.
I think this is a key aspect of Post Apocalyptic fiction, and one that separates it from Prepper fiction. While both genres deal with characters who typically survive the end of the world by luck, Prepper fiction tends focus on improving the characters chances of survival via preparation. In this way, it’s got more in common with the “wish fulfillment” type of Post Apocalyptic story. Both have a massive extinction event for humanity, but while Prepper fiction is trying to convince and/or inform the readers, Post Apocalyptic fiction is simply an exploration. Prepper fiction tells its readers “this could be you, but only if you prepare.” While Post Apocalyptic fiction says “fuck you, you’re dead. This is what those who aren’t are doing.”
Again, I have to admit that Maralinga Marquardt is based on me… but he’s just different enough from me to be a different person. I know what he’s doing in January of 2019, and it’s certainly not writing a blog post through an earthquake in Taiwan. With that in mind, I’ve no problem if there’s also a more accurate version of myself in the story. I know exactly where he was and what he was doing when the world ended on March 25th, 2011 - and I can tell you, the truer fictional version of myself wouldn’t have cared if he’d died that day.
As bleak as people think Post Apocalyptic fiction is, it can be viewed as a motivational (if not a positive) force. The sad, unifying, fact of the matter is that we’re all going to die. Even if you do survive the apocalypse, by preparation or sheer luck, you’ll eventually die anyway. And while Post Apocalyptic stories very rarely deal specifically with your death, as they’ve got to be applicable to everyone, they can serve as a reminder that our window of opportunity to influence the world is limited. You can’t change the events of a story, and you can’t change the events of the world after you’re gone. How you choose to view this fact is up to you. Does it break you and leave you in apathetic stagnation, or does it inspire you to make the most of this fleeting existence?
You’re gonna die, eventually, whether the world ends or not. So go out and do some shit, rather than waiting for shit to happen to you.