I Love the End of the World

Some years ago, on my LiveJournal, someone kindly mentioned her enjoyment of my novel The Stone War, and noted that “I love a good post-apocalypse.”  My first thought was: gee, so do I.  ‘Kay, not certain what, if anything, that says about me personally.  But as a writer I can think of several reasons to love the end of the world.

First: you get to have your cake and consume it as well, setting-wise. You can set your story in a real world, trash a couple of well known local landmarks (how often has the Statue of Liberty shown up in destroyed-New-York movies?), and use that as a base for your invention. Depending on the sort of work you’re writing, you can get as interesting as you like: when I wrote Stone War I was deliberately going for weird, which meant that I could knock a whole city block of brownstones askew, or have the West Side Highway tie itself into knots. But you can also be hard-headedly logical about what would survive and what would not, depending upon the mechanism of the apocalypse and the time elapsed since the event.


Second: There’s the memento mori factor. Seeing the world brought low is a metaphor for dealing with our own inevitable deaths–and seeing something grow out of that. Who knows what part of our lives will be remembered in fifty years or a hundred or a thousand? Shelley’s Ozymandias tells us to look upon his works and despair, but the works are gone and nothing but the warning itself remains: “Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.” Post-apocalyptic fiction trades in what is left behind and what meaning it has (remember that a shopping list is a sacred text in Canticle for Liebowitz).

Third: There’s the opportunity to see what an individual can do after the end of the world. Humans have at least as much interest in creating order out of chaos as they do talent for creating chaos in the first place. This can lead to Lord of the Flies scenarios, but it also lends itself to your plucky protagonist or band of protagoni going up against the Bad Tribe. A post-apocalyptic setting adds a frisson of extra meaning, with our knowledge of the past a palimpsest, the action and reality of now overwritten on everything we know about the past. In near-event post-apocalyptic settings, your characters are dealing with the disaster itself, and their own survival. Just as intriguingly, in a long-past post-apocalyptic setting, the characters deal as much with the meaning of the old world and its demise, and that can make for really interesting fiction.

Sure, I love the End of the World: what’s not to love?



I Love the End of the World — 3 Comments

  1. Over the years, I’ve read a variety of post-apocalypse/dystopia stories and enjoyed them. I loved The Stone War. The survivors don’t give up on trying to figure out what happened, but they take up the task of coping with the situation that they’re in now in a collaborative, creative way. MK Wren’s A Gift Upon the Shore includes trying to save books, though I think the dune was a remarkably poor choice!

    I now belong to a Bring Your Own Book book group. There’s a theme for each month, but you each pick up the book that you want to read, and then tell the group about it. The theme for July is dystopia, and I’m mulling over what to read. Wikipedia has a list of dystopian literature, and I see that I’ve read more than 20 of them, though I read some of them so long ago, that a re-read would be appropriate. I don’t think 1984, Brave New World, or Farenheit 451 would be particularly fun to re-read. Heinlein is right out. I’m leery of books written in the mid-20th century and earlier. I re-read A Canticle for Leibowitz about a year ago, and my fond memories from years ago were dashed. I tried to read The Hunger Games awhile ago, and I bounced off of the prose style. I’m considering the 3rd book in Margaret Atwood’s trilogy, Maddadam. I usually really like her books. I was lukewarm on Oryx and Crake, but really enjoyed The Year of the Flood—it’s funny. Another possibility is re-reading Parable of the Sower and then its sequels, which I’ve somehow never gotten to (so many books, so little time).

    Any suggestions? I’ve never dipped into Wool and it’s certainly popular. I see Suzy McKee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World (The Holdfast Chronicles) on the list, and reviews on Goodreads are positive.

    • I cannot remember the name of the Octavia Butler novel that is, essentially, a dystopian world at its beginning (perhaps someone else can?) but that’s a good one,

    • I’ve always been partial to Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban.

      I liked observing, with the privilege of present understanding, characters in the future trying to make sense of a fragmented past, and getting it hilariously wrong. It made me realise how misguided we often must be in our interpretation of ancient cultures and events.