My Little Apocalypse: The Post-Apocalypse Genre in Literature

By Andrew Gifford

If there’s one thing I love, it’s the apocalypse. So can I write a quarterly column rambling wildly about my favorite pre- and post-apocalypse literature? I’m going to try, just so I can be That Guy.

But, first, an introduction.

My addiction to the genre began when I was six. That was 1980. The original Battlestar Galactica had just ended and was returning for a new season as the rebooted Galactica: 1980, an abomination that we shall never speak of again.

Leading up to the new season, the series enjoyed heavy reruns on Saturday evenings. My maternal grandfather, Allen, sat me down one evening and destroyed the rest of my life. Battlestar Galactica was my gateway drug for both sci-fi and apocalypse fiction.

Allen was a science fiction junky in a way that no fan of the genre could ever hope to compete with. As a boy in the 1930s, he snuck into the theater in his hometown of Parkersburg, WV. With a sandwich and a thermos of chocolate milk, he crouched in the rafters and watched a play – Rossum’s Universal Robots, or R.U.R., by Karel Capek.

You’ve seen elements of this play rehashed a thousand times over, from I, Robot to A.I. to Data on Star Trek: TNG. Just about every sci-fi movie, TV show, or book involving robots, androids, or cyborgs has cribbed from R.U.R. Hell, the word “robot” originates from this play.

The Cylons of the original Battlestar Galactica owe much to R.U.R.. They were originally a slave race whose masters died out. The Cylon emperor wears the skin of the last of the lizard species that created them – a desperate attempt, perhaps, to understand their forefathers and overcome their limitations. (That is sort of conjecture because we don’t actually get much history or motivation for the Cylons outside of one brief monologue in the first episode.)

My grandfather would talk over most of the episodes, pointing out parallels to other sci-fi shows and books. Sometimes, Allen would talk about history. Capek and his brother Josef survived Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938…but not for long. Karel, a liberal intellectual hunted by the Gestapo, died of pneumonia at the end of 1938. His brother Josef, a painter and designer who collaborated on all of Karel’s plays and may well have designed the look of Rossum’s robots, was swallowed by the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

My six-year-old mind watched the rag tag survivors of an apocalypse fly through space, pursued by the treacherous Baltar and the bloodthirsty Cylons, while my grandfather told these tales of the all too-real apocalypse.

I saw the parallel, and I was hooked.

At home, with my parents, my life was difficult. On the good days, I was a ghost. They ignored me, sat me in front of the TV, told me to get lost. On the bad days, I was a punching bag. I began to see, in post-apocalypse sci-fi, the message of survival. The desperate journey of the Galactica’s fleet seemed so brave, and so very noble. They were getting away. They weren’t afraid of the unknown. So if they could do it, then so could I escape tyranny and abuse.

Battlestar led me into Space: 1999, which aired on DC’s channel 20 as reruns on Sunday mornings. The same message of survival persisted as I ate cinnamon buns and drank milk and the morning sun shafted through our dusty old house. And there were new lessons, as well. The troubled Commander Koenig on the runaway moon taught me that I could be a leader no matter my limitations. Initially a hard-nosed bureaucrat sent to straighten up the mess at Moonbase Alpha, the atomic accident that sends the moon hurtling into the unknown strands Koenig with his fractious crew of 300-some scientists and workers. That first season of Space: 1999 is a surprisingly complicated journey through the unknown, with a tantalizing sub-plot following the extraterrestrial origins of Mankind.

The mixture of journeyman storytelling and soapbox preaching of 70s sci-fi, intertwined with an overall sense of hopelessness (the Galactica would never reach Earth during their generation, and they knew that; the Moon could never return to Earth; The Incredible Hulk’s Bruce Banner would forever be wandering) spoke volumes to me. Despite the hopelessness of their situation, these people were heroes. They kept going, against all odds. They survived.

In 1982, my grandfather introduced me to George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of The Time Machine. Here we put the lasers and spaceships aside as Rod Taylor plays the thoughtful, caring Time Traveler. Instead of a man of action, he is an observer. He wants to see how far Mankind will go, but all he finds is man’s inhumanity, eventually landing nearly a million years in the future where the horrific Morlocks breed and feed upon the innocent Eloi.

The Time Machine has an open ending. The Time Traveler flees back to his own time, where his story is poorly received by his friends. He decides to go back to the far future to teach the Eloi how to live in the new world he so violently created. He takes three books from his bookshelf and we end with his friend and his housekeeper looking at the shelf.

“Three books are missing…” notes the housekeeper.

The Time Traveler’s friend shrugs this off and there’s a bit of conversation about which books are missing – they don’t know. He puts on his coat and hat, then, just as he’s about to go, he turns and asks, “Tell me…which three books would you take?”

With that question unanswered, we fade to the credits.

I was eight years old. I had watched and rewatched every sci-fi show I could get my hands on. And now I started moving into books. I read The Time Machine – not as good as the movie – and found myself craving more. There was something about that teasing ending of the George Pal movie.

The importance of books.

Could the Eloi be shaped and could civilization be rebooted with just three books?

I became a reader. But from that early age on through today, my post-apocalypse sci-fi proclivities have always influenced my personal bookshelf.

At times, I’ve really obsessed about this. I’ve collected and religiously read books in the apocalypse genre that were long out of print, poorly written, or simply out and out embarrassments that made me feel sorry for the author’s family. I guess I’ve always been looking for that message of wonder and survival that so impacted me as I sat in front of the boob tube, my child’s brain soaking in the bad special effects.

In many cases, the apocalypse is the backdrop to the hero’s journey, and we see fascinatingly complex characters move through the wasteland and relearn their humanity. They fail at this just as often as they succeed. Despite the trappings of a tried and true formula, you never quite know what’s in store. The post-apocalypse genre is the realm of the anti-hero, the relatable villain, and the fallen hero. This is why, I believe, the genre has now entered the literary mainstream. It’s a great place for an author to play.

So I’ll look at my favorite books, in no particular order, starting, next time, with Paul O. Williams and his Pelbar Cycle.

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Andrew Gifford is the founder and Director of SFWP.

(This is part 1 of a 4-part series. Look for the next installment in the Summer issue.)

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