By Andrew Gifford
In part two of my post-apocalypse rant, I talked about the Pelbar Cycle, which is a seven-part series all about people learning to get along a thousand years after the apocalypse. But that’s not something you often see in tales of the post-apocalypse, even if the author moves decades or centuries from the actual cataclysm itself. The staple for the genre is that you can’t rely on your fellow survivors, and everyone is naturally your enemy. The genre is, sadly, often consumed by the need to write a preachy parable about Man’s inhumanity to Man.
For the modern writer wading into the genre, does this trope still hold water? Is there a place for the same old story without coming across as, simply, a lazy storyteller?
Colson Whitehead’s post-zombie apocalypse novel, Zone One, is an interesting look at the double-edged sword of using the trope in modern post-apocalypse storytelling. It’s a novel about an organized unit of survivors—a trio of “sweepers” who are cleaning up the last zombies in a military-enforced “safe zone” in Manhattan. The novel is a quiet study of “survivorship,” as fellow apocalypse author Justin Cronin notes in his Amazon review. Our protagonist has his doubts about how long the safe zone will survive and recognizes that the chain of command is clearly falling apart. He predicts, correctly, that everything will come crashing down. Interestingly, Whitehead (and his protagonist) approach this with a certain self-awareness of the trope. The protagonist talks about how he’s seen it all before with the various small groups he joined during the apocalypse proper. Having tanks, machine guns, and the illusion of organization and safety won’t be any different than a group of refugees cowering behind a barricaded storefront. And it isn’t. When it all falls apart, our protagonist returns to his wandering and “survivorship” with a shrug.
Zone One almost amounts to a literary analysis of this trope, and it was a great read, but I was left feeling like we just don’t need it anymore. The idea that “we are the monsters,” that we are our own worst enemy, feels played out when you start to hang a lampshade on it, and especially as the genre gets a strong presence in movies and TV. I read and watch just about every entry in the genre, whether it’s garbage or high-brow work, and, nine times out of ten, I feel like the genre never made it out of that farmhouse in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Another casualty thrown onto the pyre of burning bodies as the credits roll. Post-apocalypse stories will forever be studying the cultural/racial/class divide du jour, distilled into two strong leading actors and/or an ensemble cast designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.
The Walking Dead, for example, relies heavily on “we are the monsters” in every episode, to the point where, as we’ve seen in the slow-moving spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, the zombies have become more or less background scenery to the human struggle. Both shows in the franchise have taken this familiar trope, crystallized it, and, sadly, will probably influence the next wave of genre authors.
I’m always happy to see the few brave authors who are willing to take a risk and walk away from this trope. It is possible. Take Peter Heller’s excellent The Dog Stars. He didn’t abandon the trope entirely, but he handled it in a way that was refreshing. The obvious embodiment of the trope is the supporting character Bangley, a gun-nut survivalist who’s actually right to doubt humanity. Though he’s only there as a foil for our protagonist, who is on a larger journey of lonely self-discovery, and who lacks the killer instinct and cynicism of Bangley.
Often compared to The Road, The Dog Stars is actually not much like McCarthy’s grim novel at all. Our protagonist, Hig, has a poet’s heart and mind. He’s entranced with the gentle calm of the empty world around him. He’s a quiet island unto himself as Bangley, marauders, and bad things swirl all around on the periphery of Heller’s beautifully descriptive writing.
Heller is touching on my favorite, yet underappreciated, aspect of the genre: the apocalypse as a journey. The protagonist is more focused on his or her place in the world than the horror that plays out around them. The horror around them, in fact, is treated by the author and protagonist as more or less banal. The post-apocalypse equivalent to a rough commute, a passing worry.
I want to see this journeyman aspect of the apocalypse dominate over the decades-long study of whether or not we’re all inherently evil. It’s what Emily St. John Mandel did in Station Eleven, a novel that follows a wondering actor’s troupe 20 years after the end. Roger Zelezny tackled it in Damnation Alley, and David Brin opens up The Postman with a man simply walking to the next place, no fixed plan in mind. And, in all these cases, destiny finds the protagonist (as opposed to the other way around). This can be heavy-handed, though, such as in first part of Stephen King’s The Stand, where the forces of good and evil gather their soldiers and slowly bring them together. That sort of betrays the concept and cheapens the journey. More often than not, authors use the “journeyman” concept simply to get their cast of characters together so they can linger on the “we are the monsters” trope. There’s no respect or larger understanding of the journey. Oh, and I hate it when there’s a God in the apocalypse. It means—as with The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song—that we’re going to have a happy ending with the light of Heaven shining down on our heroes. When printing those books, publishers should just add a final page that’s a big “roll-eyes” emoticon.
The journey of the survivor shouldn’t end with God shaking his hand and a big round of hugs as if the trauma and fallout of 99% of the population dying wasn’t that big a deal. That always bothered me about the end of Swan Song. Okay, great, you beat Satan or whatever. Now you can get on to dying horribly at the age of 25 from typhus, or pricking yourself with a nail, or because that chemical plant melted down four states away and everything you eat and drink is poisoned. Also, there’s only a handful of you left, so it doesn’t matter anyway, because you don’t have a viable gene pool to last much past your grandkids.
The journey can’t end that way. In fact, the journey should never end. The journey must always continue. There is no destination. Brin knew this in The Postman. The whole book is just a sort of day in the life of a wanderer. He reluctantly stumbles into the story, and then he stumbles back out of it at the end. His impact is profound, and he saved the world… But that was just coincidence, really. He had no choice. The Mad Max movies are the same, especially the last one. Max is an aimless wanderer simply passing through a larger story.
And the reason that should be the dominant aspect of apocalypse fiction is because we, the readers, are doing the same thing. We’re just passing through.
Andrew Gifford is the founder and publisher of SFWP. This is part three of his four-part series on the Post-Apocalypse genre.