2012—We were college students between classes on a Tuesday in the middle of Michigan’s ugliest month—there really was no reason to be at that eight-by-eleven living room window. Yet, there we were, gazing upon those melting patches of snow, those tracks for train cars of chemicals and scrap metal, that factory depended upon for seating by sports stadiums and amphitheaters everywhere. We gazed at it all without reason to do so—we’d lived in West Michigan our entire lives; we’d lived in that third-floor apartment for over seven months. None of what was before us was new.
All we hoped to receive from that window was a manipulation of time, an at once quickening and slowing of the goddamn thing. We each yearned for assurance that, despite what immediately lay before us, despite how deeply in debt each of us knew we’d be once we graduated, we’d made the right choices, and that as young men we’d merged onto the paths that led to the lives we felt we’d already put so much time and effort into.
Him: “Fuck capstone.”
Me: “I have so much shit to read.”
Him: “He doesn’t deserve her.”
Me: “You should say hi to her.”
And no matter how the conversation would begin, no matter how heavy it could and would often become, it’d always end with a laugh—an impromptu game of catch with one of the tennis balls laying around our apartment; a steady back and forth of quotes from a favorite film; a shared memory from any one of the nine years we’d been friends.
And that Tuesday, the conversation began in the exact same manner that it always had: with worry, with complaints, with frustration. And, really, I do remember it ending in laughter. What was different, then, was how we got there, through an unheated exchange that I believe continues to illustrate something larger about society:
Him: “If you could choose which way the world would end, which would you choose?”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Him: “You know, like, would you want it to be a virus thing, or a natural disaster thing, or a—”
Me: “I’ve never thought about it, dude.”
Him: “Come on, you have to answer the question.”
Me: “Do I?”
Him: “Zombies. I’d choose zombies.”
A Culture of Disaster
When I google “seattle earthquake,” I’m met with 80,000 results—articles ranging from coverage of the city’s recent earthquake preparedness drill, to line-graph estimations of the damage done to buildings within some of Seattle’s densest neighborhoods. All for something that, to this point, is imaginary.
In the July 20th, 2015 issue of The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz’s piece, “The Really Big One,” is excerpted (likely for social media purposes) as: “An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.”
What she’s referring to is the shifting of the Cascadia subduction zone (CSZ), a fault line that runs for 700 miles along the Pacific Coast, from Mendocino, California to Vancouver Island, Canada. The resulting earthquake would be felt at a projected magnitude between 8.7 and 9.2. By comparison, the largest earthquake ever recorded was at a magnitude of 9.5, on May 22nd, 1960 near Valdivia, Chile. The damage done? 2,000,000 people were left homeless; $400 - $800 million in damage (1960 dollars), and tsunamis tearing across the Pacific Ocean at 200 miles per hour.
When I say “imaginary,” I don’t mean that earthquakes aren’t real, or that they aren’t devastating—they are, and they don’t have to reach a high magnitude to be so—nor do I mean that earthquakes are something that can be reversed, or entirely avoided. What I mean is that a CSZ earthquake occurs every 200 to 500 years, with the last one occurring 316 years ago. What I mean is that earthquake preparedness drills could be occurring in Seattle for the next 184 years. What I mean is that it’s hard to look at any point in history and say with certainty that such a forecast would be stated, understood, and urgently accounted for.
"But there's an inverse to that, an evil to that very technology."
But can such urgency be sustained? If seismic activity doesn’t stay consistent, can the people of the Pacific Northwest be expected to care past 2017? Are they to stock up on unperishable food and gasoline? Are they to pin an escape route to their refrigerator, just to watch it age?
It just won’t happen. The earthquake will have had its fifteen minutes of fame, replaced by a trendier disaster, something more hip.
What makes this assumption plausible is how our society continues to evolve technologically. No longer is technology monogamous with doctors, scientists, and global business—it’s in our living rooms.
And from this evolution stems many great things, things that allow us to more effectively connect with each other and our world, to grow as a species: we can now visually and audibly connect with relatives abroad, all from a watch; a new app now allows us to arm our home security systems from the office; new prosthetics make it so amputees aren’t able to just walk, but to sprint.
But there’s an inverse to that, an evil to that very technology. Reported each and every day, to our devices, to one of the 300 channels on our televisions: viruses to worry about; vaccines to get; accidents to avoid; tornadoes touching down; murders nearby; the continued threat of nuclear warfare; activity from a dormant volcano.
Everything is tracked; everything is recorded; everything is available to us, and this is at once freeing and imprisoning—we stay inside. We fear everything. For a time, we do nothing but consume this news cycle—after we see the bit on TV, we access our devices, google keywords, bounce in and out of articles, and share things on social media so that we don’t feel as alone as we really are. It’s intelligence. It’s adrenaline. And the combination of our demand and our technological capabilities makes it so that there is a new disaster on the horizon almost every week. Manmade. Natural. A nasty blend of the two.
It’s constant. Unrelenting. And it feeds a tendency we humans have to create what we consume.
The Reciprocity of Life & Art
2012—my roommate would have his homework early; he’d shower early; he’d eat early; he’d clean his room; he’d do everything he needed to in order to ready himself for the week before The Walking Dead aired. Every Sunday. Rick and Shane. Shane and Rick. Goddamn Glenn and goddamn Carl.
I watched a few episodes with him that winter. Saw merit in the show, but generally wasn’t my thing. Formulaic. Predictable. Creative hats had clearly been hung on the zombie effects: the teeth, the deformities, the gore of a well-timed-and-lit headshot.
But my roommate loved it. Went gaga over the visuals, over the audio, and, well, that honestly may have been it. I remember asking him about the characters—which were his favorite, how they fit into the story, etc.—to which his responses would be blunt and shallow, a, “She’s okay,” or a, “He’s a douche,” something admittedly more indicative of his moral compass rather than the writing of the show.
He was simply in it for the zombies, and, while I’d venture a guess that the majority of viewers sought and were satisfied by depth, he wasn’t alone in his fandom. 19.1 million viewers would eventually tune into The Walking Dead (Season 3 through Season 6), making it one of the most popular shows to ever be on television.
And while that winter I would from my room hear the groans of those zombies and shake my head, it makes perfect sense to me now. The Walking Dead successfully speaks to a society that each week needs to be reminded that a) there are things that, yes, you should fear, b) natural disasters and climate change continue to occur, but, hey, at least it isn’t zombies, and c) even in such an unforgiving scenario, humankind has the capacity and rationale to band together and push toward a common goal.
Each week, they need this. It isn’t enough for the world to end, as it does each and every day in the news cycle. But, because anything smaller just won’t do, something as large as humankind does need to be at stake. Each week, their extreme pessimism needs to be satisfied in the exact same stroke as their extreme optimism. A gritty hope the masses harbor.
The Walking Dead continues to strike at the right time, and it isn’t alone. Look no further than the $378.4 million USD grossed at the box office by Mad Max: Fury Road. Look no further than the seven million copies sold of Naughty Dog’s video game, The Last of Us. Look no further than the 31 post-apocalyptic films slated to stream on Netflix in 2016.
Consumers more than ever aren’t just obsessed with the end of the world; they’re obsessed with the question that artists, not the media, have been dying to answer for centuries: how are we supposed to live?
The Novel’s Approach to Post-Apocalyptic Era
In a fiction workshop, my professor, with a wry smile, once told the class: “World building is fun. Definitely. But the real fun lies in tearing apart the worlds you’ve spent so long building.” Which, beyond granting me the much-needed validation of my childhood tendency to immediately crank apart the elaborate Lego structures my father helped me construct, sort of confused everyone.
To my knowledge, the majority of students in that workshop weren’t there to create the next World War Z, Mad Max, or The Walking Dead, but were there to try their hand at literary fiction. The next Franzen. The next Egan. The next Safran Foer. Weaving together plot lines dictated by complex characters rooted in reality, rather than, say, the one-note wonders wandering a scorched earth.
Considering that I’ve clung to my professor’s quote for years now, I think it’s safe to say that at the time I knew that her statement was deeper than what it may have sounded like on the surface. But, hindsight being 20/20, I can say now that all she intended to do was empower us all as gods.
That’s essentially what fiction writers are, right—gods? They place a tree there, a scent of cinnamon here, the sound of dried lips cracking throughout a yawn; they make their characters dance, sing, snort, fight, hate, and love; informed by their independent realities, writers create recognizable worlds from which the reader is supposed to be entertained and educated.
And there’s few, if any, types of tales more seductive to writers and readers alike than those that are told only after everything we know has been torn down: those of rebirth.
"'The world has ended, now what?' we say. 'Why should we care?'"
See: The Norse Ragnarok, where a battle of epic proportions takes place between the gods and their challengers—Loki, the Frost Giants, Jormungandr, and Fenrir—and eventually all that’s left is a dark world covered in water, to be repopulated by a couple, Lif and Lithrasr.
See: The Book of Genesis, where God, furious with how his children have chosen to inhabit the world he created, shares his plan for destruction with Noah, the one child he feels can lead humans and animals to not just safety, but success in the new world.
See the connection between these two tales—that it isn’t enough for deities to destroy the world, but that there must be a human, or a set of humans, decent enough to make the cut, brave enough to bear the weight of surviving the apocalypse and leading their species into the future. And if mankind doesn’t care enough about the destruction, what they do care about—what storytellers, above all else, want you to care about—are these characters. You’re supposed to ask these cautionary questions: Why were they chosen? How have they survived? In the same scenario, could I be like them? Could I be chosen? Should I be chosen? How am I to live now so that such a scenario can be avoided?
These questions aren’t unlike the questions readers ask themselves while making their way through a post-apocalyptic novel. A world that they recognize has ended, and, whether or not it’s the literal intent of the interacting characters, it’s up to mankind to navigate the bleak future so that it can save itself and build anew.
See (once more): The Walking Dead, a series of graphic novels written by Robert Kirkman (starting in October 2003), and, of course, later a TV series of the same name. In Volume 1: Days Gone Bye, police officer Rick Grimes awakes from a coma to an empty hospital, to an empty house, and to an empty town. An epidemic, he discovers, has turned the population into flesh-eating zombies. Those fortunate enough to be uninfected—Rick included, as well as his old partner, Shane, his wife, Lori, and his son, Carl—band together with other survivors in hopes of building a strong enough society to outlast the epidemic.
Another commercially and critically successful example of this is Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road, published by Knopf in 2006. In the novel, a father and son (named Man and Boy) travel south to the sea through, over, and around what can only be called a wasteland. Preying upon them in this wasteland are cannibalistic marauders roaming the road in search of food. Throughout their journey, Man frequently reminds Boy that they are “the good guys” and that “they’re carrying the fire,” two statements intended to instill hope in Boy, that all that they’ve been through isn’t pointless, and that, no matter who they were before their journey began, the event and the wasteland it created has rendered them good. It’s their responsibility to pass on the good.
Fast forward to 2014 and there’s another commercially and critically successful example of post-apocalyptic fiction: Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Set near the Great Lakes, Station Eleven centers on Kirsten, eight years old at the time of the Georgia Flu’s spreading—the mortality rate of the Georgia Flu is over 99%. Twenty years later, when she isn’t searching abandoned homes for clues of the past, Kirsten is part of a nomadic group of actors and musicians that performs in remaining towns and camps, a gig that eventually forces the group into a town run by an evil man named Prophet.
Differences on the surfaces of these three examples are interesting in their own right—one’s cause of destruction is a zombie epidemic, another’s is presumably nuclear warfare, and the other’s is the flu; The Walking Dead takes place right after the apocalyptic event while Station Eleven is on the other end of that spectrum, taking place (at several points) twenty years after the event.
What’s more interesting to me is that The Walking Dead and The Road seem to speak to a more primitive state of what we know as post-apocalyptic, not just in terms of years, but in terms of society. Station Eleven, then, points to this sort of attitude that, yes, humans will carry on, that, yes, problems will creep up, but also that, yes, what we now know as society will carry over into the new world, art included. Its premise approaches the post-apocalyptic state with something that doesn’t ring of caution, but that the post-apocalyptic state, rather, is simply a setting in which to place the story one wants to tell.
Considering that it was published in 2014, and is the most recent example given here, I think that it speaks volumes about how comfortable we as audience members have become with the idea of the world ending—comfortable enough, as my college roommate was, to have casual conversations about which way we’d elect to have the world end.
“The world has ended, so what?” we now say. “Why should we care?”
So what about post-apocalyptic fiction do we gravitate to if our culture of disaster so successfully primes us for fear that our imaginations register wasteland-esque settings as a home away from home? The characters, of course. We identify with a Rick Grimes, for example, because, before the zombies took hold, he was a normal guy. A nice guy, sure, but normal. Ordinary, until something out of his control gave him the opportunity to be extraordinary. And we all want to be extraordinary. We don’t want to be confined to our desks. We want to be brave. We want to be adored. We want to be loved.
Modern post-apocalyptic fiction, then, takes it spindly fingers, grasps the giant dials of empathy our imaginations house, and twists to beat hell. Because when we’re waiting for an apocalypse the media claims to be happening before our eyes we’d rather not have our art tell us the same thing. We need it to show us what’s on the other side.
It’s why I believe that the post-apocalyptic novel, contrary to industry belief, isn’t in a state of fatigue, but in a state of transition, from something with boundaries to something with utter freedom to explore.
Like any other mainstay genre, the purpose of the post-apocalyptic novel is to change as its reader changes, to tilt the mirror, to alter focus, to up the ante, to push and pull in tone, in subject matter, and in characterization. No longer are we riveted by Noah. No longer does Norse mythology ring true. It’s going to be difficult to impress audiences with another Station Eleven. But these are truths that indicate the post-apocalyptic novel is very much alive and that it isn’t just in transition—it’s evolving in ways so pure and sudden that it scares those that have witnessed its rise.
Those same people have been programmed to wrongfully predict a downfall.