Apocalyptic fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction that is concerned with the end of human civilization. This apocalypse is typically portrayed as being due to a potentially existential catastrophe such as nuclear warfare, pandemic, extraterrestrial attack, impact event, cybernetic revolt, technological singularity, dysgenics, supernatural phenomena, divine judgment, runaway climate change, resource depletion, ecological collapse, or some other general disasters. Post-apocalyptic fiction is set in a world or civilization after such a disaster. The time frame may be immediately after the catastrophe, focusing on the travails or psychology of survivors, or considerably later, often including the theme that the existence of pre-catastrophe civilization has been forgotten (or mythologized). Post-apocalyptic stories often take place in a non-technological future world, or a world where only scattered elements of technology remain.
The genre gained popularity after World War II, when the possibility of global annihilation by nuclear weapons entered the public consciousness. However, recognizable apocalyptic novels had existed since the first quarter of the 19th century, when Mary Shelley's The Last Man was published.
Numerous societies, including the Babylonian and Judaic, had produced apocalyptic literature and mythology which dealt with the end of the world and of human society. The Epic of Gilgamesh, written ca. 2000–1500 BC, details a myth where the angry gods send floods to punish humanity, but the ancient hero Utnapishtim and his family are saved through the intervention of the god Ea. The scriptural story of Noah and his Ark describes the end of a corrupt civilization and its replacement with a remade world. The first centuries AD saw the creation of various apocalyptic works; the best known is the Book of Revelation (from which the word apocalypse originated, meaning "revelation of secrets"), which is filled with prophecies of destruction, as well as luminous visions. In the first chapter of Revelation, the author St. John the Divine explains his divine errand: “Write the things which thou hast seen, the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter” (Rev. 1:19). He takes it as his mission to convey—to reveal—to God’s kingdom His promise that justice will prevail and that the suffering will be vindicated (Leigh). The apocalyptist provides a beautific vision of Judgement Day, revealing God’s promise for redemption from suffering and strife. Revelation describes a New Heaven and a New Earth, and its intended audience (Christians under the persecution of the Roman Empire, for whom John wrote the letters that constitute the book) were enchanted and inspired, rather than terrified by visions of Judgment Day. These Christians believed themselves chosen for God’s salvation, and so such apocalyptic sensibilities inspired optimism and nostalgia for the End times.
Mary Shelley's 1826 novel, The Last Man is considered the first work of modern apocalyptic fiction. The story follows a group of people as they struggle to survive in a plague infected world. The story centers on a male protagonist as he struggles to keep his family safe but is inevitably left as the last man alive.
Edgar Allan Poe's 1839 short story The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion follows the conversation between two souls in the afterlife as they discuss the destruction of the world. The destruction was brought about by a comet that removed nitrogen from earth's atmosphere; this left only oxygen and resulted in a worldwide inferno.
The 1885 novel After London by Richard Jefferies can best be described as genuine post-apocalyptic fiction. After a sudden and unspecified catastrophe has depopulated England, the countryside reverts to nature and the few survivors return to a quasi-medieval way of life. The first chapters consist solely of a description of nature reclaiming England: fields becoming overrun by forest, domesticated animals running wild, roads and towns becoming overgrown, London reverting to lake and poisonous swampland. The rest of the story is a straightforward adventure/quest set many years later in the wild landscape and society, but the opening chapters set an example for many later science fiction stories.
H.G. Wells wrote several novels that have a post-apocalyptic theme. Published in 1895, Wells' short novel The Time Machine has the unnamed protagonist traveling to the year 802,701 A.D. after civilization has collapsed and humanity has been split into two distinct species, the elfin Eloi and the brutal Morlocks. Later in the story, the time traveler moves forward to a dying earth beneath a swollen, red sun. Wells' 1898 novel The War of the Worlds depicts an invasion of Earth by inhabitants of the planet Mars. The aliens systematically destroy Victorian England with advanced weaponry mounted on nearly indestructible vehicles. Due to the famous radio adaptation of the novel by Orson Welles on his show, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, the novel has become one of the best known early apocalyptic works. It has subsequently been reproduced or adapted several times in film, television programming, radio programming, music, and video games.
Novels and Short Stories
In Stephen Vincent Benét's 1937 story By the Waters of Babylon (originally titled The Place of the Gods), a young man explores the ruins of a city in the northeastern United States, possibly New York, generations after a war in which future weapons caused "The Great Burning."
In 1987, Paul Brians published Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, a study that examines atomic war in short stories, novels, and films between 1895 and 1984.
Since this measure of destruction was no longer imaginary, some of these new works, such as Mordecai Roshwald's Level 7, Nevil Shute's On the Beach, Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, and Robert McCammon's Swan Song, shun the imaginary science and technology that are the identifying traits of general science fiction. Others include more fantastic elements, such as mutants, alien invaders, or exotic future weapons such as James Axler's Deathlands.
A seminal work in this sub-genre was Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), in which a recrudescent Catholic Church, pseudo-medieval society, and rediscovery of the knowledge of the pre-holocaust world are central themes. Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (1980) also has religious or mystical themes, while Orson Scott Card's post-apocalyptic anthology The Folk of the Fringe deals with American Mormons after a nuclear war.
According to some theorists, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 has influenced Japanese popular culture to include many apocalyptic themes. Much of Japan's manga and anime are filled with apocalyptic imagery. Most notably, the 1954 film Gojira (romanized as Godzilla) depicted the title monster as an analogy for nuclear weapons, something Japan experienced first-hand.
Judith Merril's first novel Shadow on the Hearth, published in 1950, is a key title in the history of the post-nuclear holocaust genre. It is one of the earliest post WWII novels to deal with a post-nuclear-holocaust world. The novel recounts the ordeals of a young suburban housewife and mother of two children as she struggles to survive in a world forever changed by the horrors of a nuclear attack.
Several of Ray Bradbury's short stories of The Martian Chronicles take place before, during, and after a nuclear war on Earth. The people flee Earth and settle on Mars but have constant conflicts with the native Martians. Several of these stories have been adapted to other media.
Published in 1952, Andre Norton’s Star Man’s Son (also known as Daybreak 2250), is an early post-nuclear-war novel that follows a young man, Fors, in search of lost knowledge. Fors begins his Arthurian quest through a radiation-ravaged landscape with the aid of a telepathic mutant cat. He encounters mutated creatures called "the beast things," which are possibly a degenerate form of humans.
Poul Anderson's Maurai series (1959–1983) takes place after a nuclear war, and his Hugo and Prometheus award-winning story No Truce With Kings takes place after a cataclysmic war. Both show the interactions among various kinds of societies that have developed in the centuries of recovery.
Robert Heinlein's 1964 novel Farnham's Freehold follows the story of a group of people that have survived a nuclear explosion. The group survives the attack in a fallout shelter but are taken to a future in which Africans rule.
In 2003, children's novelist Jeanne DuPrau released The City of Ember, which was the first of four books in a post-apocalyptic series for young adults. A film adaption, City of Ember, has since been made starring Bill Murray and Saoirse Ronan.
William W. Johnstone wrote a series of books between 1983 and 2003 (35 books all containing the word "Ashes" in the title) about the aftermath of worldwide nuclear and biological war.
Published in 1970, The Incredible Tide, by Alexander Key, is set years after the Third World War. The weapons used weren't nuclear, but ultra-magnetic that tore and submerged the continents. The story was adapted in the anime Future Boy Conan.
David Brin's 1985 novel The Postman takes place in an America where some are trying to rebuild civilization after the "Doomwar." It won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and was adapted into a film.
Television and Film
In 1965 the BBC produced The War Game but it was considered too horrifying to broadcast at the time; it was only in 1985 that it was shown. It portrays a nuclear attack on Great Britain and its after-effects, particularly the efforts of the Civil Defence system.
The Terminator film franchise depicts an artificial intelligence called Skynet becoming self-aware in 1996 and trying to exterminate humanity by instigating nuclear war between the United States and Russia, which results in the death of three billion people. Many of the survivors eventually band together to destroy Skynet and its army of robots (called "terminators"). The series follows resistance leader John Connor and his mother, Sarah Connor, and their adventures before and after the nuclear strike (called "Judgment Day" in the film series).
The Cartoon Network series Adventure Time takes place a thousand years in a future after a nuclear war (referred to as 'The Great Mushroom War').
Tom Hanks' 2011 web series Electric City is a story based on a post-apocalyptic world. In this world, a group of matriarchs (the "Knitting Society") impose an altruistic but oppressive society to counter the aftermath of a brutal war that brings down modern civilization. However, in time, even this new "utopian" order is ultimately called into question by the inhabitants of the new society.
In the 1988 computer game Wasteland, nuclear war occurred in 1998, leaving a wasteland in its wake. The game centers around a player-controlled party of Desert Rangers. A sequel, Wasteland 2, is scheduled for release in 2013.
Fallout, an ongoing series of post-apocalyptic video games first published in 1997, focuses on a world after a massive nuclear war destroys most of the great powers in 2077. The games are usually based around "vaults," safe underground bunkers for long-term survival, and exploring the outside wasteland, in locations such as California or Washington DC.
- Novels and short stories
Mary Shelley's The Last Man, published in 1826, is set in the end of the twenty-first century. It chronicles a group of friends, based on Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and others, moving through Europe as a plague kills most of the world's population.
Written in 1949 by George R. Stewart, Earth Abides is the story of a man who finds most of civilization has been destroyed by a disease. Slowly a small community forms around him as he struggles to start a new civilization and to preserve knowledge and learning.
Empty World is a 1977 novel by John Christopher about an adolescent boy who survives a plague which has killed most of the world's population.
Written in 1984, the novel Emergence by David R. Palmer is set in a world where a man-made plague destroys the vast majority of the world's population. The novel was nominated for several awards and won the 1985 Compton Crook Award.
Published in 2003 by Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake is set after a genetically modified virus wipes out the entire population except for the protagonist and a small group of humans that were also genetically modified. A series of flashbacks depicting a world dominated by biocorporations explains the events leading up to the apocalypse. This novel was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. A sequel, The Year of the Flood, was published in 2007.
Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend deals with the life of Robert Neville, the only unaffected survivor of a global pandemic that has turned the world's population into vampire zombie-like creatures. The novel has been adapted to film three times: The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007).
Jeff Carlson wrote a trilogy of novels beginning with his 2007 debut, Plague Year, a present-day thriller about a worldwide nanotech contagion that devours all warm-blooded life below 10,000 feet (3,000 m) in elevation. Its two sequels, Plague War and Plague Zone, deal with a cure that allows return to an environment that suffered ecological collapse due to massive increases in insects and reptiles.
The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure are the last two novels of a series of three (The Maze Runner), by James Dashner which take place in post-apocalyptic United States, in which most of the world population dies of a slowly killing disease caused by a planetary shift.
Crossed by Garth Ennis is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the few humans still left struggles to survive from the people infected by a plague that causes its victims to carry out their most evil thoughts. Carriers of the virus are known as the Crossed due to a cross-like rash that appears on their faces.
Y: The Last Man comic series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra deals with the life of Yorick Brown and his monkey Ampersand after a plague wipes out all but three male life forms on the earth, leaving the whole planet to be controlled by women.
The Walking Dead is a comic-book series from IC and was written by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard It was started in 2003 and is continuing as of 2013. The story follows a group of survivors in a post-apocalyptic landscape. The apocalypse in this series was brought about by zombies (here called Walkers) and it is strongly suspected that the Walkers are victims of a virus. Also called The Walking Dead is an AMC television series loosely based on the comics.
- Television and film
Survivors was a 1970s BBC television series and was remade in 2008. The series focuses on a group of British survivors in the aftermath of a genetically engineered virus that has killed 99.9% of the world's population. The first series examines the immediate after-effects of a pandemic outbreak of the flu, while the second and third series concentrate on the survivors' attempts to build communities and make contacts with other groups.
La jetée (1962) and 12 Monkeys (1995) are both science fiction films which depict the remains of human civilization after an apocalyptic event resulting from the release of an engineered virus. Both films focus on the theme of fate by introducing the ability to travel through time and make contact with pre-apocalyptic society.
Zombieland (2009) is a film in which a disease mutates most Americans (the rest of the world is not mentioned) and turns them into animal-like creatures hungry for human flesh. The story is about a group of people who stick together and to try survive against the zombies.
- Video games
The Left 4 Dead series is set in the eastern United States shortly after a disease called "Green Flu" has turned almost all Americans into zombie-like freaks. The player characters try to get to uninfected areas.
Failure of modern technology
In E. M. Forster's 1909 novella The Machine Stops, humanity has been forced underground due to inhospitable conditions on Earth's surface, and is entirely dependent on "the machine," a god-like mechanical entity which has supplanted almost all free will by providing for humankind's every whim. The machine deteriorates and eventually stops, ending the lives of all those dependent upon it, though one of the dying alludes to a group of humans dwelling on the surface who will carry the torch of humanity into the future.
In René Barjavel's 1943 novel Ravage, written and published during the German occupation of France, a future France is devastated by the sudden failure of electricity, causing chaos, disease, and famine, with a small band of survivors desperately struggling for survival.
Four decades later, Steve Boyett's 1983 novel Ariel (sub-titled A Novel of the Change) has all technology ceasing to function, while magic becomes real. He would also contribute to the 1986 The Borderland Series which would investigate a return of the Realm of Faery to the world.
Roughly a decade later, S. M. Stirling took up a slight variation on this theme in the 2004 Dies the Fire, where a sudden mysterious worldwide "change" alters physical laws so that electricity, gunpowder and most forms of high-energy-density technology no longer work. Civilization collapses, and two competing groups struggle to re-create medieval technologies and skills, as well as master magic.
NBC's Revolution also revolves around a "change" after which the principles of electricity and physics are inoperable. However, the focus of the story is how a group of protagonists try to get the power back on while opposing the efforts of a tyrannical militia leader to understand it first (so that he can take absolute power).
The 2012 web series H+ depicts, in part, the aftermath of a world in which a computer virus that infected a popular brain-computer interface killed one-third of the population, leading to a breakdown in order and the lack or shortage of electricity and other modern conveniences.
Other works use Ray Kurzweil's idea of the technological singularity, the creation of a sentient machine using artificial intelligence, as the starting point for the Apocalypse. Harlan Ellison's short story I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, published in 1967, is set after the Cold War, where a super-computer, named AM (Allied Mastercomputer/Adaptive Manipulator), created to run the war office, becomes self-conscious, and destroys all but five human beings. In a vast subterranean complex, the survivors search the shadow of the former world in search of food, whilst being tortured by AM on the way.
The Matrix, written and directed by the Wachowkis describe a future in which the artificial intelligence singularity has destroyed human civilization, and has placed the remaining humans in a virtual reality simulation which is designed to keep them complacent while using them for power. A significant amount of religious iconography pervades the series, including the protagonist being an allegory for the second coming, and the name of the supporting actress, Trinity.
The Terminator series describes an artificial intelligence created by the U.S. government to monitor military systems, for national defense. In a twist of logic, Skynet destroys civilization in order to protect humanity from itself, causing a global thermonuclear war
In the 1933 novel When Worlds Collide by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, Earth is destroyed by the rogue planet Bronson Alpha. A selected few escape on a spaceship. In the sequel, After Worlds Collide, the survivors start a new life on the planet's companion Bronson Beta, which has taken the orbit formerly occupied by Earth.
In the 1954 novel One in Three Hundred by J. T. McIntosh, scientists have discovered how to pinpoint the exact minute, hour, and day the Sun will go "nova" – and when it does, it will boil away Earth's seas, beginning with the hemisphere that faces the sun, and as Earth continues to rotate, it will take only 24 hours before all life is eradicated. Super-hurricanes and tornadoes are predicted. Buildings will be blown away. A race is on to build thousands of spaceships for the sole purpose of transferring evacuees on a one-way trip to Mars. When the Sun begins to go nova, everything is on schedule, but most of the spaceships turn out to be defective, and fail en route to Mars.
Remnants, by K. A. Applegate, is a 2001-2003 book series that details the end of the world by asteroid collision. The first book, The Mayflower Project, describes Earth in a sort of hysteria as 80 people are chosen by NASA to board a spacecraft that will go to an unknown destination away from the destroyed earth. The later books deal with the few survivors waking up from a 500-year hibernation and succumbing to both strange mutations and the will of a strange alien computer/spaceship that they land on. Eventually they return to Earth to find a couple colonies of survivors struggling on a harsh planet completely different from the earth the Remnants knew.
Thaliad by Marly Youmans (2012) is an epic poem that tells the story of a group of children after an unspecified apocalypse from the sky, perhaps connected with solar flares or meteor impact, resulting in people and animals having been burned and the skies having filled with ash. The children survive only because they were together on a school visit to a cave.
In the Nebula-winning novelette The Screwfly Solution (1977) by "Raccoona Sheldon" (a pen name of Alice Sheldon), aliens are wiping out humanity with an airborne agent that changes men's sexual impulse to a violent impulse.
In The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (1987), aliens (or highly evolved humans) introduce a white hole into the sun to counteract the dimming of it by a black hole, and the resulting global warming causes a sea-level rise that kills most of the population (though this may be redemptive, like Noah's Flood, rather than a disaster).
In The Forge of God by Greg Bear (1987), Earth is destroyed in an alien attack. Just prior to this, a different group of aliens is able to save samples of the biosphere and a small number of people, resettling them on Mars. Some of these form the crew of a ship to hunt down the home world of the killers, as described in the sequel, Anvil of Stars (1992).
Moonbane by Al Sarrantonio (1989) concerns the origin of werewolves (the Moon, which is why they are so attracted to it), and an invasion after an explosion on Luna sends meteoric fragments containing latent lycanthropes to Earth, who thrive in our planet's oxygen-rich atmosphere. Its tone is reminiscent of Wells' War of the Worlds.
The Killing Star by Charles R. Pellegrino and George Zebrowski (1995) describes a devastating attack on a late-21st-century Earth by an alien civilization. Using relativistic missiles, they are determined to destroy the human race in a preemptive strike, as they are considered a future threat.
Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide series (1979-2009, with the sixth and final volume written by Eoin Colfer) parodies this genre of fiction through having multiple Earths which are repeatedly destroyed by the bureaucratic Vogons, much to the chagrin of series protagonist Arthur Dent.
Defiance is set in an Earth devastated by the "Pale Wars," a war with seven alien races referred to as the "Votan," followed by the "Arkfalls," which terraforms Earth to an almost unrecognizable state. Unlike most apocalyptic works, Earth is not unhospitable, and humanity is not on the verge of extinction.
The "cosy catastrophe" is a name given to a style of post-apocalyptic science fiction that was particularly prevalent after World War II among British science fiction writers. A "cosy catastrophe" is typically one in which civilization (as we know it) comes to an end and everyone is killed except for the main characters, who survive relatively unscathed and are then freed from the prior constraints of civilization. The term was coined by Brian Aldiss in Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1973). Aldiss was directing his remarks at English author John Wyndham, especially his novel The Day of the Triffids, whose protagonists were able to enjoy a relatively comfortable existence with little associated hardship or danger despite the fall of society.
The Spanish Catalan author Manuel de Pedrolo wrote Mecanoscrit del segon origen (Typescript of the Second Origin), published in 1974. Two children accidentally survive an alien holocaust that eradicates all life on Earth. They take up the mission of preserving human culture and repopulating the Earth.
In Adam and No Eve (1941), a story by Alfred Bester, an inventor takes off in a rocket whose propulsion uses a dangerous catalyst. From orbit he sees that the entire world has been destroyed by a runaway reaction caused by the catalyst. Fatally injured in a crash landing, he crawls to the sea so that bacteria in his body can initiate new life on Earth.
Richard Cowper's three-volume novel The White Bird of Kinship (1978–82) envisions a future in which anthropogenic global warming caused by the greenhouse effect led to a catastrophic rise in sea level. Most of it takes place two millennia later.
Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin (1985) takes place long after worldwide disasters, apparently largely environmental though nuclear war may also be involved, that drastically reduced the population. It paints an admiring picture of a primitive society that will not repeat the mistakes of civilization. It won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and was a runner-up for a National Book Award.
James Howard Kunstler's 2008 novel, World Made By Hand, imagines life in upstate New York after a declining world oil supply has wreaked havoc on the US economy and people and society are forced to adjust to daily life without cheap oil. Kunstler followed the novel in 2010 with a sequel, The Witch of Hebron.
Last Light and its sequel Afterlight by Alex Scarrow narrate the fall of British civilization after a war in the Middle East eradicates the majority of the Earth's oil supply.
1979 cult classic film Mad Max, directed by George Miller, presents a world in which oil resources have been nearly exhausted. This has resulted in constant energy shortages and a breakdown of law and order. The police do battle with criminal motorcycle gangs, with the end result being the complete breakdown of modern society as depicted in sequel films Mad Max 2 and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and prequel film Mad Max: Fury Road.
In Arthur C. Clarke's short story The Nine Billion Names of God (1953), the universe ends when Tibetan monks (making use of a specially-written computer program) finish writing all of the nine billion possible names of God. The story won a retrospective Hugo Award.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) is a film by Val Guest about an Earth thrown out of its orbit around the sun by excessive nuclear testing. It paints a picture of a society ready to believe that humans could destroy the planet, hoping that science could fix what it has broken but resigned to the possibility of irreversible doom.
John Crowley's 1979 novel Engine Summer takes place perhaps a thousand years after "the Storm" (not described) destroyed industrial civilization. Surviving cultures seem to be influenced by the 1960s and 1970s counterculture.
James Wesley Rawles' Survivors: A Novel of the Coming Collapse (2011) is a novel about a contemporaneous global economic crash, and focuses on the struggles of a large cast of characters who struggle to survive after what is termed "The Crunch." It covers both the lead up to the economic crash, as well as several years after the crash.
In Ubisoft's 2012 videogame I Am Alive, America has gone through a massive earthquake that destroys most cities and areas. Due to the damage of the aftermath, many people are forced to go without resources, causing citizens to become agitated, violent, and bitter, turning them into savage hunters.
In popular culture
The 1987 song by R.E.M. "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) is a rather humorous description of an apocalypse of unspecified nature; however, there is a reference to a "rapture".
- Dark Ages
- Doomsday event
- Dying Earth subgenre
- List of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction
- List of apocalyptic films
- List of nuclear holocaust fiction
- Militia movement
- Nuclear weapons in popular culture
- Survivalism and Survivalism in fiction
- Terminator (franchise)
- The Girl from Tomorrow
- World War III in popular culture
- Zombie apocalypse
- Sub-Genre Spotlight: Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction – An overview of the sub-genre at Internet Review of Science Fiction
- Quiet Earth – A website dedicated to post apocalyptic media
- A Sense of an Ending: Take Shelter's Inconclusive Apocalypse – An article on contemporary apocalypse cinema at Alternate Takes