When you enter “post-apocalyptic” into Amazon’s search bar, you get lots of things. 30,000 results, to be exact.
But hey, there’s always room for one more version of civilization’s death throes, right? What if you want to craft your own apocalypse tale? Where do you need to start?
When eating an elephant or an apocalypse, start with one bite at a time.
What Kind of Apocalypse?
Modern society is shockingly unstable. Any number of things could send it tumbling down. Zombies, of course, spring to mind (like in The Walking Dead), but what about an EMP blast (just browse Amazon’s listings)? Nuclear strikes against our major cities? Even something as pedestrian as the flu could cripple us (like the 1918 pandemic, which didn’t end civilization but did kill tens of millions worldwide). How about terrorist action (like Red Dawn) or an alien invasion (like Half-life 2 or War of the Worlds)?
Perhaps we wipe ourselves out with a war, or a super-weapon gone wrong (like the Forerunners in Halo).
Those are only counting the catastrophic reasons. Rome fell for several related reasons, from barbarian raids to internal immorality. The Aztec empire received a fatal blow from the invading Spaniards, but it was already deathly ill from all the people it was conquering for use at the temple. As this post points out, real world civilizations usually collapse for such complicated reasons that historians spend centuries hunting down the pieces.
My own series, White Mesa Chronicles, follows a collapse due to rioting, social division, and moral decadence. Zombies are only an inconvenient coincidence.
However, “apocalypse” usually implies some kind of catastrophe — hence this type of societal collapse is more common in fiction. Which one you choose – and how far from Ground Zero your story takes place (in space and time) – will determine the answers to the next question:
How’s Life Now?
It’s staggering to think about how interconnected our modern world is.
A lot of apocalyptic fiction ignores the basic challenges to survival losing this connection would cause, so to make your post-apoc world as realistic as possible, try to work out just what you need to survive, where it comes from, and how you would get it in the event of the “stuff hitting the fan”.
What are the new living conditions like?
I work retail. When a power pole went down and we lost power, we had to close. Our registers didn’t work (we couldn’t even do cash transactions), only the security lights and exit lights were lit, and the office computers and air conditioning faltered. What if that went on for days and days?
Grocery stores would probably empty out as panicked people tried to make sure they had enough reserves. Unless you’re a prepper with six months’ worth of food stored in your basement, things could get very ugly indeed.
Further from Ground Zero
Since my story happens fifty years after the initial meltdown, I had loads of fun hunting for pictures of buildings and cities that had been abandoned. For instance, the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl was evacuated after a nuclear reactor accident. The pictures taken by people who went back are breath-taking – if you like crumbling cement and dusty trash, that is.
Wikimedia has some great Creative Commons pictures from Pripyat and Chernobyl, such as this one:
You can easily search for impressively beautiful places that have been abandoned by humanity, such as this list here. I’m always amazed by how quickly the green takes over the buildings. If you’re skeptical about how long that would take: our own 10-acre property went from pig-farm mud slab to completely overgrown with 20- to 30-foot trees in just 40 years.
Even if you’re writing about characters just five years after a collapse, the plant life is going to be something to contend with! Think about not mowing your lawn for a whole year 😉😛
Closer to home
What about a story of going through the collapse? What if you wake up one morning and an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) has knocked out all the electrical appliances in your area?
No washer, no drier…no phone, no microwave, no electric starter on your oven. EMPs can even fry the circuitry on computers. What about vehicles with electric ignition, steering, and braking? You’ll have to disconnect your electric garage door opener to get out of your garage, anyway…
You see how silly it would be to have a story about a girl blogging her experiences across the apocalyptic landscape?
But wait! My apocalypse came from zombies – not an EMP!
Well, read this amazing post about how long power plants of various types would last without full staffing, or extensive trade. Very basically, the winner is solar (no moving parts), followed by nuclear and hydroelectric tied for second, oil-fired, with coal lasting the shortest because of the labor required to keep them fueled.
If the (electronic) cash registers don’t work, we won’t be buying anything. If the semi-trailers run out of fuel, good-bye oranges-in-the-winter, cocoa powder, prescription medicines, and anything else you don’t (or can’t) grow in your backyard.
And when the coal-fired electrical plants run out of fuel, there goes the electrical grid. No nukes needed.
Now you know why I’m planting pizza-trees in my backyard as fast as I can.
What’s a Protagonist to Do?
Why does modern society function at all? How can we ship massive containers of goods across continents, and buy things online with credit card numbers, and hop on planes to stay in African hotels?
Trust. Economies work because of trust.
I pay you because I trust you to give me my rocking chair, and you take my money because you trust Joe to accept it in return for a chocolate cake. If I think you’re going to steal your rocking chair back in the middle of the night, I’m not going for it.
It’s more simple than that, though. If I think I can’t get to your store to buy my rocking chair because zombies might eat me, I’ll hide in my compound and do without.
When things break
Apocalypses break trust, and without a broad-reaching economy of trade, we’re going to take a big hit to our standard of living. This post covers ten things I’ll miss when that all happens — note that baking soda in the U.S. is pretty much exported from one place in Green River, Wyoming. In the future, we’ll know a Wyomingan because they’ll be the only ones with cookie on their faces.
In the face of cultural upheaval and terrifying civilizational change, most people are going to get angry, scared, confused, and defensive. Some will probably start looting their neighbors to make sure they have food for themselves. Some might band together in groups and try to survive by working together. The government will likely try to hold everything together, fix the problems, cover their own backsides, and argue about funding with each other.
All of these are potential story threads! Just make sure your humans act like humans, and not like two-dimensional players in a zombie-shooter game. That’s not what people read books for.
(Side note: shouldn’t these guys have run out of bullets by like the third day? This is not Half-life 2 – there aren’t caches around for the express purpose of giving you more ammo! And don’t think you’ll just grab some from the baddie you take down – unless he just happens to be using the same size ammo your gun needs!)
The Hungers Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner all have incredibly advanced societies arising from apocalypse. All I have to say is that they must have been pretty advanced beforehand to get hovercrafts and mechanical spiders. Consider that when Rome collapsed, Europe went centuries using their old roads and aqueducts because they couldn’t make anything better – and old Roman swords spawned legends of magic because they were so far above anything the locals could make (like Cortana, Excalibur, and the sword of Roland: Durandal).
If you want some people living in squalor in smashed out buildings with no utilities, and other people soaring above them in hovercrafts (like in The Erthring Cycle) make sure you’ve got a good reason. (And check out this amazing post for world-building tips!)
Dystopias are specifically written to explore sociological or psychological questions. Apocalypse stories are about what happens when things fall apart. While it makes sense that humans would rebuild despotic civilizations after the last one decayed, it shouldn’t happen overnight.
If they have high technology, they probably didn’t invent it; they’re probably using what was left from before. If they did invent it – how did they come to do that? Put in the brain-time to figure it out!
Do All the Research!
So go forth! Smash the world! Just make sure that, when you do, the pieces follow the laws of gravity and physics, and your characters don’t get any hand-holding for struggling through the rubble.
What are some of your favorite apocalyptic stories, and why? Did the author honestly deal with the consequences of a collapse?
Kimia Wood currently lives with her family somewhere in the American midwest, bracing for the collapse of society by knitting, baking, writing, and reading as much Twitter as possible before the web goes dark.
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