The changing face of the apocalypse
Here’s an interesting nugget: Research shows that apocalyptic fiction has changed dramatically over the past 20 years:
It’s not the idea of Ending itself that has faded – that will be around until we are actually mopped off the face of the Earth. It’s the actual moment of disaster, the blood and guts and fire, that has been losing ground in stories of the End. Post-apocalyptic fiction is a 200-year-old trend, and for 170 of those years, the ways writers imagined the end were pretty transparently a reflection of whatever was going on around them – nuclear war, environmental concerns, etc. In the mid-1990s, though, everything just turned into a big muddle. Suddenly, we’d get a post-apocalyptic world whose demise was never explained. It was just a big question mark.
As far as genre fiction goes, I’ve always enjoyed post-apocalyptic novels, particularly On the Beach, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and The Road. Interestingly enough, the level of explanatory detail each book devotes to the apocalypse mirrors the progression described by this research – On the Beach (the oldest of the three) features a fairly detailed scenario for Cold War escalation, A Canticle for Leibowitz briefly gestures at some sort of nuclear holocaust before describing recovery through the lens of a Catholic Monastery, and The Road (the most recent book) is basically silent on the issue of how society collapsed in the first place.
I’m sure there are any number of plausible-sounding sociological explanations (perhaps the lack of detailed scenario-planning reflects some deeply felt uncertainty about society’s direction), but my first thought was that this trend demonstrates the increasing narrative sophistication of genre fiction. After all, we don’t read post-apocalyptic novels for a cold account of how society will end (for that, I turn to CNN’s latest headlines); instead, we’re more interested in how characters adapt themselves to some exotic post-apocalyptic landscape. I think many authors realize this, and are now more interested in developing a story than mapping out the Great Swine Flu Epidemic of 2010. Even the impressive level of detail in On the Beach is conveyed through off-hand remarks and snippets of conversation rather than in some dull, over-long prologue.The book’s author, Nevil Shute, was a fine writer to begin with, so I’m not surprised that he was ahead of the genre fiction curve.