This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
TS Elliot, The Hollow Men.
The phrase ‘post apocalypse’ is rather a portent of a doom passed, a fate that none but the few could avoid. The world is not what it was – change has taken the land. How can we create a new future by observing the present?
Post apocalypse fiction (or is it??) has several areas to examine in terms of world building. I shall assume we start from the present day or near future, as if not – that verges into alternate history. So there is the causative event – what is the type of apocalypse? This can have a huge influence on the future world. Where it happens – is one part of the world affected and not another or is it global? What are the results – cultural, environmental, economic and personal?
Although the event itself can be overwhelming, it won’t be a story unless we know how it affects characters. It is important that the apocalypse is a background element, not the main thing described. Even in the most dramatic of circumstances (watching 2012 was a full on visual assault!) there are still people that readers need to be passionately interested in. Without them, it’s a documentary, and a made up one at that.
We don’t have to look too far for inspiration for possible disastrous events. Various prophecies of the end of time have been popular since long before biblical times. The internet, conspiracy theories, the current pandemic and shows like ‘Preppers’ offer many possible scenarios. As does history. Humans have managed to survive an extraordinary number of disasters. Not ALL humans, necessarily, however.
A good place to start your paranoia is: the Wiki entry.
Global – this covers major events such as pandemics, solar flares, plate tectonic shifts, asteroid impacts, polar melting, magnetic core reversals, alien invasion, super volcanoes, economic collapse, the approach of Nibiru and the emergence of secret lizard people, irreversible climate change, human mutations and nuclear events. Out of control technology is also an idea, ranging from lab produced super bugs, AI robots (think Terminator) and nanotechnology. This gives rise to the horrific concept of ‘grey goo’ where out of control bio fed nanobots consume all life on earth to reproduce, leaving a grey goo behind, introducing the term ecophagy.
Local – this could be an event that affects one country, which may close itself – or be closed – from other countries. Variations of this sort of event could include political turmoil leading to cultural anarchy, environmental or agricultural collapse leading to catastrophic food shortages, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and a religious/political dictatorship.
Both of these offer different scenarios for characters. A global event leaves you with no escape and one has to adapt. Local events have a more immediate focus of escaping the closed in or affected area.
How does the event affect world building? For a global event there might be an initiating factor, then a cascade of happenings. As we have seen recently, a global pandemic has had first medical consequences, then social and economic. This has then had cascade effects on food distribution, political surveillance and controls, and increased policing of the population. The initial problem is still ongoing, but a series of related effects can make it even worse. This has also been different depending on geography, politics and culture.
There is also the time factor. Is your story set as it happens or far in the future? An immediate apocalypse is likely to have many more plot turns as the situation worsens. The emotions of panic, grief and terror are the ones that will be at the forefront. It’s a dangerous time, and no one knows who will or how to survive. What qualities will help, what personalities will shine? It has the benefit of thrusting known professions (accountant/ex marine/IT nerd/pregnant woman) into an emergency where a hobby may make the difference between survival and death, or a personality the difference between friends – or friendly fire. The research will need to explore geography, geology, food distribution and survival methods specific to the catastrophe.
If it is set far in the future, then world building becomes a series of steps. From the initiating factor, to the immediate aftereffects, and then the long term changes on the environment and people. Is it bad enough to build closed domes or escape underground or into space? Who gets left behind? Are people, plants and animals mutating? What sort of society has grown out of the ashes? Do they know their history or is it all a myth?
So world building research covers the physical environment – and here you will need to delve fairly deep. A blend of catastrophe and the existing material remains will provide a decent background. The changes in humans can cover areas such as political systems and power struggles, religion, money/barter, farming and then go to the personal – families, food, clothes, hygiene, sickness, mutations and personal morality. Again, different areas may react differently based on circumstances and culture. For instance, John Wyndham’s ‘Chrysalids’ is an excellent example of mutant children facing an extreme religious culture vs the utopia of acceptance in a long past apocalypse. His ‘Day of the Triffids’ is an example of an immediate global event, (the blinding meteorites) made worse by something no one could have anticipated. The coincidence of a leading triffid expert escaping the blindness made him a reluctant but useful hero.
So post apocalyptic fiction gives an exciting and enormously scary backdrop to play out the qualities that make us human. Not for nothing have disaster predictions been with us since we first told stories about a flood. They offer the chance to showcase the best and worst of the human condition, making the reader wonder how they would react. Would they be a hero or a scavenger? A wise leader or a religious zealot? Who will survive – and how does it change them?
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