What a fantastic evening! About 200 people attended the Natural History Museum After Hours special event, Apocalypse Now… Or Never? Will Self, author of the post-apocalyptic novel The Book Of Dave, was also in the audience!
I want to thank Jo Kessler and Ivvet Modinou at the Natural History museum for inviting me along to speak at the event. The audience were fantastic and the questions they threw at me and at the brilliant Dr Robbie Sutton and Dr Lewis Dartnell were interesting and definitely challenging. It was also good to see that Rob Grant from Sci-Fi London got a question in about the lack of bicycles in post-apocalyptic literature!
Here’s a small list of some of the things we discussed:
1) Come the apocalypse is it survival of the richest instead of survival of the fittest?
2) Comets are more likely to wipe us out than asteroids.
3) Do we all want to go out with a bang? Does apocalyptic prophecy add meaning and shape to our lives?
4) Conspiracy theory and apocalyptic vision are quite similar in psychological terms.
5) What makes a survivor? What skills do we need?
6) Zombies and what they represent?
7) How our fears are represented in apocalyptic media.
For those of you who couldn’t make it and are interested, this is more eloquent version of the intro I gave at this event:
The book club has been around for almost 4 years and we have ploughed through over a massive 50 novels! Anyone would think that being so niche or specialist, we would have run out of books by now. Or the goods ones at least! But no, we have barely scratched the surface and I have a reading list as long as my arm and back again. There is a lot of good stuff out there for what is essentially considered a Science Fiction Sub Genre.
I can’t wait to hear what Robbie and Lewis have to say about the science and fear of the apocalypse but for me and I think for the group, post-apocalyptic fiction is so much more than this.
Whenever I tell people that I run this group, the response I usually get is “OH THAT’S QUITE DEPRESSING” or “YOU MUST BE WELL PREPARED FOR THE APOCALYPSE”. The truth is, it’s not and we’re not. Post-apocalyptic fiction can actually be life affirming.
Not only is the apocalypse a great platform for a good story and to explore the “what ifs”, there is the opportunity to really dig down into the human condition and see what happens when the familiar is made unfamiliar, to see how strong the human spirit can be and how we interact in times of great upheaval. It’s basically a reflection, a safe place to topple the status quo and have a good play around. There is also a fantasy with writing this sort of thing too, a yearning for a simpler existence, going back to the land. What would it be like if modern technology didn’t exist anymore!
Some books have been written as a warning. The word apocalypse actually means Lifting the veil which is a more appropriate understanding of the fiction than just saying it’s about the end of the world. Authors use this to pick apart society, tell us what they think is wrong and rebuild it again. Interestingly, authors in Young Adult fiction use the apocalypse to rid the world of grown-ups so that kids can do what they like. This really does translate into adult fiction as the rules and constraints no longer apply.
Generally you will find post-apocalyptic fiction divided into sub categories:
PANDEMIC – plagues, genetically engineered viruses and Zombies to name a few
WORLD WAR III & NUCLEAR WAR
ECOLOGICAL & GEOLOGICAL CATASTROPHIES
FAILURES OF MODERN TECHNOLOGY
MISCELLENEOUS – this tends to be more SCI-Fi eg. Triffids and alien invasion etc.
Although apocalyptic stories have been around since the Persian Empire and maybe earlier (we’re talking Zoroastrian prophecies here), the post-apocalyptic tale as we know it started in the 1st quarter of 19th Century. Le Dernier Homme or The Last Man by JEAN BAPTISTE COUSIN DE GRAINVILLE is possibly the first last man novel which was published in 1805. There was a huge fascination with this trope at this time and sadly many of the stories are now lost. It is highly likely that Mary Shelley was inspired by this to write her novel The Last Man but it is very interesting to note that she used it to explore her grief and guilt of being left behind after the death of her husband Percy Shelley. For those of you who managed to read and finish the book! MARY SHELLEY WAS THE LAST MAN!
Anyway back to the point …..
World War II is I think largely the reason post-apocalyptic literature really gained in popularity. The massive leaps made in science, technology and warfare had never been seen before and were just things that HG Wells had made up. Where previously unspecified plagues and catastrophes ended the world, total annihilation at our own hand was a realistic possibility. Especially with the bombs detonated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki permanently etched onto our conscience. The religious apocalypse was now no longer so much of a worry.
Post-War fiction is where my heart lies and I absolutely cannot get enough of the stuff. On the Beach by Nevil Shute is one of my favourites. Here we have the last outpost of civilisation waiting for the radiation that has wiped out the globe to reach them. The stiff upper lip and the war attitude of just getting on with it is very evident here but I feel that it’s not dated. How do you cope knowing that in a year or maybe 2, you and the world you know would cease to exist? Do you plan for the future? Do you drink the good sherry that’s hiding in the basement or keep it for that special occasion that may never come? It also deals with the choices you make when death is knocking at the door and what can you do that that’s best for your family. It’s heart wrenching stuff….
Within the last ten years, post-apocalyptic fiction has experienced a bit of resurgence. First of all, The Road by Cormac McCarthy was hugely popular thanks to Oprah! And then the floodgates opened. (and our book club started!) 2012 was also the most mainstream apocalyptic prophecy that captured everyone’s imagination and the Zombie genre really flourished. It’s clear that genetic engineered virus’s and ecological disasters are what we are worrying about at the moment which the Zombie genre does play into. But this is also sign that we are scared of being the mindless consumer – taking everything we can lay our hands on without it nourishing us.