Apocalypse Then, and Now

Apocalypse Then, and Now

Robert Heinlein Farnham’s Freehold-smallLast week, I was talking about Paul O. Williams’s The Pelbar Cycle,  which generated a comment about the changing nature of the apocalypse. After all, nowadays we hardly ever see that word without “zombie” in front of it. As my commentator noted, the idea of a nuclear apocalypse largely disappeared after the 1980s. Perhaps this is a natural outcome of the ending of the Cold War – with the two big nuclear powers no longer at odds with one another, the threat of nuclear war effectively disappeared.

Or did it? It’s not a plot point for any of the books, so it’s not a spoiler for me to tell you that the events of The Pelbar Cycle follow both a natural and a nuclear disaster. The (then) big two nuclear powers knew that an impending meteor strike would look like nuclear events and agreed not to react, but other, smaller nuclear nations either weren’t aware, or didn’t believe, and they did react, bringing about the world that Williams describes.

That didn’t happen in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s phenomenal Lucifer’s Hammer (1977). In their case (again, no real spoilers here), the apocalyptic event is a comet strike and the nuclear powers refrain from “mistaking” it for an attack. There’s plenty of politics in the story, but it’s the politics of survival and not so much the politics of war.

Apocalypse following natural disaster actually does seem to be the norm, after a certain point. In fact, the only other novel featuring a nuclear apocalypse I have on my shelves is Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold (1964). Come to think of it, Heinlein wrote a number of short stories in which the world comes to an end because of human screw-up, but they can’t really be described as “post”-apocalyptic, can they?

Magic GoesBTW, and FYI, all the books I’m referring to in today’s post are sitting on my shelves, so if my examples seem somewhat skewed, or limited, that would be the reason. Take note of the publication dates while you’re looking.

So what about these natural disasters? Anything other than meteor/comet strike out there? The only one sitting on my shelves is Fallen Angels (1991, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Michael Flynn), which deals with the human response to the next ice age. This book isn’t 100% serious (though this isn’t the only place I’ve seen the suggestion that global warming is the only thing staving off the next ice age), but we have to take our apocalypses where we find them.

One of those places is what I’m going to call the biological apocalypse, probably the best known example of which is Stephen King’s The Stand (1978). This time it isn’t the damn-fool politicians who destroy the world, but those careless scientists and laboratory workers. Peter Straub’s Floating Dragon (1982) has much the same premise, though without quite so widespread a result. And just in case you think this premise is limited to horror writers, Frank Herbert’s The White Plague (1982) offers us a similar scenario, though in his case, the plague was not an accident. Sort of a biological-terrorist apocalypse.

Nor is everything biological. Thanks again to King, we can have a technological apocalypse, as in his novel Cell (2006).

These examples are pretty much all SF, or horror mixed with some SF. What about Fantasy? Are there post-apocalyptic fantasy novels? Offhand? I’d say not many. The whole thing about an apocalypse is that it is a world-changing event, if not necessarily a world-ending one. A great part of the value of the story is the before-and-after comparisons, and in order for them to work, the “before” world has to be very well known to the readers. So much easier to do when it’s their own world.

Now, having said that, I think there are a few fantasy novels, or series, that could be considered post-apocalyptic because the pre-apocalyptic world has been sufficiently known, or at least understood, as it is in Barbara Hambly’s Darwath Trilogy (1981-83) and its follow-up Mother of Winter (1996). I’d also like to offer for your consideration Niven’s The Magic Goes Away series of short stories (1978). For a world in which magic is the norm, and even werewolves are respectable members of society, isn’t it an apocalypse, a world-changing event, when the magic runs out?

Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she is writing the soon-to-be released Halls of Law series. Visit her websit: www.violettemalan.com

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Ty Johnston

Violette, if you are interested in post-apocalyptic fantasy, the best I’ve read is from Steven R. Boyett, his novels “Ariel” and “Elegy Beach.”

And Fred Saberhagen’s Swords books are sort of post-apocalyptic, though they take place hundreds or thousands of years after the apocalyptic events, which are mainly deep background material though he does cover that material in “Empire of the East.”

Joe H.

Interesting … I didn’t realize there were relatively few examples, at least in books. There’s always Canticle for Leibowitz …

I wonder if we could consider LotR post-apocalyptic — the First and Second ages both ended pretty spectacularly. A lot of fantasy worlds might not be post-apocalyptic per se but they’re certainly littered with the ruins of predecessor civilizations that ended badly.

Ty Johnston

“Is a precursor civilization that ended badly sufficient?”

I would think not. I mean, if that were the case, all of us are living in a post-apocalyptic world, which I don’t see.

Joe H.

Yep, the Caids. And yes, I agree that most of the fantasy books that I’m thinking of, even though they may be set in worlds built on successive layers of previous civilizations, aren’t “post-apocalyptic” per se. Hmmm … Maybe Tim Lebbon’s Dusk & Dawn would qualify?

Oh, there’s also Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley.

As I think of it, though, when I originally was remembering post-nuclear-apocalypse settings, I may have been thinking more of movies than of books — everything from Planet of the Apes to Logan’s Run to Mad Max to The Day After. Or role-playing games like Twilight: 2000, The Morrow Project or Gamma World.

Fletcher Vredenburgh

Terry Brook’s Shannara books are set in the aftermath of an apocalypse both magical and atomic. Best thing about the books is their background.

Matthew David Surridge

In re: fantasy as post-apocalyptic — one of the thing about precursor civilizations in fantasy is that they’re explicitly presented as being more advanced than the current one. The people of the past were able to do more, and more wondrous, things than the people of the present. So that’s different than the way many people in the industrialised world look at the past, I think, and re-opens the ‘fantasy as post-apocalypse’ idea.

On the other hand, you rarely have entire ‘present-day’ fantsy cultures built around trying to live in the ruins of those precursor civilizations. And I guess the present-day cultures aren’t usually trying to cope with the same ongoing catastrophe that wiped out the precursors — the equivalent of zombies, nuclear winter, or climate change. Like you said, Violette, the precursor isn’t the informing factor of the story. Although, on the other hand of the other hand, sometimes the weakening of magic or the presence of evil might have been what brought the apocalypse … actually, in fantasy there might be a specific evil entity or force that brought about the collapse, which seems rarer in the modern-day post-apocalypse stuff I’ve read …

I guess I’m saying some fantasy might qualify, depending on how you look at post-apocalypse. Like a lot of things, it comes down to definitions.

Kerstan Szczepanski

With the recent articles on Gary Gygax’s Appendix N I have become acquainted with Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey (and its sequels). There is Robert Adams Horseclans series, and I grew up loving Andre Norton’s post-apocalyptic science fantasy novels Star Man’s Son (also Daybreak 2250AD) and No Night Without Stars (one of my favorite books of all).

James McGlothlin

Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey is technically a post-apocalyptic sci-fi story. But it felt more like a fantasy book given the existence of sorcerers and monsters. Regardless, great book!

Pete Nash

Moorcock’s Hawkmoon series is set in post apocalyptic Europe, though the actual manner of the fall is never clearly explained.

I’m surprised that John Wyndham hasn’t been mentioned. A classic post apocalypse author of the cold war period. Almost every one of his books I read in the 70’s as a child was depressing and fear inducing, featuring a novel new way of civilisation being brought to its knees from global flooding, killer plants to psychic children. These books are a must-read for anyone interested in the genre.

Pete Nash

“As I think of it, though, when I originally was remembering post-nuclear-apocalypse settings, I may have been thinking more of movies than of books — everything from Planet of the Apes to Logan’s Run to Mad Max to The Day After. Or role-playing games like Twilight: 2000, The Morrow Project or Gamma World.”

Joe, wouldn’t Greyhawk count as a post-apocalyptic fantasy RPG setting, possibly nuclear inspired? Since its fall occurred when two great civilisations destroyed each other in the “Invoked Devastation” and “Rain of Colourless Fire”. Reducing much of the world to desert.

Fletcher Vredenburgh

@ Violette – maybe, but even when I first read Sword of Shanara I really loved the mix of nuclear war and magic. The point where it’s clear that’s what’s going on sent a frisson up my spine.

There’s also John Christopher’s alien invasion apocalypse in the tripods quartet, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with its possibly war based scenario, and the post-nuke Darkest America duology of Neal Barrett Jr.

Joe H.

(I’ve been out of contact for a few days …) Yes, Damnation Alley would be SF, I believe — at least based on the description; I don’t think I’ve ever actually read the book, nor seen the movie. And yes, Greyhawk is actually more explicitly post-apocalyptic than most settings in that it specifically mentions the war and the magical destruction.

And, as with all good Black Gate discussions, my TBR pile keeps growing larger and larger …


Can’t portions of both Poul Anderson’s and H. Beam Piper’s future histories be considered post-apocalyptic? I’m thinking of the period between the van Rijn stories and the Dominic Flandry series where humanity is temporarily enslaved plus a few post Flandry stories in the case of Anderson.

And I read it a few decades ago, but I think Piper’s Space Viking takes place following the collapse of a galactic empire. I recall Piper had several empires rise and fall in his timeline, even though he didn’t write much in some of those settings.

[…] Last week I was talking about apocalyptic novels – both Fantasy and SF – that I have on my shelves, and once again I got some very interesting and stimulating commentary. There are quite a few recommendations in those comments – along with some great ideas – so I’d advise you to have a look. […]

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