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Sunday, October 13, 2013
Cast in Ruin: A Taxonomy of Post-Apocalypses
This week, Charlie Jane Anders wrote an article about the disappearance of the "advanced civilization fallen to barbarism" story that used to be so prevalent in popular genre media. She considers a couple of reasons, one of which is that it has been supplanted by the post-apocalyptic story. That got me thinking about whether those sorts of stories might be related in some way, and that led me to hypothesize a taxonomy of post-apocalyptic tales.
The first thing to consider is: Did the apocalypse happen to the viewpoint characters or their culture or did it happen to someone else?
Happened to the viewpoint characters/their culture:
If it happened in the remote past, then we're dealing with post-apocalyptic fantasy like Thundarr or the Heiro novels of Sterling Lanier. There is a variant where the apocalypse is really slow moving: the dying earth story. It's tempting not to consider these post-apocalyptic stories at all, except for the fact that at least some of them (the Zothique tales of Clark Ashton Smith and The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson, to give a couple of examples) seem very concerned with pointing out how things are winding down to their inevitable end.
Happened to someone else:
If the apocalyptic event happened recently, and the viewpoint characters have arrived to discover this, we're probably dealing with a science fiction mystery or horror narrative. The Star Trek episode "Miri" probably falls into this category. (Some will protest that the apocalypse in "Miri" hardly counts as recent, being hundreds of years ago. I'd argue the extremely slow aging of the surviving children and the resemblance of the fallen culture to the culture of Star Trek's reviewers in the sixties, gives the story an immediacy that it's internal chronology doesn't reflect.)
If the fall is a remote event, then the "civilization fallen to barbarism" story comes into play (showing up in numerous Star Trek episodes like "Omega Glory" and "Spock's Brain" and as a backdrop in a lot of lost world or planetary romance fiction). If the civilization is mostly gone, but it's influence can still be felt, we're probably out of the post-apocalyptic genre and into science fiction, horror or a combination of the two--but not necessarily. The science fiction and/or horror option is exemplified by works like At The Mountains of Madness, Forbidden Planet, Quatermass and the Pit, and (again) a number of Star Trek episodes like "That Which Survives."
Peace on Earth (1939) and Good Will to Men (1955).
There are less clear-cut stories that are inbetween these two poles. In this group are stories where the relationship of the viewpoint characters (or the viewer) to the apocalypse or the occurrence of the apocalypse, itself, is saved for a reveal at the end. The original Planet of the Apes is a classic example here, but Teenage Cave Man (1958) also fits the bill.
Also, we can place many so-called "Shaggy God" stories here, as the apocalypse leads to an Adam and Eve scenario. The Twilight Zone episode "Probe 7, Over and Out" is practically the archetypal version of this tale, but it has turned up as recently as Battlestar Galactica (2004).