Why Don’t We Tell Stories About Collapsed Civilization Anymore? And What’s With Our Postapocalypses?

Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney

Charlie Jane Anders has a really interesting post at io9 about the decline of a particular genre of story, in which a formerly advanced civilization has completely regressed back to barbarism, whether because of a natural disaster, or the consequences of its own hubris. She’s got two theories about why this particular formulation has declined: first, a healthy aversion to the kind of colonialist thinking that animated so many of these stories, and second, a sense that our own civilization is in danger of decline that distracts us from the idea of exploring other ruined societies for fun. She writes:

These stories were about colonialism, and that they thrived during and immediately after the colonial era. Part of the wish-fulfillment aspect of the “fallen into barbarism” story isn’t just the puzzle-solving of realizing that this apparently backward society was once advanced — it’s also getting to be the clever white person (usually white guy) who understands the natives’ own history better than they do. The European visitor who figures out that the idol all the natives are worshipping is really a computer, or that all of their ancient myths are actually about spaceships or whatnot.

And maybe we’re a little less comfortable being overtly triumphalist in our depictions of race and cultural interaction, and a little less happy to celebrate the idea of the white explorer who visits other peoples and tells them how best to interpret their own cultures.

But I wonder if there’s something to be said about the decline of this genre in conjunction with one of the consistent element in most anti-hero stories. In the post-apocalypse, we tend to meet our characters long after the disaster or political crisis that wiped our society away, and once a new order has been firmly established. The transition period tends to be marginalized from the narrative, sometimes even to the point of having been erased from history and the characters’ memories. That’s a curious thing, because the question of how certain institutions took control or came to be can be the most interesting part of a post-apocalyptic story. It’s true that sometimes it can be stupid — the development of the dictatorial enclave in The Twelve was one of the things that most soured me on Justin Cronin’s vampire saga.


Transition periods are risky moments, though, ones where works often establish their worldviews. The hyperfascist Justice Department that stages a coup in response to rising crime rates in the Judge Dredd comics gets at the fascist tendencies that undergird so many of our law enforcement stories, and the high tolerance many pop culture depictions of cops have for police brutality and coercive interrogations. One of the things that’s fascinating and funny about Neal Stephenson’s video-games-and-international-terrorism novel Reamde is the way ostensibly liberal/libertarian characters end up relying on the survivalist wing of their family when everything goes to hell. Part of The World’s End’s commentary on modern culture is how persistent institutions like realtors and generic pubs are — like cockroaches, they survive even after civilization falls apart.

And I wonder if we’ve stopped telling regression stories and skipped over how society reorganizes itself on the way to the post-apocalypse because, where collapse stories once let Western writers lord it over supposedly less-civilized cultures, these sorts of stories might require us to look too hard at ourselves. We tend to reflect on our present society in the causes of our fictional collapses, be it oil, or increasingly complex financial instruments, or our addiction to our cell phones and social media. But we seem reluctant to take hard looks at ourselves in considering what happens right after the collapse, who would survive, and who would rise.

World War Z does a good job of looking at all the different ways people might survive, and what might go wrong with some of the things, like extreme wealth, that might seem like they would provide protection against the breakdown of society. But it seems like we could use more of those conversations. If cities get anarchic, will people with lots of guns on rural compounds need to worry? Or will they be overrun by refugees? If Big Ag collapses, what happens to all the people in Brooklyn raising chickens in their back yards and folks running family farms? Do they become the most important people in a trade economy? Sometimes it seems like all the Hunger Games and Sheol Is are a distraction, the new institutions less a stand-in for our present problems than substitutes for them.