The modern apocalypse
Stumbled upon a fascinating new piece of research done by a fellow apocalypse fan Chandra Phelan. The research tracks apocalyptic endings over the last 200 years.
Phelan has come to some interesting conclusions; suggesting that in the last 20 years apocalyptic endings have become increasingly vague – pitching stories that begin well after an event has occured with little to no explanation as to what has bought about a post-apocalyptic state.
To go with her analysis, Phelan has produced a very snazzy chart mapping the ends of civilisation over some 423 books, poems and short stories, in an attempt to find a logical trend (see below).
“The post-apocalyptic technological utopias of the turn of the century are replaced by dystopias and robot rebellions after World War I (the first expansion of the green region devoted to human-made disaster), when everyone began to suspect that technology was only going to help us go about killing each other more efficiently, not cure us of the need to kill in the first place. Other trends are there, too: anxiety about pollution and global warming tend to spike whenever nuclear fears fade, for example.”
As the post apocalyptic stories enter the 1990s, the ends start to become ambiguous, and Phelan suggests this may be because we are all a bit over visions of the world ending. Nowadays we just want to get straight to the aftermath:
“Destroying the world in books about apocalypse is one way we can entirely take ownership of it. We can only see the world the way we have been raised to, the way our parents saw it, so we need to raze the old world and build a new one in its place in order to have a world that is really and entirely our own. The story of the End, after all, is not nearly as compelling as the story of the Beginning that comes after it.”
Phelan makes a good point. Post apocalypse is really not about the end of the world at all – hence it doesn’t really concern us why things turned to shit. Readers of today are more interested in throwing off the shackles of modern existence and getting back to the core tasks of survival. A clean slate (however clean a world of ash and cannibalism can be).
I would take Phelan’s comments one step further and suggest that ends aren’t as important anymore because modern society has lived through many “apocalypses” such as the Holocaust, 911, Hurricane Katrina. As such, we feel partially betrayed by the empty promise of a final, and perhaps meaningful, apocalyptic end.
Contemporary readers are instead, by cultural association or direct contact, traumatised. We are survivors, some of us of multiple ‘apocalyptic events’. Hence we now relate to survival stories. Much like we are post-modern, we are post-apocalypse. It would be hard to ever go back to a time where the promise of a quiet end would bring terror.
So readers and writers look for texts to help represent an experience of living ‘after the end’. Carrying the burden of anxieties and fears that elude rational patterns of thought. We have lived through it, but by god we are definitely not ‘over it’. With trauma theory hitting its hey day in the 80s, it stands that the 90s would see some of the first fiction books representing the cultural theories of people like Cathy Caruth and Dominic LaCapra.
If you’re interested, check out my thesis on Trauma and the Post Apocalyptic (with analysis done on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). Let me know what you think.
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