Why do we love the end of the world? Good fucking question. This question is the one I am trying to answer by reading all the apocalypses I can get my hands on and by writing about them every Thursday on 1000 Ways to End the World. This question is why I interview folks about what they love about the genre. I want to collect theories and opinions, and I want to form a thesis about why these stories are so popular and their popularity so enduring. The thought that so many of us love watching the world burn is mildly disturbing. So today I’m up to question bat, interviewing myself about how I think I’d fair in a real end times catastrophe and which fictional catastrophes I wouldn’t mind seeing first-hand.
Do you think you would survive an actual apocalypse?
No. I wish I could believe I would, but the odds are against me. Shit, I live in a big city! I’m over 30! I am so fucked at the end of the world. Then again, it also depends on the kind of apocalypse. There’s always that tiny sliver of a chance that I would win the survivor lottery, but I wouldn’t bet on it. And, anyway, considering how shitty a catastrophic situation is likely to be, you couldn’t really call surviving winning. Maybe it would be better to get dying out of the way before shit really got ugly.
What kind of apocalypse would you prefer to experience?
An EMP. EMPs are my dream apocalypses because while they would cause a massive amount of havoc, they have the potential to be less devastating death-toll-wise than, say, mass plague or nuclear war. I love technology, but part of me is a bit of a Luddite and a bit of a DIY fanatic, and that part of me is the part that would enjoy figuring out how to make shit work post-EMP. If said EMP event happened to involve fantastical S.M. Stirling-esque elements like the sudden malfunctioning of all firearms, all the better. If the world is going to end, I would feel safer knowing that no one had access to guns.
Second place goes to a Christian-rapture-style apocalypse. I am pretty critical of organized religion in general and Christianity in particular, so the thought of a world suddenly emptied of all religious folks, a world where nobody was trying to make abortion laws based on religious beliefs or to teach creation in schools sounds pretty fucking utopian to me. Then again, in the event of a rapture, we would be presented with proof that there really is a Christian-style Old Testament God, so…where would the atheists stand then?
Third place goes to zombie apocalypse and the fact that I’ve recently started playing/using Zombies, Run is probably to blame. If you don’t enjoy running, a zombie apocalypse is probably going to be all PTSD trauma, all the time, and that sucks. Add to that the fact that being eaten alive by undead monsters is probably one of the worse ways to go, and you have a pretty shitty situation that I think most of us would rather avoid.
The apocalypse I’d least like to experience is nuclear. Fucking radiation man. Now there’s a slow and horrible death and a thousand-year aftermath that you can’t easily work around IF you manage to survive in the first place. Not that plague would be much more fun. I don’t want to have to watch everyone around me die in pain or to die in pain myself if I can avoid it.
As for a slow economic crash Parable of the Sower-style, well, I’m pretty sure that is happening right now, and yup, the world is pretty fucking shitty, but there is still a lot of room for hope and happy-happy-self-delusion in a slow process like that. Whether or not hope is a good thing in an end times scenario is another question.
What would be the first thing (or two) you’d stuff in your bug-out bag if shit hit the fan?
I will admit I already have a bug-out bag lite. That is to say, if we ever have to leave in the middle of the night due to fire or similar, I have a few things packed and ready to grab on the way out the door, mostly things for my daughter (a carrier so I can strap her to my back and run, extra clothes, distractions) and our passports.
I think about bug-out bags a lot, and I want to make one because I think it would be fun more than because I think I would ever need it. (What can I say? I find survival, be it wilderness or apocalypse, fascinating and exciting.) I also think about bug-out bags because I really want to do an end times LARP the next time one comes around in Germany, and that would be a key part of my costume.
If I only have five minutes I would grab matches, our tent, sleeping bags, water bottles, extra socks, a bar of soap, meds, and the most compact food I could find in the kitchen. I would tie extra boots and metal cups and an axe onto the outside of the pack.
Then I would put on all my weather-resistant sports clothes in layers and my five utility belts, and I would top it with my wool cloak and a few other clever medieval accessories that one has in one’s closet when one’s mother is in the SCA and one likes attending medieval markets in costume.
Someday I’m going to write about what I would put in a bug-out bag if I had a week to buy supplies, pack, and prepare. Then maybe I’ll go camping with just that bag and write about what happens and how utterly wrong I was about everything. I like to do experiments. Particularly on myself.
Which fictional apocalypse would you like to transport into?
I wouldn’t mind joining clan MacKenzie in S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse, or joining the sisters on their path in Jean Hegland’s Into the Forest. There are a huge number of apocalyptic fictions that sound mildly pleasant (or at least no more fucked up than the present), if you could end up in the right place at the right time: Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Anne Aguirre’s Enclave, Peter Heller’s Dog Stars, or James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand.
Just don’t send me into The Road. Or any story where I have to watch my daughter die a slow and painful death. Cannibals, rape, and dead children are narrative arcs I’d rather avoid if I’m allowed to make the choice. Obviously.
Why do you love apocalyptic literature? Why do you think it is so popular?
My love for apocalyptic fiction hinges on three elements: my interest in survival literature in general, my interest in DIY, and my desire for a clean slate to build a less shitty societal structure. Apocalyptic books address all three. They are largely about survival in extreme conditions and in order to survive characters have to employ all sorts of interesting DIY tricks. You can pick up some helpful information from time to time (though there is a lot of misinformation in fictional apocalypses too, like authors ignoring the fact that you can’t eat fucking unprocessed acorns). And by nature apocalyptic stories present the survivors with a new, if not particularly clean slate, to attempt to build something on. Of course what’s disappointing is that the characters rarely try to build anything new, but hey, that will just have to be the novel I write myself.
I think the popularity of apocalyptic fiction is related to some of my reasoning, but also to a need for catharsis for the fear that ebbs and flows over generations about disasters. Apocalyptic fiction goes through booms when scary world events are looming: world wars, cold war, and now, climate change (see my chronology of apocalyptic fiction). Reading about these events (and their survivors) can both help us cope and provide a catharsis for our fear of these events, so far out of our control as they often are.
If you would like to talk about your thoughts on the end of the world on Your Apocalypse, write us via the contact form.