Apocalyptic stories have been around since the beginning of science fiction and fantasy. However, in recent years these themes have seen a resurgence in popularity – not least in young adult fiction – helped by the rise of the zombie culture and young heroines fighting for survival in dystopian futures. Why are we so obsessed with downbeat tomorrows, and are there still any new ways to end the future with a bang?
PANELLISTS: Kathleen Ann Goonan, Peter F Hamilton, William F Nolan, Samantha Shannon, SM Stirling, Tricia Sullivan, World Fantasy Convention, Brighton 2013
The panel started by defining the word ‘apocalypse’. Any dramatic change in a society is apocalyptic for the individual, which means that almost any story can be described as apocalyptic in some respect. Personal apocalypses are more interesting (and easier to write) than an ordinary day. All stories require conflict and extremes of some kind. Taking the word in a wider sense, (inter)national or global apocalypses tend to be very Western. If our culture collapses there are others that it may not affect particularly, especially third world countries. What happens next for them – would it be better or worse, if the West fell into chaos?
The dystopian has always existed in F&SF – it’s a reoccurring zeitgeist. The 50s in particular has a lot of dystopian stories. It’s a very easy theme, because destroying the world is easy to write and the writer can control what survives, which gives a nice simple sandbox world to play in. And people like reading them. One of the panellists (Samantha Shannon?) cited the 18th Century Theory of the Sublime – the idea of getting pleasure from looking at something dangerous or painful from a position of safety. Another panellist suggested that fiction gives us an illusion of control and the possibility of a happy ending for real-life disasters.
This moved the discussion on to a comparison with real life. Structurally, apocalyptica are stories about survivors in a situation where most people didn’t survive. This is deeply unrepresentative of the odds. Dealing with real-world destruction and building something positive out of that is much harder than creating a sandbox. F&SF writers tend to do straight-line extrapolations of current trends, but this isn’t how the future actually develops. It’s hard to predict future social changes, not least because we can’t have a clear idea of our own modern culture – it’s ‘like water to a fish’.
Real technology is moving so fast that fiction can’t compete. It’s very difficult to plausibly predict how technology will change us and our society. Apocalyptica is a very easy solution – ‘we can’t imagine how it will develop; we’ll destroy it so we don’t have to’. There is a cultural anxiety that we’ve created a world so complex we can’t cope with it, especially the idea of it going wrong. This feeds into a general fear of our survival chances if we were forced to rely on our own basic hunter-gatherer knowledge.
A closing thought from William F Nolan was on happy endings. ‘The reader has invested time in reading a novel, therefore you owe them a happy ending.’ Many of the panel disagreed, finally compromising on the idea that happiness may not be essential in an ending but hope is.
This panel was rather more heated and political than any of the others I attended, as real-life disasters were brought in fairly constantly. That gave the discussion quite an emotional edge. One panellist said that those who had never experienced an apocalypse such as Syria had no right to write apocalyptica, as it was disrespectful to those who had truly suffered and made light of their loss. That particular argument never really got resolved. I can see what she was trying to say but if we don’t write about these things then people will only think of them in context of the news. Is that reason enough to keep writing apocalyptica? What do you think?