Like all the best things in life — ice-cream, condoms and Twinkies — the Post Apocalypse has an expiration date.
***Possible spoiler warnings for The Hunger Games, Snowpiercer and Fallout 4.***
I’m not talking about the genre, because let’s face it even the most optimistic of us can get a little worried about the world at times. We will never tire of wondering what the world would be like if progress went backwards. Post-apocalyptic is clearly here to stay.
No, I’m talking about the epoch in which a world can be considered actually “post-apocalyptic.” The very term itself denotes a period of time, specifically the period of time after a catastrophic event of some type. And just as the post-apocalypse has a starting date, the apocalyptic event of which it is post-to, it must also have an end date.
For anyone out there who has lost a family member, on a personal scale you’d know that your life was post-apocalyptic for a while. You didn’t know what to do, how to cope — and you kept expecting to see the person. Eventually, however, you learned to live in a world without them and you found a new kind of normalcy to operate by. It’s never the same as the world before, and it takes a lot longer for some to make the transition, but eventually there is life on the other side of the event.
It’s exactly the same on the grand scale. The Black Death, for example, was possibly the worst pandemic in human history and it devastated Europe. But despite what the news would have us believe with their flippant use of the term in relation to migrants, not many people would consider modern day Paris to be post-apocalyptic. Sure, Paris got hammered by the Black Death back in the 14th century, but it’s had time to heal, and apart from a few hiccups between then and now, it’s operating as a fully functional city with a flourishing society.
It’s the same with stories. There can be a world-ending apocalyptic event, and a post-apocalyptic period of turmoil and upheaval after that, but eventually the world has to mend. It’s highly unlikely the world will be the same, or even similar, to what it once was, but by all logic a new kind of functioning world will eventually be reached. As long as the time it takes to recover is warranted, it doesn’t matter if it takes twenty years or five thousand years, eventually things will settle and people start watching TV and complaining about the price of gas.
Take The Hunger Games, which is often considered post-apocalyptic, as an example. There was an apocalyptic event in that series at some point in the past and no doubt there was a period where things could have legitimately been considered “post-apocalyptic.” By the time the books begin, however, there’s a fully functioning society that spans across all of North America. Sure, the Capitol is a bunch of dicks that oppress the other Districts and has forced children into an annual battle royale *cough* for the past 74 years, but there’s still a functioning society in place. If anything, while the setting was once post-apocalyptic but has since healed, the stories themselves are simply dystopian and not technically post apocalyptic.
Or consider the fantastic film Snowpiercer. Humanity messes with the environment in an attempt to stop global warming, and they end up freezing the world. For the seventeen years since, the last dregs of humanity have eked out a socially stratified existence aboard a perpetually moving train. Things look dire, but as we find out half way through the film, the endless winter looks to be easing up year by year and there’s hope of things one day returning to normal. We don’t get to see the end of the post-apocalyptic period, merely the end of another dystopian society; but we at least get the impression that it’s on the horizon.
But perhaps the most popular too-post-apocalypse-to-be-post-apocalyptic series is Fallout. Fallout is suffering from over exposure to the post-apocalypse, and as much as I love the series I can’t ignore the fact that it’s stagnating. The Great War ended the world in 2077 and Fallout 4 starts in 2287, that’s 210 years later. That’s a whole lot of time to heal and rebuild. But despite the advanced technologies of the setting, the various peoples of the Fallout universe stubbornly refuse to get their shit together. When you walk around the Commonwealth Wasteland, you’ll find skeletons of people that died during the Great War, rubble still lining the streets, and cans of 200 year old food still sitting in the ruins of super markets. Most annoyingly however, people still talk about the Great War as though it’s still relevant, which, thanks to the stagnation of the setting, it still is. How often do Americans walk down the street in the real world and ruminate about the Civil War or even the War of Independence? It just doesn’t happen.
I think that’s the key factor of the post apocalyptic genre, and it’s right there in the name – it’s the period of time in which a society still defines itself in relation to the old world and the apocalyptic event that ended it. Until the new world has reached a point of critical mass, it will still define itself in relation to what it once was, to the glory days of before the fall. At a certain point though, through either a sheer amount of time or a focused effort, the new world will develop enough to stand on its own, as its own self defined entity.
Maybe there’s some in-story reason the world isn’t healing, maybe literally every inch of the world is soaked in radiation and people can’t leave their bunkers, but then people would just expand underground or leave the planet entirely. Maybe some psychotic luddites are keeping the world in a dark age of raiding and cannibalism, but eventually they could be overthrown. Whatever the reason for prolonging the Post Apocalypse, it better be a good one because otherwise it breaks the verisimilitude. Once that’s gone, no matter how gritty the setting or how cool the protagonist, the story is ruined.
At a certain point, the Post Apocalyptic period has to end, because it becomes meaningless if it doesn’t. We humans adapt to and eventually dominate our surrounding environments to make things easier for ourselves and our offspring, it’s just what we do. We came from caves and ended up on the moon, how long could zombies, mutants or nuclear winter really keep us down?