I was thinking this week about nuclear weapons. And yes, this was before my phone blipped with the headline news about North Korea and certain inflammatory remarks. I was remembering how, even though I’m a little too young to have hid under my desk during the height of the Cold War, fear of nuclear Armageddon was the big specter of doom hanging over my childhood. I remember seeing graphics about how many times over we could destroy the world with the current arsenals of the US and the Soviet Union. Today I looked up the exact number—at the height of the nuclear arms race there were more than 64,000 nuclear warheads on our planet. That was in 1986. I was ten.
I don’t remember what television shows and films I saw at that time, but I clearly remember the image of ICBMs streaking across a radar map of the world, the American ones in blue and the Soviet ones in red. Going in opposite directions. I’m sure I didn’t see this image only once. Of course in most movies a spy disarmed the nukes, or a superhero stopped them, or there was some amazing last-minute diplomacy and they all blew up in the sky.
That’s my clearest image of apocalypses, and it’s influenced how I envision the end of the world in my own writing. Talking to Birdy, though, who is over a decade younger than me, I realized that my go-to Armageddon is not the same as hers. She envisions an uncaring world of corporations destroying the planet through neglect and climate change.
So here’s my list of types of world-ending scenarios in fiction. Which one resonates most with you?
This apocalypse has been in the world’s consciousness since the atomic age began, and the US dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nations annihilate each other in mutually assured destruction, followed by nuclear winter, massive depopulation, and the end of civilization as we know it. Perhaps this has become a less compelling narrative for Americans since the end of the Cold War?
The original Planet of the Apes (1968) seems to suggest that it was war that wiped out humans and allowed apes to become the dominant species.
The post-apocalyptic world of the Mad Max series, shown first in The Road Warrior (1981) is a desert wasteland because of oil shortages that led to global war.
The potential for extermination by disease has been with the human race since the beginning. Recurring fears of superviruses or pandemics such as the bird flu and Ebola keep disease apocalypses coming back into our imaginations. This is also a popular scenario for zombie apocalypses, in which a (usually human-engineered) virus causes hordes of flesh-eating monsters. In this sort of Armageddon, scientists and the CDC struggle against time to find a cure. I doubt this fear, and the fiction it spawns, will ever go out of style.
In the new Planet of the Apes film series (beginning with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2011) it is a virus that wipes out humans and causes apes to become dominant.
The Strain (2014-) posits vampirism as a biological disease that can spread via an extremely gross method.
Isaac Asimov’s iconic I, Robot was published in 1950, so ideas about artificial intelligence and what robots might do if they gained full sentience have been with us for a long time. However, the advent of personal computers and the internet has made technological fears much closer to our everyday lives. Artificial intelligences may cause an apocalypse because they’re just trying to protect humans from themselves, or they may decide to rise up against their human oppressors. Now that AIs are once again making the news, and self-driving cars have gone from science fiction to science fact, maybe robot-caused apocalypses will once again be on the rise.
In the world of The Matrix (1999) robotic creatures are using humans as living batteries.
The Terminator (1984) and the series that follow it have a future in which the machines rule and humans are oppressed.
This was a theme as early as Metropolis (1927), one of the first-ever science fiction films in which rich industrialists lived in towers and oppressed workers who toiled underground. This apocalyptic scenario usually doesn’t wipe out all the humans, but instead creates a dystopian society of survivors in which there are clear winners and losers. Since corporations now count as people, at least in the United States, this one seems as relevant today as it has ever been. It’s easy to imagine apocalyptic worlds in which profits are the only things that matter and humans are just cogs in the machine.
In Final Fantasy 7 (1997) a villainous mega-corporation controls the world and is destroying the planet’s energy.
Wall-E (2008) has capitalism and its waste products destroying the planet. Who knew it was possible to create a child-friendly post-apocalyptic film?
This is the most recent turn that apocalypses have taken. In this scenario, humans destroy themselves either through climate change itself making the planet uninhabitable, through ill-advised efforts to reverse climate change, or through climate change setting off massive world wars. As hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, floods, and displaced people make the news more and more, I expect climate apocalypses to keep being relevant to today’s writers and filmmakers.
Snowpiercer (2013) shows a post-apocalyptic world in which human intervention to stop global warming has gone awry and caused a new ice age.
Interstellar (2014) sends humans in search of a new habitable planet because the current one is full of dying crops and dust storms and can no longer support life.
The author of The Hunger Games (2008) is (probably purposefully) vague about what sort of apocalypse caused Panem to be as it is now, but some sort of climate disaster followed by war and massive depopulation seem to be the most likely cause.
Generalized hubris of humanity
This covers a lot of ground. Whether humans have drilled to the core of the earth and let out the magma to destroy us all, or tried to engineer the weather and destroyed us all, or invented robots to serve us which then went haywire and destroyed us all . . . this category is a great catch-all and includes most of the others. Even back to where we started, thermonuclear war—the fact that we have developed weapons that can destroy everything and might have the hubris to use them is just another example of humanity’s arrogance.
So, that was a cheerful On Writing essay, wasn’t it? What examples do you want to add? Which sort of apocalypse are you writing about in your fiction?