When we think of post-apocalyptic fiction, it’s fair to say that the first things that spring to mind aren’t sunshine and rainbows and lollipops, or smiling people sitting around a campfire singing Kumbaya, or peace and contentment and understanding. By their very definition, stories about the end of the world tend to explore very dark themes and very heavy emotional spaces. Their interest lies in (fictionally) mapping out what happens to people after the end, and in examining how they react to their newfound situation.
Think of the grim survivalism of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead graphic-novel series, John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass and the recent film The Divide (2011); or the savage ‘us versus them’ mentality that informs George Miller’s Mad Max film series (1979-2015), David Brin’s The Postman, the original version of The Crazies (1973) and J.G. Ballard’s Hello America; or the fear, loneliness, pessimism and insanity that pervade Thomas Glavinic’s Nightwork, The Quiet Earth (1985), Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. None of these stories are designed to take us to our happy place.
However, this is a stereotype and not a truth—post-apocalyptic fiction holds the potential for so much more than just horrific thrills and exploitative chills and a muckraking journey through a shell-shocked character’s mind, and some authors use an end of the world setting to explore themes and ideas that we wouldn’t necessarily expect.
If we look hard enough, we can sometimes find love.
Now, I’m not just talking about love of the sexual or romantic variety. In fact, different types of ‘physical’ love (sex) are reasonably common in post-apocalyptic worlds, as are relationships that encompass this love. However, because the genre unfortunately often tends to be masculine in focus, both these relationships and the expressions of ‘physical’ love that they encompass tend to echo this focus. Variations of the stay-at-home wife or the bimbo girlfriend or the damsel in distress frequently crop up in post-apocalyptic fiction, belittling modern gender politics and undermining female-male equality and tarring the genre with an ugly brush. And this is before even mentioning the place of physical love in the genre, which can veer from the sexist (the swooning and helpless woman who ‘gives’ herself to the heroic man) to the horrific (women who are effectively ‘breeding machines’ controlled by men in their efforts to repopulate the world).
What I’m talking about when I talk about love is companionship, intimacy, affection, honesty, care, solidarity and thoughtfulness. These are the emotional aspects of love that exist alongside its physical aspects, and are all too often missing from most post-apocalyptic narratives. In the often-brutal worlds that make up the vast majority of the genre’s settings, there seems to be little room for such ‘soft’ emotions. It’s almost as if the creators and authors of post-apocalyptic fiction are trying to convince us that only by becoming ‘hard’ can the characters that populate end of the world narratives hope to survive.
Sue Isle’s Nightsiders is one of the best examples of how these emotional aspects of love can both exist in post-apocalyptic fiction and serve as a foundation for looking at the genre’s themes and attitudes in a different way.
This contemporary piece of Australian post-apocalyptic fiction is structured as a story-cycle, and is set in the abandoned city of Perth, in which a small number of people have resisted being evacuated to the eastern coast of the country and have instead built a community amongst the city’s ruined buildings and crumbling streets. What exactly caused the evacuation of the city (as well as the whole of Western Australia) is never specified. Allusions to climate-change and a prolonged drought pepper the text, as do vague references to the city long ago being bombed by a foreign army, but a definitive answer never comes. The focus instead is on the community that has sprung up in this post-apocalyptic land, and on the ‘day to day’ activities and lives of the citizens therein, which include (but aren’t limited to) finding food, caring for the young, going to school, getting married, making a home, putting on a piece of theatre, and scavenging for supplies.
While Nightsiders’ Perth may bear some similarities to the ‘outpost’ cities that feature in much post-apocalyptic fiction, there is a crucial difference: there is no ‘other’ in Nightsiders, and there are no bandits or savages or barbarians who would lay waste to the city that the novel’s characters call home. Because of this, the heroic action in Nightsiders isn’t centred around confrontations and violence or brutality and savagery—all of which are typically born from an ‘us versus them’ mentality, which is almost entirely missing in Isle’s work—but on the acts of community and positive activity that define the lives of its characters. These acts of community and positive activity can be read as expressions of the emotional aspects of love—its characters work together for the good of everyone, secure in the knowledge that what they are working towards is both hopeful and positive; help is offered when it is needed, with no strings attached; everyone knows everyone else on a first-name basis, and there are no antagonistic relationships or friendships; and people look out for each other, rather than just for themselves. These are unarguably expressions of companionship, affection, honesty, care, solidarity and thoughtfulness.
The end result of Isle’s embedding of these aspects of emotional love in her narrative is fascinating, for we find that she has changed our expectations of what post-apocalyptic fiction has to offer: life after the end of the world might just be a hopeful place, if the horrors of the Western genre that are always shadowing it (violent action, masculine quest-adventures, savagery and brutality born of isolation, the conceptualisation of the wasteland as threatening and menacing) are relatively non-existent, either made safe through familiarity or relegated to the status of cautionary myths with their roots in the past. By dispensing with a masculine focus and ‘boys’-own-adventure’ themes and instead widening the genre’s scope to accommodate much more subtle and optimistic themes, the world that Isle has created seems a much better place than the grim and violent worlds that make up the vast majority of post-apocalyptic fiction. If we had to choose between being citizens of Nightsiders’ Perth or citizens of The Road’s America (another expectation-expanding work of the genre), which would we choose? While such a question grossly oversimplifies the difference between the two texts, there is still some truth to it. We choose to be civilised or we choose to be savage; these are behaviours that we take on, our environments don’t necessarily thrust them upon us.
Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars is another excellent example, especially when we consider that its narrative is framed around a more traditional post-apocalyptic theme: an ‘us versus them’ mentality. It tells the story of Hig and Bangley, two survivors of a global flu pandemic that has wiped out almost the entire human population. These two men couldn’t really be any more different from each other—Hig is an ex-pilot who can’t stop mourning the loss of humanity and is frequently plagued by survivor’s guilt, while Bangley is a misanthropic ‘hard case’ who seems to relish his role as a survivor and taunts Hig for his soft-heartedness, and comes across as a much more traditional post-apocalyptic character. But despite their differences, Hig and Bangley have formed a bond that moves, over the course of the novel, from a wary almost-friendship based on their ability to help each other to something much deeper: they become best friends who deeply care for one another and rely on each other for emotional support. This friendship is expressed as an almost fraternal attachment. At the novel’s end, when Hig returns from exploring the world beyond the air-strip/compound that he and Bangley call home, he finds that Bangley has stayed at this home and was badly wounded while defending it from raiders and scavengers. The scenes that follow—in which Hig realises that one of the reasons Bangley stayed to defend their home is so that Hig would have somewhere safe to return to—are truly heartbreaking, as Bangley’s hard exterior softens and he admits that he needs the company and companionship that Hig offers, rather than just Hig’s abilities as a look-out and dogsbody. They have become metaphorical brothers, whose differences in attitude and outlook have little bearing on their relationship.
In a manner very similar to Nightsiders, The Dog Stars leaves us with a sense of hope, and Heller’s portrayal of a post-apocalyptic world that contains more than just savagery and brutality is beautifully optimistic. This optimism is perhaps more emotionally truthful than that of Nightsiders, because Hig and Bangley’s world is one where brutality and savagery are an unavoidable and almost necessary part of their lives; so commonplace is this brutality and savagery that Bangley almost seems to revel in it, at least until the novel’s end. His realisation that there is more to life than just grim survival and an unfeeling heart seems honest and deserved, rather than a facile and out-of-the-blue change of heart, especially when we consider that Hig reciprocates these fraternal feelings and admits to himself that he (emotionally) needs Bangley as much as Bangley needs him.
Unlike much post-apocalyptic fiction, the new television series The Last Man on Earth is a comedy-drama (with the emphasis on the comedy), that tells the story of Phil, the last male survivor of yet another global pandemic, meeting Carol, the last female survivor. As happens in such stories, other characters inevitably show up. However, the emphasis is on exploring the developing relationship between Phil and Carol and the consequences of the fact that, at first, neither really likes the other. Before these two characters met, Phil had descended into slobbish hedonism driven by loneliness, while Carol had held onto various societal rules pertinent to the ‘old world’ in an attempt to keep her sanity. The inevitable clashes between Phil’s newfound ‘let it all hang out’ attitude and Carol’s somewhat uptight lifestyle provide plenty of comic potential, but behind the laughs is a heartfelt story of acceptance and understanding, of embracing difference and adjusting worldviews, of putting aside one’s own selfish interests and desires for the sake of companionship and common humanity. As should be obvious, the potential for an exploration of the different facets of love (both emotional and physical) seems self-evident.
At face value, The Last Man on Earth may sound like The Odd Couple at the End of the World, but in looking at how two people can find friendship and love in the face of adversity and desperation and personality clashes, it holds the promise of exploring themes that apply to everyone. After all, just about each and every one of us has had to deal and interact with people we don’t necessarily get along with or agree with—the crux is, we have to try, and when we try, sometimes we find that these people can become good friends and can open our eyes to a way of life and way of living that we might never have seen before.
(Originally published in Aurealis #85, October 2015)