I want to ask what may be a stupid question: Why does post-apocalyptic fiction have such a strong appeal? For some people, this might be because the genre is explicitly concerned with the destruction of the “old world” and the birth of a “new world” that is usually less regulated, urbanised and interdependent, something that science-fiction writer and critic Gary K. Wolfe calls “the fantasy of civilisation reduced to a simpler level, with room left for heroic quests and individual action”. For other people, post-apocalyptic fiction’s appeal may lie in its similarities to the western, as the themes of individualism, survivalism and life on the frontier that are integral to both genres also played a strong part in shaping our post-colonial world. For still others, its appeal may lie in its themes of man versus wild, or in its often-gleeful descriptions of the inventive ways that the world might be destroyed, or in its ability to act as a framework to critically, subversively and/or satirically examine the world around us. For me, part of the genre’s appeal is found in the almost misanthropic frisson that comes from reading about a humbled humanity.
Nowhere is this better seen than in what I call Empty World fiction, a sub-genre that (in less politically correct terms) is better known as ‘Last Man on Earth fiction’.
This is because the apocalypse at the heart of Empty World fiction is often biological and/or viral in origin, rather than environmental and/or militaristic – in most cases, the cities and towns of Empty World fiction are recognisably the same as their real-life counterparts, the only difference being the absence of people.
In contrast, most post-apocalyptic fiction shows us the destruction of both civilisation and its markers: cities are flattened, humanity’s monuments and marvels are toppled and razed, untold numbers of people are killed, and the survivors are left to scuttle in the ruins. In most post-apocalyptic fiction, we are shown civilisation’s grave; in Empty World fiction, we are shown civilisation frozen in time and put on display as if it were in a museum.
The difference might seem small, but it has enormous implications. Instead of having to adapt to a radically altered environment (be it a returned wilderness or a ruined city), the typical protagonist of Empty World fiction finds him/herself in a familiar world of office buildings and skyscrapers and sprawling suburbs and white-picket fences. Instead of having to hunt for food or fight for survival, said protagonist is faced with an abundance of canned and packaged food courtesy of our 21st-century way of life, and the only things he/she has to fight are monotony, boredom and loneliness.
Instead of having to make-do with whatever worn or ravaged or weathered or ruined materials are at hand, he/she finds that they are suddenly in a position to acquire whatever they desire, the empty cities acting as smorgasbords of material possessions.
In light of this, it should come as no surprise that most Empty World fiction is psychologically-oriented rather than action-oriented.
For those with a pre-existing interest in the genre, the sight of actor Bruno Lawrence slowly losing his mind thanks to loneliness is one that you will probably never forget (as seen in the 1985 film The Quiet Earth), and is one of the best cinematic portrayals of the types of fertile psychological landscapes that Empty World fiction explores. He staggers through an empty city, playing saxophone badly, oblivious to his surroundings; he shoots pool with himself, acting out two competing personalities; he assembles a crowd of cardboard cut-outs (each a notable 20th-century figure) and proceeds to lecture them hysterically, to the accompaniment of tape-recorded applause and cheering. In short, we see a man, with all the material things in life he could desire, lose his humanity because immaterial aspects of life such as company, companionship, society and routine have suddenly vanished.
Depictions like this are what fuel the frisson of misanthropy that we feel, for what we are seeing is an engagement with the positioning of the material and immaterial aspects of life as binary oppositions, a positioning that is a fundamental part of Western society.
In this way, by emphasising our need for the immaterial over the material, Empty World fiction is criticising both the consumerist nature of our modern world and a line of Western thought that demands adherence to the strictly rational and material: By stranding their protagonists in just such a rational and material world and charting their subsequent psychological disintegration, writers of Empty World fiction are able to show us how lonely and purposeless people can be when they have everything they want except someone to share it with. Again, we see this in the protagonist of The Quiet Earth, who is humbled and broken because he has too much of one aspect (the material) and none of the other (the immaterial).
There are a few problems inherent in basing a narrative around such a figure, however – a detailed depiction of a lone character’s psychological disintegration is presumably difficult for an author to sustain, is definitely somewhat grueling to read, and is necessarily devoid of character-based interaction and conflict.
This last problem is probably the most important, for character-based interaction and conflict are cornerstones of Western literature. So important are they to Western literature that most writers of Empty World fiction eventually fall prey to their pernicious influence: For the most part, the third acts of Empty World narratives inevitably herald the arrival of new characters. More often than not, two new characters will be introduced – a man and a woman – and the establishment of a love-triangle and an exploration of its consequences come to dominate the narrative. What was once introspective, humbling, thoughtful and psychologically “heavy” all too often becomes something trite and predictable, an unfortunate occurrence that I believe shows just how much an author can underestimate a reader’s ability to continually engage with such weighty themes. However, the opposite can also be true – for some authors, a detailed depiction of a lone character’s psychological disintegration seems to give them license to abandon almost every kind of action within the narrative. Texts likes this read more like free-flowing philosophical treatise, their protagonists existing in louche and dissolute worlds where existence seems to consist solely of sitting by a pool or by the ocean, staring into space and lost in thought. Most works of Empty World fiction fall into one of these two categories. This isn’t to say that they aren’t worth reading or watching, only that they are burdened by their very nature as works that “go against the grain”.
However, certain works of Empty World fiction manage to balance a detailed depiction of a lone character’s psychological disintegration with enough action to allow some kind of narrative and character development, all the while avoiding the introduction of other characters. An odd example of this (although it deviates from the rules a little) is Paul Hardy’s Last Man on Earth Club, which tells the story of a “multiverse” in which one particular “version” of Earth monitors all the other “versions”, stepping in and evacuating citizens whenever any one of these “Earths” succumbs to the apocalypse. These multi-versal search-and-rescue missions aren’t always entirely successful, and The Last Man on Earth Club’s narrative is centered on a support group created to help rehabilitate a number of different “Last Man/Woman on Earth” (the only survivors of the destruction of their respective worlds), and is told in both real-time and flashback, the former consisting of the story of the support group and the latter consisting of each survivors story of being the last man/woman on Earth. Hardy manages to have his cake and eat it too, and not only in his successful combination of sole-character action and multi-character action, for his novel is deeply thought-provoking and heavily invested in promoting the importance of the immaterial aspects of life, while the interaction and conflict between characters underlines how integral these themes are, rather than acting as the catalyst for yet another clichéd love triangle.
More “pure” examples of works of Empty World fiction that manage to balance a detailed depiction of a lone character’s psychological disintegration with enough action to allow some kind of narrative and character development can be found in Thomas Glavinic’s Night Work and the film The Noah (1975). The former concerns a man who awakens one day to find that the city he lives in is suddenly devoid of people, an event that has left no bodies behind or physical evidence of its occurrence; the latter concerns a soldier who washes up on a deserted island after World War III has destroyed the rest of civilisation.
Both works are surprisingly action-oriented, not only in the details of how their protagonists “exist” in the real world (finding food, making shelter, keeping themselves entertained, etc.), but also in how their psychological states impinge upon their physical states (whereby both protagonists sometimes literally embody what they are feeling).
As well, both works explore the connections between the protagonists’ actions and emotions, especially in regard to actions that are only really a part of “the world that was” (marching in a military manner, facing forwards in an elevator, locking doors, hiding objects, insisting on privacy, the list is endless). Both works are also incredibly moving, and are even sometimes quite harrowing in the depiction of the disconnect, mental breakdowns, and psychological disintegrations their protagonists experience.
And, while both works may at times be grueling, they never get lost under the weight of their own ideas or take off on digressive flights of fancy. Instead, while not exactly being “page turners”, they nonetheless hold our interest both narratively and thematically, and successfully and intelligently show us a different way of looking at the world, one that humbles us by highlighting the importance of community, social activity, connectivity, love and companionship.
(Originally published on AurealisXpress, 6/5/2014)