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Post-Apocalyptic Literature: Definition & Books

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Video games, movies, television--post-apocalyptic literature is right under our noses, and you might not have even realized it! Before you start prepping the bunker, you'll want to check out this lesson, where you'll learn more about this often worriedly realistic genre and get to explore some post-apocalyptic scenarios!

After the Unveiling: Post-Apocalyptic Literature Defined

What do we do when the people, places, comforts - the entire world we know - are gone? If you've survived long enough to ask this question, then you're now living in a post-apocalyptic world. But if you'd like to survey the depths of that question in the present world, there's always post-apocalyptic literature, which is any narrative designed to explore the opportunity for human survival following an apocalypse.

But what exactly is an apocalypse? Nowadays, we typically think of an apocalypse as a worldwide disaster that can dramatically affect civilization, like war, famine, plague (natural or bioengineered), natural disasters, and nuclear fallout. These scenarios qualify as apocalypses today because they signify to us the very real possibility that life as we know it could end.

In the case of the post-apocalypse, the cataclysmic, civilization-altering event has already ended. However, some post-apocalyptic literature features scenes from during the apocalypse.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima (seen above) and Nagasaki made people face the reality of devastation at human hands, which greatly led to the interest in literature on the subject.
Photo of atmoic blast at Hiroshima

Characteristics

According to Sue Schopf, a Harvard scholar on the genre, post-apocalyptic literature must then ask three important questions:

I) What could have been done to prevent the apocalypse? Answering this question could very well help us avoid future catastrophes.

II) What steps will humans have to take in order to reorganize and to rebuild? This question's not only the path to re-establishing civilization, but also the means to access common everyday necessities (i.e. food, potable water, electricity, etc.).

III) What does the entire experience teach us about humanity? How do we react in moments of extreme distress, and in those moments, what human values are most important to us?

Examples of Post-Apocalyptic Literature

To get an idea of the many different ways in which the genre seeks to answer these questions, let's take a look at some examples of post-apocalyptic literature.

Earth Abides

With World War II barely behind him and the Cold War looming straight ahead, George R. Stewart had every reason to imagine that the world could easily meet its end. And that's exactly what he did when he published the science fiction novel Earth Abides in 1949. Only, instead of nuclear annihilation, it is a mysterious disease that wipes out a resounding majority of the human population. The book follows the survivors for several generations, watching as they must eventually begin to rebuild humanity from its days of hunting and gathering. Any connection to the pre-apocalyptic world and its culture has been lost, and the younger generations have even started to revere 'The Americans' as gods. This sort of mythologizing of events and people prior to the cataclysm is common in post-apocalyptic literature.

Many works in the post-apocalyptic genre, like this one by Stewart, have been classified as science fiction due to their speculative stances on future technology and theoretical scientific phenomena.
Cover of the novel Earth Abides

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