Entry updated 13 August 2022. Tagged: Theme.
A blanket item of Terminology used in this encyclopedia to deal with stories set in the aftermath of catastrophe, whether the upheaval is a natural Disaster or a human- or Alien-caused Holocaust or an incurable Pandemic. In the longer term, as generations pass and memories of the actual catastrophe fade and blur, post-holocaust settings merge almost seamlessly into the gentler, often rustically stable society of the Ruined Earth.
This is part of a giant cluster of themes which has always played a central role in sf, both Genre SF and Mainstream. It is impossible to dissect out the different aspects of this cluster so that they are mutually exclusive; hence there is some overlap between this entry and Adam and Eve (many sf tales deal with a second genesis after catastrophe), Anthropology (the emphasis is often on tribal patterns forming in a brutalized and diminished population), Evolution and Devolution (evolutionary change has since the eighteenth century been linked with natural catastrophe), Mutants (the use of nuclear weapons is often seen as leading to massive mutation in plants, animals and humans), Optimism and Pessimism and Survivalist Fiction (which is all too often written by men for men, featuring men shooting other men after civilization's convenient collapse). The catastrophe variants are summarized under Disaster; particular aspects of catastrophe are discussed in most of the above entries. Here we concentrate on the many stories whose focus is not so much the disaster itself but the kind of world in which the survivors live, and which they make for themselves.
The aftermath of holocaust may be the most popular theme in sf; this encyclopedia mentions many hundreds of examples at novel length. The subgenre is as old as sf itself: a convenient starting point is Mary Shelley's second sf novel, The Last Man (1826), in which plague crosses Europe from the Middle East, leaving one survivor in Rome who is possibly the Last Man. Natural catastrophe, too, strikes in Herrmann Lang's The Air Battle: A Vision of the Future (1859), in which European civilization is destroyed by flood and earthquake, but a benevolent North-African federation brings peace to the world, Black leading white back to social order.
In mature versions of the post-holocaust story there is usually an emotional resonance developed from a tension between loss and gain, with the simplicities of the new order not wholly compensating for the half-remembered glories and comforts of the past. This is the case with George R Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), and may explain why, despite its occasionally fulsome prose, that novel has attained classic status.
The first two decades of the twentieth century saw no particular boom in the genre, but at least two works are still well remembered: Jack London's The Scarlet Plague (1914) and S Fowler Wright's Deluge (1928), sequelled by Dawn (1929) and filmed as Deluge (1933). In both cases the catastrophe is natural. This was so of most holocaust stories in those days of comparative innocence. Even after World War One, mankind's capacity for self-destruction was seldom seen as efficient enough to operate on a global scale. Other relevant stories of the period are Garrett P Serviss's The Second Deluge (1912), George Allan England's Darkness and Dawn (1914), an unusually optimistic story of reconstruction, J J Connington's Nordenholt's Million (1923) and P Anderson Graham's complexly pessimistic The Collapse of Homo Sapiens (1923), a tale whose "racism" has almost certainly been misread.
Connington's book made much of the reconstruction of Technology; from this point on the relationship of technology to the post-holocaust world, and the often ambiguous feelings of the latter towards it, became prominent. Thomas Calvert McClary's Rebirth: When Everyone Forgot (March 1934 Astounding; rev 1944) is a casually callous account of a Scientist so disgusted by what he self-righteously regards as the decadence of modern civilization that he invents a Ray which causes everyone to forget all acquired knowledge, including how to talk: starting from instinct, the smartest and toughest re-educate themselves in technology in about ten years; most die. Edwin Balmer's and Philip Wylie's When Worlds Collide (September 1932-February 1933 Blue Book; 1933), with its reconstruction sequel After Worlds Collide (November 1933-April 1934 Blue Book; 1934), has a scientific elite escaping a doomed Earth in a giant Rocket and rebuilding on a new planet, at the same time fighting off communists; it was filmed as When Worlds Collide (1951).
An interesting French novel published during World War Two was Ravage (1943; trans Damon Knight as Ashes, Ashes 1967) by René Barjavel, in which the disappearance of electricity turns France rural. Similarly, Fredric Brown's "The Waveries" (January 1945 Astounding) sees human use of electricity blocked by the eponymous electromagnetic-radiation beings, whereupon a rustic idyll ensues.
After the Hiroshima bombing a new period began in which, unsurprisingly, World War Three and the post-holocaust story came to seem less fantastic; it also became more popular, and developed a distinctively apocalyptic atmosphere, a heavy emphasis on a supposed antitechnological bias among the survivors, and a concentration on the results of Nuclear Energy in general and radiation in particular. The mood was darker in that imagined catastrophes were now primarily manmade. Man became pictured as a kind of lemming bent on racial suicide – through nuclear, biological and chemical warfare in stories of the 1940s and 1950s, and through Pollution, Overpopulation and destruction of Earth's ecosphere through Climate Change in many stories since the 1960s.
Among the darker scenarios set after nuclear war are: Judith Merril's Shadow on the Hearth (1950); the minor but pioneering film Captive Women (1952; vt 3000 AD UK; vt 1,000 Years from Now); Wilson Tucker's The Long Loud Silence (1952); Ward Moore's "Lot" (May 1953 F&SF; vt "Panic in Year Zero" in Space Movies: Classic Science Fiction Films, anth 1995, ed Peter Haining) with its sardonic sequel "Lot's Daughter" (October 1954 F&SF), the uncredited bases for Panic in Year Zero! (1962); Day the World Ended (1955); Mordecai Roshwald's Level 7 (1959); Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon (1959), more optimistic than the others about the possibility of re-ordering society; Alfred Coppel's Dark December (1960); and Fritz Leiber's extremely savage "The Night of the Long Knives" (January 1960 Amazing; vt "The Wolf Pair" in The Night of the Wolf, coll 1966). Novels which place a greater emphasis on the kinds of society developed in the relatively short term after the holocaust include: Algis Budrys's False Night (1954; text reinstated and exp, vt Some Will not Die 1961; rev 1978), a very grim book; Brian Aldiss's Greybeard (1964), dealing with life after mass sterility has struck humanity; Edgar Pangborn's The Judgment of Eve (1966) and The Company of Glory (1975); and John Bowen's After the Rain (1958), dealing with the psychology of the survivors of a great flood.
The English disaster novel of this period was dominated by John Wyndham and by John Christopher, both writing several post-holocaust novels. Notable English works whose heroes actually live through the collapse of UK civilization include Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (6 January-3 February 1951 Collier's Weekly; as "Revolt of the Triffids"; 1951; rev 1951; orig version vt Revolt of the Triffids 1952) and John Christopher's The Death of Grass (1956; vt No Blade of Grass 1957), filmed as No Blade of Grass (1970); Robert Merle's Malevil (1972; trans 1974), filmed as Malevil (1981) is a French example.
With the increased publicity given to the so-called counterculture in the late 1960s (reflected in sf by the New Wave), post-holocaust stories of rather a different kind became popular. Hell's-Angels-style motorcycle gangs roam a ruined world in two colourful romances, Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley (1969), badly filmed with many changes as Damnation Alley (1977), and Steve Wilson's The Lost Traveller (1976); the same idea is used more subtly in a grimmer work, Brian W Aldiss's Barefoot in the Head (fixup 1969), as motorcyclists roll through the debris of a Europe half-destroyed by the use of psychedelic Drugs as weapons. J G Ballard's early sf oeuvre is made up largely of holocaust and post-holocaust stories; he has evoked catastrophes of all sorts, manmade and natural, sudden and protracted, and often his protagonists act in psychic collaboration with the forces that threaten humanity's security. Scarred motorways continue to link up the decaying communities of M John Harrison's forceful first novel, The Committed Men (1971), which has something of a Ballardian bleakness but a rather tougher survival mentality in the protagonists. Other notable post-holocaust stories of the late 1960s and the 1970s are "The Snows are Melted, the Snows are Gone" (November 1969 Venture) by James Tiptree Jr, The End of the Dream (1972) by Philip Wylie – returning to a theme he first worked with 40 years earlier – Winter's Children (1974) by Michael Coney, Earthwreck! (1974) by Thomas N Scortia, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (fixup 1976) by Kate Wilhelm and The Stand (cut 1978, text largely restored and rev 1990) by Stephen King – which polarizes the remnants of a plague-stricken USA into followers of theological good and evil.
The 1960s, and more prolifically the 1970s, saw many variations on the post-holocaust theme in the Cinema aside from those already mentioned, including On the Beach (1959), The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), The Day of the Triffids (1963), L' Ultimo Uomo della Terra (1964; vt The Last Man on Earth); Konec Srpna V Hotelu Ozón (1966; vt The End of August at the Hotel Ozone), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Bed-Sitting Room (1969), Gas-S-S-S (1970), Glen and Randa (1970), The Omega Man (1971), Nippon Chinbotsu (1973; vt The Submersion of Japan; vt Tidal Wave), The Ultimate Warrior (1975), Jubilee (1978), Quintet (1979) and Mad Max (1979); UK television took up the idea with Survivors (1975-1977). The success of Mad Max not only produced two sequels but began a whole cycle of post-holocaust colourful-barbarian action thriller films that continued right through the 1980s, including 1990: I Guerrieri del Bronx (1982; vt Bronx Warriors) and City Limits (1984). In fact the 1980s was a period in which the post-holocaust venue became primarily used as a conveniently barbaric backdrop for feats of romantic adventure and, perhaps more worryingly, for the macho acts of rapine and savagery that characterize Survivalist Fiction, which became very popular at this time. Although the post-holocaust genre remained popular in the 1980s film industry, and produced a strange variety of films, it produced no great ones, perhaps the most telling being George A Romero's Day of the Dead (1985). Others were Fukkatsu no Hi (1980; vt Virus), Memoirs of a Survivor (1981), Red Dawn (1984), Night of the Comet (1984), The Quiet Earth (1985), Slipstream (1989) and Hardware (1990).
Earlier, post-holocaust venues had by the 1970s become popular in Children's SF, a particularly good book being Z for Zachariah (1975) by Robert C O'Brien. Too often, however, such books were designed to teach moral lessons of the currently approved kind, often simplistically; the typical holocaust of 1980s children's books features ecological spoliation brought about by evil capitalists, one of the livelier examples being Scatterlings (1991) by Isobelle Carmody.
An instance of post-holocaust poetry is "The Horses" (in One Foot in Eden, coll 1956 chap) by Edwin Muir, which begins: "Barely a twelvemonth after / The seven days that put the world to sleep ..." James Thurber's The Last Flower: A Parable in Pictures (graph 1939) is a moving sequence of captionless drawings.
While many post-holocaust scenarios in films (and in Comics, where they became extremely popular) tended to trivialize the subgenre – the Television series Woops! (1996) attempts to deal with it as comedy – it remained an important and still very popular element in serious sf in book form. Notable single novels from the 1980s and since include Voices in Time (1980) by Hugh MacLennan, In the Drift (fixup 1984) by Michael Swanwick, This Is the Way the World Ends (1986) by James Morrow, with its unforgettable depiction of nuclear World War Three, The Sea and Summer (1987; vt Drowning Towers 1988) by George Turner, The Wall around Eden (1989) by Joan Slonczewski, and Bone Dance: A Fantasy for Technophiles (1991) by Emma Bull. Perhaps the most powerful representation of short-term post-catastrophe horror so far to appear in the twenty-first century is Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006), filmed as The Road (2009).
Further works of importance – such as Walter M Miller Jr's A Canticle for Leibowitz (April 1955-February 1957 F&SF; fixup dated 1960 but 1959) and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (1980) – take place long enough after the cataclysm to displace their subgenre from post-holocaust to Ruined Earth (which see).
Life after the Holocaust is a theme that reliably continues to grip the imagination. The idea of destroying our crowded, bureaucratic world and then rebuilding afresh offers a dangerously exciting psychic freedom. [PN/JC/DRL]
- Paul Brians. Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1895-1984 (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1987) [nonfiction: pp114-121: hb/Eric Donelan]
- David Dowling. Fictions of Nuclear Disaster (Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1987) [nonfiction: hb/from Albrecht Dürer]
- Carl B Yoke, editor. Phoenix from the Ashes: The Literature of the Remade World (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1987) [nonfiction: anth: hb/nonpictorial]
- Andrew Tate. Apocalyptic Fiction (London: Bloomsbury, 2017) [nonfiction: academic citing protocols governing the bibliography render that aspect of study unuseful: hb/Alice Marwick]
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