Wandering Through the Wastelands: The Enduring Appeal of the Post-Apocalyptic Novel

I wrote a bit about dystopian fiction before, highlighting Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in particular. Dystopia is different from post-apocalyptic fiction, though it’s kind of easy to confuse the two. Both subgenres involve a world that is, one way or another, broken, and people who strive to live in that world. Dystopia, however, focuses on the corrupted society in which the heroes move in. It’s the opposite of the utopia, which was first discussed in detail by Sir Thomas More in his book Utopia.

Post-apocalyptic fiction is as prevalent as dystopian fiction today, and the fascination for the post-apocalyptic novel can easily be tied to the fascination for dystopia. A lot of books today are post-apocalyptic, from zombie novels like Max Brooks’s World War Z (this is an example used loosely, however), to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Dmitri Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and Walter Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Liebowitz. Even in video games, the post-apocalyptic setting is strong. The Fallout series – with its most recent releases, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas – is set in post-war America. The television crowd has The Walking Dead, which is of course also a graphic novel series. Regardless of the medium, the post-apocalyptic setting is an interesting one, and the enduring appeal of it is something to be studied, especially if one wants to set a story in that kind of setting.

There are a few reasons why the post-apocalyptic setting is appealing:

  • Emphasis on the individual. Of course, it’s worth noting that in post-apocalyptic texts like Metro 2033 and Fallout 3, there are societies that exist within the wasteland. However, they are pocket-sized societies – and quite literally in Fallout 3 many of the societies live independently of each other and pocketed in underground vaults – and often people in wastelands survive by trying to go alone. There is strength in numbers, sure, but the post-apocalyptic setting attempts to explore the behavior of the individual against a world in which order has fallen and society remains tattered.
  • What-if scenarios. Dystopia explores what could happen if the body that controls society runs foul. Post-apocalypse explores what could happen if the world is run to the ground and people are generally left off to fend for themselves. In the post-apocalyptic setting, there are mutants and monsters, beings that have been brought about by, say, nuclear fallout or intense radiation. The post-apocalyptic setting doesn’t aim to be realistic, but it paints a picture of the dangers of a world where the individual has to deal with the unreal horrors of the aftermath of something that wipes out most of the world. “Survival of the fittest” is key.
  • The chance to reconstruct. The post-apocalyptic setting ensures a wipe-out of the previous social structure and the previous ruler-ruled dynamics that existed prior to the apocalypse, and therefore this gives the remaining people a chance to pick up the pieces and start over. This means attempting to right the mistakes done before. This means being someone when before you were no one. It’s a reinvention, and a start of something new, despite how bleak the post-apocalyptic world may seem. There’s still a ray of hope.
  • It’s exciting. And let’s face it – the post-apocalyptic setting will always be appealing and relevant, because the world’s societies are almost always on the verge of a complete wipeout. Looking at speculations of what a fallen world could be is exciting as much as it is terrifying, but the post-apocalyptic world plays a lot with the imagination and fuels the creative juices very effectively. In the post-apocalyptic setting, you have a familiar landscape, but it’s been obliterated and all that’s left is debris. The possibilities are endless and scary, and of course, one will be rooting for the hero or the heroine, who picks through the debris-laden landscape in an attempt to recreate the dead world – or build a new one.


Jillian is an English Literature graduate who loves reading science fiction and fantasy, and is a big fan of J.G. Ballard. She is obsessed with coffee, video games, and rottweilers, and keeps herself busy by writing and walking around a lot. She's currently reading Jeanette Winterson and a lot of YA literature.

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