The Apocalypse Problem

There are many reasons why I wrote The Last Man on Earth Club rather than just spend the time drinking, but one of the main ones was to try and solve the basic problem of apocalypse stories:

They’re boring.

Well, not always, of course, but there’s a fundamental built-in structural problem when telling a story about the end of the world: it tends to end. And it gets a bit dull after that.

Robert Rankin’s alien TV executives in Armageddon: The Musical noticed the same thing: after winning enormous viewing figures for their TV show about humans by manipulating them into a nuclear war, their show turned into a very grim soap opera about grubby people surviving in mouldy bunkers. Very tedious, until Elvis Presley shows up for no easily explainable reason (it’s just that kind of book, and represents one very comical way of solving the problem of apocalypse narratives).

Most of the narrative tension in an apocalypse story is resolved by the apocalypse itself. All too many of these stories deflate once the big bang goes off. Woe betide you if your story starts with an apocalypse: chances are no-one will care what happens next. It’s insanely difficult to have a small character drama follow on from the kind of pyrotechnics the end of the world usually entails. The change of subject is just too much for most stories. The best thing to do is to start after the apocalypse – as in The Road – and deal with it only in flashback (if that).

Mind you, it does work sometimes. Threads – which you must absolutely watch if you haven’t already – is an absolutely devastating story about the effects of nuclear war, and will leave you in a state of suicidal depression if you watch it in the wrong frame of mind (I’m really selling it well, aren’t I?) It takes you through the buildup, the war, and then the aftermath – just what I’m saying you shouldn’t do. Threads gets away with it because of the meticulous documentary-style approach which reveals the details of what happens after a nuclear war, and then uses that to show the slow deterioration of the survivors and their society. The final moment is more terrifying than anything that happens during the war, and that’s the key: the horror actually builds after the nuclear holocaust. This is no mean trick, and not one I could use without the same kind of documentary approach.

I wanted to tell a story about apocalypses, but without the attendant deterioration of the story after things go bang. The temptation to use the tension and excitement that comes before the apocalypse is intense, but I chose to step back instead. My idea (for what it’s worth) is that apocalypses would be interesting to see as a problem from the outside, from the people who are charged with picking up the pieces and saving as many as they can. This makes no sense, of course, unless you have worlds outside the one threatened by apocalypse, so it has to be a story set in a multiverse. Which really means that there’s no true apocalypse in the story: the entire ‘world’ in which it’s set will not be destroyed. The opportunity to have your world evacuated if an asteroid strike threatens might sound like a devaluing of the narrative impact of the oncoming apocalypse – until you consider that evacuating billions of people is not an easy task, and creates all kinds of room for interesting stories by itself. And, of course, many of the characters in the novel have lived through situations where such help came all too late, which is why they became the last survivor of their world.

Anyway. I think I’ve rambled on enough for the moment. Time to go to work and earn my subsistence.

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