Naturalistic Post-Apocalypse Worldbuilding
January 7, 2013 4:25 PM   Subscribe

What elements are needed to write a frighteningly plausible post-apocalyptic story?

I'm working on a PA novel. One thing that is hanging me up is the general implausibility of most PA stories. Even the really good ones tend to rely on some kind of Big Obvious Thing, like atomic destruction, mega tsunamis, zombies or alien invasion.

These ideas are cool but I'm looking for something a bit more subtle, or more grounded in naturalism. It occurs to me the the 14th century black plague was maybe the closest humanity ever got to this kind of thing. That intrigues me.

I also thought the BBC's Survivors show was quite good (the 2008 version, haven't seen the 70s one), as an example. Likewise I recently enjoyed the WOOL series, though it tends to be a bit too Big Ideas for what I'm after. And Cormac McCarthy's The Road was brilliantly bleak, but he intentionally ignored the worldbuilding to keep it from distracting his father-son story, so...

Okay enough meandering, here are some more specific questions:
1. Is there gold standard of PA fic I should know about?

2. What elements in a PA story would make it rise above a sea of pretenders? (not talking about character dev/good plotting...I'm thinking more about milieu, back-story and general plausibility issues)

3. Are there any good narrative histories/analyses about the Plage/Black Death that could inform a good PA story?

3b. The little I do know about the era of the Black Death is that it played a big role in cultural and especially religious thought. Are there any books that explore that specifically? Is there anything I could read to get a better understanding of how watershed events in general shape cultures, especially religious/tribal attitudes?

Bonus question: historical analyses/insight on how cults and religious societies form
posted by Doleful Creature to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Small details, not big ones. In "The Road," we learn that there was a flash of light - something happened - and then the main character started filling up the bathtub with water.

Gave me chills.
posted by entropone at 4:31 PM on January 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

It's a bit dated now, but I would consider the gold standard to be Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank, circa 1959. It had a number of things most folks wouldn't consider, such as:
On the ninth day after The Day, Lavinia McGovern died. This, too, had been inevitable ever since the lights went out and the refrigeration ceased. Since Lavinia McGovern suffered from diabetes, insulin had kept her alive. Without refrigeration, insulin deteriorated rapidly. Not only Lavinia, but all diabetics in Fort Repose, dependent on insulin, died at about the same period as the drug lost its potency.
Stephen King's The Stand, minus the supernatural elements, had a number of chilling bits. More recently, Peter Heller's The Dog Stars was set further along after An Event.
posted by adipocere at 4:40 PM on January 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

John Christopher's No Blade of Grass posits a disease that wipes out - grass. I think what works best in PA stuff is when the details follow through logically from the initial condition set by the writer. Whatever happens -- plague, environmental collapse, alien invasion -- everything that follows has to be as logically thought out as possible.

I suppose the best thing to do would be read as many PA books as you can, and see which ones grab you... then analyze why they grabbed you, and how.

Alas Babylon is a really good book -- another one is Philip Wylie's Triumph.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 4:44 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

re 3b, Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt explores the idea that the black plague wiped out 99% of the european population in the middle ages and the subsequent world culture for the next several millennia was driven by eastern, non-european cultures. KSR isn't for everybody and it isn't really post-apocalyptic, though.
posted by par court at 4:45 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Connie Willis' Doomsday Book (fictional novel) deals with time travel and the Black Death in the past and a virulent strain of influenza in the "future" (probably a bit dated by now).
posted by foxfirefey at 4:58 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Great Mortality by John Kelly is a history of the Black Death that was pretty interesting; perhaps it might help with thinking about both the big picture and the details. IIRC, he discusses how the plague moved from place to place, and how fast, among other things.
posted by Janta at 5:23 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

For me, the gold standard apolcalypse is the 1918 influenza pandemic, with a little bit higher mortality - say 35% rather than 20%. It's just so horribly plausible the more you look and read.
posted by cromagnon at 5:30 PM on January 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

For me, the gold standard apolcalypse is the 1918 influenza pandemic, with a little bit higher mortality - say 35% rather than 20%. It's just so horribly plausible the more you look and read.

Whenever the bioweapon wargames get played out, the real problems are in SE Asia and the Indian subcontinent due to the density of population.

The recent boom in population density and low levels of health provision there generally creates a pandemic with so much cross-infection that medical services are frequently rated as inoperable. Nightmare scenario is airborne/touch transmitted disease with a slow onset. Once it really gets going, it isn't hard to get up to half a billion in a random scenario run.
posted by jaduncan at 6:14 PM on January 7, 2013

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood might provide you with inspiration. (I think TYOTF is the better of the two, and if you're only going to read one, it should be that one.) They both take place at about the same time but are told from the point of view of different characters, in the same near future world that looks a whole lot like ours. The precipitating event in each book is the "waterless flood" (human engineered plague) long predicted and prepared for by the hippie religious group God's Gardeners. The world Atwood writes about is corrupt, corporatized, militarized, and environmentally damaged. Sound familiar?

When commenting on her dystopian novels, Atwood insists that the details she includes are things that are not only possible in today's world, but that in many cases they are already happening somewhere on the planet. I think this helps with the realism--when I read O&C and TYOTF, what struck me was just how plausible the storylines were, because I could think of so many examples where what is going on in the novel is so similar to something happening right now.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:26 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

My personal fave is Lucifer's Hammer. A comet does the world in, and the aftermath is fantastic. And World War Z, of course.
posted by tatiana131 at 7:05 PM on January 7, 2013

If you've never seen the french film "Time of the Wolf", you should check it out. It's a very, very plausible PA scenario. One day, the power just goes out... then the trains carrying food to this town in the french countryside become less and less frequent. By the time the beginning of the film picks up, the residents of this one small town are huddled together for warmth and descending into barbarism as they wait for the next train.
posted by Oktober at 7:11 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well here's a plausible idea: as global warming occurs (and at this point, there is no doubt about whether or not the Earth is getting warmer; the debate is more about how much humans are contributing to it and what, if anything, we should do about it), disease-bearing insects will migrate north as the areas they can survive in move north. They'll bring diseases to areas where people don't have immunity and aren't equipped to deal with them. Imagine half of the southern US gets malaria, for example. Society would be crippled. This is a fairly minor but very possible future.

The other thing you should consider, and I've already touched on this, is what the planet will look like at the time you're writing your novel. How far into the future are we, and what else has happened to the planet? At the current trend of climate change, in a PA world set a few hundred years or so from now, the eastern shore of the US could have eroded sufficiently that some coastal roads have collapsed into the ocean. A combination of the Mississippi delta's natural movement and periodic bad hurricanes will doubtlessly have sunk New Orleans. Etc. I don't have any specific sites that would model this, but it's definitely something to consider. It will affect how your characters survive, how they eat, where they live, etc.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:42 PM on January 7, 2013

Surely A Canticle for Liebowitz...?

Larry Niven wrote a short story about that "flash of light" moment called Inconstant Moon. It's a different idea for a triggering event that you might find interesting. Not subtle, exactly.

There was a BBC series called Threads. I've never seen it but I know it's spoken of highly.
posted by adamrice at 8:22 PM on January 7, 2013

My favorite post-apocalyptic novel is Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, and I love it precisely because it has no single precipitating event. A little extra power given to the president here, a recession and a spell of unemployment there, bit of persistent environmental destruction, and bang, all of a sudden everyone's living in walled colonies in a burnt-out United States, protecting themselves from bands of pyromaniac drug addicts. It's plausible because it presents dystopia as an only slightly exaggerated versions of certain conditions in the US as they currently stand. (Climate change, decay of urban infrastructures, tighter surveillance state, etc.) My only wish is that Butler hadn't put an exact date on the book; its' supposedly set in 2024, but it's more effective for me to think of it as a more general sometime-in-the-not-so-distant future.
posted by ActionPopulated at 9:17 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I recommend you read Earth Abides. Lots of stuff in the opening chapters about the rodent/pest populations exploding due to all the dead bodies, then quickly dying out themselves. One part I particularly remember is the narrator reflecting on what he discovers is millions upon millions of rotting ants, their food sources completely obliterated.

Lots of sad stuff about animals too :-(. My personal resolution in the event of a big apocalypse, and I'm the only guy left, is to go around and release as many animals from houses, farms, zoos etc. as I possibly can before I die on my feet.
posted by turgid dahlia 2 at 9:40 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

1. Is there gold standard of PA fic I should know about?

They're innumerable:
TV Tropes

I mean, Terminator movies, Barefoot Gen, The Mailman (book), Mad Max, YKK (recommended), much of Phillip K Dick, Ballard, Castle in The Sky, and the Matrix are all post-apocalyptic.

And rather different.

Whatever happens -- plague, environmental collapse, alien invasion -- everything that follows has to be as logically thought out as possible.

Consider any system: Just-in-Time Production methods, paper, climate, boys, girls, race, class structure, finance, herpetology and ask what happens when it goes off the rails. Or ripple effects: the zombie outbreak means power distribution has gone down.

I'd suggest two boxes of index cards:

A box of systems that could go down, resulting in threats or scarcities.

And a box of possible conflicts/plots: missing parents, love story, growing up, exploration, in/human-like predators, search for personal meaning, rebooting, coming out, etc.

What elements in a PA story would make it rise above a sea of pretenders? ... I'm thinking more about milieu, back-story and general plausibility issues

I'd ignore plausibility, and instead think long and hard about logical consequences. Including small ones, like "where does the protagonist/society get welding tanks/menstrual pads/white truffles/an elvis costume/wedding dress", or the way the tiny issues that consume the protagonist may trump the big story or setting.

Consider unlikely bedfellows. Any hack sf writer can knock together a book where the commies/libertarians menace the protagonist. When they're forced to buddy up, or humans and aliens have to buddy up, it's much more interesting.

Bonus question: historical analyses/insight on how cults and religious societies form
Cults and religious societies thrive when people are stressed out. They offer different forms of support to people and fulfill fundamental needs. Physical shelter, personal security, absence of a random scarcity, education, community, food, eschatology, sex, etc.

3. Are there any good narrative histories/analyses about the Plage/Black Death that could inform a good PA story?
I'd read Wolf Hall and then some Barbara Hambly, just to realize that medieval folk could be really sophisticated in various spheres of their lives.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:57 PM on January 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

I haven't read either book to say for sure, but the plot rundowns I've read of "Soft Apocalypse" and "Life As We Knew It" sound to me like they're about what you're looking for.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:02 PM on January 7, 2013

2nding Earth Abides (which I learned about here a few years ago). The scariest part for me was the first PA generation's disinclination for schooling and the resulting loss of the ability to read. Yet all the libraries were still intact.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 1:28 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Two things that really shit me about most PA novels, all related to health:

1. The lifesaving presence of antibiotics, and really great antiseptics. Hardly anyone is cutting their finger and dying in PA books.

I mean, there's a reason so many nephews etc inherited vast estates in Victorian and earlier novels: Everyone else was dead. Also, noteworthy in those books is how much people freak out when someone gets a cold, or flu, or breaks a leg etc. That's cause it killed tonnes of people.

2. The horrible, pandemic, effects of existing diseases without modern medicine. Typhus, Cholera, etc. Holy shit, people have no idea the thin wafer of security humanity rests on - an historical anomoly.

3. Infant mortality and malnutrition in general.
posted by smoke at 2:57 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

One of the things you don't mention in your post is when do you want to set your novel in relation to the apocalypse? My gold standard post-apocalypse novel is Riddley Walker by Rusell Hoban but its nuclear apocalypse occurs off page centuries previously and instead the book is concerned with the new society that has arisen. In contrast, The Road takes not long after the apocalypse when its immediate effects are still being felt. And then there is a novel like Brother In The Land by Robert Swindells which actually takes the reader through the apocalypse. So how important is the apocalypse itself to you? Or, to put it another way, do you want to build a world changing or a world that has changed?

My personal preference is for the latter because in the former the writer tends to have to deal with the same basic issues of immediate survival. I think this gives you more of a chance to achieve the goal of your second question by giving you greater scope to concentrate on the new society. Riddley Walker actually goes beyond this and rises above the crowd by the fact that not only has society changed but English itself has evolved.

If, however, you are interested in the change itself (and specifically a naturalistic change), you might be interested in books that are less blunt, brutal apocalypses and more incremental collapses. Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh is mentioned above and that is a good example of the world ending not with a bang but a whimper. (See also Steve Amsterdam's uneven but fascinating Things We Didn't See Coming.)
posted by ninebelow at 8:10 AM on January 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thanks all for the great responses! You've given me lots of stuff to think about and look into.
You make good point, ninebelow. I want to invest a lot of time and effort into this and will likely end up writing several different stories along several points in the timeline.

But the first story is intended to occur at a point far enough past the Event that a religious/cult/survivor community has been well established with its own traditions that were shaped by the Event. So maybe, 20 to 60 years later? Is that long enough? Too long?

I'm definitely interested in the change itself as well, though I may not write that story first.
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:30 AM on January 8, 2013

But the first story is intended to occur at a point far enough past the Event that a religious/cult/survivor community has been well established with its own traditions that were shaped by the Event. So maybe, 20 to 60 years later? Is that long enough? Too long?

Either one works. It will just be a different story.

Your questions suggest that you've not read broadly in science fiction. Most post-apocalyptic fiction is sci-fi, although much of it is written by mainstream authors.

If you're not familiar with sci-fi, you may want to be get more of a sense of the genre you're working in:

I'd suggest you pick up a bunch of short stories by award-winning contemporary authors to get a feeling for what people are doing right now, along with a handful of older post-apocalyptic works, to get a sense of where the clich├ęs are. Make sure to read some Ursula K. Le Guin, Butler, Ballard, Dick, Delany, Wolfe, and Tiptree to ensure you're not only reading stuff that's reinforcing traditional values.

I don't know if there's a lot of room for a generic PA story right now, discovering-a-ruined-earth wise, amongst sophisticated readers - the generic was mined out fifty years ago. (Realize that your first fifty ideas have already been done as sci-fi "Ooh, there will be wild dogs, and a cult, and they're keepers of the flame/library/pharmacy"), and that your current one was done as well, but that's ok as long as you do it well.) But non-generic is fine; there's still room for a-closeted-jew/redhead/replicant-running-a-private-detective-agency/hardscrabble-soccer-team/library on-a-ruined-earth.


The Foxfire magazines will be handy for notes on day-to-day living.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:25 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm sure I haven't read nearly enough, but I do read sci-fi and have read some works of Wolfe, Atwood, Dick (including Castle in the Sky), Matheson, well as loads of short stories so I'm familiar with the conventions and realize that this has all been done a million times. Hence the question. I've also played Wasteland and all the Fallout games and am aware of the cliches.

Makes sense about generic PA. I want to be very specific both in a regional and cultural sense, and don't want to re-tread the whole "we did it to ourselves!" trope or anything like that. Actually I'm realizing that Dick is probably a big influence and motivator already and it's the spirit of his stories that I really want to work towards.

"Ooh, there will be wild dogs, and a cult, and they're keepers of the flame/library/pharmacy"

Definitely not so cartoonish as that. Maybe cult was the wrong word. I don't really want readers to see an obvious cult thing going on (even though that's exactly what it may be).

There needs to be a subtle insidiousness and a moral ambiguity to it all the comes in part from the catastrophe itself but even more so from the climate/culture/heritage of these particular survivors.
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:42 AM on January 8, 2013

So maybe, 20 to 60 years later? Is that long enough? Too long?

Personally, I'd say that was on the short side. You'd definitely want everyone (or at least virtually everyone) who was alive pre-apocalypse to have died so that history could be forgotten and take on the aspect of folklore or myth.

As a comparison, Riddley Walker is set about 2,000 years in the future and A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr is a classic novel about the development of a post-apocalypse religious community and that begins 600 years in the future before jumping another 600.

But obvious there is no right or wrong answer here. sebastienbailard is right that a lot of ground has been covered but also that there is always room for a fresh take. Good luck!
posted by ninebelow at 5:41 AM on January 9, 2013

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