Whoops, the world ended while we weren’t looking. Guess that means it’s time to don leather and recycled sports equipment, then cruise the sands looking for easy targets to raid. But is that really how it would go down? Join us for a discussion of the post-apocalyptic genre. We discuss the genre’s strengths, its weaknesses, and how it’s been used in the past. Plus, is anyone out there not tired of zombies yet?
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Black Summer (not in the Walking Dead Universe, but in the Z Nation universe)
Generously transcribed by Darian. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.[intro music]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. This is Chris, and with me is…
Chris: And returning special guest,
Chris: So I’m afraid that the previous podcast has been completely destroyed. Annihilated. Many hosts were lost, to the point where we can’t even remember them, and now we’re just trying to pick up the pieces while dodging the zombies that were made from the previous hosts. It’s really bad.
Oren: I guess hosts being zombified does make sense. [laughter] Maybe we could cobble together an Internet out of, like, phone cord and a microwave.
Johnathan: What if we all stayed on opposite sides of a wall and just tied notes to rocks and threw them over the wall at each other? And that’s kind of like the Internet. At least a messaging service.
Oren: Yeah, very similar. Okay. Sounds good. Functionality replaced!
Chris: So we’re gonna talk about post-apocalyptic stories, obviously. My big question that I want to open with is: where are we drawing the line? Like, how soon after the apocalypse does it have to be? Because there are actually a number of fantasy stories that could be considered post-apocalyptic, but most of them, the apocalypse is sort of a distant past. Like Adventure Time. And, not the books as far as I know, I haven’t read all of them, but the Sword of Shannara TV show definitely brings in post-apocalyptic elements into this setting. The aesthetic, right? You can see old rusted cars and bridges and other old structures when they’re walking about, which does make a difference, but the memory of the previous civilization is basically gone. The Dark Crystal… I’ve seen some people call The Dark Crystal post-apocalyptic. You know, the cheesy opening scenes of the movie, you see this story that this thing took place a thousand years ago. The crystal cracked. But it is relevant that the two main characters are the last of their species because everybody else has been annihilated.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, that could be considered post-apocalyptic. I wouldn’t call it that, because the rest of the world seems to be getting on as it did before. As far as we can tell, whoever it was that raised Kira is still doing fine.
Chris: The podlings?
Oren: Yeah, the podlings. The podlings are fine. So I would say that a post-apocalyptic story, for practical purposes, is one in which the end of civilization still matters. It’s like, it’s still directly affecting the plot, like Sword of Shannara is definitely not… like, in Sword of Shannara you could take out the post-apocalyptic elements and almost nothing about the story would change. There are certain episodes where that’s not true. And by Sword of Shannara, I mean the Shannara Chronicles. There are certain… like, there’s one episode where they run into some humans who are like, “Hey, in the current world, we’re an oppressed underclass. But in the Before Times, we had bullets.”[laughter]
Chris: So this is the weird thing about Sword of Shannara, because all of the different humanoid fantasy races are technically descended from humans that existed before the apocalypse.
Oren: Except elves. Elves were just around.
Chris: Oh, I forgot that elves were just around!
Oren: Yeah, elves are not descended from humans.[laughter]
Chris: But there’s trolls, and, what are they, gnomes, that are descended from humans. The funny thing about this though, is they’re still humans, so the humans have not evolved. But, I mean, that’s not how that works, right? Like, humans are not descended from monkeys. We have a common ancestor. That’s not how evolution works.[laughter]
Oren: In Sword of Shannara you’ve got a bunch of evolution deniers being like, “if gnomes are descended from humans, why are there still humans?” Which is, I mean, a reasonable question to ask. The whole explanation of where the other species come from, I would say, is basically unimportant.
Oren: Like, it’s some flavor. It doesn’t matter. I’ve read a couple of fantasy novels where we find out that this is technically a post-apocalyptic setting, but if it functions like any other fantasy, then it’s like, that could be an interesting part of the backstory, but for the most part, it’s not important.
Chris: I think it did matter to me while watching the show, but at the same time, a visual medium has visuals that improve the experience by being interesting. Whereas, especially when we just get into narration, if it’s not important to what’s happening, it’s just not important because there’s no visual spectacle.
Oren: Yeah, that’s definitely true. I mean, it’s part of the reason why it’s harder to tell in the books that it’s technically post-apocalyptic, because even though it is, and there’s like—I think at one point they fight a robot that’s, like, a monster from before the apocalypse—but you don’t see very much, right?
Johnathan: I had no idea that it was a post-apocalypse story, because I read those books when I was much younger, and when I saw the TV show and the images of the broken human civilization, I was like, “Wait a minute, how are you… That doesn’t make any sense! That’s not the book I read! What are you talking about?”
Oren: Yeah, it’s much subtler in the books, especially if you don’t read the really late ones. Apparently it got progressively more obvious really late in the series.
Chris: So is the rule… are we using the “too soon rule” where if you’re allowed to joke about it, then it’s not post-apocalyptic?[laughter]
Oren: I like that.
Chris: Should we talk about what the good things or bad things are about this genre?
Oren: Uh, I mean, the good things are, obviously, amazing costumes. That’s the thing that makes this genre for me, is the aesthetics. And watching people wear, like, football gear as battle armor and stuff. Like, “Yeah, that’s great! I love it!” It’s like, “Hey, that’s a thing I know being used for a thing it’s not for. Excellent, amazing!”
Johnathan: Into the Badlands… so, some of my favorite aesthetics, which is maybe not under the definition we’re using of “too soon” post-apocalyptic, but it’s definitely built on the ruins of our old civilization. And their aesthetics are just so on point. Costume designing, and using different themes for every Barony? So good, aesthetically speaking.
Oren: Into the Badlands is fascinating from a genre perspective because it’s like a combination of post-apocalyptic, Chinese martial arts—or fantasy martial arts—and 1920s noir. It’s amazing. It is very… all over the place. But it is a very pretty show. And I think part of that comes from the post-apocalyptic nature of it.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, I think that is probably one of the central advantages—not the only one—of a post-apocalyptic genre, is the mixing and matching ability that it has? Because it allows you to take the setting that we’re all familiar with, and the things that we already know, and then kind of do a reset to change a whole bunch of things about the setting and add lots of fantastic elements and mix and match. Which just has lots of opportunity to do different cool things that unfortunately in a lot of these stories aren’t really taken advantage of. Which is something that can be used to great effect.
Oren: Absolutely. I mean, ‘cause it gives you an excuse to break normal, like, “well they wouldn’t do it like that.” Right? ‘Cause in real life, things look the way they look for a lot of reasons and there’s a lot of practicality that goes into certain choices. Like, you just wouldn’t live in a house made of piled up cars. There’s just no reason to do that. But in a post-apocalyptic setting, maybe that’s all you got. Maybe what you have is a bunch of cars you can pile up and make a house out of it. And you know, Fallout is probably my favorite example. Fallout’s aesthetic is what makes it work for me. It just looks so cool. And, sometimes it gets a little annoying. Like, I have to ask, “okay, it’s been like 200 years since the bombs fell. Why are all the houses in this town still full of broken toilets?[laughter]
Johnathan: “Why is nobody fixing these toilets?”
Oren: “Why has no one just taken these out?” This is a town where people live. It’s not like an abandoned ruin, right? So that sort of thing is a little annoying. But overall, you know, of course the whole Mad Max franchise is based on like, how cool can we make cars look in the post apocalyptic setting, right? And the answer is, real cool!
Johnathan: So cool.
Oren: But I do want to point out it’s not just aesthetics. There are other advantages of post-apocalyptic stories, primarily that post-apocalyptic stories give you a lot of conflict to work with.
Chris: And conflict of different types, too, which is also very valuable.
Oren: Because you can easily have, like, survival type stories. Because the… mechanisms that we all depend on to live have broken down. So it’s super easy to write about, you know, people thrown out of their element and having to survive. That works super good. If you’re dealing with some kind of zombie type apocalypse, whatever the apocalypse is caused by, that you can fight it. That’s another kind of conflict. And then you can have, you know, brutal conflict between survivors. You have all these different options.
Chris: Yup. It’s really easy. It can get out of control almost. We have… The Walking Dead type recycling of characters can almost be hard to not do in some of these scenarios, because you don’t feel like you’re actually carrying out the premise unless there’s a body count.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, one of the weaknesses of the post apocalyptic genre—at least to my mind—is that it tends to be an excuse for authors to get way too dark. And I mean, there’s this sort of general… like, “Oh, well, okay, you’ve killed so many characters, I’m not interested in the plot anymore.” Right? And that’s your Walking Dead problem. But then authors often just use it as an excuse to be like, “This is the real dregs of humanity! Watch all of this unpleasant sexual violence because that’s how people are!” Right? And it’s like, “I don’t… author, I don’t know, I don’t want to read your weird, like, Lord of the fry…” Lord of the fries, heh… “your weird Lord of the Flies psychology… thing. I’m not interested.”
Chris: Or your Lord of the Fries psychology thing. I’m not interested in that either, just so… [laughs]
Oren: I’m kind of interested in that, to be perfectly honest.[laughter]
Johnathan: Yeah, a little interested in that one. But yeah, the post-apocalyptic genre definitely has that pull towards… sadistic views on humanity as a whole, which is unfortunate. I feel like it’s self perpetuating. Similar to Lord of the Flies being almost… Lord of the Flies is almost a post apocalyptic story, because there’s no society or infrastructure or enforcement of rules, and that has entered the zeitgeist in such a way that we use it. It’s just an easy offhand way to describe how terrible people are without boundaries and rules, but that’s not… We have boundaries and rules because people without boundaries and rules band together to make rules. We naturally create a society that has a social fabric that prevents, or at least attempts to prevent, a lot of these personal atrocities that… you know, some of humanity does do terrible things to other parts of humanity, but on the whole, we’re a communal species that tries to build in safeguards against those sorts of things.
Chris: There’s actually been some studies that have shown that humans become more cooperative facing an emergency. As opposed to just turning on each other. And it’s hard to say if that… how long that lasts, right? We can have a temporary, you know, we band together in an emergency during the apocalypse, and then maybe the fracturing happens afterwards. But at least in the immediate near term after an emergency, people tend to do the opposite of fighting.
Johnathan: Yeah, most people largely, as I understand, band together and are more helpful. And then there are the outliers that take advantage of the chaos, certainly. But as post-apocalyptic stuff sort of frames it, the outliers assert dominance and take advantage of it by becoming small warlords. And that’s not… They take advantage of it by committing discreet murders, and stealing things, and, you know, doing some bad stuff, but not on the scale that it infects everyone. I do believe that after a while conflict will arise as new social orders are established. And so despite working together initially, as social groups vie for dominance there will be conflicts and bad things happening in that sense, but not in the way that it’s just an immediate devolution into chaos.
Oren: I would definitely buy that if you suddenly took a society where most people had enough to eat, and then something happened and suddenly the survivors didn’t have food security, I could definitely see conflict arising along those lines, and I could see people splitting up into “in groups,” and then those groups fighting over resources. Right? Like, that all makes sense. Shows like The 100 and Jericho portrayed that fairly well, but it gets weird to me when you have these stories of “all right, well, the apocalypse happened. So now all of the serial killers are just roaming around murdering everyone they can.” And I’m not going to say that would never happen, but it just… it seems weird that it would happen on any kind of large scale, right?
Oren: Like that these people would go around killing for no reason. Right? ‘Cause they wouldn’t last very long if they were acting like that. They would get unlucky eventually, and someone would shoot them.
Johnathan: And you can definitely have a story where there’s been an apocalypse and there are people taking advantage of it and murdering people, but, like you say, the scale is part of the problem in that it wouldn’t become… the whole apocalypse is just not getting murdered by… Because there’s murderers right now in society as we know it, that go around and kill people. Like, 50% of murders go unsolved because you can essentially just leave the state a lot of the time, and interstate communication is really poor. So the murder clearance rate is bad with society functioning, but we still don’t… live our lives, the way the apocalypse shows, just in this constant state of fear, because proportionately, percentage-wise, the likelihood of you getting straight up murdered is very low.
And I don’t… It would probably be higher in the apocalypse, but still not so tremendously high that that is the only thing everyone cares about. More important would be, you know, the resource accumulation, and infrastructure.
Chris: Going back to how light or dark post-apocalyptic stories can be… I mean, the idea, the very premise is that billions of people just perished. So that can only be so light. But at the same time, we could see more stories that are about rebuilding instead of just surviving? Like, that would be a legitimate premise that would be a little lighter than what we see in most of these stories.
Oren: Yeah. I actually find those stories more interesting. I mean, that’s why Fury Road is one of my favorites, ‘cause that’s what it’s about. Or at least that’s the ending message, is that if you want to actually make a go of things, you have to not just do the Toxic Masculinity Warlord. You know, Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Rolla thing, and I find that cool. I find the concept of people struggling to rebuild after a disaster to be inherently compelling, whereas stories that are just like, “yeah, and humanity’s the worst, especially those city folk,” I’m just not really interested in reading that or watching it. It’s like, I guess if that’s your view of humanity, I can’t definitively prove you wrong, but I just don’t find it very interesting.
Chris: So the other thing that I think is the big disadvantage of post-apocalyptic stories is that because they are using setting elements that are so familiar, I think there are more believability issues and how the premise is set up than there are for some other genres. If you have a fantasy world, a lot of times you can hand-wave. You know, “the magic just makes it like this.” And you can do it to a certain extent with sci-fi too, but not as much. But post-apocalyptic has some requirements about, first, you need to find a reason there’s an apocalypse and why society collapses after that. Why we can’t defeat that apocalypse. And we’re pretty capable as a species, so that’s hard. And then a lot of times storytellers want there to be a certain level of technology or capability after the apocalypse. That also takes some explaining.
Oren: Or the other way around, actually, is another problem, where storytellers just really overestimate how hard it is to make guns. I accept this premise for Into the Badlands that there are no guns. We solve all of our problems with kung fu fighting now. Into the Badlands is stylistic enough that I’m willing to accept that premise. But in, for example, The Road Warrior—one of the earlier Mad Max films—they have guns, it’s just that they’re supposed to be super rare and no one has any bullets for them. And, you know, if the world has been like this for awhile… Making bullets isn’t actually that hard. Most people don’t know how, but you can learn, right? You can figure it out, especially if you’re not making squad automatic weapons, right? If you’re making less advanced firearms, that sort of thing.
Johnathan: Especially in any sort of society or post apocalypse where libraries aren’t all destroyed. You can find… If you didn’t know how before, you can learn. There’s books. Probably. That information is stored in so many discrete different places. Someone, somewhere, is going to get their hands on a book or a computer that had that file saved or something that’s just like, “This is how bullet making works.”
Oren: It’s pretty easy.
Chris: If you were doing mixing and matching… It’s really hard if you want there to only be some guns, and not guns everywhere. This is one of the issues that The 100 has, where we have multiple groups of people, and some are more technologically advanced than others. And they have a couple of problems. One is explaining why the technologically advanced people with guns don’t just kill everybody else in this conflict, and the other issue is trying to explain why the people who aren’t using guns, why they’re not using guns. And initially, they have this explanation that there’s this other group of advanced people who are watching them and if they ever start using guns are just going to come down and annihilate them. Because they’re not allowed to. And then supposedly, even after these people who are watching them are dead, it creates a cultural taboo against guns that takes a while for them to get over. But it really does stretch belief in a number of different places. And I can understand why it’s fun to have one group using swords and another group using guns, but it’s really hard to work with story-wise.
Oren: Yeah. Another issue that I found is making an apocalypse that’s strong enough to destroy the mechanisms of society, but not so strong that your heroes can’t possibly survive it. And that’s why a lot of the best post-apocalyptic stories are ones that take place after the apocalypse, and they just kind of hand-wave how it happened. It’s like, “Yeah, you know, an apocalypse. Maybe nukes. Who knows?” But in real life, a full-on nuclear war, it’s extremely unlikely that your scrappy band of survivors is going to be able to live very long in that. And you have the same problem with zombies, right? Where if the zombies are strong enough to defeat all of the world’s militaries—which is kind of bull on its own—but if they are, there’s no way your scrappy band of survivors has any chance against them. And that’s actually one of the reasons why a disease story can work really well, because you can more easily say, “Oh, well, you know, these people are immune to it and nobody else is.”
Johnathan: Yeah. All the ones that are just, like, “A small fraction of the population—you know, this disease has a 95% mortality rate, so 5% is left.” There’s your numbers.
Chris: I really liked the movie Children of Men, but its explanation for the apocalypse is that people can’t have babies anymore. And that’s causing just tons of strife and violence everywhere. And I just have trouble buying that. Not that there would be some conflicts, but…
Johnathan: It’s one of those things—an assertion you have to buy as the premise of the movie. And I’m with you that it’s like, did they destroy themselves over that? I guess. That’s the movie world we live in. I don’t understand how or why, but… fine. That’s definitely a problem with the genre, is if you don’t have a convincing opening argument, then the immersion is immediately broken and it’s hard to enjoy the rest of the story.
Oren: Although in defense of Children of Men, I actually didn’t really consider that a post-apocalyptic story. I considered that a dystopian future story. ‘Cause, society is still there. It’s just, like, crappier.
Chris: Yeah. I guess I would say instead of “post-apocalyptic,” it’s more like “apocalyptic.”
Chris: Because it definitely gives you the feeling that everything is just disintegrating, right? We’re seeing the collapse of society, instead of looking at the aftermath of that collapse.
Oren: To a certain extent, maybe. Like I could… just from an economic perspective, if young people stopped being replenished, after long enough that would be a very serious problem. I don’t know if it would be enough to bring down society, but there’s a reason why countries that have huge influxes of young people have really prosperous economic booms afterwards, right? Young people are just extremely productive. Not to toot my own horn or anything.[laughter]
Chris: So the thing that I find disappointing about a lot of these stories is that I do think that the setting of post-apocalyptic has so much possibility. Because you’re doing this mixing and matching, you can use different technology levels, you can create isolated enclaves, you would have different monsters, you know, pretty much transform the world any way you want. But it feels like a lot of the stories in this genre are just recycling the same setting elements and the same monsters. Or, you know, lots of zombies after zombies, or, I guess, vampires? Jim, is The Strain post-apocalyptic at this point? I haven’t kept up.
Johnathan: So, The Strain is over. It’s ended. And it does become post-apocalyptic in the last season, I think—I forget how many seasons there are—but it does turn from an outbreak thing, maybe call it, like, “mid-apocalyptic?” But it also has elements of rebuilding in it that are pretty good. It’s definitely recycling. It’s sort of mashing together the idea of disease-borne apocalypse and vampires and zombies, just because the vampire mechanic is so…
Chris: The vampires are very zombie-like vampires.
Johnathan: Yeah, with the exception of some of them that aren’t. So it’s like some of them are just normal vampire-type vampires, who are cogent and under control of themselves, and operate by stealing blood and eating humans, and even set up an infrastructure to do a human farming (spoiler alert) type deal. So, it’s definitely… I feel like it’s both… It’s recycling… It’s upcycling zombies and vampires, and it’s getting something with very recognizable elements of both, but is new-ish? I would recommend The Strain for at least a different style of apocalypse and vampires and zombies, but it’s definitely not creating, whole cloth, anything original.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, I definitely have some zombie fatigue, right?
Oren: Like, I didn’t even watch that much of The Walking Dead, but I still feel a little bit overwhelmed by all the various depictions of zombies. Not gonna say that there’s no way to get them right at this point, I just… My standards for a zombie story are kind of unreasonably high by now.
Johnathan: Black Summer, that recently came out, had the bold audacity to do zombies in exactly the same way zombies have been done forever. So…
Oren: Yeah. Is that the new thing on Netflix? You know, I saw it, and it was like, “this is the new zombie show? This looks exactly like The Walking Dead.”
Johnathan: It’s set in the same universe, but in mid-zombie-outbreak. So it is the start, It’s like a prequel. Although it doesn’t feature any of the same characters.
Oren: I didn’t realize it was in the same universe as The Walking Dead. Amazing.
Chris: [laughs] Right on. I do think that with The 100 it does help that it takes place more distant from the apocalypse. So we see less of the immediate aftermath, and instead we look at the societies that have been already built as a result of the apocalypse. So there are still familiar elements, but it also… the tech is a little more advanced, so it was clear that when the apocalypse happened, it was in the future a little bit, which gives it more of a science fiction feel. The main characters are living aboard kind of a big networked series of space stations, at the beginning. And that helps. And then we have more fully formed societies that then can have politics with each other. And I do think that helps it feel a little bit different than a lot of other post-apocalyptic stories. [laughs]. Here’s one that is… original, but implausible. There’s Snowpiercer…[laughter]
Oren: Oh, yeah, everyone knows Snowpiercer!
Chris: Snowpiercer. Anybody who’s not familiar… Snowpiercer is about people on a train, and the train… It’s a snow world. So the world has been completely… It’s really, really cold, too cold to be inhabitable. People just die after a few minutes out there. And this train just… For some reason, it’s on a train that keeps circling the world. We have one long track that just goes over the world, and it just repeats on the track over and over again. And this train is like the only place that you can stay alive…
Oren: Well, that’s ‘cause it goes so fast that it doesn’t have a chance to… freeze? I think?[laughter]
Johnathan: It’s got indoor heating! You know.
Oren: Right, but like, there was an explanation about why it had to be a train, right? It wasn’t just that this is the only place with a heater. I forget exactly.[laughter]
Chris: It’s a goofy story. It is goofy.
Oren: It is. So, Snowpiercer is just super… surreal, right? Like, Snowpiercer is definitely one of those where it’s like… it’s not logical, even a little bit, and it kind of makes that clear very early. It’s just an extremely aesthetic driven story, and they have fights where they all stop for a minute to observe New Year, and then they start fighting again. At one point, someone throws a fish, and the camera just kind of stops and stares at this fish that they threw, like it’s a big deal, and then keeps going. And it’s like, okay, that was weird. But it’s also just kind of humorous, kind of tongue in cheek? It’s a dark comedy, I would say, is when it’s at its best.
Chris: There’s also 9, which was not a good movie, but not because of the setting.
Oren: Yeah. The short that 9 is based off of was quite good.
Chris: Oh, I haven’t seen that. I should do that.
Oren: It’s like the good parts of the movie, condensed down into a few minutes.
Chris: Oh, that makes sense.
Oren: Yeah. And it doesn’t try to have a narrative, because the narrative is boring.[laughter]
Chris: So, yeah. And 9, if you’re not familiar with it… everybody’s a little golem, so the humans are gone. Like, at the very beginning of the movie, the last human dies. So there are no humans anymore. Just little golems that run around. And it’s pretty cute. It’s got a dark sort of patchpunk/steampunk feel to it.
Oren: It’s got cool monsters and you know, it’s very aesthetic. Unlike Snowpiercer, it spends a lot more time on its plot, which I think hurts it.[laughter]
Chris: Yeah, the plot’s not good.
Oren: The nice thing about Snowpiercer is that its plot is incredibly simple. It’s like, “Hey guys, we need to get to the front of the train!” And then they just go through all the train cars. And it’s like, yeah, good plan! Whereas 9 is like, “okay, and then we have this guy, his name is 1 and he has this motivation, and this lady, her name is 7, and she has this motivation, and these guys…” And it’s like, okay, guys. None of this makes any sense. Just go. Just get on the train.[laughter]
Oren: Speaking of being on the train, this podcast is leaving the station because we are over time, so thank you once again for joining us, Jim.
Johnathan: Hey, thanks for having me.
Oren: Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. And before we go, I just want to thank two of our patrons. First is Kathy Ferguson, who is a Professor of Political Theory in Star Trek. Second is Ayman Jaber, urban fantasy writer and Marvel connoisseur. Otherwise, we will talk to you next week![outro music]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?