What if civilization came to an end, but instead of slapping on leather and yelling at people to witness us, we all donned medieval armor and wizard hats instead? Then we’d have post-apocalyptic fantasy, a strange genre with boundaries that are even hazier than normal. What is it, and what benefits does it have? What are the costs? Where does magic even come from in a post-apocalyptic world? This week we answer those questions, and we even find time to complain about The Walking Dead.
Generously transcribed by Fussilat. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the mythcreants podcast. With your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, West Matlock and Chris Winkle. [Opening Song]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, and with me today is
Oren: So now the society has collapsed. Most people are putting on their BDSM gear and yelling witness me, but that’s not how I want to do things. I want to wear a suit of medieval armor and call myself a knight because it’s post-apocalyptic fantasy. This episode, I may or may not have just read a post-apocalyptic fantasy novel. That was annoying. And I may be bitter about it. So be warned that might’ve happened.
Wes: I’m just glad that you set expectations right at the beginning, Oren!
Chris: We’re finally being honest with our listeners.
Wes: That’s right?
Oren: Yeah. So first of all, let’s do the thing we always do, which is definition, debate time, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.What is post-apocalyptic fantasy? Who is it?
Wes: Should we start with, what is post-apocalyptic or what is fantasy?
Oren: I defined post-apocalyptic fantasy as a story that looks like high fantasy. And so it has, you know, swords and armor and castles and usually magic, not always, but almost always magic of some kind, but it used to be more like modern day tech or sci fi tech. And sometimes this isn’t an actual apocalypse and that like, it was actually earth, and the bombs fell. And for some reason we all became Lord of the rings, but sometimes it’s like a distant space colony where there was no single apocalypse, but like technology failed for some reason. So we all became Lord of the rings. That’s how I define it. That’s what I think of when I say that term right now, there are many other books that would also qualify that don’t do those things. Like, Broken Earth is post-apocalyptic fantasy in that it is a fantasy setting where an apocalypse happened. Arguably Lord of the rings even is a fantasy setting where an apocalypse happened. But none of those are like, it used to be the real world, or at least I may be broken earth is if you go back far enough, I didn’t, I don’t know what the history of the actual Broken Earth setting is, but in the setting itself, there’s no sign that this used to be Earth with the United States.
Wes: So there has to be some event in the past, some kind of cataclysm, but we can’t be that far away from it to where it shouldn’t matter. It should matter, but we can’t be that like incredibly far removed away from it. It’d be like if you played fallout, but like everything had regrown.
Chris: I think at this point, whether it matters is like the a hundred dollar question. [Laughs]
Wes: Yeah that’s a good point, that’s a good point [Laughs]
Chris: I think I have some quibbles even before we get to the a hundred dollar question, why does fantasy have to be high fantasy in this case?
Oren: I mean, find me another kind of fantasy that does this sort of thing and I’ll take it.
Chris: Well! Does the things I wrote myself count?
Oren: I don’t think we’re allowed to use our own to talk about our own stories.[Laughter]
Oren: I think there’s a law against it.
Chris: I mean, once we get into what are the problems, with this genre, the obstacles and plausibility, I think it’s just a lot more plausible to make post-apocalyptic fantasy where people don’t dress up as knights.
Oren: I would like a genre that confines all of the stories. I don’t like where there was an apocalypse and now they all dress like knights and section that off. From other stories like that just happened to be a post-apocalyptic with perhaps a fantasy bound, like an excellent story called Gently Down the Stream by Chris Winkle.
Chris: See, that’s what I’m saying is that I’m rooting for this genre. Maybe the issue is you’re rooting against it. So you’re trying to define it so that it’s more implausible. And there aren’t that many books that I would, or stories in general that I would consider to be in this category right now. But I want to think about its potential and what it can be. Right. Especially since I think it’s an area where there’s room for more books that will still have a lot of novelty because it’s not being used that much really.
Chris: Wes do you wanna weigh in here.
Wes: Well, I guess the issue that I have is when I hear like post-apocalyptic and when you consider stories that, like that try to fit that bill, I think more often than not the story is likely taking place in our world, because I think there’s more interest in seeing the writer thought experiment, right? Oh, well, what if society ended this way?
What would happen? And then play that forward? The high fantasy aspect, I think. Challenging. We’ve talked about Stephen King’s, The Gunslinger on here? I don’t want to talk about that one because he does whatever he wants in mid – world, but the stand at the, I guess we can talk about a post-apocalyptic USA as the result of a super flu.
Oren: Oh No.
Wes: Sorry. It happens. The stories events take place within like a couple of years immediately after in the aftermath, but only kind of the main two only two characters really kind of get any kind of power. And so like that fantasy aspect for me plays because it’s kind of like, it’s not high fantasy, but it’s like that urban fantasy, you know, where like the villain does have some magics and not the protagonist, but like the, the mentor who calls a lot of the protagonists, you know, to her sanctuary, mother Abigail has kind of, Sight cited power, whereas Randall Flagg just literally can kind of float and do horrible magics and become a demon and that kind of stuff. But it’s still set in like the US and I think that’s the appeal of it. The magic is like kind of fun, but it’s more like, how do we cope when things collapse? It’s probably why walking dead is fine.
Oren: [Laughter] It’s probably why walking dead is fine. That’s an interesting take. I like it. I’m a big fan
Wes: Walking dead would be better with magic and elves and swords and armor.
Oren: Well, let me put it this way. I would like to see something mix up the zombie formula a little bit.
Wes: Yes, that would be nice.
Oren: Although to be fair, the walking dead also is kind of part of the reason why we are so sick of zombies.The zombie train was already going when walking dead started, but like walking dead made it go even faster. It’s like, oh great. The walking dead more zombies. And it’s like, okay. But it wasn’t that overused when walking dead actually started.
Wes: See, I guess, I mean, definition wise, like it’s tricky. This is it’s like wide open. Think you just need some kind of fantastical element and you just need to have had some kind of event that wrecked society.
Chris: You need something within the sandwich that has fantasy.[Laughter]
Chris: The Broken Earth is such an interesting example. Oh, I would say I haven’t read that series. How much does it, does the post-apocalyptic element feel like a real world post apocalypse?
Oren: I think that one’s interesting because it’s like the first book anyway, like there have been like cataclysms. And they talk about them, but it’s more like the whole story is just in a constant state of apocalypse.
Chris: It’s almost not post-apocalyptic, it’s just apocalyptic.
Oren: It’s like it has been and will always be apocalyptic. It’ll never get post because of the way she crafted the geology of the continent. It’s just always having these massive quakes.
Chris: It feels like that would deliver a different experience. Than what people typically do with post-apocalyptic stories, which use it as a way to remix real-world modern day things, but also explain why there are violent bands of people running around.
Oren: It’s basically a world of apocalypses, cause it’s super seismically unstable. So there are always. Huge earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Every once in a while, the story starts with a particularly bad one, really bad, even by the standards of this setting. There’s the possibility that this might be the one that no one survives through, but yes, it definitely doesn’t feel like what you generally consider to be a post-apocalyptic story.
In that, like, we’re not like discovering baseball caps buried in us in an underground stadium. But there are some things about it That are similar. Like these characters do sometimes find remnants of older civilizations that could do things that the modern one can’t.
Chris: But that’s also fairly typical in fantasy and other world fantasy. Right? Cause old ruins is just part of the whole fantasy dealio
Oren: For all I know, Broken Earth eventually reveals that. And that, you know, this is Earth originally this whole story is taking place in Ohio. Like I didn’t read far enough to get there, but it might, there are some books. There is the do that, like wheel of time, if you read far enough, eventually reveals that this is actually post-apocalyptic Earth for some reason.
Wes: I ran out of ideas. [Laughter]
Oren: I believe you, that Robert Jordan had that idea from the beginning, but it was definitely not actually in the story until very late. That’s why I was kind of jarring in the TV show where they flashback to the first dragon, the guy who, you know, started it all. And he lives in like a sci-fi world and it’s like, oh yeah, I guess this is technically from the books. But man in the books, it was not like this until near the very end.
Wes: And that’s why having the post-apocalyptic set in a fantasy world is fine, but it doesn’t have the same weight of coming out of a bunker. And seeing everything that you knew suddenly is gone. I remember playing Fallout 3. And then later that year I went to DC and went into like the Metro.It was like, oh my God, these look familiar. They did a good job coding. The ruined familiarity is a part of the novelty.
Chris: I wouldn’t call anything actually post-apocalyptic fantasy, unless we’re seeing those modern day society remnants that affect the story in some way, even if it’s only flavoring the environment, you know, giving different description and something that qualifies as fantasy, like magic and not qualify things like the wheel of time or other stories that you seem like they’re just fantasy. And then just randomly pull out an apocalypse explanation. Like it’s a big reveal that matters when it doesn’t.
Oren: You get some books with the line, even there is going to get fuzzy. Like the book that I read that annoyed me, I guess we have to put this on the table.
Wes: Yeah, go for it.
Oren: Is the reason why we’re doing this podcast. It’s called Red Sister. The premise of Red Sister is that it’s a space colony that has lost all of its technology for vague unstated reasons. And the sun that it’s the colonies orbiting is like super weak and dying. So the planet is continually getting colder. Everything about it is totally fantasy. You got swords, you got knights. You got assassin nuns.
Extreme fantasy, except that there is a big old satellite in the sky that is clearly artificial. That is they’re keeping the world from freezing completely. And you got these things that they call ship hearts, which are clearly some kind of power reactor that do vague, mysterious things. But other than that, it’s totally fantasy.
Chris: That sounds more like a space fantasy or a science fantasy than it does a post-apocalyptic fantasy.
Oren: The whole concept of our technology started failing and our infrastructure fell apart. So we went back to medieval, European aesthetics. It’s like, come on guys.[Laughter]
Oren: When Western Rome collapsed Europe didn’t revert back to the classical era. That’s not how that works.
Chris: They, it doesn’t matter, even a little bit is also why I might classify the Sword of Shannara books as fantasy and the TV show as a post-apocalyptic fantasy.
Oren: In the books, they fight like a monster at one point that has maybe a robot who knows,
Chris: Right. It’s not obvious in the books, but I think what happened is because Sword of Shannara now comes off as super cliche wasn’t at the time that came out. But now, because all the tropes that are used are very old, it feels super cliche. So I’m willing to bet that when they were making the TV show, And if we don’t put some novelty in here, it’s just going to be really cliche. Technically the setting is post-apocalyptic when the show has an aesthetic that just has, you know, rusted cars covered in Moss and actual railroad technology thrown in, and it does change the experience. I don’t know if it ever matters to the plot at all, but at least the aesthetic is different.
Oren: There is exactly one episode where it matters to the plot where they find some humans who are like, Hey, if we used guns, we could get the elves and the dwarves to stop oppressing us because we used to have guns and we don’t have them anymore. And those are the bad guys.[Laughter]
Oren: Tying back to last week about villains being a little too sympathetic. That’s mainly just there for the aesthetic. It’s like, Hey, you want to watch Lord of the rings, but like worse. And with some Mad Max here’s Sword of Shannara four Chronicles of Shannara for you.
I had like a weird what the heck moment where I just couldn’t believe it, where I was reading about where all the fantasy species in Sword of Shannara come from. And it’s like, okay. So they all evolve from humans. And it’s like, that’s not how evolution works, but whatever, that’s, it that’s apparently what it is, except the elves, the elves were apparently there the whole time. And we’re just like hiding, I guess.
Wes: Hiding from evolution Oren.
Oren: Why not just say they’re all evolved from humans. Why say they all are except elves.
Chris: Because elves need to be old.
Oren: Why not say we all evolve from elves. and why not do that? That broke my brain. The first time I read it, I was like, that cannot be true. And it looks out, no, no, that’s true. Like, okay. It’s great. Strong work, everyone. I’m glad we did that.
Chris: Another one that has kind of a superficial experience is a Queen of the Tiefling, which is again, a high fantasy. And I think there are colony or something, but it has like real-world books in it with the Sword of Shannara TV show and at least has really cool aesthetics that I could visually enjoy. Whereas this Queen of the Tiefling, I just didn’t feel like it added anything. Like, I didn’t feel like it was impactful enough to even add novelty and I couldn’t like see it, but that one, I would still say, okay, we could call that post-apocalyptic fantasy, even though I’m not really sure if there’s apocalypse in that setting, because at least has those real world remanence.I’m not sure exactly what the whole backstory of that book is. Maybe they fled to a new world because of an apocalypse. Who knows.
Oren: I would have had to have read past the first book to know that. And I refuse.[Laughter]
Chris: Whereas if it’s just all space, upper level technology, I don’t feel like it would have the same feel. And then it would just feel like science fantasy at that point.
Wes: A kind of a novel video game that I remember playing years ago, think it came out in 2001 it’s Arcanum of Steamworks and Magick Obscura.
Oren: Yeah, It’s Arcanum of bugs and patches.[Laughter]
Wes: That game was very fun and very involved to the point where I made like a billion characters and then decided, no, I’m just going to be a half ogre and punch my way to the end of this game. And I did, and it was great, I guess, spoilers for it’s been over 20 years. I don’t really think it qualifies as post-apocalyptic fantasy. I’m not sure where we’ve landed on this, but kind of the important thing about the game setting is you’re basically in a fantasy world where there’s orcs, ogres and elves and dwarves and humans, but the industrial revolution is going on. And so all the majors are upset because there’s all these upstart tech kids who have their, you know, Tesla rifles and whatever. But you find out later as the game progresses, that actually what everybody thinks is new has already existed 2000 years prior when you discovered the ruins. This nation state called Vendigroth and the main antagonist of our arcanum leveled that place just as a super powerful maje. And I liked that idea, you know, cause we kind of get it with games like Fallout or what you’re talking about with the influence of the Remnants of Civilization. Arcanum’s story was saying that all of this is cyclical, like when magic wains tech rises and when tech wains magic rises, because what you call magic is actually our advanced technology.[Laughter]
Wes: But I thought that was, it was a fun game. Um, I thought it was a nice take on that. You know, it decided it would be a cool idea if we discovered some archeological ruins here and we discovered, I dunno, it’d be like finding an iPad. That’s like, you know, 5,000 years old and we’re like, oh, we happen to make that again. Weird.
Oren: Yeah. We wouldn’t have lost the warrant for those darn Babylonian wizards.
Wes: Yeah.That’s Right
Oren: I mean, Arcanum is an interesting case because like, it has like a whole magic and technology oppose each other, and it really goes with that. Like, that’s not an uncommon trope, but Arcanum makes it the whole concept. People like Arcanum and the reason why can be summed up entirely in the opening cinematic, where there’s like this Knight advancing on an enemy across the battlefield, wearing armor and has like a big glowing magic sword and then his opponent pulls out a gun and shoots him and it’s like, wow, we didn’t expect that to happen. That contrast is what makes Arcanum seem kind of cool. And then the cyclical nature of it is honestly, I think helpful because it makes the setting feel less gloomy because like the concept of like, yeah, magic’s dying. Because we invented steam engines it is kind of depressing. But don’t worry if you wait around long enough, eventually magic will rise again.
Chris: I once read a book, unfortunately, I don’t remember the name. It was many years ago where there were all of these draconic restrictions on inventing technology. The hero then finds out that the oppressors have a point there.
It turns out that they were putting all those restrictions where you were not allowed to invent anything to preserve magic, because if you people start inventing things, advancing technology, the magic would go away.
Oren: Just how rude. No more inventions. Everybody. Let me keep my magic, magic school.
Wes: Or if you’re talking about dislike, wanting the world to end, strap on your gear and go do whatever you want to do. And I finally remembered because a friend had told me about this series, it’s called the Emberverse series by S.M. Sterling. And the first book is called Dies the Fire. And it’s basically the premise that there’s an apocalyptic event that just alters physical laws. So basically electricity, gunpowder, high energy, and dense tech just doesn’t work. And so basically like this archeologists becomes like a war Lord because he knows all their weapons work and stuff like that, which is, sounds like some kind of like archeologists writing, wish fulfilling fantasy.
Chris: I mean Mortal Engines. It’s actually similar to that. Of course it has a much goofier premise that is supposed to be kind of an analogy for capitalism, where we have these predators’ cities roaming around. But like the plot of that story is since it’s a post-apocalyptic setting that they managed to put together a weapon of mass destruction. And trying to stop that from happening because it’s what caused the apocalypse. So yeah, this is a similar, similar idea. Now the historians are going to collect this old technology and then that’s why they have some power.
Oren: The absolutely wildest post-apocalyptic fantasy story that I have ever read.It doesn’t even look like a post-apocalyptic fantasy story until like the last couple chapters. It is bizarre its a book called The Fires of Invention. It’s part of the Mysteries of Cove series. And it starts off seeming like it’s just a dystopian steampunk story because they live in an underground city called Cove.Yeah. You know, like we came down here for kind of vague pollution reasons and it’s like, I guess that might qualify as an apocalypse. But that doesn’t really seem super important to Cove, right. It’s just a city where everything is steampunk, but like there’s a draconian government that says you’re not allowed to be cool and creative because it’s, you know, for young kids and that sort of thing, evil governments do in young kids stories. And it was like, all right, sure. So the kids are going around doing their thing and rebelling against the evil government or whatever. And then in like the last couple of chapters it’s revealed that actually. The world was destroyed by dragons. The actual real world was destroyed by dragons appearing from somewhere.It’s kind of unclear where just dragons suddenly were everywhere. So now the characters have to build a giant mechanical dragon to fight the regular dragons, and that’s how the book ends.[Wes Laughs]
Oren: I could not believe it, especially. It took me more by surprise than it would someone reading it because I was listening to it in audio. And I noticed it in the print version of the book. It has a big mechanical dragon on the cover, which I just didn’t really notice in the audio version. And then like each chapter has like an image of a mechanical dragon as the chapter head. So you might not be quite as surprised, but from just the text itself, it’s just like the weirdest left turn I’ve ever seen a world take.[Wes Laughs]
Chris: So for a terrible plausibility, I think it is a good thing to talk about with this genre. Obviously part of the issue is not just, okay. We could add magic, but also how do we take away enough technology to make this realistic? I do think it helps at least a little bit. If the apocalypse is caused by something magical appearing, actually knowing what all The Lure of Adventure time is, but Adventure Time, if you continue that show long enough, it gets increasingly clear that there was a past apocalypse and it matters more. Right. Whereas in the beginning it just looks like a kind of high fantasy cartoon. As far as I know, the apocalypse was just conventional. And then it’s like, well then how did fantasy happen? As much as I don’t want to praise sweet tooth, it’s probably one of the most plausible post-apocalyptic fantasies I’ve seen just because there’s a fantasy element that appears. And there’s also simultaneously something else that causes the apocalypse, which is a little strange, but then we have just a modern setting with fantasy elements in it.
Oren: Well, I mean, Adventure Time gets away with that by being completely off the wall and not caring.[Laughter]
Oren: Adventure time doesn’t have any setting consistency.That was well-established before it got into the post-apocalyptic stuff. I don’t know. I feel like we could be more creative than. The world ended. And now we all dress like knights. I feel like if you want to add magic into a post-apocalyptic setting, you, you don’t necessarily have to then also copy Middle Earth
Chris: You don’t actually have to take away all of the technology. It’s almost a little easier to have lower tech. If you’re closer to the collapse. Because you can imagine that after there’s a huge collapse of civilization, that we can’t manufacture things and we don’t have power grids and all that, but we still have a lot of knowledge and everybody’s literate and can write their knowledge down. So I do think that people would recover pretty quickly. Probably the advantage of doing super far in the future is there’s just less scrutiny. If you have something that’s only a hundred years after the apocalypse, that’s long enough for people to start recovering, but not so long that it’s not really forgotten.So there’s a lot of questions like, okay. But like, why didn’t you start creating some power generators and why didn’t you start rebuilding all the things? Um, whereas if it’s like, oh, several thousand years ago, it’s like, just don’t think about why we lost all of our knowledge and where that went and why we didn’t write anything down.
Oren: Or why we didn’t explore any of the Bruins and find stuff in reverse engineering its settings, tie themselves in knots, trying to explain that. And I’m just like, you could just don’t do that. If you want fantasy, if you want high fantasy, you can just do high fantasy revealing that this has actually been Earth the whole time. It doesn’t actually add anything to your story. Some authors seem to think it does, but it’s really nothing at best. And at worst it just makes the whole thing seem implausible. Whereas if you want to take like a Mad Max scenario and add some wizards to it. I’m not inherently opposed. I’m willing to hear you out on that.[Laughter]
Oren: You know, you have to think, where did the wizards come from? That’s something that people will probably want to know if your setting is recognizably Earth after an apocalypse, it’s like, well, why is there magic now? And it’s like, well, I don’t know. Maybe that was the bombs that caused the apocalypse also gave people magic for some reason.
Chris: Magical bumps causing the apocalypse.
Oren: I mean, that’s fallout’s example. I mean, they claim it’s a radiation mutation, but we know, we know Fallout.
Chris: Look, if they call it mutation, it’s not fantasy.[Laughter]
Wes: Uh, we can look forward to the next season of Korra, where clearly opening up the spirit world to the, I don’t know what they call their normal world causes an apocalyptic event where the spirits overwhelm. And then of course, you know, they’ll have to rebuild from the ashes of their former civilization.
Oren: They’ll send people into the ruins of Republic City to scavenge technology, and one of them will come back with a set of Bolas and there’ll be like the weapon of the ancestor. When we’ve reached Bola discourse territory. So I think we’re going to have to call this episode to a close those of you at home. If anything, we said piqued your interest. You can leave a comment on the website and mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First. We have Kathy Ferguson is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
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