I hate postapocalyptic media.
That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed some of it. Fallout 2, for example, still tops a lot of RPG’s. The Resident Evil movies are some of my favorite trashy film of all time. Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy could be called postapocalyptic, and it was one of my favorite books as a kid.
If you look at the concept of post apocalyptic fiction more generally, many classic stories like that of Noah and the ark count as postapocalypse narratives. As a result, the genre is quite varied in tone and scope - and it’s hard to make specific criticisms that apply to all postapocalyptic stories as a whole. Take the rest of this post with a grain of salt, because I’m specifically against a very specific kind of postapocalyptic narrative which I find as lazy and uninteresting.
Recently I got to play through Fallout 4 for the first time. For those who haven’t played it, the Fallout series occurs in a post-nuclear-apocalypse setting, with humans trying to survive in the wastelands of the former United States while dealing with bandits, mutants, and organized factions trying to take control. Players typically play “vault dwellers” - people who have emerged from one of the numerous fallout shelters built before nuclear war. In a sad twist, many of the vaults were purposefully designed as “social experiments” by the US government so that they could test the limits of human psychology and use this information to prepare for a potential escape into outer space via an ark built ahead of time. The ark didn’t work out, the postapocalypse didn’t go according to plan, and suffice to say, some of the vault dwellers had a hard time of it.
According to the game’s lore, the great nuclear war occurred in 2077. The first game occurs in 2161, 84 years later. The next game occurs in 2241, another 80 years later. Fallout 3 occurs in 2277, and Fallout 4 occurs in 2287. This means that, as of the most recent game, it is 210 years after the postapocalypse, and everyone is still basically living off the scraps of their old civilization.
This strikes me as so odd, given how vast a span of time even just 10 years is. Dubai, for example, was a fishing village in the 60’s, began to develop as a major oil player in the 70’s, and is now one of the most expensive cities in the world. Even in the 90’s, pictures show a drastically smaller and less prestigious city, meaning that the bulk of the vast paradise that we know it to be today has been built in the last 20-30 years.
How long after a zombie apocalypse does it take for all the zombies to finish eating their available food resources and die out, leaving the few holed up humans to begin repopulating the planet? How long after a nuclear bomb does it take for enough radiation to pass that people can begin living in that area again?
When we examine practical and already existing “apocalypses” in history, what we find is that they are devastating but that people tend to recover pretty quickly.
The plague decimated somewhere between 30-60% of Europe’s population from 1347-1351, and it took almost 200 years for the population level to recover. But in the meantime, the world didn’t end by any means - the existing power structures were broken up, and this left a lot of potential for people to rise and fall in status, but people basically went on. This apocalypse devastated the population but left the infrastructure intact - one can imagine that if this happened today, housing prices would plummet and the survivors would be glad to enjoy having affordable living spaces to themselves. People would mourn for a while, and life would go on. One of my history professors in college argued that the plague was one of the best things to happen to the poor in the middle ages - because it devastated the rich and the poor equally, leaving a power vacuum for the greater poor population to immediately surge into in the aftermath.
What about nuclear devastation? The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed their population count, and destroyed much of their infrastructure as well, with Hiroshima being much harder hit. It took these cities about 20 years to rebuild by the estimates I’ve gathered from the internet, and now, about 75 years later, the level of background radiation has sunk to the point of having little to no effect on human health. These are certainly not abandoned wastelands.
Likewise, the explosion at Chernobyl was so devastating that it showered much of eastern Europe with radiation and the entire nearby city of Pripyat was evacuated. Cancer rates spiked, birth defects increased, and people held off on moving back into the area due to the ongoing radiation. Chernobyl is probably largely responsible for our fear of nuclear power to this day. But today, radiation has fallen enough that it’s safe to visit for short periods of time, and tourists come to see the ruined city. This happened only a little over 30 years ago. One can imagine how safe it might be, 210 years later.
In both these cases, nuclear incidents ruined the infrastructure and left lasting radiation problems, but people simply moved elsewhere. In the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they moved back in and rebuilt rather quickly.
What I would argue is that apocalyptic events, unless they damage the human population or infrastructure incredibly severely, only seem to have very temporary impacts. It may set the human race back, but the human race perseveres and recovers. I think the only way for a real apocalypse to truly devastate humanity would be if it killed enough of the people off that we no longer had enough of a population to sustain a critical mass of reproduction - which would have to be quite a lot. Likewise, I can’t imagine an apocalypse that carefully wiped every trace of our infrastructure off the face of the Earth and left it completely irreparable - without also probably doing a lot of other, more devastating things.
If all computers failed tomorrow, we’d rather quickly go back to the systems we used before computers. If a small area was bombed, we’d move out and wait to move back in. If even a very massive portion of the human population instantly dropped dead (I’d argue including very very large numbers, possibly as high as 90+%), the human population might take a while to recover, but it would absolutely do so, and they’d have the benefit of the existing infrastructure and knowledge base to draw from.
We might kill off, say, all the theoretical physicists in the world, all the universities that taught it, and all the records of the knowledge, but we can expect that at least some physics texts would survive, and that future would-be-theoretical-physicists would be able to start piecing back together the results from the scraps available to them. Burning the library at Alexandria caused massive loss of knowledge, but it’s not like everyone in the ancient world just wrung their hands and gave up on learning things ever again.
And that’s the thing that irritates me the most: postapocalyptic literature always paints the postapocalypse as some kind of permanent “state” that humanity is just stuck in from now on. Drop the bombs, and suddenly the majority of the population in Fallout turns into vicious, bloodthirsty bandits and infighting factions vying for control of the wasteland for apparently hundreds of years to come, stuck in time. Nothing improves, nothing gets worse.
Admittedly, one important plot point in the Fallout series is the Enclave, an organization formed from the remnants of the US government which aspires to reunite the country under one leadership. Yet somehow, even in Fallout 2 (164 years after the war), the Enclave is presented as not quite having its shit together, controlling a great deal yet still vying with other militant factions for complete control before being devastated by the player character’s actions. It’s absolutely absurd to me that a power vacuum would exist in any territory for 160 years even after complete nuclear devastation.
The Fallout setting also says little and nothing about what’s happening outside the US - did other countries survive? We can assume that at least some of the other countries theoretically prepared for nuclear fallout and built shelters of their own, and thus have their own populations. Maybe there are a few pockets of relatively untouched land here and there. Why, in 160 years, haven’t they taken back their countries as well? Why has no one in the US, despite having radio and computers and various other technologies, seemed to have made contact with anyone else outside of the US? Vague references are made to other countries existing, but it’s presumed that they’re in roughly the same state as the US. Realistically, if other countries survived to a greater extent, then they’d be the ones consolidating power and starting to swipe up available nearby lawless regions.
And often, the technological power of certain factions is wildly out of touch with its setting. Fallout 4 introduces a massive underground futuristic lab, filled with human replica robots, yet does little to nothing to explain how this lab gets all of its resources. It’s stated that the replicas are often tasked with scavenging aboveground, but this is a rather piecemeal solution and implies that the entire territory should have been picked clean long before you arrived. Likewise, enduring factions like the Enclave or the Iron Brotherhood (a group of technophilic knight-zealots) seem to exist without any concern given to how they would get fuel, resources, and parts in a world that mostly consists of bandits and rusting buildings. Unless these factions all have massive farms, mines, and factories hiding just out of sight, it seems strange that they could continue to exist for any reasonable period of time.
It also says something deeply pessimistic and incorrect about human nature that the Fallout universe believes that the instant the bombs drop, suddenly everyone becomes either a mindless mutant or a bloodthirsty bandit. If you were somehow to replicate this in real life today, it’s likely that we’d instantly revert to something like an early medieval society, with feudal lords ruling over small regions, using laser guns to enforce hard farming in the unaffected areas while protecting serfs from bandits and mutants, and a complex web of alliances and interpersonal conflicts between the various regions would form. Over time, these small kingdoms would agglomerate into larger ones, and within probably a couple hundred years we’d be back to full democracy and consumerist capitalism living around the edges of whatever radiation and mutant populations remained.
In reality, most people just really enjoy comfort and consistency in their lives, and aren’t particularly prone to violence. They don’t have any bizarre, innate urge to kill or drive themselves into conflict, and would just like to go about their lives as usual. When governments temporarily shut down, or police temporarily go on strike, it has little to no effect on everyone else, and people just go on living as they’re used to. Certainly we could expect violence, conflict, and various irrational and absurd forms of scapegoating in the aftermath of an apocalypse, and that would be shit - but sooner or later, people would just get right back to the process of rebuilding, and before long we’d be back to something that resembles civilization.
And that’s the problem - postapocalypse is a very brief window into a very specific moment, that short period of anarchy between the collapse of the previous system and the start of a new one. Far more interesting to me is that process of post-post-apocalypse - that process of rebuilding and restoring that begins to happen in the immediate aftermath of the apocalypse. For me, this is the possibility to tell real, important human stories - but instead, the dominant method is simply to use apocalypse as an excuse for a certain aesthetic and the ability to have dudes to shoot at.
In Tarrying With The Negative, Slavoj Zizek uses the image of the overthrow of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu to demonstrate a similar point:
Today, Romania has, of course, a new flag. The downfall and complete decimation of existing power structures still leaves many things behind, and from these, societies are rebuilt. Postapocalyptica is all the more fantastic and unbelievable simply because it pretends that human beings and ecological systems cannot, and do not, recover from partial apocalyptic devastation.
About Adam Fisher
Adam is an experienced fitness coach and blogger who's been blogging for 5+ years, coaching for 6+ years, and lifting for 12+ years. He's written for numerous major health publications, including Personal Trainer Development Center, T-Nation, Bodybuilding.com, Fitocracy, and Juggernaut Training Systems.
During that time he has coached hundreds of individuals of all levels of fitness, including competitive powerlifters and older exercisers regaining the strength to walk up a flight of stairs. His own training revolves around powerlifting and bodybuilding.
Adam writes about fitness, health, science, philosophy, personal finance, self-improvement, productivity, the good life, and everything else that interests him. When he's not writing or lifting, he's usually hanging out with his cat or feeding his video game addiction.
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