PLOT DEVICES FOR SCI-FI / FANTASY WRITERS
T. E. Mark’s Blog
Post-Apocalyptic novels, once a sub-genre in the Science Fiction and Fantasy, now warp shelves in bookstores and libraries. Though the plots vary, the reasons for the Apocalypse, except for a few noteworthy exceptions, typically don’t. If it wasn’t a thermonuclear war that splashed away the bulk of humanity, leaving just a sampling for a merry little story of bleak desolation, most mutated and deranged to some degree, it was a bio-terror agent, an untimely plague, asteroids, or those blasted computers.
So, how will you explain your ‘end-of-the-world’ almost saga? Will you address it at all? Many writers have simply left it to the reader’s or viewer’s imagination. How about your survivors? Will they be bloodthirsty zombies prone to cannibalism, or scraggly survivalists simply open to the idea? Let’s ingest a few lit and film examples, then explore the science involved with an almost complete human annihilation, and finish with a little speculation.
Post-Apocalyptic Scenarios in Science Fiction and Fantasy
Post-Apocalyptic Science in Science Fiction and Fantasy
Post-Apocalyptic Scenarios in Science Fiction and Fantasy
The strategy when setting out to design your post-apocalyptic masterpiece of dreadful awfulness and gloomy dreariness, when viewed as an outline, is quite simple, really. Find a way to end the world making sure the majority of the survivors are zombies or at least creepy and very much like zombies. Allow only your heroes to maintain, somehow, an IQ over 50, (This is essential) and be sure not to skimp on the pervasive gloominess – even if your world manages to end pleasantly.
The apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic theme is hardly new. The stories, in fact, date as far back as organised civilisation. Basically, every known religion describes, in one form or another, an end of the world.
Buddha predicted an apocalypse 5000 years following his death. (Roughly 4600 CE) Christianity – ‘Judgement Day.’ (Date not specified) Islam – ‘Yawm ad-Din’ or ‘Day of Judgement.’ (Date not specified) Zoroastrianism – A 3000-year struggle between good and evil culminating in the Sun and Moon darkening and the world falling into unending winter.
From the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, (ca 1500 – 2000 BCE) to Mary Shelley’s, ‘The Last Man,’ (1826) religious and secular writers have been consumed with the concept of an end. An apocalypse.
Following World War II, the concept of nuclear destruction assumed dominance over post-apocalyptic literature.
‘On The Beach,’ (1957) by Neville Shute. Film version, (1959) starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. The northern hemisphere is polluted with radiation and the fallout is spreading south. And the men despatched on a submarine to uncover the bright spot in this breezy, radiant tale find the only answer is to return home to die slowly with their families. (A guaranteed winner on date night.)
‘Mad Max: The Road Warrior, (1981) by George Miller. The quest is for gasoline and the plight is survival in this whacked out world filled with scary guys sporting red Mohawks in perplexingly fashionable leather outfits.
Awesome film with a very refined grittiness to it. And boy, I sure hope Australia has some nicer looking real estate on hand, because I’m certain this film did little to increase tourist revenue.
‘The Book of Eli,’ (2010) starring Denzel Washington as a walker following a nuclear holocaust, killing nearly as many people as Cholera trying to keep the only remaining copy of the King James Bible from Gary Oldman.
Clever plot. Credit Washington and Oldman for stellar performances and the cinematographers for a neat film effect giving everything a surreal – scorched look.
Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, ‘The Road,’ (2007) film, starring Viggo Motensen. (2009) This is a haunting work in which a father and son, after an implied holocaust, try making it through some truly disturbing scenes to the coast, presumably for a change of scenery. A great but truly depressing book. Read with caution. This one could dampen the day in which you won both the lottery and a Nobel Prize. (I have not seen the film.)
‘A Boy and his Dog,’ (1975) A teen and his grumpy telepathic dog set out across the remains of the US southwest avoiding nefarious gangs, glowing radioactive mutants, and maniacal robots. Though a failure when released, it has since become a bit of a cult classic. (I loved it!)
‘I Am Legend,’ (2007) starring Will Smith. A classic with Smith delivering up possibly his best performance to date as Officer Robert Neville, an Army Virologist, and possibly, presumably, more than likely the last non-zombie alive on Earth until Alice Braga shows up, saves him from the zombies, makes him breakfast, then sets about getting him killed. By the zombies.
A few more notables
This genre is packed and I’d like to mention a few more of my favourites with brief comments.
‘Wall-E,’ (2008) by Pixar. Though an animated family film, this one actually scores big. No nukes, plagues or bio-toxins – Waste. Add to that, the effects of sedentary humans on space ships with their eyes glued to video screens losing the ability to walk, or even to look at each other. (This is the story I wish I had written. Fun – Witty – Meaningful.)
‘Planet of the Apes,’ (1963) by Pierre Boulle. Film, (1973) starring Charlton Heston. An absolute classic with time travel and a neat simian twist.
‘Ornyx and Crake,’ (2003) A poignant novel by Margaret Atwood. World destruction a la climate change and consumerism. Credit Ms Atwood with an almost scary imagination. (My highest recommendation.)
‘Childhood’s End,’ (1953) by Arthur C Clarke. If you’ve somehow managed to miss this one, shame on you. (No comment on the plot. Too deep for a one-line rif!)
‘World War Z,’ (2006) by Max Brooks. Film adaptation starring Brad Pitt. (2013) As an ardent opponent of zombies, I admit to having intentionally neglected this novel and film. The inclusion here is merely the façade of impartiality. (Both the book and film received screaming reviews.)
’12 Monkeys,’ (1995) by Terry Gilliam. TV series, (2013 – ) starring Aaron Stanford. World-wide bad-guy released plague with a Time-Travel Twist. (Great – great film and the TV series is a Sy-Fy channel smash.)
Post-Apocalyptic Science in Science Fiction and Fantasy
Have apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic scenarios been exaggerated in Science Fiction and Fantasy? In this section, I’ll pull the apocalyptic plot device from examples and weigh in the scientific plausibility.
Thermonuclear destruction – What is the probability the Earth would suffer the scale of worldwide destruction as depicted in ‘The Book of Eli,’ ‘The Road,’ or ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz?’
At present, there are approximately 20,500 nuclear warheads in the world. Assuming these devices average in the range of 33,500 Kilotons, (A reasonable estimate) there are enough to not only leave the Earth virtually uninhabitable, if not fully uninhabitable, but to totally destroy Earth’s landmasses.
Certainly to be viewed as a worst case scenario, but does support the scale of destruction depicted in most post-apocalyptic literature and film.
Worldwide Pandemic – What is the true potential of a worldwide pandemic as depicted in such works as ’12 Monkeys,’ ‘I Am Legend,’ or ‘World War Z?’
Quoting here from a defence department document declassified in 2009 regarding an influenza pandemic.
‘State, local and tribal jurisdictions will be overwhelmed and unable to provide or ensure the provision of essential commodities and services. A pandemic could also cause significant economic and security ramifications; including large-scale social unrest due to fear of infection or concerns about safety.’
Extrapolating from this, and similar documents by the US Department of Homeland Security, as well as predictions from other countries, yes, the post-apocalyptic scenarios in Sci-Fi are real enough and hardly over dramatized.
Worldwide Zombie Pandemic – What is the potential a rabies-like virus could mutate naturally, or with a little diabolical intervention, thereby transforming people into zombies?
A virus, like rabies, does attach itself to the subject’s DNA and begin self-replication. Thus, even without human intervention, there exists a possibility, albeit minute, that people, once exposed, could become rabid flesh-eating maniacs.
Would it be ‘World War Z’ ‘The Walking Dead,’ or ‘I Am Legend?’ Without some ingenious, though significantly warped, scientist cooking up some elaborate viral concoction, probably not. But there is enough scientific evidence to support, in a way… this thoroughly improbable scenario.
Climate Change – Could Climate Change take on the image of ‘Oryx and Crake,’ ‘The Day After Tomorrow,’ or ‘Breathe?’
A secret report, suppressed by the US defence chiefs, warns that over the next 20-years Climate Change could lead to a global catastrophe costing millions of lives in wars and natural disasters. Major European cities would be sunk beneath rising seas. Britain would become a distant twin to Siberia. Hurricanes would increase in numbers and intensity. Droughts would claim vast regions seriously diminishing the world’s food supply.
Besides the effects of dangerously misguided weather, (Drought – Drastic Temperature fluctuations –Tornadoes – Hurricanes) this one carries with it virtually all other apocalyptic scenarios. War – Social unrest – Economic collapse – Armed conflict amongst the survivors – Certain political leaders seeking to revise their past claims – Other political leaders seeing great potential benefit over those past claims.
Asteroids – Could we follow the dinosaurs?
Are ‘Lucifer’s Hammer’ and ‘Armageddon’ conceivable scenarios? If so, how much destruction would there be, and what post-apocalyptic world would the survivors face?
If a large enough asteroid, say, one with a diameter of 500 km collided with the Earth, the impact would peel the 10 km crust off our planet’s surface. The resultant shock wave, travelling at ‘hyper-sonic’ speeds, would reach all regions of the globe within minutes. Debris from the collision would be blasted into a low-Earth orbit then return destroying the surface of the Earth. A firestorm, resulting from the impact, would circle the globe vaporizing all life on the planet.
Not a pretty scenario.
On a smaller scale, the aftermath would be much like that of a full nuclear war but without the fallout.
Societal Decline – Several notable titles come to mind, including, ‘Mad Max,’ ‘1984,’ and ‘Escape from New York.’
This is a difficult one on which to comment as there exists little in the way of noteworthy scientific or mathematical research.
Societies could certainly degrade, becoming harsh and autocratic resulting in civil unrest and disobedience. Lawlessness could undermine authoritarian regimes dividing societies into the blockaded elite and the chaotic, crime-ridden streets.
The one common theory is that this scenario, were it to become manifest, would be localised. A single country consumed in civil war, for instance. For it to consume the globe, the world would need to be under one ruling authority or closely allied authorities.
An AI Takeover – Could the scenarios depicted in ‘The Matrix,’ ‘iRobot,’ ‘Logan’s Run’ or ‘The Terminator’ really take place?
Artificial Intelligence is on the horizon. At this juncture, I do NOT see us abandoning the research in spite of the warnings by such notable figures as Stephen Hawking, Cambridge, Elon Musk, Space X and Tesla Motors, Steve Wozniak, Apple Computers, or Bill Gates, Microsoft.
Whether a worldwide Intelligent Machine controlled society would determine mankind a nuisance and decide to eliminate us, thus creating that post-apocalyptic world, is certainly a worthy and timely debate.
Follow this link to an earlier issue dedicated to Artificial Intelligence for a more in-depth review of the notable pieces in fiction, the science behind AI, and some thoughtful speculation about the future of Synthetic Intelligence. https://temarkauthor.wordpress.com/2017/02/02/artificial-intelligence/
This is where I typically offer my ideas about the topic and hopefully pose enough thought provoking questions to provoke thought.
With the sheer breadth of this topic, I will offer my speculation a bit differently than I have in the past. I’d like to hypothesize three post-apocalyptic scenarios, I believe, have yet to be explored. Please feel free to write me if I have in fact mused a device already in use, but, for some reason have yet to read or see it.
Genetic Mutation / Infertility – What if infertility rates in women increased naturally – simply due to genetic mutation, as in evolution?
With birth rates falling, and entire regions becoming depopulated, how would the world with a rapidly diminishing population look? How could it function, or even survive?
Would we pour our resources into robotics in an effort to replace the disappearing workforce? Would we resort to growing babies in birthing centres as in Huxley’s ‘Brave New World?’
Would human beings be forced into small, walled-in enclaves as in the Middle Ages merely holding on until the end?
I would be surprised if this one has NOT been explored. This could be a wonderful, albeit grim, post-apocalyptic plot for a thoroughly depressing novel.
Technology – What would happen if we became so reliant upon technology (Wearable AI devices etc) that we actually regressed intellectually – and continued regressing? (Think deeply on this one for a moment.)
What if the AI system eventually found us a nuisance and decided to eliminate us? On the other hand, what if the AI system decided we were better off as we were and decided to disconnect us?
How would we adapt as mere children – uneducated children in adult bodies?
This is a rich concept, one which I’ve actually explored in a book I had published in 2016 titled ‘AHNN.’
The book is presented with abundant humour, permeated with subtle metaphors, and offers a novel view of a society reliant on advanced computer technology and constant connectivity.
There are no schools, as there is no need for schools. Everyone is connected to a massive system of intelligent computers at birth when they receive their first neural implant.
One final speculation – What if something happened to the Gravitational Constant of the universe? Possibly from an accident?
What would happen to the Earth if it moved farther away from the sun? Could we find a way to survive taking up the orbit Mars once held? Or, Jupiter? Saturn?
Gravity causes the Stars to burn by fusing hydrogen atoms under intense gravity into Helium. What if there was a 10% to 20% drop in the intensity of the Sun’s energy?
What if gravity fell to a point where the Earth and the other planets were simply let go? The Earth – a Rogue planet, drifting endlessly in space. (This is, in fact, the plot of an early novel I wrote titled ‘Abeyance’ which was entirely rewritten and published as ‘Never a Sun Rises’ in April 2017.
I’ve enjoyed writing this issue of my PLOT DEVICES FOR SCI-FI / FANTASY READERS AND WRITERS, and hope you’ve been at least modestly enriched and inspired by my exploration of Post-Apocalyptic Scenarios in Science Fiction, Fantasy and in real science.
If my work pleases you, consider sharing this with your networking pals, and maybe picking up one of my recently published novels:
‘AHHN’ (Revised Edition Published – Nov 2017)
‘No Way Out’ (Published – Oct 2017)
‘Love in the Time of Apocalypse’ (Published – June 2017)
‘Alina’ (Published – May 2017)
‘Never a Sun Rises’ (Published – April 2017)
‘Fractured Horizons: A Time Travel Odyssey’ (Published – Jan 2017)
‘…but then, why Mars really?’ (Published – Dec 2016)
T.E.Mark is a Freelance Writer, Author, Language Teacher and Violinist. He has written novels for young and adult readers, and continues to write science articles for national and international magazines.
He also writes a Pop Culture blog titled ‘The Urban Scratch Project’ https://temarkurbanscratch.wordpress.com