A brief history of the end of the world in science fiction

Posted on February 01, 2023 by Alison Fox

Today's guest post, an excerpt from the introduction to American Cities in Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction by Robert Yeates, is posted to celebrate National Science Fiction Day! Download it free from

Where modern cities have grown and flourished since the late nineteenth century, so too have artistic imaginings of their downfall. Many of these found expression in a form of fiction that emerged concurrently with the expansive industrialization, modernization and urbanization of late nineteenth- century America. This speculative form was focussed on fantastic futures and was closely entwined with contemporary technological and scientific innovation, and would later come to be known as sf. Post- apocalyptic themes have featured frequently in sf since the beginnings of the genre, but post- apocalyptic fictions significantly predate the genre of sf. Tracing the origins of the post- apocalyptic mode as it arose in sf thus requires us to go further back, far beyond the formation of the modern American city.

Broadly defined, apocalyptic (and its subset post- apocalyptic) fictions involve imaginings of catastrophic change on a societal, hominal, environmental or celestial level. As Claire P. Curtis describes, apocalypses need not require ‘the destruction of all humans or even the destruction of all potential conditions of human life’, but are nonetheless characterized by ‘a radical shift in the basic conditions of human life’. Many critics frame the history of apocalyptic literature as emerging from the foundations of Judeo- Christian theology but, as one might expect, apocalyptic stories arose in written and oral texts much earlier and are far more global than such a framing suggests. Elizabeth K. Rosen notes that the influences of the biblical apocalypse can be traced ‘to the ancient civilizations of the Vedic Indians, Egyptians, Persians, Mesopotamians, and Greeks’. Abbas Amanat writes that recent scholarship has traced visions of the end of the world ‘in cultures as far and wide as Chinese, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Pre- Columbian American, indigenous African, Latin American and Pacific Islands’. The word ‘apocalypse’ in its contemporary usage in English has its etymological origins in the Greek ‘apokalypsis, meaning “unveiling” or “uncovering” ’, and, through its use in Judeo- Christian and Islamic contexts, was historically applied to revelatory endings characterized by the ultimate judgement of a cosmic power.

Lois Parkinson Zamora notes that biblical apocalyptic visions, especially the Revelation of St John, ‘began to inspire a significant body of imaginative literature and visual art in the later Middle Ages, and have continued to do so, variously and abundantly’. The Judeo- Christian apocalyptic imagination reached North America with the first settlement by Europeans, leading Douglas Robinson to assert that ‘the very idea of America in history is apocalyptic, arising as it did out of the historicizing of apocalyptic hopes in the Protestant Reformation’. By the early seventeenth century, a body of what Paul K. Alkon describes as ‘futuristic fiction’ had begun to emerge in Europe and America, though these did not proliferate until the early nineteenth century. These fictions were ‘prose narratives explicitly set in future time’ but which, in contrast to earlier literary and artistic representations, marked a move away from strict interpretation of biblical prophecies towards more original imaginings of futurity. An influential example of the apocalyptic in such future fictions is Jean- Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s Le dernier homme, ouvrage posthume, first published in France in 1805 and translated into English as The Last Man: or Omegarus and Syderia, a romance in futurity in 1806. Originally intended as an epic poem, Le dernier homme was published as a prose work divided into the poetic structure of cantos. Its story is, according to Alkon, ‘an unmistakable analogue to the Book of Revelation’, but Grainville’s translation of biblical apocalypse to a creative imagining of the future inspired several early writers working in the genre that would become sf.

Brian Aldiss, in his history of the genre Billion Year Spree (1973; revised and expanded in 1986 as Trillion Year Spree), famously proposed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) to be the first example of sf. While this claim has been the subject of much discussion and disagreement by scholars of sf, Frankenstein is today often taken to be a key text in the formation of the genre, with many works of scholarship accepting Aldiss’s claim. Numerous attempts by sf scholars to settle on a single, comprehensive definition of the genre, however, led Paul Kincaid to declare in 2003 that ‘There is no starting point for science fiction. There is no one novel that marks the beginning of the genre. The failure to develop a single and unifying definition of sf, despite noble efforts by scholars over many decades, necessitates working with definitions and histories which are always incomplete and imperfect. For the purposes of this capsule history, I will follow the commonly agreed upon claim that Frankenstein marks a beginning in the development of sf, a genre which would coalesce into a generally recognizable form by the mid- twentieth century. For a working definition of sf, I focus on elements common to most definitions of the genre proposed by scholars: that sf is a speculative genre concerned with possible futures, alternative presents or reimagined pasts, which defamiliarizes or reorients our relationship to the everyday through an imaginative conceit, and which is grounded by a focus on what is generally seen to be scientifically possible. Following the meeting of gothic fantasy and emerging fields of scientific enquiry in Frankenstein, the nascent genre of sf gained momentum over the nineteenth century with the rise of fiction- focussed magazines such as Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (first published in 1817) in the UK and the Southern Literary Messenger (first published in 1834) in the US. Sf and the medium of magazines grew together gradually, and the relationship befitted the meeting of experimental narrative content and form. The fragmented form of serialized magazine publication and the myriad styles encountered in individual issues made this an ideal medium to house a genre that was still indistinct and finding its  identity, composed as it was from fragments of the conventions of gothic, detective and adventure stories. It also meant that the genre and its  venues were highly suited to depicting fractured, ruined and repurposed fictional spaces in their narratives, spaces embodied through the  embracing of post- apocalyptic urban settings in sf.

Apocalyptic and post- apocalyptic themes came to sf early in its development. Perhaps the clearest early example of fiction which uses a scientific approach to representing the end of the world is Shelley’s tale of global plague The Last Man (1826), published only eight years after Frankenstein. In the two centuries since then, post- apocalyptic sf has become a substantial subgenre of sf, though again the struggle to define sf causes difficulties. As Diletta De Cristofaro writes, in the years since sf developed into a popularly recognizable genre, ‘narratives of a future in ruins are generally subsumed under the umbrella term of SF’, whether or not these works adhere to the realms of scientific possibility. We ought, therefore, to distinguish between the continuation of earlier forms of post- apocalyptic fiction and post- apocalyptic sf. The former includes works which involve elements of religious or otherwise supernatural apocalypticism, such as the long- running Left Behind series of novels (1995– 2007) by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, which are based around the Christian rapture. The latter category, post- apocalyptic sf, is a subgenre of sf rooted in a world deemed possible by our current understandings of science. Post- apocalyptic sf may therefore reflect various contemporary issues affecting the modern city, such as the dangers of new technologies, overdependence on infrastructure, overcrowding, the spread of deadly diseases, pollution and damage to the environment, failure of municipal government and law enforcement, totalitarianism, terrorism, wars, and the spilling over of tensions between groups artificially divided by race, class, gender and sexuality. Such stories tend to depict catastrophic, cataclysmic destruction visited upon the city, and confront us with a vision of our world today, a version of the world which might have been, or a world which might still be, in a state of comprehensive ruination.

As sf in Europe and America developed and proliferated during the twentieth century, often being one of the first genres to test the capabilities and push the boundaries of new and developing media forms, post- apocalyptic depictions of cities in ruin spread with it. Permeating all forms of media, post- apocalyptic sf stories are now so well established as to be enjoyed around the world across generational and other demographic boundaries. As I write in 2021, this subgenre seems to be ideally suited to experimenting with emerging media, as creators can test their capabilities in worlds which by design are fragmentary, unfamiliar and new, in much the same way as early sf did in the magazines. Examples of this include the long- running and Reuben Award- winning webcomic Stand Still. Stay Silent (2013– present) by Minna Sundberg, the augmented reality (AR) mobile game for Android smartphones The Walking Dead: Our world (2017), and the critically acclaimed and popular virtual reality (VR) computer game Half-Life: Alyx (2020). In testing the capabilities of new representational technologies and in anticipating the desires of their audience, storytellers working in post- apocalyptic sf create worlds that are similarly disassembled and partially reconstructed into an unconventional and yet familiar form. As such these post- apocalyptic worlds symbolize both the genre of sf and the media through which it is produced and received, for both are the result of the reimagining of a combination of previous forms.

Since the 1980s, some scholars have characterized post- apocalyptic sf as demonstrating a postmodern tendency towards belief in a ‘chaotic, indifferent, and possibly meaningless universe’. This characterization might arguably be applied to many examples of post- apocalyptic sf released in the late twentieth and early twenty- first centuries, such as Paul Auster’s haunting novel In the Country of Last Things (1987), the film The Road (2009), adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s sombre 2006 novel of the same name, and the violent and emotionally devastating video game The Last of Us Part II (2020). Such a reading neglects the full range of purposes to which post- apocalyptic settings in sf have been applied, however. To take a handful of examples from video games alone, ruined cities provide an environment for social and political satire in Beneath a Steel Sky (1994) and A New Beginning (2010); the experimental problem- solving of the open- world ‘sandboxes’ of Fallout: New Vegas (2010) and Metro: Exodus (2019); the creative, challenging puzzles of Portal 2 (2011) and Bastion (2011); and the cooperative, social experiences of the online multiplayer games Left 4 Dead (2008) and Day-Z (2018). With varied and creative depictions of post- apocalyptic cities across multiple media, it is no surprise that there has developed a strain of overt comedies set in or around cities devastated by apocalyptic events. Early examples include the films Night of the Comet (1984) and Radioactive Dreams (1985), and a notable recent example is the critically acclaimed American television comedy The Last Man on Earth (2015– 18), which ran for four series on the Fox network. This strain even includes a lively subcategory, the zombie romantic comedy (sometimes abbreviated to ‘zomromcom’), with prominent film releases including Shaun of the Dead (2004), Zombieland (2009) and Warm Bodies (2013). The accessibility and versatility of post- apocalyptic cities have made them popular as settings for young adult novels, such as the Hunger Games series (2008– 20), the Maze Runner series (2009– 16) and the Divergent trilogy (2011– 13), each of which has grown into a highly popular cross- media franchise, and even in texts suitable for children, such as Pixar’s animated film WALL-E (2008).

While comic and sometimes family- friendly texts represent one somewhat niche end of the spectrum, this book is primarily concerned with those texts which occupy the overwhelming middle of that spectrum: texts that readily engage with both real contemporary urban concerns and the desire to explore experimental, creative and sometimes hopeful post- apocalyptic urban spaces. Always in these texts, at least in the background, there is a continuous resonance of real- life tragedies, inequities and fears, but so too is there always in any cultural artefact which honestly engages with its historical moment. These are stories as much about our own worlds as they are fictions. As Margaret Atwood, author of several highly popular post- apocalyptic and dystopian novels, recently put it: ‘Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it’s always about now. What else could it be about? There is no future. There are many possibilities, but we do not know which one we are going to have.’ In post- apocalyptic sf set in cities, there are clear resonances of contemporary discussions around the lifecycles of architecture, humanity’s relationship with the environment, and how people successfully live and thrive in urban spaces. While post- apocalyptic sf texts certainly engage with contemporary urban concerns, they can nonetheless simultaneously create spaces which are enticing for audiences and which encourage repeat encounters with dramatic visions of urban ruin.

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