This essay will explore the post-apocalyptic genre’s pro-natalist tendencies serving as the vehicle of “hope.” It argues that colonialism and apocalypse are symptoms of pro-natalism fixations. In a similar vein of Annalee Newitz’s work Scatter, Adapt, and Remember,it concludes with a brief exploration on how humanity might change when changing the narrative.
Be it natural disaster, war, famine, alien invasion, robots, zombie attacks, or all of the above, post-apocalyptic literature and film are usually about hope. Hope that no, this is not the end. There is more. We will rebuild it.
In these post-apocalyptic stories, our hope is a hope for what was there before the apocalypse. But, at best, humankind tends to set goals of starting at square one (reestablishing civilization, the population, surviving until those points are achievable, etc.). These goals tend to ignore that “starting over” is a cyclical thing to hope for and that humankind is doomed to repeat its mistakes once it reaches its next apocalyptic turning point. It is not what I would call a “true solution” to avoid another “Armageddon.” The struggle perpetuates itself through never breaking the cycle—through putting our hope in the next generation, as if they will get it right the next time.
This is when the theme of “hope” becomes synonymous with “children.”
This hope is seen very well in the film Children of Men—where humanity is in the tank not because it is necessarily struggling to survive against a die-off caused by natural disaster or plague, but simply because no children are being born. In fact, you could argue it is not struggling to survive, merely reaching zero population growth. The infertility spurs chaos. The message is, essentially, that there is no purpose for life if you cannot leave a legacy behind (such as art) for the future to appreciate. History becomes meaningless when it stops with you and religion becomes a crutch to get you through the despair. At the end of the film, the viewer is left with the “hope” that the only child born in the last eighteen years will restore, you could say, not only the species, but our humanity. However, putting all that pressure on one child is a slightly selfish spin on things and a risky ratio. There are still too many eggs in one basket—a basket of pro-natalist fantasies.
In a short story titled “As Good As New,” published by Tor and written by Charlie Jane Anders, a young woman—a lone survivor of some recent apocalypse—finds a genie and uses her three wishes to restore humanity back to the day before it went to hell. She uses one of her wishes to reverse all apocalypses—overlooking that she, too, is the result of what Annalee Newitz, based off her work Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, would call a “mass extinction apocalypse” (goodbye dinosaurs…). And she uses her last wish to keep the genie “in the family” so that she and her descendants can stop the apocalypse from ever happening again—should they ever need to. It is a delightful and witty story, and it highlights the fact that even the author knows the human tendency to just keep screwing things up. But what undermines it is the main character’s faith in her own DNA to keep an apocalypse from ever happening again—as if the family won’t eventually have some evil spawns or even infertility. The story makes for a very natalist excuse to keep on breeding and doing “what humans do” without true introspection.
A less post-apocalyptic example (but nonetheless approaching apocalyptic) is the BBC TV show UTOPIA, where the protagonists try to stop a secret organization that wants to sterilize the world population by putting something undetectable in our food. The show often vilifies or makes pitiful the characters who actually want population control or see it as humanity’s only hope.
The pro-natalist protagonists (kind of) stop the organization from releasing the medicated food, but they offer up no solutions on how to help their downward-spiraling world avoid its breaking point. Thus, the population is left to just “keep breeding.” Or, perhaps, something even more depressing:
In the 2014 film Interstellar, we see that Earth has been used up by humanity’s (undoubtedly) selfish ways (abusive agriculture, using up of resources, other dick moves) and so we must go colonize explore other planets to use up their resources inhabit. This movie trailer is so blatant in its obvious colonialism that I dreaded the movie before it even came out. Matthew McConaughey’s character goes into space for his children and their future. What makes this post-apocalyptic story unique is that the Earth and what remains are not used to respark civilization. Yet, the driving force behind it all is still children and fighting for our species to live on regardless of our responsibility to the world we leave behind.
In an ironic twist, perhaps one of the few apocalyptic stories to break the natalist trope is the Christian apocalypse. The mythos of the Christian version is part of the foundation that fuels our fears and interests in these stories of “the end times.” Karen Armstrong, in her book The Gospel According to Woman, observes that Saint Augustine “was clear that if everybody stopped marrying and having children that would be an admirable thing: it would mean that the Kingdom of God would return all the sooner and the world would come to an end. By continuing to propagate the human race we were simply holding up Christ’s glorious return.” What makes the Christian apocalypse so complex (and perhaps most inventive) is not just that the apocalypse will still theoretically happen no matter if you are natalist or anti-natalist, but that if there were fewer humans on earth, mortals could force God to cash in on his threatening promises.
The Christian apocalypse story is one that is still inserting itself into the genre, most recently in the 2014 Nicolas Cage Left Behind film (which I did not watch and don’t need to, because I think we all get the idea). The only reason that version of the Christian end-of-days is not a natalist orgy apoc-pile is because all the innocent little babies have been raptured up to God and God no longer needs humans to be good Christian breeders. But Left Behind fills a grey area: it is not post-apocalyptic, only apocalyptic—and it is something desired to happen (by Christians). The desire, coming either from revenge on sinners or for peace on earth, is what makes the story and all its versions ambiguous. What comes after said apocalypse depends on your interpretation and belief (i.e. what does “heaven on earth” mean to you? Will we be defined as human at that point? Will breeding even be a concept? All this is irrelevant and beside the point…). Whatever happens post-Christian apocalypse, at its core, it has no focus on children or future generations; it is a focus of the past and present being given “eternal life”—not adding new life.
The Christian apocalypse subverts the natalist trope and instead places hope in Christ or some version of heaven. The Christian apocalypse does not hinge on whether or not you think having children is a moral issue, though today the Christian stance seems to be so go ahead and breed anyway (as seen with generalized, conservative Christian stances on birth control, family values, and their view of the world as a disposable resource). Thus, since it is a story recounted and upheld by pro-natalists, we cannot claim that the Christian apocalypse, as story, is anti-natalist. At best, it is neutral. It still breaks from the norm and can highlight what the “norm” is for this genre, however.
At this point, you may be wondering if post-apocalyptic stories can exist at all without natalist fantasy or religion propping them up, and I am here to tell you that there are ways and I would like to see more of them. Just because the human era is dwindling does not mean our story is ending in these post-apocalyptic stories. Our hope does not have to be contingent on human children. Hope can be explored in the uploading of our minds into a matrix-like computer where we can become immortal and not “need” to repopulate. We can become cyborgs that don’t need to depend on current human resources. We can even become a completely different species: a good example of this is the book/film, The Girl with All the Gifts, where hybrid zombie-human children, whose reproductive status is moot, are the future. Not humans themselves. Stories which break the natalist mold in such a way are a refreshing rarity and are cause for us to examine our choices and the genre.
Post-apocalyptic stories are usually clouded with flying storks. At the genre’s core is a cliché not readily broken, perhaps highlighting the human psyche in ways our storytellers could more actively address. Because, if our characters really cared about future generations, they wouldn’t have let the apocalypse happen in the first place.
This post was updated in 2017.