Download a free copy of Vol. 2 of the Circo del Herrero series here (free until Nov. 2).
Vol. 1 is always free.
Download a free copy of Vol. 2 of the Circo del Herrero series here (free until Nov. 2).
Vol. 1 is always free.
Which is why it’s disheartening, if I’m being generous, and maddening, if I’m being honest, to see so many new stories conforming to such old conceits. To see so many contemporary fantasy authors subscribing to antiquated models, either because of nostalgia, or the ease of well-worn roads, or, more likely, because they still feel adequately represented by them.
What a waste. The most beautiful part of writing fantasy is the freedom, not from rules—because we all know that good stories need good worlds, and good worlds, whether they’re rooted in fantasy, sci-fi, or realism, require solid scaffolding—no, not from rules, but from the exact details of the present we inhabit.
We have the opportunity to subvert the established tropes, to redefine power, to conceive of social landscapes and climates perpendicular to the ones in which we live. Fantasy allows us to explore the strengths and weaknesses of our own world through the lens of another. To draw a concept from its natural framework, its classic, well-worn context, and examine the underbelly of the idea. To restructure, and re-center. Fantasy affords the luxury of close examination—of the self, and of society—laid within a framework of escapism. It can be a commentary, a conversation, and it can simply be a refuge.
Good Fantasy operates within this seeming paradox.
It allows the writer, and by extension the reader, to use fictional and fantastical analogs to examine the dilemmas of the real world.
But it also allows the reader to escape from it. To discover a space where things are stranger, different, more.
In my opinion, there is no such thing as pure Fantasy.
Fantasy, like all stories, has its roots in reality—it grows from that soil. Stories are born from “what if…”, and that is a question that will always be rooted in the known. “What if…” by its nature is a distillation of “What if things were different?” And that question depends on a foundation of what we want them to be different from. In that sense, all fantasy is in conversation with a reality we recognize. It is a contrast, a counterpoint, and in my opinion the best fantasies are those which acknowledge and engage with that reality in some way.
Perhaps that means we see the world we are leaving—we board the train to Hogwarts, we step through the wardrobe—or perhaps we simply acknowledge the foundations on which our story is born and from which we are departing.
I’m not advocating for fantasy as an overt metaphor. The questions and counterpoints need not be the driving force of the narrative—as with Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness—but that question, “what if…?”, is strongest when it challenges the world we already know, and finds a way to pivot from it. To ask more interesting questions. To tell new stories.”
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 a die-off caused by natural disaster or plague, but simply because no children are being born. In fact, you could argue humanity is not struggling to survive, merely reaching zero population growth. The infertility itself 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 a type of apocalypse (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 produce 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:
Moving on. 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
explore other planets colonize to inhabit use up their resources. 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. Like it or not, the Christian mythos is the foundation that fuels many of 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 that if there were fewer humans on earth, mortals could force God to cash in on his threatening promises.
The Christian apocalypse 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, the post-Christian apocalypse, at its core, 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 platforms 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 2018.