“In the last few years we’ve developed an uneasy feeling that this could happen again, and advanced thinkers who even in Roman times thought it fine to gang up with the barbarians, have begun to question if civilization is worth preserving. Well, this is why it seems to me a good moment to look at some of the ways in which man has shown himself to be an intelligent, creative, orderly, and compassionate animal.” Kenneth Clark
Apocalyptic works are, in truth, a variation on the dystopia. Like dystopias, they borrow from science fiction’s general optimism and reverses it to generate tension. Where they differ is not in the concept, but in the direction: where dystopias paint a permanently broken society, an apocalyptic work erases it altogether, freeing the characters therein to do as they please, and observe their actions. When there are no police to call, will you be honorable and honest or devious and deceitful? It is the ultimate look within a character.
Personally, I think much of the apocalypse genre misses the point of how societies falter. You can’t smack the earth with twenty cubic miles of ice cream and expect civilization to go off like a light switch, and civilization continued to operate continuously through the medieval plagues. It doesn’t work like that: external threats bring people together. It’s the internal threats which rip civilization to shreds.
Still, there is a fascination with the light switch. Alas, Babylon, Lucifer’s Hammer, The Road, these are all books that assume if you make a bomb big enough, the lights will go out. World War Z plays off this assumption perfectly. We struggled with the zombie outbreak, sure, but communities of survivors banded together and fought back. The book takes place long after we’ve won.
There have been pseudo-apocalyptic works for a very long time, but the genre didn’t enter the public eye before the Cold War, and nuclear weapons made everyone feel uneasy, and not just those “advanced thinkers” Clark spoke of. The combined arsenals of the United States and Soviet Union could eliminate all life on the planet and render it uninhabitable for years. Surely that would be a big enough bomb.
No, it isn’t. Killing the individuals and killing the civilization are two completely different things.
To an extent, an apocalypse is wishful thinking. Some of the readers consciously want civilization to end because they feel oppressed by it, unable to do what they want, and the only way they can imagine finding this kind of freedom is to wish that civilization away. I find it ironic how SF, the genre of optimism, caters to the incurably frustrated like this.
But in this sense, the apocalypse genre is also science fiction’s most optimistic. Even if the ways society is hand-waved away don’t always make proper sense, it is the one genre which can offer perfect freedom and perfect risk. A book like The Road could have been written in no other genre.