science fiction and fantasy writer

On Apocalyptic Fiction

The theme of the Conflux 8 convention in Canberra in September 2012 was apocalypses and, particularly, apocalyptic fiction. I did a talk at the convention about the importance of looking at historical apocalypses if you’re going to write in this genre. I made my audience cry at the talk, so I thought it might be worth writing up here.

The word apocalypse originally meant a prophetic revelation of divine purpose, more than it meant cataclysm or the end of the world, but it’s that latter meaning – universal or widespread disaster – that’s most often invoked when we write apocalyptic fiction.

Some people might argue that there can’t be any apocalypses past, because there can be only one end of the world. I would argue that there are many catastrophes that have resulted in the collapse of cultures and civilizations – the end of those smaller worlds. And there are many more events that, if you were stood in the middle of them and asked to describe them, I’d suggest that ‘apocalyptic’ might be an adjective you could choose without cheapening the meaning of the word.

I started my talk at Conflux by throwing out some facts and figures, or at least, some statistics. So, here’s our pre-apocalyptic population:

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Starting within living memory, with a disaster that’s still present in popular consciousness, in nature if not in detail: In 1984, famine struck Ethiopia and its neighbours in the Horn of Africa. Around 8 million people in Ethiopia were affected, and of those at least 5% died.

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Anyone out there remember Live Aid? Bob Geldof and Queen and all that? Well, while those 400,000 people were dying, 50,000 tonnes of food aid meant to save them rotted in Ethiopia’s port. At the time, the Ethiopian government was fighting two civil wars, in the north and south of the country, and preferred to use the famine as a weapon against the rebels.

Staying in Africa, moving forward ten years to 1994, when Hutus started killing Tutsis in the Rwandan Genocide. Up to 20% of Rwanda’s population – a million people – were killed…

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…in 100 days.

Going back in time and moving to Europe in the 14th century, where the Black Death killed perhaps 40% of the continent’s population, if you average out the estimates.

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It’s estimated that the Black Death reduced the global population from 450 million to 350 million over the course of the 14th century.

Coming forward again, still in Europe. Between 1941 and 1945, around 60% of all European Jews were exterminated during the Holocaust.

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In Poland it was 90%.

Going back to the 17th century, across to the other side of the world, where between around 1600 and 1700 the population of the once-flourishing civilisation on Easter Island collapsed by about 80%.

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They cut down all the trees, ate all the birds, and then started on each other.

About century earlier, in 1520, smallpox was introduced to the American mainland. By 1600, it had reduced the indigenous population of the Americas by 90%.

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The nations that the United States fought in the Indian Wars? Those were the surviving 10%.

By 1900, after the wars…

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…the native population of North America had fallen by 97% from pre-Colombian levels.

Somewhere in all that, perhaps, is a line that divides ‘disaster’ from ‘apocalypse’. Where that line may be is, I think, an unproductive and potentially offensive topic of discussion.

So, what’s it like to live through an apocalypse?

Well, this is smallpox.

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Imagine this killing 9 of every 10 people that you know.

Surviving in these kinds of circumstances can mean making some of the hardest choices imaginable.

In 1740-41 in Ireland there was a famine known as the Potato Famine. 1 million people died, 1 million fled. The population fell by 25% and has never recovered. In his book Three Famines, Tom Keneally compares the Potato Famine with the Bengali famine of 1943 and the Ethiopian famines of the 1970s and 80s. He tells a story of a mother in Ireland with two children, one a baby. She realised that she couldn’t keep both of them alive. She chose to breastfeed the older child, and let the infant die.

These are my two kids.

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Imagine choosing.

There’s a passage in Ryzsard Kapuzcinski’s book, The Shadow of the Sun, which describes a scene from Somalia in the 1980s, which was also suffering from drought and famine alongside Ethiopia.

Hamed tells me that their poetry often recounts the drama and destruction of clans who, walking across the desert, were ultimately unable to reach a well. Such a tragic journey lasts days, even weeks. First, the sheep and goats perish. They can only go several days without water. “Then the children,” he says, adding nothing more. Neither the reactions of the mothers and fathers nor what the funerals are like. “Then the children,” he repeats, and again falls silent…”Then the women die,” he continues after a while. “Those who have survived cannot stop for long. If they were to stop after each death, they would never reach the well. One death would cause another, and then another. The clan would disappear somewhere along its route…The men and the camels live for a while still. The camel can survive without drinking for three weeks. And it can walk a long distance – five hundred kilometres or more. The whole way, the female will have a tiny bit of milk.” Those three weeks are the upper limit of life for the man and the camel, if they are all alone on the earth…They walk more and more slowly, with greater and greater effort, because the ground over which they are moving is aflame, there is heat everywhere, everything all around is blazing, burning – the stones, the sand, the air. “The man and the camel die together,” Hamed says. “It occurs when the man can no longer find milk – the camel’s udders are empty, dry and cracked. Usually, the nomad and the beast still have enough strength to drag themselves to a bit of shade…or where it seemed to the man that there was shade.

There are no choices in that story, only relentlessness and inevitability.

Those are slow apocalypses.

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What about a fast apocalypse? An atomic bomb or a tsunami, an earthquake or a volcano.

On 24 August of 79AD, Mt Vesuvius erupted, destroying the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum and killing 75% of the populations of those towns. A lot of those people died while they were standing on the docks, waiting to be rescued. Ash and hot gas blew through the towns at 500 degrees Centigrade and 160 km/h (100 miles an hour). In other words, a Category 2 cyclone, twice as hot as you’d cook a roast.

On the other side of Vesuvius to Pompeii is the city of Naples, which has a metropolitan population upwards of 4 million.

On another August day, almost nineteen centuries later, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Here’s an excerpt from the first-hand account of a survivor called Yuko Nakamura:

On that day, the first-year students of my high school had been mobilized to help dismantle buildings in the city center. Those 12-year-old girls, 220 in total, all perished by the end of the day, suffering from burns, without receiving any care or being able to see their families before dying. I wondered and still wonder for what reasons they had to die like this.

Many of the survivors, who had mutually congratulated each other after having survived the effects of the bomb, also died within a few days with acute symptoms of fever, diarrhea, vomiting, violet spots on the skin, hair loss, etc. People who had come to Hiroshima to help also showed the same symptoms and either died or suffered for a long time from radiation sickness. At the time, however, we could not even begin to imagine that these symptoms were being caused by the radioactive effects of an atomic bomb.

The atomic bombs turned both Hiroshima and Nagasaki into towns of the dead. There were red burned and bloated dead bodies piled up high, the corpses with the guts and the eyes popped out, over-capacitated trains burned black and crisp, people buried alive under buildings and dead, lines of ghost-looking people with burned frizzled hair and burned skin hanging, etc… It was not a scene of human life but a miserable hell. I never forget the mortification I had not being able to give water to those crowds of barely living survivors who were not able to save their own children or parents.

In a fast apocalypse, you don’t get much time for choices, hard or easy. You just die, or you don’t.

A large subset of apocalyptic fiction is post-apocalyptic fiction. So, what’s it really like to be born after, in the ruins?

At Conflux, I played an extract from a talk by a photographer called Aaron Huey, about his experiences with the Lakota people and the history of that nation and its wider grouping, the Sioux – all the wars that the Lakota won against the United States, the succession of broken treaties that followed them and the Lakota’s progressive loss of their lands, sovereignty, rights and hope.

About halfway through the talk, Huey comes to the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, where the US Army used the newly invented Hotchkiss gun to slaughter 300 Lakota people, including women and children. Here, he quotes the holy man, Black Elk:

I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud and was buried in the blizzard: A people’s dream died there, and it was a beautiful dream.

The people that Huey has come to know at the Pine Ridge Reservation are the survivors, five hundred years down the track, of a nation that has been through the apocalypse, and then been made war on. More than a century after the end of the wars, at Wounded Knee, 90% of the Pine Ridge’s population live below the US poverty line, infant mortality is three time the US national average, half the population over the age of 50 has diabetes. Life expectancy for men is less than 48 years.

For the indigenous population, the experience of colonisation hasn’t been so very different here in Australia. Here, smallpox ‘only’ killed around 50% of the indigenous population, rather than 90%. Other diseases – like influenza, especially – took up the slack.

When the British first founded a colony on Port Phillip Bay in 1835, the Aboriginal population of the future state of Victoria was perhaps 15,000. At Federation in 1900, it was 650.

In his book First People, historian Gary Presland writes about the experiences of the Aboriginal nations of central Victoria after colonisation. He describes the sudden and drastic drop in Aboriginal birth rates, falling to one-tenth of the death rate. Infanticide was perhaps also increasingly practiced. In 1845, it was noted that the clans immediately neighbouring the soon-to-be city of Melbourne had no children among them under the age of five. Presland offers the words of two Aboriginal clan heads from the time, which capture the sense of fatalism behind these phenomena:

You see…all this mine, all along here Derrimut’s once; no matter now, me soon tumble down…Why me have lubra? Why me have piccaninny? You have all this place, no good have children, no good have lubra, me tumble down and die very soon.” – Derrimut, a clan-head of the Yulakit-willam clan

The black lubras say now no good children, blackfellow say no country now for them, very good we kill and no more come up piccaninny.” – Billibellary, a clan-head of the Wurundjeri-willam clan

That’s what it’s like, to live on after.

Which is not to say, of course, that there’s no hope left for colonised peoples. But it’s a long, long way to be coming back from.

So where does this leave you, if you want to write apocalyptic fiction? Authentic apocalyptic fiction? Well, probably closer to The Road than George Romero.

Hell, people – it’s the apocalypse. It’s not meant to be fun.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if your fictional apocalypse is fast or slow. It doesn’t matter if it’s famine or disease or genocide or natural disaster, zombies or alien invasion. When you’re writing about it, it doesn’t even matter what your “kill count” is.

What matters is that you capture the human consequences, the experience – the choices, the hardships and feelings – of a person living through the apocalypse, or growing up in the ruins afterwards.

And, when you set out to write your own apocalypse, remember that you’re probably standing on one.

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