Famine. Death. War. Pestilence. These are said to be the harbingers of the biblical apocalypse — Armageddon, The End of The World. In science fiction, the end of the world is usually triggered by more specific means: nuclear warfare, biological disaster (or warfare), ecological/geological disaster, or cosmological disaster. But in the wake of any great cataclysm, there are survivors — and post-apocalyptic science fiction speculates what life would be like for them.
The first significant post-apocalyptic work is The Last Man (1826), by the mother of science fiction — Frankenstein author Mary Shelley — so the sub-genre is in essence as old as science fiction itself. Although its origins are firmly rooted in science fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction has always been able to escape traditional genre boundaries. Several classic novels of the genre, such as Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, On the Beach by Nevil Shute, and Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, were published as mainstream novels. That trend is seeing a resurgence, with authors like Cormac McCarthy venturing into post-apocalyptic territory with his bleak new novel The Road–which was not only a best-selling book and an Oprah Book Club pick, but a winner of the Pulitzer Prize as well.
But SF has produced its share of novel-length classics as well, including the undisputed king of the sub-genre, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Not to mention Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass, or Wilson Tucker’s criminally underappreciated The Long Loud Silence. I could go on and on…and I do — in the “For Further Reading” appendix you’ll find at the end of this book.
Post-apocalyptic SF first rose to prominence in the aftermath World War II — no doubt due in large part to the world having witnessed the devastating destructive power of the atomic bomb — and reached the height of its popularity during Cold War, when the threat of worldwide nuclear annihilation seemed a very real possibility.
But when the Berlin Wall fell, so did the popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction. If you examine the copyright page of this anthology, you’ll note that just two of the stories in this volume were written in the ’90s. On the other hand, more than half of these stories were originally published since the turn of the millennium. So why the resurgence? Is it because the political climate now is reminiscent of the climate during the Cold War? During times of war and global unease, is it that much easier to imagine a depopulated world, a world destroyed by humanity’s own hand?
Is that all there is to it, or is there something more? What is it that draws us to those bleak landscapes–the wastelands of post-apocalyptic literature? To me, the appeal is obvious: it fulfills our taste for adventure, the thrill of discovery, the desire for a new frontier. It also allows us to start over from scratch, to wipe the slate clean and see what the world may have been like if we had known then what we know now.
Perhaps the appeal of the sub-genre is best described by this quote from “The Manhattan Phone Book (Abridged)” by John Varley:
We all love after-the-bomb stories. If we didn’t, why would there be so many of them? There’s something attractive about all those people being gone, about wandering in a depopulated world, scrounging cans of Campbell’s pork and beans, defending one’s family from marauders. Sure it’s horrible, sure we weep for all those dead people. But some secret part of us thinks it would be good to survive, to start over.
Secretly, we know we’ll survive. All those other folks will die. That’s what after-the-bomb stories are all about.
Or is that just the beginning of the conversation? Read the stories, and you decide.
The stories in this volume go beyond the “wandering,” “scrounging,” and “defending” that Varley describes above. What you will find here are tales of survival and of life in the aftermath that explore what scientific, psychological, sociological, and physiological changes will take place in the wake of the apocalypse.
What you will not find here are tales depicting the aftermath of aliens conquering the Earth, or the terror induced by a zombie uprising; both scenarios are suitably apocalyptic, but are subjects for another time (or other anthologies, as it were).
In the stories that follow, you will find 22 different science fictional apocalyptic scenarios. Some of them are far-fetched and unlikely, while others are plausible and all-too-easy to imagine. Some of the stories flirt with the fantastic. Many venture into horrific territory. All of them explore one question:
What would life be like after the end of the world as we know it?