One would think that loving the world’s end is a trait reserved for those of a more…
Let’s say… darker nature, those that perhaps liked playing with matches just a little too much. If you have the time, take a thirty second tour of your local book store to see that reality is in fact the opposite. The rather frightening truth is that it seems we enjoy reading about the toppling of all that there is, and even I count myself among those readers. To me, this begs the question of why. Sure deep down we’re all a little twisted and crazy, but why as a species do we enjoy imagining our end? It seems… almost counter-productive. Then again though maybe it’s actually productive, yet another subtle evolutionary gift installed in each and every one of us.
But who knows? Certainly not I, but since I’m the writer here, I’m going to pretend like I do.
1. We love the fact some part of us (humanity) always survives
We all love the underdog, and in this case I think it’s fair to say we are all the underdog. In most apocalypse scenarios I’d say the apocalypse usually stands a far greater chance of winning then we do. Nukes, aliens, meteors, or whatever it is ravaging the earth, generally does so better than we survive it. But the characters that do are what we love to read. Trials and challenges too, sure, but survival and continuance first. Say what you will about the selfishness of people but no one really wants the absolute extinction of the human race. I believe there is a comfort in seeing our species survive the un-survivable, or in some cases, a peace. It’s a scary thought knowing that one day there will in actuality be a single human left, so seeing some of us survive is sort of a reassurance. Humanity is in a lot of ways no different than a virus. Despite how odd that sounds, it’s true. Viruses may not turn on each other like we do, but there is (in a way) a collective human consciousness that strives to survive just like a virus. And we very much enjoy reading about it.
2. We like seeing humanity boiled down
I’d like to begin by pointing out that I don’t mean that title literally, just in case for some bizarre reason you thought I did. That would be… gross. No, here I mean that humanity is a very complex thing and seeing it post-apocalypse is a rare chance to glimpse it ‘boiled down.’ We have not been a simple species for a very long time, so we envision what it must have once been like by projecting it into a possible future.
Humanity has worked very hard and very long to build us to the heights we sit at today, to the point where it’s actually difficult imagining a world that operates differently than this one does. So, when given a chance to see how humanity could possibly work under a set of very different circumstances, we jump at the chance to read. Who knows what it would really be like, and this is (hopefully) as close as we’re ever going to get in our lifetimes. So we follow these stories of chaos in a potential future and watch how humanity functions as a simple machine compared to the giant combination of systems it is today. We wonder if it’s even possible for what we are today to revert back into what we were a very long time ago. In short, we like seeing humanity bare bones.
Again, not literally.
3. We love seeing order from chaos
We love reading of chaos, yes, but mostly because we enjoy seeing order rise out from that chaos. Our brains are (yes, literally here) programmed to find order from mess. Our brains in fact reward us for finding order from chaos, and reading of it in a fictional story is no different than the way we clean and organize our offices. In the apocalypse sense we like seeing structure return to a world wrought by aliens or meteors or alien meteors. We are a reliant species that depend on one another unlike any other, so we can’t help but love the cleaning up of a destroyed world.
In another way, order from chaos is also a kind of hope. When something good returns from something bad, there is hope that it can stay that way. I don’t need to explain here why we like hope the way we do, but I will say that in one way or another hope can be found in almost every novel there is. We love reading about hope for a great many reasons, and order from chaos is one of the greatest examples of hope there is. Perhaps a little ironically though, for there to be the hope from chaos we love so dearly, there has to be a catastrophe in the first place, hence our love for apocalypses.
This is all to say that a large part of why we enjoy our potential downfall(s) is because of the order from chaos. There’s that allure of something from nothing that attracts us. Rags to riches, something from nothing, zero to hero.
I think you get what I mean.
4. Preparing us for an actual apocalypse
I kinda spoke about it above, and though I don't necessarily believe it, I think it’s a train of thought worth mentioning. Again, it's a rather dark series of thoughts to follow but what better way to prepare for the end than by reading of 100 different scenarios?
Ask anyone under the age of 15 if they think they have what it takes to survive in some post-apocalyptic world. I have neither the time nor the willpower to do a survey like this myself, but I'm willing to assume that the majority of them said they were confident in their abilities to avoid mass hordes of zombies (I’m quite scientific as you can see). There are very many TV shows and books that cater to those that favour ruined worlds, and clearly most cannot be considered realistic, but there are a few out there I feel could be entirely possible under the right circumstances.
Now beside those crazies (not you, fellow writers) that live in the hills with enough guns to invade Canada, most people don't have a apocalypse plan in place. But, subliminally, I do believe over the course of a few good series I have learned a thing or two about what could possibly happen (though I mean this in the vaguest possible terms). One series in particular by S. M. Stirling does (at least in the first novel) have some things happen that I humbly think possible.
Dies The Fire is good at creating a post-apocalyptic world that goes through what I imagine as the likely stages. Though the apocalypse itself is not realistic, I believe what follows is. The chaos, the confusion (that many books forget), then panic, then an attempt at order, then true chaos, then factions, then kingdoms, and after a long while of turmoil, finally acceptance.
I don't really believe that people read these books solely on the hope they are preparation, in fact I think that’s rather ludicrous, but perhaps there is some evolutionary trait in us that we can’t see driving us to prepare for the worst.
Hey, what can I say? I’m a sci-fi nut at heart.
You know what, that makes for a story in itself.
(I keep telling you this is why writers are crazy)
5. There’s nothing terrible left to fear
This one’s a bit dark, but nevertheless I think it’s an aspect of why apocalypses can be so appealing to read and (maybe statistically) envision.
I think most would concur that today’s headlines are rather invariably grim, and perhaps in their own way tease at some coming crises or another. War, drought, terror, an avid newsreader cannot escape the frightening and bold titles that subtly promise impending doom (though it’s certainly better today than it once was).
Ever hear that deceivingly depressive song? You probably did once in history class, or maybe from a parent or grandparent growing up. Go look up ‘Duck and Cover’ on Youtube, it’s the one with the rather friendly looking turtle sporting a completely useless helmet. You may be tempted to, but don't let that cheery melody fool you! Believe me when I say that the message underlying the upbeat and warming tempo is not one of happiness.
If you just went and watched it you know now I was absolutely sarcastic, it couldn't be more blunt if it was just a picture of a mushroom cloud. Even the kids watching it must have wondered how long before the nukes started flying overhead. Never before that video have I watched anything so confidently horrifying.
Now, today’s news titles are definitely far less… certain… than that, but they are still undoubtedly dark. I believe part of it is because terrifying titles hook potential readers, and also because the news focuses on the worst because it sells. Regardless though of why, does it not seem like our news is a build up to some coming climax of devastation?
That video of Bert hiding from a nuke in his shell… simply doesn't bode well.
Now that was sixty years ago but there’s a saying that I will roughly paraphrase that goes something like, “the news of the world is not for the faint of heart.” I do think that’s a little over the top but here’s my point, and bear through the first sentence if you can.
End-all stories are strangely enough a reassurance in their own way.
Sounds messed up? That’s because it probably is.
Clearly I don't mean that everyone on Earth is wishing for or even expecting the end, but I mean that after an apocalypse, there’s quite literally nothing terrible left to happen. What’s worse than the end of the world?
Well… nothing really because there’s nobody left to have it happen to (I did warn you this one was a little dark).
Clearly people can distinguish between a story and real life, but in our oddly programmed brains we like to constantly find the best from the worst, and after the worst possible thing to happen, well…
I suppose there’s nowhere to go but up.
Dark, hmm? Maybe a little too dark? Probably, but interesting nevertheless! Any opinions? Let me know in the comments!
Otherwise, thanks for reading!