When you hear the word ‘apocalypse’ you might think of the end of days. A meteor the size of Puerto Rico slams into the earth. Jerk-off scientists in some underground lab make the Rage Virus and unleash the kind of zombies that can run (it would have to be that kind of zombies. Most of this country is armed and constantly itching to shoot someone. The real problem in a slow-zombie apocalypse would be Paulie Prepper and Big Joe and their big bunker of guns and MREs because they fucking prepared for this shit, man, and they’re all methed up out of their minds and not really properly checking if someone is a zombie or not before blowing their head off with the armor-piercing rounds they somehow own while living in East Shithill, Oklahoma). The Yellowstone Caldera pops off, instantly killing everyone in Western America and slowly killing everyone else. The biblical Armageddon, complete with brimstone from the sky and rivers of fire. The apocalypse is a violent, terrifying end to all life on the planet.
But what if it wasn’t? Okay, I know some people are pushing their glasses up their noses and thinking, “Then it wouldn’t actually be an apocalypse because by definition blah blah blah blah blah blah I’m a pompous ass.” Nobody fucking cares, professor. English is a) a living language, and b) a whorechild, so get the fuck out of here with your ‘this means that’ semantics. I’m not even looking up the etymology to fight with you because that’s not the point.
Okay, I did look up the etymology. But only because etymology is fun! It’s like bite sized history. No, I won’t be telling you anything about apocalypse. Go do your own homework.
What I’m talking about here is a ‘soft apocalypse.’ Something big happens, but it’s less a world-ender, and more a civilization-ender. There’s no explosions or fire and brimstone, or at least not a lot of it. And a lot of people died. But all of that was in the past. Now, living past the end, there’s no bombs or zombies or sickness to be afraid of. There’s only rebuilding what you can of society. Living in a small village in the ruins of an old world town. Learning how to farm, raiding old stores, protecting yourself from the occasional marauder. Very occasional. And in this situation it’s obvious that they’re the bad guy and you’re the good guy. Your inbox is empty because you don’t have an inbox anymore. You sleep well.
This is the appeal of the apocalypse. Living here, now, in whatever this (gestures wildly at everything) is, it can actually be a pleasant diversion to imagine everything torn down to the nails. It doesn’t quite hold up to scrutiny. For one, it’s glossing over the, you know, mass death of humanity. For another, a lot of the time these fantasies make it seem like the challenges in a soft apocalypse would be easier than the challenges today, even if the challenges in a soft-apocalypse involve not dying from starvation. That said, I fucking love soft apocalypse stories and I’m not blaming anyone else who does, either.
It’s kind of an ill-defined term and potentially something Tumblr came up with, but there’s a lot of fiction that fits nicely. Personally, I see soft apocalypse fiction as having these features:
- Society is either in the middle of a collapse or has already collapsed, but the earth itself is still livable.
- Whatever killed society poses no threat to the protagonists.
- The drama comes from somewhere else. It could come from adapting to survive in the new world, or discovering something about the old world, but it doesn’t come from surviving the apocalypse.
With any kind of genre there is, of course, wiggle room. I think a lot of zombie fiction could count as a soft apocalypse. Look at The Walking Dead. I mean, I stopped watching after a while, so I’m not a hundred percent sure, but didn’t most of the cast die from other humans and not zombies? I’m pretty sure I remember the internet freaking out for a while about a guy with a baseball bat wrapped with barbed wire, and that doesn’t seem like something a zombie would carry. Stephen King’s The Stand would definitely fit. The protagonists are immune to the Super Flu that destroys society and the drama comes from rebuilding society and figuring out what the fuck to do with that prick Randall Flagg. My two favorite examples are also two of my favorite video games ever: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn.
Breath of the Wild takes place one hundred years after Calamity Ganon has successfully destroyed Hyrule – almost. You, as Link, are not trying to fix that because you fucking can’t. You are trying to put the pieces together to stop Calamity Ganon from finishing what he started, but even if you do Hyrule is never going back to what it was. Honestly, the game is so perfectly calming and Zen I didn’t even realize it qualified as post-apocalyptic until I was at least fifty hours in. It’s a beautiful, empty, lonely world with such lovely music I use to play these videos for my patients to calm them down before a procedure.
Much of the drama of Horizon Zero Dawn comes from unraveling the mystery of what happened to the ‘metal world.’ The rest of the drama comes from trying to figure out how to bring down a robot T-Rex with your bow and arrow. I fucking love this game so much. Like Breath of the Wild, it’s about staving off future calamity while living in the ruins of a past calamity. The beautiful, scenic ruins.
Stories like this are appealing because we can pretend that when the end comes, it will come as something we can survive. We’re all the protagonists of our own stories, right? So we can imagine that we can survive the end and come out the other side as new people. People free from all the things we hate about our lives, suddenly living in quiet simplicity and never having to worry about finishing school or being late to work or global warming again. It’s an enduring fantasy, and the fact that so many people, myself included, can pleasantly fantasize about the collapse of society freeing them is something I am not equipped to analyze.