When I was 16, my boyfriend and I liked to play a game we called End of the World. We’d crank up instrumental industrial loud enough to drown out any ambient sound. We’d pull his blinds, and turn off all the lights, and shove a towel under the door to block the single crack of brightness that remained — like we were hotboxing the apocalypse.
And then we’d wait.
We never talked about what was coming. In my head, we were frozen in the moment before whatever had wiped away everything beyond the window would wash over us — hopefully before the battered old boom box shut down, or we slowly starved to death — but in that room, behind my boyfriend’s blackout blinds, we were all that remained of the universe, floating in perfect and total isolation.
There’s something seductive about the end of the world. Suicide fantasies of a universe, maybe; or the satisfaction of a last I told you so; or the sudden and inevitable realization that I told you so no longer matters. Sometimes it’s the cruel fascination of the post-apocalypse, the Road Warrior/Walking Dead fantasies of life simplified back to basics; the fall of the edifices that we resent even as we depend on them, the same way we resented our parents at 16.
Our apocalypses are generational.
I was born in 1982, in the brief, nameless hiccough between generation X and the Millennials. The apocalypses of my childhood were inherited from my parents, who had grown up doing duck-and-cover drills: dreams of mushroom clouds and nuclear winter that dissipated as the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union split into a dozen new pieces in my fifth-grade class’s puzzle map.
As borders fell, apocalypses became more abstract: the hum of my boyfriend’s stereo as we turned 17 and partied through Y2K, laughing at the friends whose parents wouldn’t let them go out that night, just in case. We came of age with the World Wide Web, watched the world open up before us and dreamed that it would go on forever.
We were the last generation who grew up being sold the American Dream, and the first to come of age to discover that it is forever out of most of our reach. The World Trade Center bombings neatly split our college years; the recession defined our first forays into the job market. Our lives and careers are defined by the Internet, but we remember what it was like before, too.
We’ve spent our lives in a world neatly divided into befores and afters. Is it any wonder that the stories that resonate most closely with us are about the end of the world?
In 2015, the apocalypses have become ground level: uglier, dirtier, more personal. There’s no more sudden, searing flash. Instead, we have the merciless grinds of pandemics, economic collapses, peak oil, peak water. Instead of exploding, of burning out in a perfect instant, we imagine devouring ourselves.
The seas are rising. There is no money in developing new antibiotics, I read; resistant bacteria will eat through us like moths through wool. The rich get richer and the poor grow poorer, and everywhere there’s the kind of desperation that we used to pretend only happened after the zombies came. Everything feels precarious, poised at the edge of a precipice, the apex of the pendulum’s swing.
At 16, the apocalypse was exciting. Now, I think about space: the double-edged sword of an electronic world that has taught us to ignore physical distance. My parents and I live on opposite corners of the country, thousands of miles apart. Should we have a plan? How far would we need to walk to meet in the middle? How far could we?
Of course, in those dreams — in any apocalyptic fantasies — we’re the survivors. That’s the triumph that balances the tragedy of the world gone askew, the lie we tell ourselves: I would survive.
I would probably not survive.
Most of us would probably not survive.
That’s what makes it an apocalypse.
There’s a scale at which tragedy becomes academic, abstract. I read Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb in the hospital room where my grandmother was dying: Trying to find a way to visualize the scale of Hiroshima that didn’t dissolve into numbers, a sea of sterile, faceless figures with a footnote explaining how many human lives each represented; horrified to realize that I simply couldn’t.
And so, good stories about Apocalypses are deeply personal. We pull in — tighten our focus until it can slip under our skin, between our ribs. Apocalyptic fiction isn’t about apocalypses, really — it’s about people. It’s about looking for ourselves among the survivors, and interacting with devastation on a scale we can understand.
By the time the story starts, the world is already lost. Peak energy has come and gone; the EMP has gone off; the virus is long past the point of containment.
Apocalyptic fiction isn’t about saving the world; it’s about fighting for our humanity. It’s a fundamentally and ferociously existentialist genre: a way to convince ourselves, in lives largely spent pushing back against forces we can’t control, that the small stuff matters — because once everything else is gone, it’s really all that does.
Rachel Edidin is a writer, editor, and podcaster. She hangs her Internet hat at racheledidin.com; X-plains X-Men at rachelandmiles.com; is vaguely Internet Famous as @WorstMuse; and lives in Portland, Oregon, with a nice system administrator and a terrible cat.