Finding Support in the End of the World

Ben Shoemake, Columnist

“Ascending,” a short work by Laurel Varian which appears in the 2015 comic anthology Love In All Forms, tells the tale of a young girl named June living in a world tainted by radiation, who sneaks out from the watchful gaze of her mother to escape to the planet’s surface. There, she meets another young girl, Theo, a caretaker for animals deformed by radioactive exposure–cats with too many faces and possums with too many feet. Despite the dangers, the two regularly make the trip above ground, willing to exchange personal security for a chance at freedom and to take care of others who need them. This isn’t to say that they don’t have plans for the future, however–June wants to become a space pilot, able to escape the wrecked surface of Earth forever: “And then we can go anywhere we want!”

Post-apocalyptic stories such as these have become a popular feature in many works of young-adult literature, much to some literary critics’ disappointment. The criticism does not come from their dystopian nature–dystopia is not a new feature to the literary canon–but their lack of refinement, their rampant similarities and easy marketability. The post-apocalyptic craze, critics say, breeds unoriginality, producing lucrative pulp works that destroy the art of the craft. What these critics are missing, however, is that if something sells well, it probably means something to a lot of people.

Post-apocalyptic stories matter, and they matter especially to a young-adult audience witnessing their world crumbling around them. We live in an age defined by acts of terror, state surveillance on an unprecedented level, a capitalistic economy that continually widens the divide between the rich and the poor, a rapidly deteriorating environment, and militarized police force. The setting of the post-apocalyptic story is an unsalvageable world, a place where phrases like “Protect the environment!” and “Think of the children!” are laughably out-of-touch with reality, where the goal is not a victory of heroism, but human survival.

So much political rhetoric in the past few decades has focused on prevention–we must prevent the loss of life, we must prevent the deterioration of our environment, we must prevent the emergence of another world war. What these platforms leave out is any plan for the future in case of failure; indeed, oftentimes the rhetoric around children suggests that even if we do fail, at least we won’t be around to see it. When people talk about temperatures rising by several degrees over the next hundred years, they do so expecting to not be alive to see the end result.

But children growing up now probably will live to see those times, and they are finding themselves facing a very different set of questions: “We’ve failed–now what?” For young adults, current downward trends are more than just recent developments, they are their entire lives. Children these days won’t have retirement plans–they can’t even find jobs–and they won’t have the opportunity to sit back and speculate on the future. In a time when failure seems like an imminent possibility, the question of how to keep going beyond that horizon has become an ever more relevant topic of discussion.

It is a topic of discussion that post-apocalyptic stories handle well, something I think contributes largely to their success. This is to say, post-apocalyptic stories aren’t just a fad, they are something that modern youth relate to, precisely because they shed light on the world which they are growing into. They are realer than some people might think: In an age of mass-shootings and economic destruction, stories of survival–no matter how pulp or mass-produced their form–are a powerful mechanism for hope and support for those with the majority of their lives (hopefully) still yet to come.