I’ve been thinking a lot lately about post-apocalypticism. It’s one of my favorite sub-genres, and yet it is so rarely done well. See, to me, post-apocalypticism is an inherently hopeful topic.
Sounds weird? Maybe, but it’s right there in the name. “Post-apocalyptic”. What happens after the worst thing that could ever possibly happen? There’s nowhere to go but up, right? So why are so many recent post-apocalyptic stories so relentlessly grimdark?
I think the answer lies in a mismatch between tone and scope. Think about it: after the apocalypse, many people will be miserable. Yes, this is true. And you can tell those stories. Small episodes of people’s lives where they’re trapped in an endless hellhole with no way out. You can tell these stories. But when you try to increase the scope of the story, the tone *has* to shift.
Imagine: A small community of farmers and fishers slowly learning how to survive in the bones of a once great city. The apocalypse was only twenty years ago, and plenty of people still remember what they lost, but the new generation has known nothing else — they don’t understand their parents’ grief. Then people start dying. Bodies are found, mutilated in a gruesome fashion. There’s a killer in their midst.
Now, you can tell that story. A story narrow in scope, focusing on the developing-psychosis of a serial killer — it could be great, and authentically dark. But as soon as the scope increases, what do you do? You have to tell the story of the detective who figured out who the killer is, or of the hero (and future town leader) who stopped him. Bam, hopeful story!
Or say you’re writing an epic, detailing the lives of many characters in the village over a long span of time. What happens once the killer’s been caught? They could just kill him, of course. There, you’ve got your grimdark. And you’ve got a world that doesn’t grow, or progress. It’s not post-apocalypse. It’s prolonging the apocalypse.
But isn’t it more interesting, isn’t it a better story, if the survivors try to build a new justice system for themselves? They pull together, debating half-remembered scraps of old legal dramas. An argument gets off track and soon an elder finds herself explaining Judge Judy to the kids. Soon, they figure out what works best for them. They hold a jury trial, and the survivors take a small step back toward civilization. This time, they’ll do it right.
So here’s my theory: tone vs. scope. If you want to write good post-apocalyptic fiction, you have to balance them. You can have your dark, disturbing, miserable story in a one-shot, a small focus, a short span of time. But if you want to write an epic, you need to show progress. And progress means a hopeful tone, with things steadily improving.