Welcome back, Wastelanders!
As I mentioned last week, I have a certain set of criteria that I judge post apocalyptic stories by. Yeah, musing on complex themes is great. Having something to say about human nature is good, too.
But let's be real. Nobody watches a movie like Hell Comes to Frogtown for its insights into the human condition. We watch it to see "Rowdy" Roddy Piper kick amphibian ass from one end of the wasteland to the other.
That same principle holds true for undisputed genre greats like Mad Max: Fury Road and Planet of the Apes. Sure, we might walk away pondering the deeper questions, but that's incidental. We walked in the door looking for car chases and monkey society gone amuck.
In short, the post apocalyptic genre is its own thing. And even the bona fide classics have to be good apocalyptic stories before they can be anything else.
With that in mind, here's my list of vital genre elements, followed by my numerical "Rad Scale."
Violence - Being serious for a moment, violence is where the post apocalyptic genre gains most of its thematic power. After all, nothing says "woe to the the hubris of man" like two guys finding a reason to kill each other in the aftermath of an atomic war.
But even if the cause of the apocalypse is something else, like an alien invasion or a cosmic event, violence is an essential part of the genre. It harkens back to our early days as a species, when fighting and killing for limited resources was a part of everyday life.
Bottom line, even the talkiest, most drawn out bomb-shelter soap opera needs violence—or at least the implied threat of it—to have any kind of tension.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins - Haunting, lyrical descriptions of the world gone by. Beautiful, panoramic vistas of silent cities. Gratuitous destruction porn.
This is at least half of what brings the audience to the table. In movies, it's everything from scenes of wholesale nuclear annihilation to old junk cars on the side of the road. In books, it can be in the physical setting descriptions, a blocky info dump, or even just implied in the dialogue.
However it appears, it needs to adequately convey the fall of the old world. And it needs to be good.
Dystopian Survivor Society - Some groups survive the end times by tenaciously clinging to the last shreds of civilization and decency. This is the other kind of group, the one that becomes a savage mini-dictatorship or a totalitarian hell hole. If human rights exist, they're probably on the menu right alongside the human lefts and the charred horse flanks. Pretty much always the bad guys.
Futuristic Bloodsports - Maybe they're a stand-in for war. Maybe they're bread and circuses for the post apocalyptic masses. Maybe they're even a commentary on our contemporary addiction to violent entertainment.
Let's just call this one what it is: a thinly-veiled pretext for our hero to take part in a deadly game of skill and ruthlessness. Don't overthink it. Story elements this awesome don't need any justification.
Barbarian Hordes - Sometimes they're biker gangs. Sometimes they're feral subway dwellers. Other times they're horseback riding neo-Mongols, armed with compound bows and assault rifles. Whatever form they take, these are the people who dealt with the collapse by rejecting civilization and embracing their inner pack hunter. Often—but not always—the bad guys.
Badass Warrior Women - Imperator Furiosa. Kushanna from Hayayo Miyazaki's Nausicaä. Nurse Spangle from Hell Comes to Frogtown. A good apocalypse is an equal opportunity hell hole. Nothing conveys this faster than some women kicking cannibal ass alongside the men.
Watch Thou For the Mutant - Human beings survived the end. But that doesn't mean they survived alone. Or unchanged. Anything from monstrously mutated plants and animals to humans with extra limbs and psychic powers.
The Rad Scale:
One Rad - Those Lost During the Fall. These are the apocalyptic stories that commit the genre's cardinal sin: they actually bore reader or viewer. Many of them contain no action or plot. Expect most of the genre's "deconstructions" and "fresh meditations" to fall right here.
Two Rads - The Chattel of the Aftermath. Usually plagued by muddy execution, dragging plots, and too much filler. That said, these stories will sometimes contain moments or concepts that bring them just shy of cult classic status. Mediocre to solidly entertaining. Most of the genre's missed opportunities fall here.
Three Rads - The Wasteland Wanderers. These stories form the backbone of the genre. Most will have moments of genuine brilliance, but fall just short of greatness. Cult classics and genre stalwarts usually land here.
Four Rads - Warlords of the End Times. Most of these films and books are genre-defining classics. Any others are forgotten masterpieces that deserve to be classics. The best of the best.
Five Rads - A Legend of the Wastes. These stories represent post apocalyptic perfection. Practically flawless. Also as rare as unmutated livestock.
So there you have it, Wastelanders. My personal criteria for judging apocalyptic books and films. My next post will jump right into it.
COMING UP NEXT:
George Miller's original 1979 classic, Mad Max.
Confession time: I love post apocalyptic stories.
I always have. Something about the genre's tropes and trappings just gets my blood pumping. Give me bombed-out cities, atomic mutants, and barbaric biker gangs, and you'll keep my ass glued to the seat until the credits roll.
Funny thing is, as long as I've had it, I've never given my apocalyptic obsession much thought. If anything, I chalked it up to watching Thundarr the Barbarian as an impressionable kid.
Say what you want about the state of Corporate Entertainment back then. But telling your core audience they'll all be dead before they're in high school? That's a ballsy move.
Anyway, this tweet randomly came across my feed a few months back. And I haven't really stopped thinking about it:
Folks, that right there is what we call a truth bomb.
It might be hard for kids raised after the fall of the Soviet Union to grasp, but the threat of nuclear annihilation used to be so ubiquitous that songs about it repeatedly cracked the weekly Top 40. That's a level of cultural saturation not many disasters—looming or otherwise—have ever achieved.
Sure, you could argue the Baby Boomers had it worse when it comes to nuclear fears. After all, my mom's generation were the ones who did "duck and cover" drills at school, the teachers calmly directing them to crouch beneath their desks while they waited for the incoming blast wave.
But here's the thing. Baby Boomers never had those nuclear fears baked into their entertainment. At least not quite the same way Generation X did. Most of the "atomic scare" movies of the 50's and 60's revolved around things like giant irradiated bugs. A city or two would be terrorized, the army would roll in, and a muscular display of American Firepower would put the threat to rest. The implied message, of course, was that the bomb was scary, but everything would be all right as long as we trusted our leaders.
By the time Gen X became the primary consumers of media, that attitude shifted. Films depicting nuclear war tended to show total destruction, the collapse of society, and an almost complete return to barbarism among the survivors. The primary message here was radically different: the bomb was inevitable, nothing would be fine, and our leaders were all maniacs.
According to these movies, the end of all civilization wasn't a question of "if." It was a question of "when."
Again, it might be tough for younger generations to grasp, but movies like Mad Max were written for audiences that fully expected a nuclear war—one they were powerless to prevent—within their lifetimes. That kind of cultural fatalism can't help but affect those consuming it, especially at such a young age.
Which is another way of saying I ate that shit up with sugar sprinkled on top, and begged for seconds.
The apocalypse was my jam, folks.
Taking cues from Thundarr, I used to pretend my He-Man figures were the barbaric survivors of a devastated Earth. After watching the Mad Max films with my uncles on cable TV, most of my G. I. Joe games centered around Cobra successfully destroying the world, and the surviving Joes battling across it.
When all the kids in the neighborhood discovered Robotech, I was the only one who preferred the post apocalyptic partisans of The New Generation to the slick jet jockeys of The Macross Saga.
In my teen years, I devoured men's adventure paperbacks like William W. Johnstone's Ashes series. I watched The Road Warrior so many times that I wore out two different VHS copies of it. I stayed up late on weekends to catch Joe Bob Briggs' Monster Vision or Gilbert Gottfried's Up All Night, both of which regularly featured apocalypse-schlock classics.
I discovered anime around the same time, immediately obsessing over Fist of the North Star and Vampire Hunter D. I borrowed a muddy, third-generation, untranslated bootleg of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind that captivated me. When I found a copy of my own, a clean fansub sourced from the Japanese laserdisc, it became one of my prized possessions.
Hell, my own first attempts at writing fiction were nothing but violent, edge-lord apocalyptic fantasies.
The fact is, a huge amount of the stories that have influenced me over the years—from books, to anime and manga, to movies—have dealt with the apocalypse in some way. In fact, it's a big enough part of my storytelling DNA that I think it's time to dedicate a regular column on this blog to it.
So what can you expect from future installments?
Reviews, mostly. I'll be looking at apocalyptic books and movies, including some old favorites mentioned above. I might occasionally dip into games, too. And since I'm a longtime devotee of the Joe Bob Briggs school of criticism, I plan to rate them based on the factors that really matter, what I regard as the essentials of the genre. Things like violence, bloodshed, mutants, monsters, action, and gratuitous destruction porn.
I'll also occasionally drop some general musings on the genre: What makes it tick, how its evolved, why certain tropes seem to work, etc.
So stay tuned, wastelanders. The End Times are here. And if you ask me, they've never looked better.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.