I’ve always enjoyed apocalyptic themes, and stories of the time beyond. As a child it intrigued me that there could be a time beyond, a time after the end of the world. Like those first clear thoughts of death, the idea of an apocalyptic end to the world was both terrifying and mind expanding.
The Greeks had an idea that the consideration of human beings should widen in expanding circles, from self to family to community to state, and ultimately to the world. The post apocalyptic story extends this notion of ever widening circles forward and backward through time, breaking through the boundaries of contemporary history, culture, and society. For we are now living in the post apocalypse of ages past, and the world we know cannot last. Nothing can stand — no human civilization anyway — against the eons of futurity the universe has in store for us. So whether this current world ends with a bang or is transformed in a long whisper, it will some day be gone.
And yet … post apocalyptic tales tell us there is more to come, good and bad, after the radioactive dust settles on the ruins of the time that was. Another age will come, when people will look back on this world of wires and microchips, of sky scrapers and superhighways, of automobiles and fire belching machines. They will look back on our wars and ideas, on our great riches and destitute poverty. They will look back and it will all seem strange to them.
Post apocalyptic stories often act as the conscience of history and humanity. They show us, simultaneously, the great heights we can achieve, and the terrible flaws which could be our downfall. In extreme conditions, whether in the midst of catastrophe, or in the wastelands of the aftermath, they show us the full spectrum of human nature, from our noble compassion to our savage depravity. In the end, perhaps, that is their charm, an ability to contain equal measures of horror and hope: horror that our time must end, and hope that when this age is gone, someone will pick up the pieces and carry on.
Some favorites off the top of my head:
Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind by Hayao Miyazaki
Dark Universe by Daniel F. Galouye
Fire and Ice by Robert Frost
Darkness by Lord Byron
And Death Shall have No Dominion by Dylan Thomas