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17 April 2020updated 20 Apr 2020 4:43pm

Don’t avoid the end of the world – embrace the post-apocalyptic genre

End-of-the-world dystopian narratives in books and films can help us navigate our current situation.

By Katy Shaw

Apocalypse has always been a major concern of the science fiction genre, but the post-apocalyptic genre can teach us a lot about how to navigate, and survive, the Covid-19 crisis. 

Genre fiction is, in general, often thought of as having a deeply conservative function. When we pick up this kind of story, whether romance, crime or horror, we expect a regulated and familiar structure of storytelling, one that is reassuring because it offers an important sense of ending and resolution. Right now, our professional and social worlds have exploded and the power of narrative, particularly of genre narrative, has taken on a dynamic new purpose. 

Since the year 2000, the level of interest in a fictional apocalypse has escalated. Perhaps this isn’t surprising when we consider that the new millennium actually began with a global panic about an impending apocalypse. In 1999, as the coming century approached, there seemed to be a host of disturbing social indicators, leading to a wider millennial anxiety. A range of related fears, about an anticipated ‘Y2K’ bug, environmental disaster and apocalyptic biblical prophecies, meant that the year 2000 was framed as a source of fear as well as a time for hope. 

The subsequent decades of the millennium have not offered much in the way of respite. Any aspirations were swiftly greeted with new challenges: terrorism, austerity, Brexit and environmental disaster.

From the first example of the genre, The Last Man by Mary Shelley in 1826, through to more recent works like Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later, the post-apocalyptic has allowed us, as readers and viewers, to evolve alongside the genre. We now know the signs, symbology and thematics of the end of days. This familiarity is both a comfort and a curse.  

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Currently, we are operating in a new context. Our coronavirus world doesn’t comply with our usual narrative expectations; we are not comforted as we are when we read about fictional pandemics. But as this real pandemic develops, we can use our knowledge of genre fiction and storytelling to help us understand, structure and communicate our new lived experiences.

The Covid-19 pandemic presents a timely reminder that society — and government  needs to harness the power of narrative. From wobbly government communications briefings and social media disinformation, the coronavirus has made it  clear that no sector can function without effective storytelling; a coherent narrative is not a nicety in a time of crisis, it is a foundational need. Faced with prospect of “completing Netflix” while in social isolation, many people have joked about avoiding movies like Contagion, novels like The Road and video games alike The Last of Us. But this is precisely time we should be bingeing on the post-apocalyptic.

Immersing ourselves in genre narratives is also an important method of self-care. If the post-apocalyptic genre teaches us anything, it is that it is important not just to survive, but to thrive, in times of great uncertainty. There is nothing more comforting than sinking into a new book from a genre you know well. Like getting into a bath or a freshly made bed, genre narratives are both familiar and different. More than anything, they offer a vital safe escape from the chaos of the present.

What better way to pass a period in which you can’t escape the house than by escaping to other imaginative places? By actively choosing to engage with genre narratives in which plagues and pandemics, disasters and devastations are overcome, we  as readers, viewers or gamers — can learn to adapt and to tell new stories, and realise in doing so, that it’s not the end of the world. 

Katy Shaw is professor of contemporary writings at Northumbria University and editor of the C21 Literature journal.