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Apocalypse reconsidered

If you read my latest newsletter, you know that I’m working on a post-apocalyptic novel. (To receive future issues, use the signup form on this page.)

I’m racing to finish it before we have an actual apocalypse, which can come from several sources (including the one I write about in my book). As I write, I’m questioning many beliefs people have about what an apocalypse would be like. Many of our cherished tropes of moody loners in cool outfits who save humanity by mowing down evil robots and/or zombies with a katana or chainsaw wouldn’t happen in an actual catastrophe. In fact, you can look at catastrophes happening around the world to see what an actual apocalypse would look like.

Here are some of my thoughts about apocalypses and how they fit into the themes of my novel.

Disinformation and denial will kill you.

I learned the importance of getting accurate information during the first natural disaster I faced as a child, the 1971 Sylmar Earthquake. Having timely and accurate information kept us safe and calm. We knew what precautions to take during aftershocks. We waited to find out if we had to evacuate because of the weakened Van Norman Dam, and stayed put until an order came. Because we were informed, we didn’t panic, mob grocery stores to get supplies, or take dangerous risks. That experience prepared me for the later natural disasters I would face as a Southern Californian.

This was a far cry from what happened during the COVID pandemic: disinformation, the undermining of the best available scientific information, and the peddling of dangerous fake “cures.” Vaccines became a subject of politics, not medicine. And the attacks on vaccination led to outbreaks of other preventable but deadly diseases, like measles.

Rather than telling people what they need to know, social media and partisan cable news tell people what they want to hear. And since our natural response to any crisis is denial (it either didn’t happen, isn’t so bad, or won’t affect me), people will ignore calls for action until it’s too late. That’s when hysteria sets in, along with riots, violence, and unnecessary deaths.

In my post-apocalyptic world, it wasn’t the disaster that caused the catastrophe. It was the lack of information and people clinging to their curated realities that led to self-inflected devastation. It was what happened during COVID, and it’s what I’m afraid will happen again.

Apocalypses have already happened—and are happening right now.

A problem with post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction is the implied message “It’s only an apocalypse when it happens to us.” And this message can cause us to ignore those who are suffering apocalypses right now. We use The Handmaid’s Tale to talk about what type of hellscape women would face in some future theocratic patriarchy and forget about women of color who are already experiencing such repression. And that those communities disproportionately suffer from the draconian legislation that denies a woman bodily autonomy and life-saving medical care.

That’s why my story includes reminders of communities that have already endured apocalypses or are going through them now. I’m doing this for several reasons.

When we suffer, we usually withdraw. We feel sorry for ourselves and believe we’re the only ones who experienced this type of pain. This cuts us off from others who can help us. When we see others have suffered through the same things we have, we can find community with them. They got through their suffering, and they can show us how we can do it, too.

I also believe the proper response to suffering is empathy. If we’ve been in pain, we should be more caring to others who are also in pain. We want to help those in need, just as we would want people to help us. We realize we are connected. And suffering helps us see the connections we ignore in our safety and comfort.

Community, not rugged individualism, is how we can survive.

Another lesson we can get from other apocalypses is the importance of community. Survivors band together to share resources and abilities. They raise each other’s spirits. This counters the typical post-apocalyptic trope of the Lone Warrior or the Chosen One who uses special powers to beat the bad guy and save the day.

This also counters the American suburban community where people live in single-family homes and don’t talk to their neighbors. Even in communal spaces like parks and coffee houses, people mostly cling to their families or open their laptops to work. During the COVID pandemic, people became even more isolated. There was a big push towards self-sufficiency. All of this will make it harder for us to form communities when a crisis demands it.

My book shows how people overcome distrust and isolation to build communities to survive. It also warns about those who believe some lone savior will set everything right. The only way we can triumph is by coming together and helping each other.

We can use an apocalypse to envision a better world.

In post-apocalyptic fiction, we describe a world where something we value has been taken away. The characters try to regain what was lost, replace it with something new, or adapt to what the world has become. Usually, what’s lost are things we see as good, such as freedom, justice, and humanity. But what if an apocalypse did away something that doesn’t serve us anymore? What if it gave us a clean slate so we can build something better?

Apocalypse to us means losing our comfort and privilege. We should realize this comfort and privilege is something we’re not entitled to, comes from the suffering of others, and cuts us off from the things that would actually make our lives better. In a world where that comfort and privilege is removed, we can make room for something more beneficial, inclusive, and fair.

In my story, apocalypse becomes a way for characters to recover things they lost. A character who lost a family builds a new one. People who escaped into fantasy find their real-life heroism. Someone who thought they had to buy courage discovers it in themselves. Someone who had already endured an apocalypse in his home country builds an unlikely community. And when our hero finds herself alone and defeated, she discovers the power of friendship really can save the day.

All of our writing reflects our values. In my new book, I want to show how we can survive catastrophe and use it to build something better. I hope I can complete and publish it before we experience our next apocalypse.