End of World Subcategories: The Nuclear Holocaust

the-world-is-facing-a-growing-threat-of-nuclear-warAs I was first thinking about the sorts of things I might want to write for this blog, it kept occurring to me that there are, indeed, many different ways the world as we know it could end, and that it might be useful to define those subcategories for the purposes of discussing books, movies and other media. Truthfully, it seems to always be some combination of a few, but usually, there is a predominant, overarching cataclysm that sets the ball rolling and the dominoes falling. So let’s start with one of our favorites:

The Nuclear Holocaust. This variety of catastrophe haunted my teenage dreams in the 80’s, the era that brought us the radioactive trifecta of The Day After, Testament and Threads. The basic formula with all of these: we are introduced to the protagonist(s) a few days before the nuclear attack, establish who they are and how they react as international relations seem to be headed in a bad direction. Then the attack happens – we often don’t know who initiated it, we just see the protagonists react. After that, of course, is the post apocalyptic aftermath, our survivors have to navigate survival in usually a toxic and ruined world: those who don’t die in the blasts are subject to fallout, radiation and other survivors rapidly descending into barbarism to fight for the remaining resources. With the exception of Threads, however, the aforementioned movies don’t usually explore much of the aftermath after the initial few weeks and months. Shoutout to Threads for upping the anti in a devastating and factual, documentary-style take as we see the Ruth, female protagonist (kudos to BOTH Threads and Testament for their female protagonists in the early 80’s!), struggle through discovering she’s pregnant as the world is falling apart, living through the blast when her fiancé dies,  giving birth to her daughter by herself in a back alley with barking dogs and finally dying in her 30’s (though she looks about 80, due to the effects of radiation). Her daughter is about 13 at this time, gets raped and pregnant, and the movie ends with her giving birth, looking down at the baby (which the audience never sees) and the camera frozen on her face in a silent scream, presumably because the baby has some kind of horrible mutation.

I have to give brownie points to the Mad Max franchise as well for delving further into post-apocalyptic society post nuclear blast. Having seen ALL the movies in this franchise, I’m still not quite sure WHEN the nuclear blasts occur (if anyone has any concrete info on this and can back it up, let me know!), whether before Mad Max, or at the end of it, but it’s clear that, by The Road Warrior, we are at full post-apocalypse, and Beyond Thunderdome actually begins to explore the reforming of society with Bartertown.

Another MORE than honorable mention must go to the currently-running The 100, which I will likely dedicate a plethora of writing to, as it really delves into the aftermath and the bleak idea that human beings never seem to learn from their mistakes! One thing in particular I want to point out about The 100 is that, in the most recent season, they explored the idea that, with all these nuclear power plants around the globe not being staffed for so long, they are going to start to melt down, causing a secondary wave of global radiation (“Praimfaya” as it’s called in grounder patois) for a nice little round 2 radiation blast in a world that had finally been bouncing back from the initial nuclear war.

The trouble with nuclear holocaust, at least fictionally speaking, (and please, let’s keep it to fiction – take note, world leaders!), is that it’s so, well, BLEAK. And most folks, when watching something, want there to be at least a small, uplifting and/or hopeful element to the story. I have to say – just remembering Testament (and reading the Wikipedia posting) made me tear up, especially with all the reports we’ve been getting recently of North Korea’s missile testing.

Other examples of nuclear holocaust fiction:

BooksAlas, Babylon by Pat Frank, The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr., On the Beach by Nevil Schute, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Films: On the Beach, Dr. Strangelove, Damnation Alley, The Postman, The Book of Eli

TV Series: Jericho,  Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Battlestar Galactica, Genesis II

5 Favorite Post-Apocalyptic Books

I remember reading a short story in Starlog magazine when I was a teenager about a girl who thought she was the last survivor on earth after a nuclear war. She was super surprinuke-park_2-1-1024x700sed and stunned when one of her friends called her.
“I thought I was the last person alive!”

“Nope – the whole group is alive.”

“How is that possible?”

“Don’t you know? Books absorb radiation.”

I loved the notion of it – that those of us who read and had shelves full of books as a comfort blanket might somehow be spared if we had hoarded enough books. My friends and I were voracious readers – junior high was a minefield of mean kids, and we were big nerds. The idea of all those who’d bullied me dying in some kind of enormous calamity was tempting to fantasize about.

The Stand1.) The Stand by Stephen King – I think this may have been the very first post apocalyptic book I read, when I was 15 or so – I’m glad it was a good one! I’ve read it several times since then, make a point to read it again every few years (think I’m due again). 99% of the world’s population is decimated by a superflu bug, and the survivors begin receiving messages through their dreams – one from an Adversary and another from a messianic figure – and these dreams, whichever they choose to follow, lead them to either Boulder (the good guys) or Las Vegas (the bad guys). The Adversary (Randall Flagg), of course, leads through fear, while the messianic figure (Mother Abigail Freemantle) leads through example. There is the title Stand-off towards the end.

Handmaids Tale2.) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – I was on my way to see the 1990 movie in the theatre and picked the book up on the way, which I read afterwards, helped me figure out why the world had gotten to where it had gotten in the movie. YES, this is postapocalyptic, though not in the traditional sense – it’s dystopian, and while many dystopian societies in fiction are the result of a prior, more physical apocalypse, I propose the idea that a dystopia IS actually the product of a social apocalypse of some kind. In this social apocalypse, Offred (Of Fred) has tried to escape Gilead (which rose from the ashes of the US after a terrorist attack and gov’t takeover by religious extremists – also, fertility rates had gone WAAAAAY down) with her daughter and husband, and gets caught and since she is still fertile, she is forced to be a handmaid in the house of the Commander and his wife, which is basically a monthly and ceremonial rape to provide them with a child. I am enjoying the Hulu series so far as well…curious to see how they will expand into a 2nd season.

The Road3.) The Road by Cormac McCarthy – this was a fairly recent read, and I’m very glad I read it in the summer and during a period where I was pretty content, because had I been depressed, it likely would’ve thrown me over the edge. It is BLEAK. Takes place years after some kind of apocalypse – because nothing grows anymore and there were so few survivors, I am assuming either nuclear war or asteroid/comet strike – it’s not specified. A father realizes he is dying and needs to find someone to take care of his young son, so they journey towards the coast through and extremely bleak and ravaged landscape. The fact that McCarthy’s prose is SO eloquent elevates it literarily, and makes it THAT MUCH MORE DEVASTATING.

glimmering4.) Glimmering by Elizabeth Hand – I read this one at some point in the late 90’s, and reference it to artistic collaborators all the time. Was probably the first climate-based apocalyptic fiction I ever read. There is an avalanche in the antarctic ocean that releases methane into the atmosphere, which mixes with the bromotetrachloride particles left there by a solar storm. The depletion of the ozone layer hastens, and the particles begin glimmering. No one can see the stars anymore, there is no more normal night, only a constant glimmering in the sky. Several of the main characters have AIDS, and one of them starts being aware of…ghosts? Visions?…as he is dying. It has kind of a bleak or hopeful ending, depending on how you look at it. The interesting takeaway from this was that the AIDS virus was a path towards human evolution towards less corporal, light-energy forms…hence the aforementioned ghosts/visions.


Birdbox5.) Bird Box by Josh Malerman – devoured this one on the beach in Crete last September! Apocalyptically-speaking, it was kind of in a category of its own. In bits and pieces, the characters figure out a hypothesis for why people are suddenly going mad and killing themselves and each other: some kind of interdimensional creatures have arrived on earth (this is nowhere as cheesy as it sounds), and they are SO out of the realm of human comprehension that just looking at them drives people insane and they immediately try to end it all in horrifying and violent ways for themselves and anyone around them. Those who survive manage to do so by staying inside with all the windows closed and blocked. The protagonist knows there is a surviving colony of people “down the river” and must journey with her two young children to find this colony, and all of them must be blindfolded for the entirety of the journey.



Earth 2100


Since I use it SO OFTEN as a reference, I thought I’d give a shout-out to Earth 2100, a little mockumentary I saw when it was first aired on ABC back during the summer of 2009. It basically chronicles what I like to refer to as a “slow, comfortable apocalypse” via climate change. It explores what might happen if every climactic, worst-case scenario were to happen using both scientific facts, mock-commercials, and is seen through the eyes of “Lucy”, the fictional narrator, as she lives her life, born in 2009 and living until 2100, and how the dominoes fall to total, societal collapse, via environmental disaster.

I seem to bring it up during nearly every discussion I have of climate change, apocalypse and dystopia, and my writing partner Jen and I have used the world at the end of this mockumentary as the setting for the post apocalyptic play we’ve been creating over the past few years (and will hopefully be produced at a TBD theater in Seattle sometime during 2018!).

Given what is happening with current United States “leadership” (abolishing the EPA, ignoring science, appointing climate-change deniers to prominent positions, etc), it is especially chilling to revisit this film in 2017. I think we may already have passed the tipping point. Please check it out and leave comments – would love to discuss it!

You, Me & The Postapocalypse

When I was in 8th grade, The Day After aired on television. It was the junior high equivalent of a water-cooler topic – we were ALL talking about it beforehand, and we were definitely all talking about it the day after. As a movie, it wasn’t the most perfect example of speculative fiction, but it served as great fodder for classroom discussion (especially in the middle of the cold war!). I remember a friend and I, during summer vacation, creating our own fictional bunker in case of nuclear war – we’d spend hours just figuring out how long we’d have to stay underground, who we’d like to bring with us and what kind of sewage/water/food systems we’d have to subsist on.  The Day After was probably my formal introduction to the subgenre, likely the first I’d thought of it, and was the kickoff to a lifetime’s fascination.

Sub-genre of what, you ask? Is apocalypse/aftermath fiction horror? Is it science fiction? I’ve long had a fear it will become science FACT. I like the umbrella term “Speculative Fiction”. Under its wings, you might find Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, etc. And I suppose, depending on the type of apocalypse, you would then go on to put things under those subcategories…zombie apocalypse might fall under horror, whilst robots destroying the world might fit better with Science Fiction.

​In high school, I read my first Stephen King novel, The Stand, which tells the story of a world decimated through a superflu plague. Another of my friends had also read it, and we spent hours on the phone each night imagining what we might do in such a scenario, where we might travel, what and who we might bring, and how we might rebuild society. Obviously, I was hooked.

Several decades later, I am no less fascinated and intrigued by the different iterations of fictional apocalypse, and have happily devoured many television, film and book tales with varied and imaginative end times. I’ve even written a couple of post-apocalyptic plays. And there is no shortage of end days’ paranoia, given the current political situation and global climate, to think about. Climate change anyone? Nuclear war? How ‘bout some Ebola?

Right now, my intention is an entire apocalyptic blog on the subject and of course, all its potential subcategories, because, though I have very little control over things unfolding on the world stage, at least I can have some control over this.  I’ll discuss zombies, aliens, asteroids, WWIII, acts of god, no Armageddon is off limits, and maybe I’ll throw in speculation about how one might survive such a thing, and even discuss putting together different sorts of survival kits for your more run-of-the-mill cataclysm. I’ll make book, film and tv recommendations on each subcategory, because lord knows I’ve consumed a lion’s share!

If this is your thing and you’re intrigued, feel free to take a look! And if you have any suggestions, thoughts, or ideas on topics you might enjoy reading about within the subject, please feel free to share your feedback.