Four Types of Cataclysmic Events in Post-Apocalyptic Literature


By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.University of Connecticut

The apocalypse, etymologically, is linked to revelation, to the unveiling or revealing of the truths that lie beneath. There’s a whole body of literature—some philosophical, some theological—on the apocalypse. Post-apocalyptic literature examines the aftermath of a cataclysmic event. These cataclysms tend to fall into four major categories—technological, biomedical, environmental, or supernatural. The first three examine real-world concerns that are explored in non-fiction all the time.

Ruins of an apocalyptic city.
The main types of cataclysmic events are technological, biological, environmental, and supernatural. (Image: Melkor3D/Shutterstock)

Technological Cataclysmic Events

Most new technologies become part of narratives of both hope and fear. Let’s take an example from the 19th century, which is intrinsically linked to the birth and development of popular literature. And that is rail travel. When rail travel became reliable and affordable in the mid-19th century, this new technology opened up all kinds of exciting potentials for everyday folks. 

You could travel much further than you could walk or would want to ride a horse or carriage. But it was way more than that. If you were embarking upon a long journey, you were suddenly gifted with some leisure time, the kind of free time you quite possibly had never had before in your life. 

The time where you could do something you didn’t usually have time to do, like read a book—not for edification or because your religious leader told you to—for fun, fun and adventure and a sense of just what else was out there in the world. Rail travel changed people’s conceptions of scale—place—and also of speed—time.

It was exciting, but it was also terrifying. The kind of exciting and terrifying thing people might write books about for people to read on the train. The kind of concept that might give birth to a whole genre of literature, science fiction. And within that genre, technological apocalypse, which narrates the outcomes of new technologies ranging from nuclear energy to artificial intelligence and any number of other technologies that raise anxieties.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of LiteratureWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Did Someone Say Global Pandemic?

Three people dressed in hazard suit, walking in a deserted place.
Global pandemics are too real a concern for the future. (Image: Design Projects/Shutterstock)

Biomedical apocalypse, sometimes considered part of the technological genre, tends to focus on another anxiety we see reported a lot in the news, global pandemic. In today’s globally linked world, it’s frighteningly easy to imagine a scenario in which some pathogen—occurring naturally or as a result of unregulated technology or even bioterrorism—leads to an epidemic that spreads throughout the world before scientists can contain it. 

Fictional representations of this scenario range from sober examinations of likely global responses as in Stephen Soderbergh’s 2011 film, Contagion, to high-adrenaline disaster films like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later or Mark Forster’s World War Z in 2013; we know this genre is ubiquitous in the 21st century when we see the spoofs, like Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s This Is the End from 2013.

Learn more about Cyberpunk Dystopia: Doctorow and Anderson.

Mother Earth in Trouble

The environmental apocalypse has also experienced a huge upsurge in the 21st century. Part of this is obviously because new statistics about warming patterns and coastal erosion raise real fears about the future of the planet and its most dominant species. Another factor, though, could be the political backlash against the science of global warming. 

The question of climate change, and especially of the human role in changing weather patterns, is a deeply contested issue in the United States, which makes it a very rich space for science fiction narratives. One of the most powerful narratives of an environmental apocalypse of recent memory is Cormac McCarthy’s devastating 2006 novel, adapted by John Hillcoat into an equally devastating film in 2009, of the same name, The Road.

Being Obsessed with Zombies

There are many variations on the theme of supernatural apocalypse, but the most prevalent at the moment is the zombie apocalypse. Why are we so attracted to the figure of the zombie?

The figure of the zombie comes out of the voodoo tradition, but that is lost in many modern-day zombie narratives. And although some zombie books and films frame the narrative through a quest to understand how the apocalypse began or how it can be curtailed or reversed, many zombie narratives aren’t particularly interested in these questions.

Learn more about Suzanne Collins and dystopian games.

The Fear of the Unknowable

Image of bloody zombie hands.
The supernatural element may make some cataclysmic events scarier than other more predictable ones. (Image: RAY-BON/Shutterstock)

It’s something people sometimes ask about The Walking Dead, AMC’s enormously popular zombie show, based on Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s graphic novel series. After the survivors in that story get over their initial shock and panic at the realization that their friends and neighbors return from the dead as flesh-eating monsters who are very difficult to kill, why is it they don’t spend that much time wondering what caused the cataclysm and how it can be reversed? 

One of the reasons for this might be that solving the problem of what caused the zombies in the first place and what solutions might be available to deal with them effectively would move the narrative into the space of one of the other cataclysms, the technological or biomedical apocalypse, maybe even the environment, depending on the answer to the zombie origin question.

The zombie apocalypse, by nature, is a supernatural apocalypse. What’s happened to the world cannot be explained under the typical rational rubrics. This speaks to our fear of what we cannot understand, our fear that disasters may not always be explicable, may not always be knowable.

Common Questions about Four Types of Cataclysmic Events in Post-Apocalyptic Literature

Q: How did the invention of railroads factor into the invention of popular literature?

People who traveled by train usually didn’t have anything to do for quite a while but read. It helped popular literature to grow because they could use this time to have adventures in the safety of their cabin.

Q: What would an environmental cataclysmic event look like?

The prospect of an environmental cataclysmic event related to global warming is increasing as described in novels such as The Road.

Q: Why are supernatural cataclysmic events so attractive to people?

Such cataclysmic events play into not just our fear of what could happen to us after a disaster but also facing something we cannot understand because it’s unknowable.

Keep Reading
“The Hunger Games”: The Dark Take on the World
Young Adult Literature and Dystopia
“The Hunger Games” and Katniss’s Androgyny: A Queer Heroine