I've been thinking about the end of the world lately.
Not the real end of the world, which I'd just as soon avoid, thanks very much. I grew up near the very end of the cold war ? when people still debated over the dinner table whether we were all going to blow ourselves up and when duck-and-cover drills were a normal part of the school year. I remember the day I realized that running out into the hall and hiding my head beneath my arms wouldn't save me, if the bombs really fell.
But the fictional end of the world? I love that.
I didn't always love post-apocalyptic fiction. I never really thought much about it until I found myself writing my young adult fantasy, Bones of Faerie. Bones of Faerie is set almost two decades after a cataclysmic war between the human and faerie realms destroyed the world. The few human survivors huddle in their towns (the cities having all fallen), trying to protect themselves from the magical fallout the faerie folk left behind ? deadly glowing stones, shadows that slice through skin and bone, trees that seek human blood. That world haunted me from the moment I started writing in it ? it still does.
It was only after I finished writing that I began stumbling upon other end-of-the-world YA books. War, drought, ecological collapse, viruses, vampires, alien invasion ? it suddenly seemed like every YA author was bent on destroying the world one way or another, and then sending an unsuspecting teen protagonist out to deal with the consequences. The past few years especially, the subgenre of post-apocalyptic YA fiction has exploded. (I've started trying to keep track of these books with a post-apocalyptic teen reading list on my Desert Dispatches blog. If you know of any I've missed ? because I'm sure I have ? let me know.)
Why would any sane person write about this stuff? I can't speak for anyone else, but here are a few of the things I love about the fictional end of the world:
• The world gets a clean slate: The old order has been swept away, and the old rules with it. Sometimes oppressive new rules replace them, but often in a post-apocalyptic world characters are still in the process of working out the rules ? of trying to rebuild the world and to figure out what the rebuilt world should look like. Post-apocalyptic fiction is a chance to start over, even if it's at terrible cost.
• So many kinds of stories can happen there: That the world has ended is a given, but by choosing how it ends and how the survivors respond, writers can tell almost any kind of story: science fiction or fantasy or realism, devastating or hopeful or even (as in Adam Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday) laugh-out-loud funny. I like seeing what sort of story each writer chooses to tell.
• Ruined landscapes are compelling: This is as true for the ruins of our own world as it is for the ruins of civilizations thousands of years old. Seeing the fictional ruins of the world I know terrifies me and makes me shiver ? but some part of me wants to be scared. Just like with real ruins, I can't stop staring, and I don't want to look away.
• Post-apocalyptic fiction changes how I look at my non-post-apocalyptic world: The ruins of the fictional worlds I visit follow me back into my own world. Some things turn strangely precious (light bulbs after Jeanne DuPrau's The City of Ember, ordinary animals after Ann Halam's Siberia). Other things turn deeply disconcerting (reality TV after Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, the full moon after Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life as We Knew It). Ordinary objects take on new meanings, and I look at the world a little bit differently as a result.
• It's about the light that shines through the dark: Post-apocalyptic worlds can get incredibly dark, but they can also show us the things that survive even in that darkness. Courage, cleverness, the desire for truth, the impulse to help others, love, honor, human connections, hope ? these things all seem more precious, as well, after the end of the world. Sometimes, they're even what we need to survive.
• It reminds me that the world hasn't ended yet: After reading a particularly powerful post-apocalyptic tale, I wander around thinking, "The world's still here. It hasn't ended yet." I find myself thinking that if we've survived this long, maybe somehow all of us together, in small ways and large, can hang on a little longer. That gives me hope, too.
Which is more than running out into the hall to duck and cover ever did.