Interest in apocalyptic literature has surged in the wake of the COVID-19 viral pandemic (2020), as these works help to make sense of the real-world experience of the current pandemic. In addition to conspiracy theories that have taken over social media, the fact that many of these stories have been partially realised in real life raises questions about the ways in which fiction and reality can collide or visit each other across their shared horizons.
Importantly, literature can do more than just record the past; it can also imagine the future, providing meaning and value to the here and now. However, inasmuch as any part or all of any imagined future may never come to pass, the future itself remains fictional. Several factors in the present can therefore crack open the time capsule containing the apocalypse.
The question remains as to whether the creative impulse behind apocalyptic fictions is an attempt to subvert the established order or the hegemonic tools of the established order, which attempt to describe its collapse in terms of the end of the world.
In light of these considerations, this article examines a selection of pandemic apocalyptic novels and provides a comparative analysis of the dystopian elements that make up these post-apocalyptic fictional worlds. Although some of the novels under consideration were written in the 19th and 20th centuries, they all share a common theme: they are set in a world devastated by a pandemic in the 21st.
What is apocalyptic literature?
Gottfried Christian Friedrich Lücke coined the English word apocalyptic from the German word Apokalyptik (Collins 2014: 1). He did so in the context of discussing the Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse of John.
Since then, academics have adopted the term to refer to works of fiction that feature apocalyptic scenarios. Recent years have seen a rise in interest in the topic of apocalypse, prompting a number of theoretical works to investigate the genre, function, and types of this increasingly popular topic.
In this regard, Paul Hanson differentiated “apocalypse” as a literary type, “apocalypticism” as a social ideology, and “apocalyptic eschatology” as a collection of ideas and motifs.
The post-apocalyptic text is a literary offshoot of apocalyptic literature; it imagines life in the aftermath of an apocalypse, the cause of which could be anything from a natural disaster or pandemic to the use of man-made weapons of mass destruction or even an alien invasion.
Therefore, apocalyptic literature often tackles important issues and conveys certain messages to modern politics and societies by imagining the catastrophic end of the human race. Apocalyptic literature, in this sense, is defined in terms of its function, which is to interpret current earthly circumstances in light of the future supernatural world, and to influence both the understanding and the behaviour of its audience by means of divine authority.
This interpretation, however, is limited to a parable and is therefore likely to theologize the discourse of representation and place special emphasis on God’s ultimate judgement.
Modern interpretations of the apocalypse, in contrast to their pre-modern counterparts, tend to emphasise the dramatic nature of the world’s end as a result of a series of catastrophic events. That is to say, the dystopian flaws inherent in the universal order play a role in the modern apocalypse’s eventual destruction.
However, the themes focus less on the transformation itself and more on the current issues that are driving it. As such, apocalyptic writing serves as a conceptual tool that projects an imaginative catastrophic event onto a reality, through which questions of political, economic, social, and cultural problems of the present era can be raised, thought, and answered.
It creates apocalyptic anxiety in order to reexamine history and re-interrogate human nature. Author of the The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) Kim Stanley Robinson traces the paradoxical relationship between science fiction and reality, concluding that perhaps we need to see the real situation with more imagination while imagining what we want with more realism.
According to American literary critic Joseph Dewey (1990), the apocalyptic imagination is an attempt by a bewildered culture to make sense of its current crisis by concluding that it is part of a cosmic order that portends nothing less than the end of human history.
How 21st century dystopia is depicted in apocalyptic literature?
The literary archetype and forerunner are the anticipation novels written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Last Man (1826) by Mary Shelley and The Scarlet Plague (1912) by Jack London do, in fact, spark the far-reaching imagination of the pandemic apocalypse.
Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man”
It was in 1826 that the first edition of The Last Man, a post-apocalyptic, dystopian science fiction novel, was released. The plot takes place in the late 21st century, after a global pandemic has effectively ended human civilization.
The first-person narrative spans the years 2073 and 2100 and begins with political events like the end of the British monarchy and the Turkish-Greek war, and ends with an unknown plague wiping out most of the world’s population and the emergence of a false messiah. Lionel, the last surviving human, wanders the deserted continents of Europe and Africa with only his sheepdog for company.
In the novel, the plague is not the sole reason for the downfall of society; rather, it is a repercussion of man’s insatiable hunger for power at any cost. It’s not surprising, then, that Shelley calls the current situation a “labyrinth of evil”. The novel’s central Islamic-Christian conflict is fueled by corrupt leaders like Raymond, whose lust for power is unabated by the hopeless state of the world he seeks to rule.
Shelley creates an airborne epidemic based on recent viral pandemic traits that is more catastrophic since it is invisible and challenging to avoid. The romantic poets’ revolutionary spirit was inspired by the wind, which now carries death.
By adapting well-known imagery in this way, Mary Shelley makes the point that poor moral and political choices make people complicit in the external forces driving them to disaster.
The tale depicts nature’s anger as a reaction to man’s bad inclinations. Thus, the sickness that develops into a different cause of mortality takes on its airborne form as a result of the harmful interaction between cultures and politics.
The institutionalised notion of man that he can create his own dominion out of the rubble of others is more dangerous than any deadly plague. In reality, The Scarlet Plague by London discusses the heart of jungle law that is covered by the human shell that Shelley’s book pierces.
Jack London’s “The Scarlet Plague”
In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, Jack London’s apocalyptic tale The Scarlet Plague, which first appeared in London Magazine in 1912, has now again gained widespread attention (2020).
The story is mind-boggling because it predicts events that occur more than a century later and gives fuel to those who believe in conspiracies. The imaginary events in this book take place in 2073, sixty years after a global pandemic known as the scarlet (red) death has wiped out most of humanity.
One of the survivors, named James Smith, is still alive and residing in the San Francisco region. Because of their primitive, hunter-gatherer lifestyle in a desolate environment, his grandchildren Edwin, HooHoo, and Hare-Lip, all young men, have limited intellectual and linguistic ability yet accompany him on his travels.
Smith’s tribal system has been adopted by the few remaining survivors in the San Francisco area. Smith’s primary worry is passing on the knowledge of the world before the apocalypse.
However, all of his efforts are for naught because his grandsons make fun of the importance of the information, social standing, technology, etc. that he tries to pass on to them. Since they haven’t been exposed to or developed the mental capacity for that reality, they find such inane nonsense to be as implausible as a myth.
Focusing on the social epidemic that follows the microbiological one and proves to be worse, London’s story centres on the effects of both.
When society as a whole crumbles, it is due to unequal treatment of its members. This is symbolic of the motto from Robinson’s novel, “social justice is a survival technique,” which says just that.
During the pandemic, many of the social entities that have long been understood to be capitalism’s byproducts emerge and take revenge in a savage and cruel fashion on those who have wronged them.
Furthermore, capitalist ideas are propagated by means of objects to which they have become inextricably linked. The old man’s eyes glistened, as he held the coin near to them; it was a worn and tarnished silver dollar, the lone monument left back from the devastated world, and a symbol of the pre-apocalyptic controlling system.
In this setting, the coin may have sentimental value. However, it speaks for capitalism as the system which was in command right before the catastrophe and is therefore responsible for it, like a bomb fragment in a site that has been bombed. In London’s opinion, capitalism led to the rise in population and to overcrowding, and overcrowding led to plague. This leads to a severe critique of capitalism, which is seen as the root cause of the epidemic.
Apocalypse, power conflict and moral polarization in Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”
The American author Richard Matheson penned the post-apocalyptic horror novel I Am Legend in 1954. The novel is classified as pandemic apocalyptic literature, despite its impact on the creation of zombie and vampire fiction.
Robert Neville is the primary character; he is the only human to have survived an epidemic that has wiped off most of humanity and transformed the remaining few into “vampires.”
The novel, which is set in Los Angeles, follows Neville as he tries to explore and find a treatment for the sickness in the wake of the epidemic. Meanwhile, every night he has to fight off the hordes of vampires that come to his house.
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The novel is notable because it reenacts the plot of Robinson Crusoe in reverse: Crusoe abandons Humanity while Humanity remains, while Neville outlives all of civilization. Moreover, whereas Crusoe is ultimately responsible for his own fate, Neville is a helpless bystander.
The novel’s lesson can be gleaned from the novel’s three types of victims: the dead, the vampires, and the survivor. Those who are less vulnerable to the pandemic are the ones who die, dismantling the usual mortal considerations.
Either become a vampire and live a cursed life, or struggle alone in a terribly unfriendly world.
The novel portrays the survivors, with the exception of the protagonist, as bloodsuckers who contribute to the destructive power of the sickness. The novel draws parallels between the vampire’s actions and the ills produced by politics and the quest of profit in capitalist economies.
Karl Marx’s metaphor that “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” is given a literal interpretation by the novel’s vampires. Stephen King’s The Stand also contains this oblique allegory for a savage capitalist system.
James Dashner’s “The Maze Runner”: A textbook example of Apocalyptic literature
The world of The Maze Runner is a dystopian one brought on by a natural calamity and made worse by the governments’ clumsy response to the situation. The Glade, a safe haven for the last people in the world, is nothing more than a nihilistic prison that’s worse than death.
Obviously, the only way to stay alive is to dash across a number of potentially lethal zones. However, the largest problem results from the vast chasm between what Sartre ontologically calls as the “being-in-itself” and the “being-for-itself” (1993: 18-28). With little recollection of their former lives, the survivors are like robots programmed by advanced technology to propagate the remnants of a dying civilization.
To the contrary, the manufactured utopia the Glade’s Creators set out to build has devolved into a dystopia that has abandoned the very purpose of being human. In order to return to their former state, which seems utopian in comparison to the present, the protagonists must overcome numerous external and personal challenges.
The circumstances make us ponder if the novel conveys the message that “there is no alternative to capitalism,” the statement popularised by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In a similar vein to George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1946), the utopia that the animals hope for and work toward is ultimately the one they have replaced.
The inspiration for the book came from a simple scientific fact: NASA predicted a solar flare will strike Earth in 2022. The Flare is a lethal, airborne, extremely contagious, man-made virus that settles in the brain that was created and unleashed by the scientists of the self-proclaimed ruling body known as WICKED, according to James Dashner’s fictionalisation.
Many mental diseases that dehumanise others are among its symptoms. In order to survive the plague, a person’s social standing dictates their fate: the rich, who can purchase the pricey drug known as “Bliss,” can live a little longer than the poor, who contract the virus and become “Cranks” and are sentenced to death.
Importantly, aside from its primary goal of eradicating the world’s population, WICKED also produces the drug and the virus as a form of business. The idea of managing the world’s population sheds light on such western theories as eugenics and practises derived from the inscriptions of the Georgia Guidestones, a granite monument built in 1980 that features 10 dubious rules “for an age of reason.”
Regardless of when they were written—in the 19th, 20th, or 21st centuries—all of the books addressed in this essay are set in the present. As though the literary imagination foresaw a climatic threshold beyond which history cannot proceed farther, they forecast that our century will be tragic.
If the implications of future may be deduced from the situation of today, then this vision might be evident to the contemporary novel. But one can ask how the twenty-first century is somberly taking on a shape resembling the one foreshadowed by the postapocalyptic literature from earlier times.
Although no logical argument can support their lyrical vision, one may conceivably argue that the social and political perspectives from which the future was perceived in earlier times were similar to those of today.
Fiction set in a post-apocalyptic world must depict an unchangeable moment in humanity’s destiny. However, this future is nothing more than a reflection of the causes and complexities in the here and now. Authors are actually highlighting important aspects of the present by addressing a troubled future that is influenced by the current power dynamics.
Therefore, envisioning a future that has only ever existed in texts is nothing more than taking the criticism of the current world order one step farther.
Capitalism will likely result in the apocalypse if socialism ever turned into a terrible, self-destructive totalitarianism. As far as its designers are concerned, the man-made pandemic was designed to foster a utopian future. Instead of being a utopian epiphany, the event ends up being a dystopian tragedy. Sometimes, things can happen that are out of human control and have terrible consequences.