Themes in post-apocalyptic fiction

Considering themes of humanity, morality, and community

Whether it's a pandemic, meteor strike, alien invasion, nuclear disaster, or zombies, we sure seem to love our apocalypses.  

Themes in post-apocalyptic fiction

Post-apocalyptic fiction is a twist on the survival-against-all-odds story. We can look back as far as Homer's Odyssey to see themes of courage, creativity, and endurance in the face of epic disaster and brutal challenges.  Post-apocalyptic stories are full of explorations into questions of morality, ethics, and what it means to be human.

The big conversations at our house tend to revolve around the current hit show The Walking Dead. The main protagonist, Sheriff Rick Grimes, wakes up from a coma in the hospital about two months after the world ended. His journey--from upstanding lawman to desperate father to dangerous leader – is fascinating, as is the character development of the other people he and his group encounter along the way.  

I know, I know--it's a show about zombies, and many write it off as a gorefest. But as with most post-apocalyptic stories, the disaster is just the catalyst to bring out the innermost desires and beliefs of the characters in the story. Some survivors find a depth of strength, principle and compassion they didn't know they had, while others melt into despair. Some lose their minds and their lives in complete hopelessness, others devolve into raging violence against everything and everyone. 

With every episode, we watch these people face--not only the most gruesome and horrifying disaster we can imagine--but the challenge of finding food, shelter, medicine, and other supplies for survival.  

However, the real search is for the preservation of their humanity and the fulfillment of their need for community.  

As we immerse ourselves into the story, we ask: "What would I do in this situation?"

  • Would you risk your life to help a stranger? 
  • Would you leave someone behind to save your own life?  
  • Would you kill someone who had proven to be extremely dangerous but at the moment was unarmed? 
  • Where do you draw the lines of right and wrong when there is no more law, and cultural norms no longer apply? 

These are just some of the lessons post-apocalyptic fiction can teach us.  

Whether the protagonist is stranded in a house surrounded by murderous creatures, on a deserted island, in a land-before-time, or thrown far out into the future, the story of how someone can maintain their sanity and persevere when all seems lost speaks to us on a deep level. 

survival apocalypse quote

We are tempted to dismiss the post-apocalyptic genre as too depressing,  too fantastic, or just too gross, but this is a mistake. Some of the most interesting conversations you can have with your kids is to discuss the Worst Case Scenario and the morality of survival.  

Young people are particularly drawn to this genre. They find emotional connections to their anxieties about their future. As our teens read and hear the news, they wonder what kind of world they will inherit, and if they are up to the challenge. Even while our kids seemed obsessed with new technology, they are concerned about the impact it has on our lives, and what life would be like if it were suddenly taken away. They wonder what would happen to them if they were separated from family and friends during a crisis. 

Experiencing the challenges of a full-blown apocalypse through the lives of beloved characters is cathartic because it gives them an opportunity to face their fears.

This can provide us as parents with an opportunity to talk to our kids about how to deal with their anxieties, as well as how to respond to a real life worst case scenario. 

See this process in action as my daughter Emma and I discuss the show The Walking Dead on her YouTube Channel, EJ Newman.

What are your favorite post-apocalyptic shows or books?  Share in the comments!