Post-Apocalyptic Optimism?

We’re in the midst of the annual Canada Reads tournament, wherein a panel of defendants select their choice of Canadian book they believe can “shift our perspective.” At the end of each round, one book is eliminated until only one remains standing. This year, the 2014 novel Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is in the running even though it’s almost a decade old, which got me wondering what gives this particular post-apocalypse story such staying power. Of course, this story about the world after a flu pandemic was re-introduced to audiences through the excellent HBO adaptation in 2021 (yikes at that timing, though). And the apocalyptic genre has come rushing back into fashion through the popularity of The Last of Us, based on the video game (for the sake of ease, I will be referring to those mushroom-infested people as zombies). But I think readers (and audiences) can find some odd comfort in Mandel’s version of a ravaged future, the same way people connected with the emotional elements of The Last of Us. These works of fiction contend with the spectrum of humanity (including the good parts) in the face of existential crisis.

While I raptly watched each episode of The Last of Us, I couldn’t help but hope that the show would transcend the usual zombie trappings. And it did…sometimes. I’m not a gamer, so I suppose the plot structure is shaped by its devotion to the source material. In my opinion, the show was at its best when it was at its most specific (the cannibalistic Christian cult, for example, is the opposite of specific: weirdo church guy turns out to be a bad man? Who knew!). And it’s especially at its best when it bucks the expectations of the genre. There is a reason that the third episode, called “Long, Long Time” after the Linda Ronstadt song, was the most well-received by audiences and critics. After two episodes of stellar (but typical) zombie fare, “Long, Long Time” caught viewers off guard by spending an entire episode on a side character’s love story. This genre tends to be bleak and nihilistic, and puncturing that narrative with an unexpectedly sweet and moving—if only marginally relevant—side story was an unexpected but welcome detour.

Fictional monsters have always stood in for various societal anxieties. As I wrote about previously, for example, vampires are usually a sexually-coded threat. Zombies, meanwhile, represent the breakdown of society, the upending of our precarious civilization. Penn State professor Peter Dendle wrote an illuminating essay in the 2000s on the resurgence of zombies in popular fiction, titled “The Zombie as Barometer of Cultural Anxiety”, that tracks how anxieties about capitalism shape our zombies. Originally from Haitian folklore, the figure of the shambling undead first made its Western film appearance in 1932’s White Zombie, in which a white Voodoo master (Bela Lugosi) turns people into zombies in order to exploit them as workers. Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead and the 2004 remake both have their characters take shelter in a mall, as a comment on rampant, mindless consumerism (The Last of Us also has an episode set in an abandoned mall). 28 Days Later (2002) has zombies created by a lab leak, only now they run really fast and act like rabid animals—surely having something to do with our hyperconnected, go-go-go modern lifestyles.  

The other side of the apocalypse coin is the zombie-less kind, wherein humans are the only monsters. These stories tend to tackle the same themes regardless: The Last of Us moves away from zombie danger in the later episodes, and even Dawn of the Dead claims “they’re us.” Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is one of the more harrowing entries in the post-apocalypse oeuvre, and there’s nary a zombie to be found.  

But more recent takes on the genre have gotten bored with the violent isolationist takes like McCarthy’s. Books like Station Eleven and Ling Ma’s Severance are less concerned about the ways humans can be awful to each other, and more about the ways we would likely come together. In Station Eleven, author Mandel sets the action twenty or so years after a cataclysmic flu event, at the point where survivors (and younger folks who never knew the old world) have created a new status quo. Mandel is interested in the facets of humanity that cannot be squashed, those that would endure even “post-civilization”. Station Eleven follows a ragtag theatre troupe that travels the Great Lakes performing Shakespeare for various settlements and towns that have cropped up over the years. The title itself refers to a graphic novel from the pre-apocalypse that finds its way into the hands of two very different characters in the post-world. It’s about art’s ability to connect humanity across time and space, even after the destruction of the world as we know it. It’s about art as the antithesis of capitalism: the economy may crumble, but the urge to create never dies—and in fact, may flourish.  

In his zombie essay, Dendle states that “Post-apocalyptic zombie worlds are fantasies of liberation: the intrepid pioneers of a new world trek through the shattered remnants of the old.” It’s a compelling theory, and one that holds water as we move toward more (slightly) optimistic and connection-centred apocalypse fiction. When “freed” from the confines and drudgery of workaday life, without the pressures of capitalism, could we rebuild a more humanist society? This theory works much better on the zombie-less stories like Station Eleven and Severance, of course, as people aren’t fending off the living dead at every corner. But I think it’s an intriguing fantasy, and one that does seem to resonate with audiences. The Last of Us partakes in this fantasy as well, particularly when Joel and Ellie stumble into Jackson, Wyoming; a socialist haven of camaraderie, movie nights, and Christmas trees (I want to move there). Moreover, it’s the budding father-daughter relationship between Joel and Ellie that really captures viewers’ hearts. The love story in “Long, Long Time” starts as an isolationist fantasy and then swiftly pivots to the beauty of connection. The television adaptation of Station Eleven leans into this too, developing another pseudo father-daughter relationship between Jeevan and Kirsten that was not in the book. It’s not about the zombies, or the dangers on the road. It’s, as Rihanna says, finding love in a hopeless place.  

I sense something like weariness toward “dark and gritty” stories—that, like The Walking Dead and even Game of Thrones, seemed to be as nasty as possible just for the sake of it—especially in 2023 after scraping through the mini societal breakdown that was the COVID-19 pandemic. Maybe we’re ready to turn a corner. 

Tune into the Canada Reads competition on the CBC. And you can check out the longlist of contenders here. Find out wins on March 30!   

About Alyssia

Alyssia is an Adult Services Librarian at the Vaughan Public Libraries. Nothing makes her happier than a great book and a great cup of coffee. She loves fiction in all formats - books, movies, television, you name it - and is always on the lookout for awesome new music.  |  Meet the team