Why is there nothing on e-Notes about post-apocalyptic literature, and what is a summary of the post-apocalyptic genre?I am teaching a course on dystopian and post-apocalyptic narratives and...

Why is there nothing on e-Notes about post-apocalyptic literature, and what is a summary of the post-apocalyptic genre?

I am teaching a course on dystopian and post-apocalyptic narratives and thought I would check in here to see what e-Notes has. eNotes has a lot on dystopian writing but nothing on post-apocalyptic writing as a genre (though it does have some entries of individual post-apocalyptic works, but not even all of the standard representative ones).

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amymc | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

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Post apocalyptic writing as a genre deals with human society after a catastrophic event, such as war or plague, which has drastically changed the scope of humanity. It is typically set in a world that is devoid of technology or has only a smattering of technology which either not desireable or not accessible to those living.  As with many genres, the dystopian and even the science fiction genres overlap with post-apocalyptic writing, so you may have to draw some information from those genres as well.

For example, Ayn Rand's Anthem fits both the dystopian genre and the post-apocalyptic genre and is well-represented on e-notes.  Stephen King's The Stand is another example.  It is set after a devastating plague but also contains elements of the supernatural as the character finds a way to travel through time zones and across large distances in a matter of seconds. By the Waters of Babylon by Stephen Vincent Benet is another tale that is designated primarily as science fiction but unravels a tale of a young man exploring a city destroyed by a cataclysmic war.

The bottom line is that post-apocalyptic literature is a sub-genre with many characteristics that overlap into other genres.  I suppose one way of making a distinction is to focus on the ways the characters survive to rebuild society and a sense of self.  The dystopian novels will focus on how these attempts fail in various ways while the science fiction literature will employ obvious elements of "other-worldliness"; you will have to draw these distinctions for your students.


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rswartz | College Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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My own view is similar to yours in many respects. The P-A subgenre does represent a world that follows a global, species threatening catastrophe, and can be set anywhere from the immediate aftermath of that event to long afterward. For example, McCarthy's The Road is set in the catastrophic aftermath, and is about survival. Some of them (such as The Road Warrior) are set in a world struggling to emerge from the crisis, where scavenging is a way of life. Benet's is set probably decades later, and London's The Scarlet Plague is set a generation afterward. Both the Benet and the London represent a human world reconstituted in terms of tribal life, though other stories set long after the crisis show us different worlds (such as A Canticle for Leibowitz). There are dystopian elements in post-apocalyptic narrative, and many (but not all) dystopias are set after a critical social breakdown in the wake of some catastrophe, so the two genres can and often do overlap, but typically what distinguishes P-A narrative from more clearly dystopian narratives is a focus in the nature of the global catastrophe itself. (A dystopia does not have to be on a global scale. In The Handsmaid's Tale, for example, the transformation is political in nature restricted to the United States.) In post-apocalyptic narratives the nature of the catastrophe can vary, depending on the anxieties haunting the era in which they are written--nuclear war, a collapsed eco-system, disease, and so on. Throughout the genre you find competing ideological claims about the nature of human beings--are they Hobbesian predators, or Rousseauean "back to nature" primitives? And so on. One way to compare post-apocalyptic narratives would be to focus on how they represent material artifacts of the prior world, depending on how proximate events are to the original catastrophe. These artifacts can be scavenged for survival (The Road) or appear as distant and mysterious traces of something lost and even unknown.

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