Friday, 13 March 2015

Post-Apocalypse Issues: Part II – Specific Issues for Specific Scenarios:

This post follows from an earlier one in which I discuss general issues of resource scarcity and the lack of danger from decomposing bodies (unless, of course, they are zombies...). Here, I focus on issues specific to common apocalypse scenarios.


As mentioned in the general issues post (i.e. Part I), bodies would cease to be contagious pretty quickly. Authors have a lot of room here, however, to make interesting scenarios in which diseases caused by retroviruses (for example), remain undetectable in a living host for long periods of time. This sets up dramatic possibilities with regard to survivors being xenophobic. In addition to supplying a canvas for conflict, it shatters the idea that large groups would form to reorganize society. If you want dwindling resources, city-states, and tribal conflict, this seems like a good way to go in a pandemic scenario.

zombie apocalypse

What Anne Rice did for vampires, Max Brooks did for zombies (in my mind, he modernized the genre). If you are writing a zombie story and you have not yet read The Zombie Survival Guide or World War Z, you are shooting yourself in the foot. While Brooks’ zombies violate all biological and thermodynamic principles, even I (who gets hung up on such things) was able to put those matters aside to enjoy the extent of his thinking. Really – go and get these books (the movie doesn’t do them justice, though I have been told that The Walking Dead television series does bring Brooks’ contribution to the screen).

nuclear holocaust

Wm. Robert Johnston, a researcher in space-physics, wrote a well-considered seminar piece in which he detailed the likely effects of a fictional nuclear holocaust in 1988. While the conclusions are surprising to me, they confirm what the majority of experts claim: that much (perhaps half) of the world’s population would survive [1]. I recommend the report for its straight-forward usefulness. Another good, albeit earlier, paper is “The global health effects of nuclear war” by physicist Brian Martin [2].

Johnston estimates 45 million US survivors (around 16%, or 1 in 6), so there will be plenty of people to build up local governments that can oversee production and distribution of resources and labor. An interesting consideration is that, even though the nuclear destruction will be targeted at a limited number of countries, it is likely that several smaller conflicts will erupt as the world’s power balance is reassessed.

Cities, of course, will be the primary target of most attacks. Therefore, most of the amenities of infrastructure (industry, bureaucracy, communication, etc.) will be gone, making this scenario very different from the pandemic apocalypse. Yet, scavenging in areas outside of the epicentres will still provide a largess food that will keep people alive until they can reorganize (packaged or tinned foods will be safe so long as the radioactive dust has not mixed into the contents).

The ramifications of a nuclear holocaust are vast and complicated. I recommend that writers hoping to do justice to their speculative world draw on multiple sources before considering the scale at which they want their fabula to take place. The scale will determine what details need to be considered and which can be glossed over with hand-wavey vagaries.

alien invasion

If you are looking for realism, this one is most certainly a punt. If a race of creatures has the ability to cross the galaxy, then there is no good reason for them to dominate Earth. We have virtually nothing here that is not available elsewhere, especially water (in his book, The Eerie Silence [3], Paul Davies does such a good job tackling the search for alien intelligence that I abandoned my plans to write such a book after reading his). Furthermore, a race that has the technology for interstellar travel could probably make anything that it needs from scratch, would likely find human slave-labor to be more trouble than it’s worth and, because it did not co-evolve with us, would probably not find us to be suitable hosts for their young or for hybridization.

The invasion could be a less-insidious wave of spores spreading out through the galaxy to colonize new planets, but that has a few evolutionary issues. The first is that the critters would have needed to evolve on a planet whose conditions selected for (i.e. rewarded) those variants that were somehow cast out into space. Perhaps they evolved on an asteroid, but complex beings are complex because they evolve in multi-faceted relationships with their ecology (i.e. other critters that evolved next to them). If they are good at colonizing and competing with local flora and fauna, it implies that they got good at it over millions of years of interactions with their shipmates (or asteroid-mates). The take-home message is that, to evolve a highly-capable colonising creature, you need a complex ecology (not teh kind usually depicted on asteroids).

The second issue is that, when something evolves to live on a planet, it is rewarded for being really good at exploiting that planet. Even on our own planet, only around 10% of introduced species take hold in their new environments, and only 1% become problematic pests [4]. What would the chances be if they came from an alien climate and atmosphere?
As always, I am not suggesting that alien-invasion plots be abandoned; I am only suggesting that authors patch up the obvious holes before their readers point them out on a forum site.

Lovecraftian horrors and their ilk

Who doesn’t love a good Cthulhu-esque tale? Sentient, terrible forces conquering our world from within the shadows. Perhaps without Lovecraft, there would have never been an X-Files. The big problem is that these stories usually rely on unbelievably competent conspiracies and an equally incompetent scientific community. Having been a biologist for years, I know how quickly good evidence is disseminated and taken seriously. When a tentacled, vampiric, flying werewolf ate the local sheriff, did that really go unnoticed by everyone except for the local high school heroes and the stodgy librarian? Especially with the aid of current global communication, it only takes the stodgy librarian sending a photo attachment of the creature before interests would be piqued. Maybe the poor old dear would be eaten before others began to take him seriously, but information gets around and, once it is confirmed as being something new, the entire global scientific community goes ape (if discovery of a new species of frog got a 839 words in the New York Times [5], then the discovery of said werewolf would not be tucked away in a file). This is my usual first filter for conspiracy stories in real life. If an average citizen can find evidence that they are using to demonstrate an incredible cover-up, then I regard it as just that: in-credible. Why is the entire astrophysics community ignoring the webpage that clearly presents evidence of an alien in a ‘government’ freezer? Because they know better.

Act of god(s)

Knock yourselves out, folks -- it’s hard to make less sense than what many religious readers actually believe to be the final fate of the world.

W. Johnston, "The effects of a global thermonuclear war.," in Dean's Scholars seminar, University of Texas at Austin, 2003.
B. Martin, "The global health effects of nuclear war," Current Affairs Bulletin, vol. 59, no. 7, pp. 14-26, 1982.
P. Davies, The Eerie Silence, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
J. Reece, Campbell Biology, Pearson, 2011.
L. Foderaro, "New leopard frog species is discovered in NYC.," NYT, 13 March 2012. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 10 March 2014].

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