When we try to imagine the world after an apocalypse, we often end up thinking of a particular era from history. It's not surprising — because the end of the world as we know it often means we'll lose a lot of the fruits of progress. People often talk about bombing someone "back to the Stone Age," for example.
But what's amazing is how often the apocalypse leaves people living in a very specific historical period. Like the nineteenth century, or the late Renaissance. Here are 22 stories about an apocalypse that rolls back the clock.
It's sort of fascinating to think of an apocalypse as being like a time machine, taking us back to a particular moment in history. It plays into our sense of nostalgia for allegedly simpler times. And it appeals to our vague notions that history goes in circles, rather than in a straight line.
The Hunger Games
This is sort of an edge case — there's been a nuclear holocaust, but high technology still exists, and the Capitol has access to all sorts of amazing toys. But nevertheless, the nuclear devastation has turned America into the Roman Empire. Everybody lives in "Panem" (from "Panem et Circenses") and most people in the Capitol have quasi-Latin names, plus the Games themselves are clearly the Roman Coliseum writ large. But the Gary Ross movie adds more layers of anachronism, casting the outer districts as trapped in the 1930s Dustbowl era, and turning the Capitol into a kind of 1970s glam-rock festival. But Effie Trinkett is sort of 18th century. It's kind of awesome.
Too soon to tell, maybe, but NBC's new show created by Eric Kripke and J.J. Abrams takes place in a world where all forms of energy have stopped working — and 15 years later, everybody is sort of living in the mid-19th century, including wearing a lot of buckskin and living in small towns.
Emberverse, or Change World
Just like in Revolution, a catastrophic event called "The Change" causes electricity, internal combustion engines, explosives, etc. to stop working in S.M. Stirling's novels. In the wake of losing 600 years worth of technology, various communities spring up. One of these is a neo-feudal empire in what was once Portland, run by a former medieval history professor and member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. Another is a piratical neo-Viking outpost on the coast of Maine. And yet one more is a clan-based system in the Willamette Valley. People begin traveling by horse, constructing catapults with truck suspension systems, and heeding visions that say things like, "Travel from sunrise to the sunset, and seek the Son of the Bear Who Rules. The Sword of the Lady waits for him." It's neo-everything.
This is another one where everybody's suddenly in the 19th century, with the small towns and the old-timey clothes and the simpler way of life and the militia roaming around. It's sort of Civil War-looking. See also: The Book of Eli, which has a similar frontier vibe.
The New Magic Series
These books by Pamela Service take place in a world that's been devastated by nuclear weapons — and it's the Middle Ages again! Not only that, but King Arthur has awoken from his endless slumber, and Merlin and Morgana le Faye are also running around doing magical stuff.
The King Awakes
Janice Elliott's novel also tackles the idea of King Arthur waking up in post-apocalyptic England, and everything being medieval all over again. There's a legendary tower, which turns out to be something like an old BBC broadcasting tower. Starting to think "post-apocalyptic King Arthur novels" is a whole genre.
The Last Wizard
Simon Hawke's novel is yet another one in which an ecologically devastated future England sees the return of Merlin — and the rebirth of magic. It's the Second Thaumaturgical Age. Merlin and Morded are running around a future eco-disaster world, fighting the Dark Ones, a bunch of evil necromancers.
In Neil Marshall's amazetastic cult movie, there's a plague apocalypse in Scotland, and randomly a
ton of people start wearing suits of armor and living in a castle and being medieval. Why? It's something to do with Malcolm McDowell. That pretty much explains everything. Imagine if Malcolm McDowell decided to take over the SCA — he'd be unstoppable.
In Catherine Fisher's duology, there's been some sort of unspecified apocalypse, and now everybody is forced to live in the 18th century. The verge of the Enlightenment, sort of. And they're "forced," as in breaking out of 18th century technology and social norms is punishable by death.
Julian Comstock and Liberation
Both these novels by Robert Charles Wilson and Brian Francis Slattery came out around the same time, and they both very much take place in an America whose collapse has driven the world back to the 19th century. Including slavery, which is a huge feature of Liberation. In Wilson's novel, the 19th century touches are even more pronounced, with neo-Darwinians facing off against religious zealots.
The Dying Earth
Jack Vance's post-apocalyptic fantasy is so iconic, it spawned a whole subgenre of imitators and add-ons, which would be too numerous to list here. In a nutshell, the apocalypse leaves the world in a kind of quasi-medieval state, populated by wizards who use ancient spells, magical artifacts, and the lingering technology, to survive.
And speaking of a post-apocalyptic world that looks sort of medieval, there's this cult TV show, in which there are ample signs that this is Earth after nuclear disaster — except that there's magic, and wizards, and princesses, and plenty of other vaguely anachronistic wonders. (Although at times, this show also feels kind of early 20th century, when they're riding around on trains and having Agatha Christie murder mysteries in old mansions.)
Planet of the Apes
After a nuclear holocaust, not only do super-intelligent apes take over the planet, but also humans are reduced to the Stone Age. And the apes are living in a kind of Iron Age of their own, with helmets and some technology but a mostly feudal society.
A Canticle for Leibowitz
This classic novel by Walter M. Miller Jr. features a total restoration of the Dark Ages. Monks are the sole preservers (and simultaneously sole consumers) of old, useful knowledge, in the same ways that they held onto the Greek and Roman philosophers while the rest of Western Europe was figuring out how to spell. The series then proceeds into a neo-Renaissance, where secular scholars (Thon Taddeo Pfardentrott) begin to interact with and respond to the 'ancient' knowledge. The story centers on a monastery run by the fictional Albertian Order of Leibowitz, an order dedicated to preserving the scientific knowledge that once caused nuclear war, until humanity is ready to cope with it again. They refer to this knowledge, which they do not understand particularly well, as "the Memorabilia." In this world, papal nuncios are still sent to fledgling courts, nomadic warriors are a sincere problem, and religious schisms threaten to unleash wars.
Winner of the 1982 John W. Campbell Memorial Award, Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban takes place about 2000 years after nuclear war has laid waste to the planet. Riddley lives in an England whose technology is just about that of the Iron Age. When his father dies, Riddley has to assume his role of "connexion man," providing an interpretation of the traveling puppet shows that serve as both government propaganda and religious indoctrination. As the book progresses, Riddley discovers that there is a movement to rediscover the old technology of the "Bad Time."
Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future
Olaf Stapledon's classic novel is an interesting example, as it's based on the Hegelian Dialectic and follows human evolution over 2 billion years, beginning with our current species (First Men) and tracing mankind's crawl back to the top of the food chain after a devastating subterranean explosion wipes out most of civilization — including a stint as neo-cave people.
The Horseclans Series
Following full-scale nuclear war, humanity has regressed to a nomadic or medieval lifestyle. Robert Adams' novels follow the Horseclans of North America, a band of nomads centered on the Great Plains which looks down on "dirtmen" who are settled in one place. Meanwhile, a newer, meaner version of the Greek Orthodox Church has set up a Mediterranean kingdom, Kenooryos Ehla, on the East Coast, and proceeds to run some sort of corrupt theocracy.
Pure Blood and Mother Earth, and Trail of the Seahawks
These novels by Mike McQuay and Ron Fortier and Ardath Mayhar, respectively, both involve North American society descending into feudalism after a nuclear holocaust. But it's the sort of feudalism where you ride gigantic dogs instead of horses. (Yes, both books feature this.)
This is basically the most insane amalgam of current trends in young-adult fiction. Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel is set in a post-apocalyptic, neo-Victorian society, which has adopted the moral strictures of an earlier era in a reactionary response to the "excesses" which caused nuclear war. (The nuclear war in question only occurred 150 years before the book opens, but agriculture and breathable air are totally good to go by Chapter 1. Also, the nuclear war was followed by an outbreak of plague and the eruption of the supervolcano under Yellowstone. But, still. Good to go.) The upper tier of this new society sends its children to prep school, introduces young ladies formally into society, and — to the dismay of the book's as-yet-unmarried heroine — occasionally marries off their daughters to keep the family finances afloat. The heroine then proceeds to fall in a love with a dashing — wait for it — zombie.
This 1999 film is based loosely on the epic poem of the same name, but mostly it's just a collection of awesomely idiosyncratic weirdness, that it's hard to believe a studio greenlit. This version of Beowulf takes place in a neo-medieval, post-apocalyptic future. They still have microwave ovens, but now fight with swords. As you do. (As a bonus, it also features Doomsday's Rhona Mitra.)
Thanks to Brian Francis Slattery, Liz Gorinsky, Irene Gallo, Eddie Schneider, Annalee Newitz and Miriam Weinberg for the input!