Dystopia and other post-apocalyptic tales have long been popular in the SFF world. From YA dysfic to scifi horror (robots! aliens! WMDs!), writers have great fun imagining all the weird and wonderful ways society, the world, even the universe, as we know it will crumble. While I do agree with the grand mistress of SFF, Ursula Le Guin, in that there is room for more positive futuristic fiction than currently sits on our bookshelves, I admit to loving a good end-of-the-world or what-next narrative. If you are looking ideas for a new SFF story, look no further than the possible ways life as we know it will come to an end.
In last week’s issue of New Scientist (Issue no 3076, 4 June 2016), thirteen different possible endings for the world/humanity/the universe are explored. They include the following:
- The destruction of our solar system: The sun will swell to form a red giant before shrinking again to a white dwarf
- Individuals engulfed by a hive mind
- Consuming all our energy resources and being plunged into a futuristic dark age
- Like dinosaurs, life on Earth could be wiped out by impact with a large comet
- The end of disease brings collapse through overpopulation and lack of resources
- Without leaps in scientific progress, we will die out
- The sheer number of ways mortals can (and do) die
- Possibilities of engineering reproduction without the need for sex may lead to narrowing the genetic pool
- The collapse of society through lack of economic growth
- With the melting of the ice comes flooding, causing some countries or regions to disappear entirely
- The Andromeda Galaxy is on a collision course to the Milky Way (though not for another 4 billion years)
- The mutation of homo sapiens into an entirely new species
- The end of the universe through the big freeze, big rip, big crunch, or big slurp
… And these are just a handful of the ways we might bow out. It’s no wonder the collapse of everything we know and take for granted is ripe for the creation of interesting stories.
Future humanity’s problem
We have a tendency to brush off many of the potential cataclysmic events. They won’t impact us, let the next generation worry about it. After all, our sun won’t burn through all its hydrogen for another 6 billion years or so, they’ve been claiming we’ll run out of fossil fuels for fifty-odd years, there’s currently no giant comet headed straight for us, and the last of the Antarctic’s ice will take another few thousand years to melt… that’s hardly our problem, is it? These issues aren’t critical until they are, and by then, it is often too late to find a way out.
This concept is a favourite among SFF writers – because, after all, it is entirely believable. We see it happen all the time. Writers take current doom-laden trends at play in current society and take them to logical extremities, creating fictional worst-case scenarios. Think of Suzanne Collins’ iconic Hunger Games series – she came up with the idea when flicking through TV channels and seeing TV shows like ‘Survivor’ and asking herself ‘what if society used these games for political ends?’ In Christopher Nolan’s awful SFF film Interstellar, disease has wiped out viable crop production across the globe, leaving the human race with very few options – escape the Earth and set up civilization on a new world. One of the most statistically likely reasons life on Earth will disappear – impact from a comet – is also the most popular in big action blockbusters. In 1998, there were even two major films with the same basic premise going head-to-head at the box office: Armageddon and Deep Impact.
Planet trashers: Trash this planet, move on to the next one
Let’s face it, humans haven’t been good to the Earth. With our rapid scientific expansion involving ever more complex ways of farming energy results in us using more and more resources. We will run out. This isn’t an ‘if’, but a matter of when. If we don’t run out of resources, we might well simply blow ourselves up or design a superbug that wipes 90% of the planet’s population out before we have time to develop a cure (or mutate an immune system with effective defenses). And given how few f*cks we seem to give about global warming and other environmental issues, it seems inevitable we will churn through what we have here.
This might mean the civilization crumbles, leading to proto-industrial populations (look at The Shannara Chronicles where Terry Brooks had modern civilization crash and burn to give birth to mutated humanoid creatures similar to high-fantasy elves, orcs, and so-on) or the further exploration of our solar system and beyond. Much of science fiction involves humans exploring worlds beyond our solar system. Either we terraform planets to make them habitable (think Star Trek: The Search for Spock or Firefly/Serenity), invent stasis pods to allow humans to travel deep into space (something that would take multiple lifetimes, even if we manage to harness the speed of light), or build biodome-like structures on otherwise uninhabitable planets.
The benefits of having your story use humans and other grounding realities from what readers might know but placing them in a completely new environment opens up a world of opportunity in storytelling. Your story is at once new and intriguing but relatable. If story really is mostly throwing someone ordinary into an exceptional situation (or someone exceptional into an ordinary situation), placing an ordinary human onto a new planet is the archetypal SFF tale.
Changing the future: Experimenting on ourselves
Mutation has long been featured in SFF works, none more obviously than the X-Men Marvel properties. Given the globalization we experience today, it is unlikely that any group of humans will be isolated enough to cause speciation – unless, of course, we shoot a group off into the outer reaches of space. Who knows what humans could become with enough time spent in a new environment? Science has no way of predicting what mutations we might develop even on Earth, and in a different environment from Earth, almost anything is possible.
Experimenting on ourselves is hardly a new concept either, scientific progress in recent years has been heavily skewed to the biological sciences (the human genome project, cloning, so on). This can encompass genetic tinkering to create designer babies or social experiments. The latter is often the fodder for YA dystopian fiction such as Divergent and The Maze Runner. Many of these story ideas come from concerned government bodies – those that recognize we might need to take drastic measures in the future in order to survive. So how to deal with it? Well, no one is quite sure – so let’s experiment! It is all rather noble and scientific underneath the moustache-twirling evil geniuses pulling the strings.
With all the possibilities for apocalypse, it is no wonder so many SFF stories these days lean towards the glass half empty attitude. So much could go wrong, the ideas-well of end-of-the-world drama is far from dry.