I’ve been quite fascinated by the post-apocalyptic genre ever since I played the first Fallout game; subsequently I ventured into post-apocalyptic cinema, starting with Mad Max, then moving on to The Road Warrior. Despite the genre’s inherently violent, grim-dark and/or over-the-top overtones, there is a lot of underlying social commentary to be found if one explores the material. It is for this reason that I think it deserves to be introduced to older students.
What the post-apocalyptic genre is about
Post-apocalyptic fiction focuses on life after the end of the world, or at least a part of it. The end could be brought about by nuclear devastation (Fallout/Mad Max), alien invasions (The War of the Worlds), climate change (Waterworld), and yes, zombies; sometimes the apocalypse is a plot device that’s not entirely explicated (Stalker). Regardless, the narrative usually involves survivors adapting to changing circumstances, or trying to overcome obstacles that would otherwise kill them. Rarely do characters find themselves acting out of choice or goodwill; there is typically a very strong Machiavellian element present.
Because the world has ended, the setting tends to be reductive; it eliminates most of society’s complex layers, reducing it to a more basic, instinctual and primal state. Many of the genre’s tropes thus revolve around survival, tribalism, anarchy and human psychology—and the bleakness that comes with such a world.
What can be learned from post-apocalyptic fiction
As mentioned earlier, post-apocalyptic settings are typically stripped of major complexities. This helps to really bring its tropes to the forefront for discourse.
One of the most important elements that can be explored is society itself. In post-apocalyptic fiction, society is often splintered or factionalised. Take The Road Warrior and Fury Road, for instance, where survivors live in scattered pockets across the wasteland. How do they survive—how are their basic needs met? Do they revert to a barter economy? These are questions that can be used to steer students towards viewing modern society through more critical lenses.
Another topic that can be explored is that of human psychology. Characters in post-apocalyptic fiction are often driven by Machiavellian motives, which is to say that there are many morally grey areas. Unlike other genres, the post-apocalyptic one makes several assumptions prior (especially with regard to societies and the populace) and expects its audience to know them. One such assumption is the reversion of the human psyche to a more primal level. Being able to know what these assumptions are automatically helps one to better understand the motivations of characters, which in turn lends to the development of inferential skills.
Then, there is the underlying social commentary. Most movies—not just post-apocalyptic ones—have an agenda, and social commentary is often a by-product of this agenda. In the case of post-apocalyptic fiction, the setting branches out from our own, making the social commentary even more inevitable and emphatic. Fallout, for example, has a lot of running sub-themes, and two that really stand out are trans-humanism and obligation. Mad Max, on the other hand, explores tribalism bred from anarchism. Again, these sub-themes stand out again because of how barebones the world is; they’re made all the more interesting by how closely they mirror the real world, yet straying from so many conventions that we’re used to. Being able to draw out the social commentary for students, and getting them to see how it ties the fiction to reality, will help to open doors to new ideas.
Using the fiction in a classroom setting
For older students, critical-thinking skills are, well, critical to doing well for Humanities-based subjects. Students are often fed information and asked to critically analyse them, but through what means and to what ends, when popular media often puts the viewer at a comfortable status quo?
Post-apocalyptic fiction, on the other hand, is frequently called out for being discomforting and unsettling (e.g. The Road or Stalker). Having used it often in my own classes, such fiction has the effect of shaking things up for students who are not used to it, and leads to thought-provoking discourse, especially with the educator helping the students to extrapolate meaning. The fiction has to be logically consistent within itself, of course, but that’s assumed to be a given.
The role of the educator cannot be underestimated here. Post-apocalyptic fiction can be insightful, or it can be mindless drivel. It is crucial for the educator to explain certain tropes or plot devices (“Why is there sand everywhere? Why do people look like freakish cannibals?”) to students who don’t understand them. Once these questions are answered, it is at this point where inquisitive young minds will start to diverge on their own, probing the machinations of our real world. That, right there, is our goal—to get our learners to not just know a concept, but to reflect upon it meta-cognitively.