Illustration by Jim Cooke

Here’s the thing about the apocalypse: You don’t know when it’s coming. It’s an obvious truth, yet it’s what grants the apocalypse narrative endurance. The Apostle Paul warned the Thessalonians that destruction will come like a “thief in the night.” Even as prophecies go, Paul’s is particularly devastating, his linguistic reduction of entire civilizations to mere objects, just another thing that a thief can stuff in his pocket and slip away with, is spectacular in its totality. But Paul was not one for subtlety—warnings of inevitable doom probably shouldn’t be rendered with subdued restraint—instead, the end is inevitable, Paul warns, and its horizons are broad and bright if you simply bother to look in its direction. To Paul’s dismay, the populace preferred abstraction to his concrete reality, refusing even to glance toward the end.

The end itself might be a surprise, but as nearly every prophecy warns, there will be signs—the rivers might slowly run dry, the weather might become increasingly uncomfortable, or a dictator might seize power—but the signs are easy to dismiss. Humanity has never been particularly good at looking for the end; faced with sure destruction, we are not by nature a species of resistance. Thieves are only a surprise if you refuse to acknowledge that they exist.

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Aside from prophecies, fiction is the only way to render the apocalypse concrete; to look directly at the end with a suitable veil of denial, or to at least refract contemporary anxieties through fantastical accounts. Searching for a guide to surviving in what seemed like a desolate landscape of my own making, I turned to the only reliable source. For a year, I waded through post-apocalyptic novels, films, bad movies that can’t possibly be described as films, and possibly worse television. I wasn’t quite particular about parsing post-apocalyptic and dystopic, the genres are similar enough that they often arrive at similar insights; rupture coupled with survival was good enough. At first, it was a morbid joke and then, at some point, acquiring knowledge about survival felt like a necessity.

There are no specifics on how to survive the apocalypse—no truly usable guidelines for how to inhabit the post-apocalyptic landscape, not even a clear way to navigate the apocalypse’s cousin, the dystopia. The apocalypse is personal, too close to suffering to provide any real universal guideline. What exists instead are a series of tropes that capture individual and collective anxieties played out on a universal scale about everything from gender to climate change, government overreach, and reproductive coercion. Here are some takeaways from the end of the world.

The future is female or, at least, the end of the world is decidedly authored by women. From Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy to Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, The Hunger Games, and PD James’s Children of Men, dystopias and post-apocalyptic worlds are built by women. It’s perhaps not surprising that women are drawn to the abyss since it seems that women, particularly women of color, are already forced to live so closely to the edge, in a state of political and cultural liminality. Butler’s Lilith feels her alienation keenly, but it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to her, that feeling was already ingrained in her long before nuclear war wreaked havoc on the Earth.

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Reproduction and marriage are especially urgent themes in the female rendered post-apocalypse, a tangle of control and desire, distaste and longing. The state of children, of pregnancy and birth, is a recurring theme—it can simultaneously be the source of social collapse (Children of Men) and the coercive reconstruction of those societies (The Handmaid’s Tale, Butler’s Dawn). Atwood’s dystopias, in particular, echo knowledge that we already possess: women will bear the brunt of violence, be it men’s or the state’s, yet they will endure because that is the natural way of things, it was before some catastrophe rendered society meaningless.

That violence will be familiar: reproductive coercion, rape, and forced marriage. And the bonds of sisterhood forged in that bloody mesh might be enough to topple evil men (i.e. Mad Max: Fury Road or MaddAddam). Or it might not. The promise of a better world, ostensibly, exists on the other side of violence, usually reached by other acts of equal—yet morally justified—violence. At least there’s hope after destruction, some inkling that the violence women endure might lead to something better. But sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe, writers like Watkins imply, there is nothing better, there is only, in the end, a total capitulation to the wasteland.

There’s no guarantee that being a woman will ensure your survival at the end of the world, or that being a woman will be particularly enjoyable, but it seems to improve your odds.

One of the problems might be the apocalypse itself. In her book, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World, Catherine Keller writes:

Here is the paradox for feminist meditation on the “end of the world”: while innumerable women have found means of private resistance and public voice in the symbols of the Apocalypse, overt or subvert, the toxic misogyny of much of its imagery cannot...be flushed out of the text or its tradition.

It’s true that the apocalypse pattern, as Keller describes it, itself is hard to navigate. It demands polarities, a black and white rendering of the world where right and wrong exist in clear contrasts, where morality is self-evident. The problem has always been that morality has been written by men. Disaster may destroy the social order and moral hierarchies, but it’s never that easy to erase thousands of years of cumulative memories. Ghosts haunt even through the end.

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That’s perhaps why one woman’s dystopia is a man’s utopia. Take, for example, the world of the film Gattaca, a dystopian future where natural selection has been rendered meaningless by eugenics and gene manipulation. There are a number of takeaways one could draw from Gattaca—self-determination and individual autonomy and so on—but the futuristic dystopia felt so pertinent to Senator Rand Paul that, in 2013 speech, he plagiarized from the film’s Wikipedia page to extol the evils of abortion. Gattaca was his glamorous example of the evils of the procedure, an argument that genetic engineering (also bad) might as well be eugenics, and abortion may as well, too. In Senator Paul’s utopia then, government intervenes to ensure its ideal outcome in every pregnancy. Abortion ostensibly illegal, in Paul’s ideal world, women have babies as nature and the government dictates. Paul’s utopia; Atwood’s dystopia.

Paul’s analogy was conceptually shaky but utopia has itself never been a sound concept. It simply requires articulation. Thomas More, the cranky guy who coined the term “utopia” in 1516, imagined an island nation of communal living where slavery was common and women confessed their sins to their husbands on a regular basis. More’s utopia doesn’t sound like an ideal world, but then the feminist utopia Charlotte Perkins Gilman described in Herland (1915), where sex is irrelevant and motherhood rules an entire country, doesn’t appeal much either. Utopia, or the thought of utopia appeals because it strives for betterment even when the perfection of the self or society seems like a vanity project.

In The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin insists that utopias can be as ambiguous as they are evident. Emotional repression or purposeful collective memory loss (Lois Lowry’s The Giver)—the codification of the rational over the emotional—might be a compromise utopia for the collective, but to the few who embrace individuality, collectivism is a morally bankrupt value. The apocalypse narrative both rejects the co-existence of the collective and the individual and yet it needs it as well. Heroes (or villains, depending on your perspective) only emerge when the rebellious collective anoints them as such.

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This is an important point to remember when assessing whether or not you’re actually inhabiting a hellscape—there’s often no consensus that the world has, in fact, gone to shit. Catastrophe is a relative concept. The fact that we are all on one planet, subject to the same environmental erosions, disasters, and diseases, doesn’t mean that we see eye to eye. Catastrophe will be more manageable for the rich, they will continue to construct comfort with garish creativity, unconcerned with its impact or ethical application. It might not even feel like a catastrophe to them.

Teens are useful for assessing whether or not you live in a dystopia. Because the teen exists in a kind of purgatory, suspended between childhood and adulthood, they have a unique ability to recognize whether or not the societies adults have built are entirely fucked up. The Hunger Games series and subsequent imitators make clear enough that white, attractive teen girls are particularly good at this; their suffering and rebelliousness, both simultaneously pure and natural, makes for a nearly perfect symbol of the post-apocalyptic revolution (The Hunger Games, Divergent series, The 100). The apocalypse pattern requires victimization followed by the triumph of good, “with the help of “some transcendent power.” 

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Who better fits that bill than the teenage girl? She is simultaneously vulnerable and restless, pure yet corruptible, sexual but not debased by adulthood. She is a tabula rasa for needs and anxieties waiting for inscription. Since the teenage girl is also underestimated, her transcendent ability to muster support and topple empires will come as surprise. If you want to survive the end, recruiting a rebellious teen can’t hurt your odds.

Parallel to the teen-as-savior trope is the love-conquers-all narrative, a fundamental belief that feelings can rehabilitate an entire society. Teens share this orthodoxy, true believers in their own sense of emotional resilience, too young yet to understand true apathy or process the lasting impact of regret. Love might help to conquer the post-apocalyptic landscape, to rearrange nature according to the laws of man, but feelings are only so helpful and they leave you sliding back and forth on the dystopia/utopia scale.

There is plenty of regret at the end of the world; a mournfulness over not seeing the signs of impending doom, over lost parents or friends, of doing what is necessary to survive (a la Snowpiercer’s lament over eating babies). Regret is often as cataclysmic as the world’s destruction, producing entire populations who suffer from PTSD. Yet maintaining regret and sadness are important, they reaffirm your victimization by evil and your alignment with good. Scars are an inscription of values—bodies or parts lost and reconstituted (i.e. Toby’s complete physical reconstruction in The Year of the Flood) are a visible manifestation of a just cause.

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Survivors might be motivated by hope—of saving humanity or creating a freer society or more expressive culture—but hope is necessarily an abstract concept, preserved only to be handed down to future generations. It’s why having babies is important even after the catastrophe, they are the only proof that the body or the psyche can be reconstituted without trauma (Hunger Games).

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Survival isn’t necessarily victory but maybe it’s better than nothing.

If apocalypse fictions find little agreement on how the world will end or how to survive, then it does agree on one singular thing: we will, it warns, most certainly be the architects of our own collapse. The institutions that we are currently building, currently investing our political will and power into, will be the source of our own downfall. It’s not clear how the world will end, it might be a nuclear war or the melting of the polar ice caps or civilization might simply collapse because it can no longer bear existing, but the foundation of doom has already been laid. Fiction points us to those corruptions and follies and frames them as dangers, issuing a warning that teeters between abstraction and realism.

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At its best, the apocalypse narrative redirects our collective gaze toward the horizon. But that’s all it can do, gesture to transparent evils, warn of their encroachment on other abstractions like freedom and individuality. It cannot offer specifics for survival or even resistance; there are no guides to grapple with paradox or to rebuild a fallen civilization. Imagination can only do so much.

In lieu of heeding the warnings the apocalypse narrative offers, here are some specific tips on surviving the end of the world:

  • Join an orchestra.
  • Live underground.
  • Join a fringe cult that worships nature.
  • Be wary of your food source.
  • Band together with like-minded people.
  • Get on a train.
  • Go to space.
  • Drive cars.
  • Hide.
  • Do nothing.
  • Succumb.