Disaster writing and respecting the rules of genre

The world ends in these three books and this one movie

This week we’re parking the #vanlife of podcasting publications in Aspen, Colo., where cofounder Chris and I are together in the same place working on Timber for the first time since March 2020.

While we discuss the state of our software, how to get more of you to sign up for The Edit, and Podcasting writ large, I have a small request for you to help me find something.

Recently I wrote that most of us have a strong desire to hear familiar stories with new twists. There’s one type of story that is rarely told, and the few times I’ve encountered it, I’ve, perhaps strangely, really liked it. The type of story I’m talking about is the story of the actual apocalypse. We have tons of save-the-world stories and tons of post-apocalyptic visions but rarely do we get to witness the making of the apocalypse sausage.

I realize it’s a tad morose to like this kind of story. Telling it requires writing about the deaths of billions. There’s an episode of The Scaredy Cat Horror Show (from Reply All’s Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt) where they talk about the rules of the horror genre with their guest Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. She says that the rules of genre have to fit within a moral framework, and they must be observed as sort of a societal compact. And because we can all trust that the rules will be respected, we can enjoy a horror film knowing that we’ll come out ok on the other side.

In fact, this one paragraph from her is the best thing in an otherwise mediocre six episode pandemic project from of Alex and PJ banter, and it will always stick with me:

That- that the whole point of a story is like someone building an emotional experience for you, and if they're very good writers, and it's a very good story, everything you're feeling you're feeling safely, you just have to remind yourself of that, that none of this is real. And that you're, and that in some ways, it's about building up a tol-, not tolerance, but a strength around that feeling. So I think part of why people get addicted to horror films, or like people who get addicted to like skydiving, you know, it's like a thrill. It's like, you kind of have to like rush through those feelings again, and again, you feel in some ways, like you're taking ownership of them in some way. It ceases to be so potentially overwhelming or paralyzing, because you realize that feelings are just like a passing thing. You know, they're a sensation. 

This moral code in the genre must be true in the same way with movies about the apocalypse. No one wants to listen to a podcast or watch a movie that is like, “and that was the end of all life on earth forever. fin.” There has to be a seed of hope and life in the end. It’s a law.

That’s enough of my rationalizations of liking such a weird, dark genre. Now it’s time to tell you the entire list of movies and books that I’m aware of that go into detail on how the world ends. Please, please, please tell me if you know of more! Ultra bonus points if you know of a podcast that does this.

The world ends in these three books and this one movie

The Stand by Stephen King

I just re-listened to The Stand and included it in the newsletter about listening to your writing in order to improve it. It tells the tale of a deadly pandemic and goes into amazing detail about how everyday people react, how the government reacts, and the stages of the collapse of society.

Since we’ve had our own little pandemic, I think one thing The Stand gets right is that the vast majority of people will comply with rapidly placed government restrictions on their freedom. This seemed to be especially true when our fear of the disease and the unknown was greatest. King recently told Terry Gross, “I keep having people say, ‘Gee, it's like we're living in a Stephen King story, and my only response to that is, ‘I’m sorry.’”

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

I can’t tell you how the world ends in Seveneves without it being a major spoiler. It’s surprising and terrifying. The first half of this book is one of the most gripping pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. Stephenson’s ability to imagine how people would react at all levels of society to an imminent existential threat will keep you up late. It includes scenes with thoughtful details of everyday people’s lives as they’re confronted with a terrifying reality, and stressful scenes of meetings where leaders try to make decisions about what to do. All of it feels 100% real.

Greenland

There’s no better way to ingest fiction about the apocalypse than on a turbulent flight. Save this one for your next flight involving small aircraft or uncertain weather conditions. Greenland is overwrought and silly but it’s SO FUN! It makes shameless use of one of the most standard suspense tactics ever—will they make it on time??! While I watched it on my flight, the thin air of the cabin and the flashing seatbelt sign allowed me to put predictability aside and experience the end of all humanity.

The Lorax by Dr Seuss

I almost didn’t think of this one until I wrote the rule about there needing to be a ‘seed of life’ at the end. The Lorax goes into quite a bit of detail about how each of the animals in its fictional world’s ecosystem are sent off, but we’re left with hope because the Onceler leaves the message, “Unless.”

What else is there?

I’m so serious about this question. Please help! I want more stories of the end of the world and how it happens. I feel like I must be missing obvious ones.

Thanks for reading! Join us in The Edit!

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I’ll see you next week.

—Jon Christensen