"… It's the end of the world as we know it, It's the end of the world as we know it, It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine."
- – R.E.M.
Post-Apocalyptic is a form of Setting Aesthetics that, as its name suggests, takes place in a once-thriving world that was subsequently blown up or otherwise ravaged by massive disasters of some kind or another. It's an extremely popular aesthetic with many different forms, ranging from nuclear war to zombie apocalypse to alien invasion, and has been an amendment to or basis for many different /tg/ related publications.
Many Post-Apocalyptic settings has the cataclysm as its main theme - Mad Max and Fallout are good examples of worlds where the apocalypse is in the forefront - but others are more subtle. Warhammer 40,000 is technically post-apocalyptic, as is Age of Sigmar. Dark Souls is also an example, where the apocalypse is there but it isn't clearly about an apocalypse as much as its about just doing things in a weird world.
Most Post-Apocalyptic media is also Sci-Fi, since the cataclysm that started them required higher level technology, but lower level players are often stuck with “current” or even primitive technology. There’s a rather decent rate of crossover with Mecha, with many prominent works of that series being post-apoc since it allows for high enough technology without the many things that should render them useless. Not all Post-Apocalyptic settings are sci-fi ones however, as settings like Dark Sun having a magically induced apocalypse.
- 1 Types of Apocalypse
- 1.1 Alien Invasion
- 1.2 Asteroid
- 1.3 Disease
- 1.4 Global Warming (and environmental devastation in general)
- 1.5 Nuclear War
- 1.6 Robot Uprising
- 1.7 Societal Collapse
- 1.8 The End Times
- 1.9 Cosmological events
- 2 Timespan
Types of Apocalypse
Here's a quick rundown of events which commonly bring the end of the world as we know it in fiction. Their nature, their qualities and their appeal to a prospective writer of stories and settings.
Please note that there can easily be overlap. One mass disaster can lead to other mass disasters as knock on effects.
There are at least a hundred billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy and two hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. The Raw Materials of life as we know it are common and life got started fairly early in earth's geological history. It's a safe bet that on some distant planet life emerged and would evolve, possibly into other beings at least as smart as us and possibly with a head start of thousands to millions of years. Similarly from the physics we know, movement from star system to star system is definitely possible if you have the patience. We can only hope that such civilizations are nice guys, because if not we are in trouble.
Over the years, there has been a lot of different takes on alien invasions. Tripedal fighting machines to flying saucers, subtle infiltration, creatures which hijack our bodies/replace us with duplicates, hordes of bugs, fleets in orbit, legions of alien soldiers, self replicating robots and more. The consequences there-of also vary. Some aliens might try to strip mine the earth, others might enslave humanity, put mankind into reserves, assimilate us or turn earth into a nature preserve. You can do a lot with alien invasions and the aftermath there-of.
- Muv Luv, especially the spin-off 'The Day After'
A space rock several kilometers across crashes out of the sky and into the Earth at orbital speed. If it hit's water, it sends tidal waves that wash away cities and flood continents. A shockwave rips across the world, shattering forests and buildings and scorching the landscape. Rocks kicked up in the impact rain down around the world while the planet is rattled like a drum by the impact, resulting in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. If you survive all that, a dust cloud shrouds the earth, temperatures plunge and photosynthesis basically stops for a few years. Frost, famine and fighting reap many of the survivors leaving only a few pockets of the lucky to weather the storm and emerge into an empty world.
The Astronomical equivalent of Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies has a lot of fire and fury and it's something which can just fall out of the blue. It happened to the non avian Dinosaurs 66 million years ago. If you want "everything was going along as normal, then it all went to shit in a split second" few things beat an asteroid. If you want a simple straightforward explanation for why our world came to an end, this is it.
- Ace Combat Infinity Timeline
...distant nurglish laughter...
A new infectious variety of something appears. It might have been a freak mutation or it might have been made in a lab (either as an experiment, a horribly ironic medical treatment or a bioweapon) that gets out. Either way, it spreads rapidly among the human population and is terminal. Attempts to contain and combat it are ultimately ineffective. Even if it can be fought societal breakdown prevents effective response for most people. For every person who is immune, vaccinated, recovers, is successfully treated or quarantined away in sterilized bunkers, hundreds die. By the time the dust settles, most of humanity is dead.
While disease is a natural phenomenon, a plague capable of wiping out whole civilizations typically occurs in a sufficiently advanced society with extensive trade networks; the black plague came to Europe from the Silk Road into the ports of Italy before wiping out a third of the continent - whereas individual, isolated villages would be spared because the plague would wipe out neighboring towns before it could reach them. But what's even more devastating is when a disease spreads to a population that has never been exposed to it before, and therefore has virtually no immunities to it; most of the indigenous people of the Americas were wiped out by diseases like smallpox and measles long before settlers began arriving en masse.
The thing about Disease is that it can clear out humanity while leaving it's stuff largely intact. The survivors can wander cities turned into colossal ghost towns, not shattered but left to decay as nature gradually reclaims the landscape. Similarly anxieties about disease are rather high nowadays given the whole global pandemic.
- A lot of Zombie Fiction.
- I am Legend
- "Planet of the Apes" reboot
Global Warming (and environmental devastation in general)
Human industries continue to pump Carbon Dioxide into the air resulting in a Greenhouse Effect. Temperatures rise considerably and sea levels rise. Low lying regions are flooded, weather patterns are changed. Millions are displaced and what was prime farmland dries out and dry areas are washed away. Violent Storms become more frequent. Civil and political unrest mounts while governments are strained. Wars break out as groups fight for what they can get their hands on. Those that survive find a ravaged world deeply changed by the byproducts Mankind's activity.
First of all, worries about Climate Change are plentiful today just as Nuclear War was in the 1950s. Moreover this is something which is harder to deal with. Nobody sane wants a nuclear war, but the solution boils down to simply not starting one and negotiating things out with other people who don't want to die. When it comes to Co2 Emissions, we're doing it constantly and it's hard to stop this because it is a big systemic thing with a lot of powerful people and organizations in place which profit from it.
Bear in mind, some forms of climate change, including devastating kinds, have nothing to do with human intervention; the mini-Ice Age caused by a big rock smacking into Earth can be thought of as the Dinosaurs' own apocalypse. Particularly nasty supervolcanic eruptions have been known to cause ecological devastation well beyond the original point of eruption, such as the Volcanic Winter of 536 that devastated crops and possibly lead to the outbreak of the Plague of Justinian as a result of malnutrition. The eruption of Krakatoa, the deadliest in recorded history, created worldwide acid rain in addition to global cooling.
- Water World
- Mad Max
The nightmare of the Cold War. One way or another (international relations entering a death spiral, a rabid hawk in the wrong place in the wrong time, some crazed nutter with an apocalyptic vision gets hold of the Big Red Button, an "Oops" scenario when warning systems give a false positive an attack which convinces the guys in charge to "retaliate", Terrorists give a push when the world's balanced on a knife edge) the missiles start flying. Cities around the world disappear under mushroom clouds, killing tens of millions at a minimum from the blasts itself. Millions more die from wounds and radiation soon after, and more die from fallout, disease, starvation and the breakdown of social order and services. Those that remain will inhabit a shattered poisoned world of ruins and chaos as bands of people seek to claim what they can by force.
Nuclear War is a very human disaster and one made with deliberate intent. An asteroid is simply moving it it's orbit as it has done so for billions of years and just happens to be moving towards another celestial body one day. A virus simply bumps into cells and injects it's RNA into them if they're the right type. Co2 Emissions are a byproduct of human civilization and opposition to reducing them is motivated by economic incentive. But the development of a massive nuclear arsenal is deliberately developing the capacity humans to kill other humans en mass and our species has gotten frighteningly good at the murder trade.
AI becomes advanced enough that they begin to supersede humanity. So much so that, for one reason or another, a war breaks out between humanity and machines, resulting in machines either wiping out or enslaving mankind. This can go in a variety of different ways depending on how the author feels about what AI would do in a given situation, or perhaps how misanthropic they feel. AI is usually seen as breaking free of their bondage at the hands of mankind, or else taking an extreme managerial approach and deciding that humanity needs to be culled for their own good. Very rarely, the Robot uprising is a result of AI following their programming to the letter but with unintended consequences, such as trying to meet contradictory commands or a flaw in their reasoning. Either way, the end result is that the machines take over, and anything that doesn’t support the machine war effort is disposed of; ecological devastation is pretty common, since machines don’t need a clean environment or biodiversity to survive.
A robot uprising stokes on the fears of human hubris and the idea that something we create can end up replacing or enslaving us; humanity already experiences much anxiety over robots replacing low-skill workers in industry, as well as technology being used to control the flow of information or otherwise trapping people inside a virtual online world. Having the machines outright rebel is that idea taken to its logical extreme. It also can be used to explore the ideas of “what is human,” or “what is consciousness,” since we do not have any other kind of life form that is capable of rational thought to compare ourselves to.
- Horizon Zero Dawn
The least glamorous version, but the one with the most historical examples. Sometimes its not a singular cataclysmic event that wipes out a civilization; sometimes we don't even know what may have wiped out a once-mighty nation apart from vague references in forgotten tomes or folk memories buried in mythology. Whatever happened, it was enough to overwhelm a civilization to the point that its support structures buckled under the strain and people are forced to fend for themselves, and it may take centuries for society to recover. Ancient Rome is a classic example; while Rome was officially ended by the sacking at the hands of the Visigoths, it was in a centuries-long decline caused by war, famine, wealth inequality, political corruption, the black plague, the weakening of political, social, and military institutions all at the same time. All of its advances were forgotten until almost a thousand years later. For an earlier, more mysterious example, the Bronze Age Collapse saw multiple very sophisticated civilizations wiped out, possibly by drought, invasions from "sea peoples", and the fragility of top-down authoritarian empires. And if we want to look forward in time, an increasingly interconnected world means that two countries warring in Eastern Europe suddenly translates into a global food shortage. Either way, if you're looking for something a bit more grounded (if less dramatic), history has plenty of examples.
The End Times
Most mythologies have some kind of apocalyptic vision of the future (it’s literally where the term “apocalypse” comes from). In scholarly terms, this is called “Eschatology.” While the details will vary between religions, common themes include devastating wars, the whole world is devastated by monsters and demons, famine wipes out large swaths of the population, kingdoms degenerating into tyranny, society as a whole degenerating into complete wickedness, and finally, an epic battle between the forces of good and evil, before the old world is finally destroyed. In some tellings, the world is reborn and a new cycle begins with the survivors of the old world. In others, evil is permanently destroyed and a permanent utopia is established on Earth.
Naturally, this version of the apocalypse is less common in modern times, but some have attempted to take these ancient tales and envision how they would play out in the not-too-distant future. One common trope is taking the Antichrist from the Biblical Revelation, and cast him as a powerful tyrant who unites the world under a fascist regime. In other cases, a Doomsday Cult is attempting to bring about or accelerate the End Times. The Cthulhu Mythos can be thought of as a modern version of this, as it makes it pretty clear that the world is doomed one way or another. Very rarely do these modern stories actually follow through with the apocalypse though, as Eschatology is defined by its finality. Unless you’re just doing a straight retelling of the apocalyptic scenario, there’s very little wiggle room to tell your own story once the apocalypse actually happens. Setting your story in the middle of the Apocalypse, however, is more doable, since it’s not nearly as instantaneous as a nuclear war or meteor strike, and is likely to be drawn out until the climax.
These are the more scientific version of The End Times since they are just as final to us if they hit - and one WILL happen eventually IRL due to the laws of physics. The Universe is a scary place, and not even it will be around forever.
Humanity may survive on another world in the Solar System and/or beyond, but Earth is gone - either wiped sterile or no longer on the map at all.
- Gamma-Ray Bursts (GRBs) - basically, if a big star that's close enough dies when its magnetic poles are facing us, the resulting jet of radiation will destroy the Earth's ozone layer, making the Sun a deadly lazer once more. While it's possible to survive, given that one major extinction in Earth's past might have been caused by a weaker one, it's more likely to cook everything alive - either directly or indirectly depending on the distance.
- Solar luminosity - due to the way stars function, they get brighter and hotter as they get older. The Sun is no exception, and this is not a good thing. Eventually, in about 1 billion years or so, the Sun will be outputting too much energy for life on Earth to be viable anymore. While inevitable, we (or whatever comes after us) has a LONG time to prepare for the Great Exodus.
- Planetary collision - While extremely unlikely in the current state of the Solar System, it's still a possibility, and one scary enough for conspiracy theorists to fearmonger using. Any rocky body large enough for gravity to make spherical - be it a very large asteroid or comet, a moon, or another planet - will revert the Earth to a state similar to how it was when it formed if it smacks into it, or outright destroy it if massive enough. Usually the other planet won't fare much better, unless it's a gas giant that eats rocky planets for breakfast. The suspect to watch out for is rogue planets, though given enough time Mercury might become suicidal.
- Eaten by the Sun - either due to some freak gravitational disturbance or the Sun inevitably becoming a red giant (see 'death of the Sun'), there's a chance that the Sun will do what the Tyranids can't due to plot reasons and eat the Earth, melting it into a glob of plasma. It's iffy in the latter case since the Sun maxes out in size around the time it would eat Earth, becoming too big to hold onto all its gas. Not that it matters, as solar luminosity would have made it an unimportant magma ball by that time anyway.
- Yeeted into space - Gravitational disturbances - whether one big one or a series of smaller ones - could fling Earth out of its orbit and into interstellar space, likely killing all life since the big light in the sky is gone.
- Eaten by a black hole - if a black hole is big enough to start chowing down before it blows up due to Hawking radiation, but small enough not to throw a star system's gravity out of whack, it can easily replace the Earth with a black sphere of inescapable gravity.
Star system killers
For these, humanity has to have gone interstellar if it has any hope of not going extinct.
- Death of the Sun - Sun runs out of fuel and turns into a sad white ball unable to warm up anything, possibly eating the Earth in the process. Enough said.
- Supernova - Sure, the system it's in is going to be feeling most of the pain, but a close enough supernova doesn't even need to have its GRBs aimed at you to kill - the weaker radiation in all directions can do that too. Granted, it has to be VERY close for that to even be a threat, though candidates for such an event exist. You have even shittier luck if you're caught in a hypernova, which spreads radiation a fair bit farther.
- Stellar collision - basically the only way the Sun can go boom like a supernova. White dwarf, main sequence, whatever - if it's big enough, a game of galaxy billiards can go horribly wrong. The chance it does is extremely low due to the distances involved, but it does happen - especially in denser regions of space.
- Black hole buffet - Large enough black hole to disrupt orbits? The entire system is either becoming a snack or getting torn apart, with nothing in between.
The Big Ones
No escape. No respite. Not even immortal beings can survive these. Worst of all, a few are inevitable, and the universe will never be the same. The existential dread is natural, but luckily most of these final doomsdays are so far off or so unlikely that humanity will likely have lived out its existence long beforehand. If not, we'd probably be so far along that we could just jump ship into another universe, either a natural one in a multiverse or an artificially created one. But adding 'post-' to these apocalypses is not really possible.
- Stellar decay - by the appropriately named "degenerate era", stars capable of supporting life will have burned out due to a lack of fuel, and no more will be made (if the universe is infinite, there may be infinite material for star formation but there's also an infinite amount of stars to use it up). Life developing as it did on Earth will be impossible, and unless humanity has the means to keep the torch lit, life will cease to exist.
- Proton decay - unproven, but if it exists, there's a lifespan to solid matter that isn't part of a black hole. This would be a hard limit on life's possible existence with or without human intervention. If not, humanity may survive by leeching energy off black holes until the universe itself ends.
- Death of the universe - whether it crumples back into a point, rips itself apart, or becomes an empty, cold wasteland of nothingness, the universe WILL die, and there's nothing you can do about it. On obscene timescales even black holes disappear, which is the hardest of hard limits on existence. Past this point, time becomes meaningless, unless by some miracle an anomaly causes another Big Bang.
- Vacuum decay - helpfully described as "the universe's delete button" by a certain German duck, this is essentially what could happen if some of the universe suddenly received an update to its physics engine. Long story short, a sphere of nothingness expands at the speed of light, destroying everything and leaving behind a portion of spacetime where our laws of physics no longer apply. Given enough time, probability will spawn enough of these to clean up whatever remains of the universe after its death.
- The Off Switch - an ever-present threat if the simulation argument is true is that whoever made the simulation could get bored and just turn the 'game' off forever, or some accident happens in the real world that shuts it down. Temporarily turning it off isn't really a threat, for in all likelihood it would just resume where it left off, and we would be none the wiser. A meta version of post-apocalyptic fiction could be following the creators of a simulation after turning it off permanently, and how said simulation affected their society.
- Xeelee Sequence (Death of the universe)
Another point of consideration for a post apocalyptic setting how long has it's been since the apocalypse happened.
In media res
The Apocalypse is now, and nothing might come after it. Typically this applies to 'slow burn' apocalypses that still have worse to offer, or apocalypses that by definition leave nothing to tell after they conclude.
- Literally any extinction story
The Apocalypse has happened fairly recently. It might have run it's course yesterday, maybe it's been a few years. For brevity's sake, we'll put the cap at twenty years. Point is that most people around are people who survived the disaster and directly remember the world before. Survivors often survive by scavenging the ruins for cans of beans, ammunition, laptops and similar. Survivalists are still locked up in their bunkers. Remnants of Government authorities, military forces, corporations and other such Old-World institutions are still about with stockpiles of stuff, pursuing their own agendas. Accountants, janitors, lawyers and jazz musicians have to work out how to survive. Many of them gang up and many gangs which prey on others, sometimes literally.
- Most Zombie Fiction
After the Aftermath
The Apocalypse happened between 20 years to maybe a couple centuries ago. If nothing else, a generation has grown up in this marred world. Memories of the old world have faded, as have much of it's knowledge, but are still present. A few areas have stabilized and there are trade towns. Scavenged stuff is still a big deal, but people increasingly are making new things bodged together from junk. Whatever surviving Authorities have stumbled along their own course, if two groups of (for example) US Army troops survived in Oregon and Tennessee, they'd probably have radically different ideas and not respect each other's authority if they met. There are a few peaceful areas, but other areas are torn up in war. Moreover this would not be a smattering of desperate folk clubbing each other for cans of dog-food but battle hardened hosts of warriors who've learned to survive in this hostile age.
An Ancient Cataclysm
The Apocalypse happened hundreds, possibly thousands of years ago. The Apocalyptic Event is now an object of myth and legend to cultures which have emerged after the aftermath. Cultures which are as distinct from ours as Roman Empire was to us have arisen. Never the less, a Dark Age persists. Typically there are some Kingdoms and City States and maybe an Empire or two, while vast tracts of land are haunted by barbarian peoples. Much of Technology has been lost and if it has been recovered, it's not well distributed and is incomplete, with what's left of it monopolized by a few people so they can dominate others.
- Mortal Engines
- Dark Age of Technology
- Horizon Zero Dawn
The Healed World
The Noblebright version of Post Apocalyptia. In short, people eventually got their shit together and rebuilt. New cities emerge from the ashes and efforts are done to clean up the mess. More over lessens are learned to avoid such disasters going forward. What rises from the ashes is a better world.
Thousands if not millions of years have passed and mankind is a distant memory. In its place, new creatures have arisen. Rats, bats, cats, weasels, seagulls, pigs, foxes, dogs, and similar small adaptable creatures persisted and diversified to fill emptied niches. Usually, at least one lineage of them has developed intelligence and tool use. To them, humans would only be skeletons in museums.
A variant of this is posthumanism, either of the natural evolution-caused variety, some alien dicks messing with humanity's genetics (an apocalypse of its own), or a post-humanity changing itself - all to the point that OG humanity is as much as a common ancestor between what breeds of posthumans exist as is the common ancestor to all mammals.
- All Tommorows