For no reason at all related to current events, I’ve been thinking about post-apocalyptic settings recently.
In a lot of post-apoc fiction, the focus isn’t on the apocalypse itself. Most of the time, it sits in the background: sometimes it’s ancient history, and sometimes it’s been forgotten about entirely. The Hunger Games is a kind of post-apoc fiction because it takes place in the modern world, except the countries we know today have been replaced. This suggests there was an apocalypse of sorts, but it’s not important to the plot of the series.
The focus is on how society works after the apocalpyse, how culture and people survive, and the ways they’ve been changed.
It’s also a great opportunity to do some crunchy worldbuilding.
I don’t know about you, but for me, the most interesting thing about post-apoc settings are the groups that spring out of it. I love to think about the kinds of countries, societies and movements that would come out of an apocalypse. So here are some pointers for how to do them in an interesting way, drawing on real-world examples.
1. Think about Ancient Rome
In European history, few states loom as large as the Roman Empire. Even with the free movement offered by the EU, we still can’t travel as far today without showing a passport as a (wealthy) Roman could. Their borders stretched from the cold Scottish highlands to the rivers of Eastern Europe; from the southern coast of Spain to the scorching Arabian Desert. Following its fall, several states adopted the eagle as their symbol, in an effort to claim the authority and lineage of Rome. In Britain, post-Roman rulers continued to use the fashion, titles and language of the Romans to command authority and claim they were the heirs of the Romans.
In many ways, they were living in a post-apocalyptic world. The Roman empire had an organised postal system, local government, voting, entertainment, a standing army, and unmovable law. With its fall, that disappeared, and authority fell into the hands of local warlords or smaller, less centralised states.
This is prime writing material.
Imagine a post-apocalyptic United States. The government is gone, anarchy reigns. What happens next? A local group seizes power, most likely the group which has the most force to its name. This may be a charismatic individual, it may be an organisation which already exists, like a gang or even a local government. But they would only wield power through one thing: might, and might can be lost. It has no inherent authority.
But if they can claim to be the successor to the United States government, then that’s different. Imagine they create their own local House of Representatives and Senate. Their leader titles himself President, and they use the symbology of the US govt – maybe even the exact same flag. That flag carries an inherent degree of right to rule, and whoever can lay claim to it has an advantage over others because they are seen as legitimate.
2. Think about existing institutions
In lots of post-apocalyptic fiction, the assumption is that the old world was wiped out entirely. Nothing remains of the state which existed before. Of course, in real life, this would almost certainly not be the case. Fallout 76 addressed this a little in having the First Responders be an organised post-apoc group – made up of firefighters and other public service officials who survived the war.
Following the fall of a state, everything that belonged to that state doesn’t disappear. All the weapons of the US army would still be there, just with no-one to claim them. And everyone who served as a soldier or police officer in their lives, those people would still be there, ready to utilise that experience.
It seems highly realistic to me that, following the collapse of a state, local military or law enforcement groups would hold together, at least in some cases. It’s not hard to imagine, for example, a military unit declaring martial law over a particular region to preserve order there and then either try to create a functioning state or standby for the restoration of the old country. Like how militaries stage coups to depose malfunctioning governments in the real world today, you can see them seizing that power for themselves in a world where a state has fallen but the military remains. They would probably lead the vanguard of the formation of new states out of the wreckage of the old world, at least until they bumped up against each other.
Which might lead to the insanely complicated, but probably realistic, chance of several branches of the US Army all creating their own martial states, claiming to be the true descendants of the US government, and getting into conflicts with each other over their treatment of citizens, border disputes, or different ideas about how to chart a course back to normal life and democratic government.
3. Have fun!
Post-apoc isn’t about dry, boring predictions of how a real apocalypse would play out. The true fun of the genre lies not in the probable, but in the possible – it lies in the Rule of Cool, where things are allowed to exist for the sole reason that they’re awesome.
So while it would be more realistic to assume the military would take over, it would be far for fun, for example, to imagine how a state made from a supermarket would look. Imagine some regional Walmart manager aspired to power and… made his own country?
It would be possible. Supermarkets have supplies, they have command structures in place and trained staff, and they basically have a logistics network linking up a bunch of defensible positions. A pact with local gunowners to provide supplies in exchange for protection, and you have the foundations of the Boston Walmart Empire – or something like that. People higher up in the company get first dibs on stock, and whatever’s left of the regional funds could be used to locate new, local producers of goods, who would in turn be incorporated into the company-state structure for protection.
You can go even further. What about a local sports team? They have a pretty defensible HQ already, and cash. They have a horde of loyal fans who might be prime candidates for forming a new, local identity, or at least a kind of gang that works in their own interests.
As important as it is to create realistic backgrounds for your post-apocalyptic societies, remember: the first rule is to make entertaining, interesting fiction. Ground yourself in the realistic, and add elements of the unique and crazy to make an engaging post-apoc world that’s just close enough to believable that it scares us a little.