Personalizing the Apocalypse: Meaningful Stakes on Grand Scales – Transcript

Casey: [00:00:03] Hello, I’m Casey Blair, the programming director for Fourth Street Fantasy and we are here for the 2021 virtual panel, Personalizing the Apocalypse: Meaningful Stakes on Grand Scales with panelists Elizabeth Bear, Robyn Bennis, A.T. Greenblatt, Reuben Poling, Jasmine Silvera and John Wiswell. 

[00:00:21] Today’s panel prompt is: “One major roadblock that movements to address disasters of epic proportions encounter is individuals’ inability to conceptualize them on a meaningful scale. Not so vast that they throw up their hands and decide there’s nothing to be done, and in a scope where they can understand potential effects not as far off problems for other people, but that require concerted action now. 

[00:00:43] So we’re going to let the panelists take it away for a while first, and then they will be back with us on Saturday, June 19, 2021, at 4pm Central for a live Q&A during the con. 

[00:00:54] And without further ado, let’s turn it over to today’s moderator Reuben Poling.

Reuben: [00:01:00] Thank you so much, Casey, I am so pleased to help bring everyone this pre-recorded Fourth Street panel. So a little intro, it’s hard to think of anything more universal than the end of the world. And yet that very universality is what makes it, I think, deeply personal. If everyone experiences an event, literally everyone, then the only thing that makes that event distinct is each person’s individual perspective thereof. That makes an incredibly powerful tool for writers, especially in fantasy. It’s a way we can put everything we’ve built to the test, from character to world building to institutions all through the same stress test. 

[00:01:38] But the question is, how to make this apocalypse truly matter beyond the sturm and drang, the pyrotechnics. How to make your readers fully invested in this destruction and thus in your creation. 

[00:01:51] So that’s what we’re going to talk about today. 

[00:01:56] But first, let’s introduce our panelists. As mentioned, Reuben Poling. I am a Seattle-based fantasist, sports writer, rabble-rouser, various dabbler. My credentials aren’t really important because I am just here to tap into the beautiful minds of our panelists and feast on the delicious goo inside. 

[00:02:14] Let’s introduce ourselves. Bear, would you like to introduce yourself?

Elizabeth: [00:02:22] Uh, I just want you to know that I was exposed to a lot of toxic chemicals and my brains are probably poisonous. Was that convincing? Was that at all convincing? 

Robyn: [00:02:32] Wouldn’t stop me.

Elizabeth: [00:02:33] Hi. I’m Elizabeth Bear. I write science fiction and fantasy and sometimes mysteries, and sometimes science fiction and fantasy mysteries. My most recent novel is Machine, which is a science fiction, mystery, hospital drama. Because why have one genre when you can have three? And I’m here because I like to blow things up in fiction. 

Reuben: [00:03:09] Very important disclaimer, thank you. Next, John Wiswell?

John: [00:03:12] Hi, everybody, I’m John Wiswell. I’m a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps most of its trees. I am a relatively recently minted finalist for the Nebula and Locus and Hugo Award for Best Short Story. I’ve been publishing short fiction for about a decade in places like Uncanny Magazine and Nature Futures, Fireside, Pseudopod. And I published a quite a few stories set either during the apocalypse or sometime in the aftermath. And then I have the privilege of having a few stories where readers have argued with me about whether or not they are post-apocalyptic, that I might have written more of them than I thought. 

[00:03:51] So I’m quite excited to be here. Thank you for having me. 

Reuben: [00:03:55] Excellent. Next, Robyn Bennis.

Robyn: [00:03:57] Hey, I am from Madison, Wisconsin. I am the author of some books that you can just Google because I’m tired of talking about them. I am here because I have accidentally ended several worlds in parallel timelines. 

Reuben: [00:04:14] Well, I hope none of those people are watching. Next, A.T. Greenblatt.

A.T. Greenblatt: [00:04:19] I’m a short story writer based out of Philadelphia. I write a lot of stories. I cross genres, too. I also like to explore what happens when the world ends and what do we do in the aftermath. And I have stories, I should say, in Uncanny, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and one coming out in Tor in September, which I’m excited about. 

Reuben: [00:04:48] Very cool. And finally, Jasmine Silvera.

Jasmine: [00:04:53] Hi, I’m Jasmine. I am the author of four books in the Grace Bloods, urban fantasy romance and paranormal romance series. I also sort of accidentally ended a world to start a series. And so I’m writing in the world after.

Reuben: [00:05:11] Real quick, something I should have said upfront. Just a disclaimer that due to the subject matter of this panel, we are going to be touching on real world apocalyptic events, ranging from the sort of slow rolling one we’ve all been contending with recently, to past occasions of more localized apocalypses, those perpetuated on a people. If that is a subject that you are really not interested in dealing with right now, we will not think any less of you for not being interested in this panel. And we thank you for observing. 

[00:05:45] So let’s get started. I’d like to start with a straightforward question. It would seem really counterintuitive for readers to have trouble caring about the end of the world. But I’m sure that’s something we’ve all encountered when reading or watching, just an earth shattering kaboom that failed to register for us. So what do you all think is the biggest challenge to overcome when writing an apocalypse or about an apocalypse? A.T?

A.T. Greenblatt: [00:06:17] Well, I think of the quote, I think it was a Stalin quote, when he said, “One death is a tragedy, one thousand is a statistic.” And I think it’s, as humans, we have a hard time imagining big catastrophes. So I think sometimes, especially in genre fiction where you see a city explode. You’re kind of like, oh, that’s awful. But you don’t really understand what a catastrophe that is, partially because we see all the time.

Reuben: [00:06:54] Sure. Sort of, I guess, the same problem as the death of 100 stormtroopers versus one named character. 

A.T. Greenblatt: [00:07:03] Right, exactly.

Reuben: [00:07:05] Bear did you have?

Elizabeth: [00:07:09] I was basically going to say, the same thing A.T. just did.

A.T. Greenblatt: [00:07:15] Do it.

Elizabeth: [00:07:17] And it’s both the statistic thing and the genre thing and the way catastrophes are so often treated in genre as kind of background noise. The world ends and then all the characters we care about go off and have an adventure and rebuild the society that the author would desperately love us to all wish we had. Or possibly a catastrophic dystopia, or both. Because I think one person’s dystopia is another person’s ideal society. 

Reuben: [00:08:01] That’s a good point. We have John?

John: [00:08:05] Yeah, there’s a different attachment issue, I think a lot of people have with different post-apocalyptic stories. Is, there’s such a wealth of them now that one has trouble finding what is novel, or what is particularly the soul of a new apocalyptic story. You’re not going to be the one to invent zombies. We’re now multiple generations past the point at which people first even watched Night of the Living Dead, which didn’t invent them, just introduced them to a new audience. 

[00:08:35] And so there is an issue in the post-apocalyptic fiction and apocalyptic fiction that often fails in finding where in the point of view and the cast, where in your premise, or in your apocalypse, is that thing that is unique? What is supposed to speak to the audience in particular from this story? 

[00:08:54] Look at the outrageous success or something with imaginative brilliance like N.K. Jemisin’s Fifth Season. That’s a wealth of creativity, the apocalypses are cyclical. So there’s an intrigue. The people of the world don’t have a direct connection to why it’s cyclical and what’s happening, and that affects what they can do. And then as you go further, there’s some wild plot beats about the people in the world. So it manages, as you know, Jemison is brilliant for, to be novel on every major front that an apocalyptic story can do, or generally operates in. And so I find often I don’t demand any story do all of them. But finding the thing that makes this next apocalypse tell something that’s distinct from all the others is the big crucial point for me.

Reuben: [00:09:46] Yeah, and I think the thing that the Broken Earth trilogy really did that was novel, or at least novel enough for me was… In a different author’s hands you want to tell a different kind of story. It could have been very much a black comedy, it’s, oh, it’s the end of the world again, just a world that keeps ending and renewing itself in some of the most pyrotechnic ways imaginable. 

[00:10:11] I think, also, when you mentioned there about sort of the difficulty we often run into of a story that starts with the end of the world, but now let’s get to the important part. That makes me immediately go to The Stand, a book that is near and dear to my heart, as well as many others here. Which really, I think succeeded greatly because Stephen King had 1,000 pages to go, let’s get through the apocalypse, let’s make that horrifying and spine chilling and very effective and then the story starts. Most of us don’t have that luxury. In fact, Stephen King didn’t even have that luxury at first, he had to release a second edition. So I mean, just write more is a solution that doesn’t always work, right?

Robyn: [00:11:02] I think—oh.

Elizabeth: [00:11:03] Go ahead, Robyn.

Robyn: [00:11:06] And I think the key issue there is have room to zoom in. That is the counter, or rather the compliment, to A.T.’s comment from Stalin. Or, rather, that doesn’t sound great.

Reuben: [00:11:26] This is not the first panel I’ve moderated with multiple mentions of Stalin, but it’s usually very different.

Robyn: [00:11:30] You know, the guy had his fingers in a lot of pies.

[00:11:36] But yeah, if you’re zoomed out on a tragedy, it doesn’t matter how purple your prose, it doesn’t matter how intricately you describe that it is just stuff that is happening. You zoom in on one person who is in the middle of all that, who is feeling what is happening, who is on the pointy end of what is happening. And that is the kind of thing that readers almost can’t help but connect to. It really takes effort for a reader to not connect at that point. 

Reuben: [00:12:13] Bear, did you want to follow up?

Elizabeth: [00:12:15] Yeah, actually, I wanted to loop back slightly to the thing you said about the iterating apocalypses in The Fifth Season. And how that could be a dark comedy, which is the way it’s treated in The Three Body Problem, right? Is, there are iterative apocalypses, and they are, after a while they sort of become darkly funny. And I think that’s intentional. So but also to elaborate on what Robyn was just saying, I think the one way you can sometimes bring an emotional impact to large scale overview stuff is to just be extremely clinical. Because then you invite the reader to supply the emotion.

Reuben: [00:13:07] Very good point. Yeah, I think that’s a writing trick I’ve heard in every other context, is to make the reader do the work for you. Because if, yeah. I know that if I’m very into a story, I just am never going, my brain is never going to stop going about it. So I am interested, one of the things that came up pre-panel, and that we’ve kind of circled around is that we have this sort of default coded view of an apocalypse as a mass destructive event, whether it’s meteors and tsunamis or global pandemics, that sort of thing. 

[00:13:51] And there is such a thing as a localized apocalypse of peoples. Communities can be destroyed, whether literally or through the kind of change and displacement and fragmentation that just renders unrecognizable the lives of the survivors. And how suited… I think fantasy may have a unique toolkit for building apocalyptic events on that sort of more localized scale. And what are some of those tools? And how can how can we do that? Any thoughts?

[00:14:28] Yeah, Jasmine.

Jasmine: [00:14:28] Well, I guess technology changes things, right? The world is bigger or smaller, depending on how much access you have to what’s going on in the rest of it. So one of the advantages of the smaller scale apocalypse, at least for writing is that you don’t have to worry about things like cell phones. And so, which is… and everybody, I think, mystery writers, too, would like for cell phones to all just disappear.

[00:14:55] But, so there’s that, on the very simplest level, I guess. And in terms of scale, one could argue that it’s maybe not the entire world, but depends on what your entire world is and how far it extends. So if your entire world is your village, or your city, or your island, and that’s destroyed well, that’s it. So that’s the scale-wise, relative is the same as, I The Expanse slamming asteroids into Earth, right? So in Babylon’s Ashes, so. Yeah, so I guess the relative scale helps. It’s definitely a lot easier to control all the moving pieces when you have fewer to have to move. 

Reuben: [00:15:40] A.T., did you have something?

A.T. Greenblatt: [00:15:42] Yeah, just to add on to that. The advantage of doing a small scale one is to show, you can also show a lot of contrast. So like, you know, I’m thinking of, I believe it’s St. Vincent, the volcano that erupted a couple of weeks ago on a Caribbean island. And it basically caused a lot of havoc. But one of the things that people are saying is like the rest of the world just going on with it’s business while they’re dealing with this major catastrophe. And the kind of storytelling is a great tool to kind of show how devastating something is when we can see what a normal life looks like in comparison.

Reuben: [00:16:30] Yeah, I mean, I think about, to take a historical band on it. I have been watching The Last Kingdom based on Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon stories [unclear 00:16:40]. I love all kinds of Viking shit. And reading the historical sources, it was viewed in the British Isles as this apocalyptic event very much like the end of the world. The heathen invaders, yada yada and it was this genuinely transformative event that changed kind of the history of that corner of the world. 

[00:17:04] But the thing is, that corner of the world was really so small, like it obviously has outsized importance to us in the English speaking but at that time in the eighth and ninth century, even in Europe, you’ve got Muslim Spain, Al-Andalus flourishing, the Byzantine Empire in full swing. The British Isles were this complete backwater, relatively speaking and yet they were undergoing an apocalypse and because of future course of history, it takes this this sort of outsized importance in our own conception, I think of apocalypse, of that kind of historical twist.

[00:17:43] John?

John: [00:17:44] Yeah, to extend on what Jasmine and A.T. were talking about, I’m fascinated by the two potential dichotomies within the smaller scale apocalypse of use of in and out group. Because if you have a smaller scale apocalypse, necessarily, you have an outgroup of probably the rest of the world that hasn’t had to suffer the same incident. And in your H.G. Wells encounter, your War of the Worlds encounter, there’s a direct antagonist, that’s a tertiary out group. And there you can explore what it is to be the victim or even the perpetrator of an apocalypse on another. 

[00:18:24] Whereas with the lens of science fiction, fantasy, you can also have an inexplicable, uncanny, or cosmic apocalypse, and explore what the relationship is where there is no direct antagonism but you exist in a small-scale apocalypse where the rest of the world is privileged to not have that experience. And what it is when you really need resources, and I’m, since we’re going to talk about real life events, and I have a hard time not thinking about the friends that I lost to the AIDS, HIV epidemic. And that, anti-queerness in my country has led to a lot of people with a lot of resources not helping. And there’s a there’s a lot to be explored within a non-directly antagonistic small-scale apocalypse or destruction. And we can argue about what fits the definition of apocalypse there. 

[00:19:18] It gives you a very different conflict, two very different dichotomies for conflict that let us explore a lot of what is different to experience widescale loss.

Reuben: [00:19:29] Yeah, that’s a really good point. The idea of an apocalypse happening and what if the apocalypse happened and nobody cared, right? [ unclear 00:19:40] Did anyone else want to take that and run with it or a little mining to do there? I am, so I do want to swing to we’re using the word apocalypse and it kind of registers with everyone. But feel free to fact check me on this because I’m Jewish and not a very good one at that. But I understand the word comes largely, our usage of it comes from the New Testament book of Revelation. The word originally means uncovering, and it has to do with His revelation, which is framed in the New Testament, as the end of the world and so forth. And I think that cultural touchstone really informs the way we think of what an apocalypse is here in the Western world. 

[00:20:28] Do you have any thoughts on how that informs it? And what other apocalyptic concepts, we can draw from as writers? Anyone? 

Jasmine: [00:20:40] Well, as an—sorry, go ahead, Robyn.

Robyn: [00:20:43] Yeah, you definitely see that that tendency, it almost has become ubiquitous, this idea that there’s the last trump and then the proceedings get underway. Whereas you don’t see that very much historically. There’s rarely a defined moment in historical apocalypses, with the exception of maybe, the conquest of the Americas, where you can point to,one moment where things began. But to pivot from that catastrophe to some friendly storytelling advice. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad writing to go with the ubiquitous and in this case kind of Christian kind of standard that was set there, because it fits neatly into storytelling. It’s a type of story that people are already kind of familiar with, even if they’re not explicitly familiar with it, they’re kind of soaking in it. And the familiar can often give you a little bit of a bridge to your reader.

Reuben: [00:22:08] Good points. Jasmine, did you?

Jasmine: [00:22:08] Yeah, and ultimately, I think that’s spot on in terms of it’s just, there’s not a single moment. The stories that I’m drawn to that are apocalyptic stories are the ones where things… where lights just start shutting off and radios stop working and there’s just… I think of was the one with the two girls in the forest. It’s like, it just you don’t know, does this just end? Or is this coming back? And, and it would be nice if somebody would just come up and say, okay, look it’s the end of the world, things aren’t coming back, you better figure out how to survive. But how much time does one waste sort of waiting for things to sort of is this going to arise again?

[00:22:54] So as a very lapsed Catholic, I get that desire for there to be like a trumpet. Like somebody, please send me the text message that says it’s the end of the world. And there were so many times during this last year where things would feel incredibly dire but also very mundane. So then I was wondering, was this it? Like, maybe we all had it wrong? Maybe it’s about the toilet paper and the lack of yeast in the store when you’re going to bake bread? What’s the signpost for the apocalypse here? So yeah, I mean, I think that there’s a desire for some notification sometimes. 

Reuben: [00:23:31] For sure, Bear?

Elizabeth: [00:23:34] I also think that one of the one of the interesting places to find tension in an apocalyptic story is between the people who are like, no, this is really bad. And the people who are in denial, because there’s also another kind of story where there are the people who are sort of pushing the apocalyptic narrative. And people who are pushing the repair and mitigation narrative, where the protagonist, the audience might be on the other side of that. 

[00:24:11] There’s that guy who’s like, oh, it’s the end of the world. I’m going to go hole up in my garage with my guns and my doberman pinscher. And, you know, 27 cases of MREs. And meanwhile, all around him, his neighbors are like, well, I guess we need to start organizing the community and maybe set up a soup kitchen. So it’s interesting how both of those narratives sort of coalesce around a set of… There’s like a narrative singularity in there that you can’t get information out of, but you can see all the stuff swirling around. 

Reuben: [00:24:54] Yeah, for sure. A.T and then John.

A.T. Greenblatt: [00:25:00] I think that’s what I liked about Sarah Pinsker’s “Sooner or Later, Everything Falls into the Sea” as an apocalyptic story where all the rich people get again yachts and they have a dock, because the world is falling apart. But then she kind of drops in there that people are just forming communities and making things work on the mainland. No one’s like, knifing each other just to survive. It has many different glimpses of what life in this society where the lights don’t turn anymore, and the bridges fall down, and what do you do? [unclear 00:25:50] I like that a lot. Kind of made me rethink what an apocalypse looks like.

Reuben: [00:25:57] Yeah, it is kind of fun to think about apocalyptic fiction, really existing side by side with the sort of problem-solvy fiction that you find very often, especially in sci-fi of you need the right kind of wrench and the right kind of problem solving brain for it. That kind of approach when the problem is we are an island now. This used to be a mountain and now it is an island.

[00:26:23] John? 

John: [00:26:24] Yeah, to build on that, what really crucially attracts me to apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction is basically you tend to have stories where the forces that put you in your box or that allow you to be in your box go away. And often you’ll see zombie fiction is basically like, well, what if the whole world’s the playground now and just go loot anything, and now all the rules are gone. Everybody still can make Simpsons references, so it’s not a secondary world fantasy. But the rules of engagement in society are gone in some way and what are you going to reinstitute? And what still matters to you? What are you, when either the social pressures that forced you to do things go away? Or the social networks that supported you go away? And how do we continue to provide for each other?

[00:27:16] To go back, we’ve already referenced The Stand once, so here’s the second Standard. But my favorite part of The Stand is when they all get together after their long, horrible road, and they’re like, alright, how do we turn the lights back on? I’ve got these skills, you’ve got these skills, I can facilitate communication. Who knows engineering? Who knows plumbing? Who could do manual labor? Who can look after other people? That rebuilding is so enriching and I could take a lot more of it. But because I love those changes about well, what do you what do you become when things shift a little bit? 

[00:27:52] I’m very attracted to books like Max Brooks’s World War Z and H.G. Bells’s Sleep Over which are both, basically every chapter, here’s another person who’s experiencing the same apocalypse as everybody else in a different way. Sleep Over—everybody knows World War Z, zombies. But Sleep Over is basically an apocalypse where nobody can sleep. It’s insomnia, day after day. And what happens two days after nobody could sleep, three days, at the three-day point, it’s like, the people running the daycare where parents aren’t coming anymore to pick their kids up. And day after day after day. How do we support each other? How do we keep each other from losing it? And everybody has their own take on it. So by day four, when you meet the hitman who’s losing it, you’re like, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for whatever you’re gonna do, dude. You’re not my favorite. 

[00:28:43] Whereas the gamers who are like, look, we’re really tired and we can’t do much. But we’re really used to staying up all night on caffeine and doing one task. So they go to somebody, like what’s the one thing you need a lot of people to do right now? Because we think we could probably do that tonight. And I just adore how stories like that, that flip through many different takes, and many different experiences on a catastrophic event can show you, both how different we are, and in cases how we can come together and help each other through the worst times. Which that’s my catnip. I’ll read that sort of thing forever. 

Reuben: [00:29:21] Yeah, Jasmine?

Jasmine: [00:29:22] Can I just circle back to something that I think John and A.T. touched on. And also John, is this idea that there’s some class lines that get exposed in interesting ways in apocalypse, and an opportunity to explore that. I mean, not to nobilize poverty at all, but people who’ve had less for a long time know how to make do with less and have, generally, can, to generalize, survival instincts and an ability to, like, cobble things together and in some cases work together. Like, I think it’s interesting that when you got the, especially when you’re focusing on the hero story, it’s always like people escape. They do this in The Expanse, right? The rich people all fly off and leave Earth, they go to Luna. The rich people get in the yachts. They’re like out of here when things get bad, they go into their bunkers with their 74 cases of MREs and their tiny little dogs. 

[00:30:18] But it’s like, people who have been living either living through apocalypse for one way or the other on the small scale in their lives that are like, okay, we got to figure this out. There’s no boat. There’s no spaceship. There’s just whatever we have resource left. And I think that’s an interesting opportunity to explore apocalypse as a writer. And those stories do, for me, have more resonance. Because there are people who are addressing from already a lack of resource. So, they haven’t benefited from supremacist culture that places them first. So they have a lot less to lose when they hit the ground and then maybe potentially can be more resilient. Again, like generalizing and not to nobilize oppression. But there’s definitely some interesting storytelling ability there.

Reuben: [00:31:09] Bear?

Elizabeth: [00:31:11] So I’m actually in the middle of writing a science fiction series which takes place 600 years after all the rich people fucked off to space in generation ships. And what the people who were left behind built. So what you’re saying Jasmine, is so incredibly close to my heart. What they build is a much more communalistic and pluralistic society. Which has its own drawbacks, but I think you’re just so absolutely correct, that there is this sort of libertarian idea of, civilization will collapse and then we’ll all live in our walled bunkers. 

[00:31:56] This is a slight left turn, but do you guys know about the town in New Hampshire with the bears? Okay, yeah, oh, Robyn.

Reuben: [00:32:05] Please tell us about the town in New Hampshire with the bears. 

Robyn: [00:32:08] I love that town. 

Elizabeth: [00:32:09] Yes. This took place a mere two hour, three hours drive north of me. So, there was this little town called, there still is sort of, this little town called, I think it’s Grafton New Hampshire, where they tried to build, a bunch of people from a way tried to sort of move in and build a libertarian free state in this little tiny town. And you can get all the details in this wonderful book called A Libertarian Walks into a Bear. But basically, what happens is when you start defunding all of your town services, people do whatever they want. Not only do you have everything burning down, and no roads and the roads crumbling, but the bears move into town. 

[00:33:04] Because there’s nobody doing anything like enforcing town ordinances about not feeding the wildlife. So this small town basically experienced an apocalypse of individualism. Because nobody wanted to take the long-term townspeople were out voted and the newcomers who had moved in in order to deregulate society, had no idea what any of those rules were for, and why you shouldn’t bring boxes of Dunkies to your local black bears. 

Jasmine: [00:33:42] So let the bears eat the rich, that’s the solution?

Elizabeth: [00:33:42] Let the bears eat the rich, yes.

Jasmine: [00:33:44] All right.

Reuben: [00:33:44] Extremely caffeinated bears. 

Jasmine: [00:33:46] Look for that from my Cafepress store.

Reuben: [00:33:51] So, I mean—

Elizabeth: [00:33:50] All about bears.

Reuben: [00:33:54] I really kind of tying that concept to what you said a little ways back, Jasmine, about the apocalypse is an opportunity to take cell phones away from your characters. It really is. It’s removing the doorstopper. It’s, removing some of the structures and they can be physical things or the sort of class markers. Obviously, I mean, a lot of what we’re talking about both in terms of what we’re writing and what we’re drawing from in real life are huge destructive traumatic events. But there’s also the sort of… to talk about that another topic. Different ways of looking at the apocalypse is more kind of the Hindu tradition of destruction and creation happening the kind of hand in hand. It’s like, okay, you take this away what takes its place? What happens when we get rid of cellphones? What happens when we get rid of Elon Musk? Like what?

Jasmine: [00:34:49] Send in the bears.

Reuben: [00:34:54] Did you want to say something John?

Robyn: [00:34:55] Are there bears on Mars?

Reuben: [00:34:55] Not yet.

John: [00:34:58] Just noticed A.T.

Reuben: [00:35:01] Oh, sorry.

A.T. Greenblatt: [00:35:03] Oh, I was gonna tie something into Jasmine’s point where there’s also this trope in apocalyptic fiction that disabled people die first. And I think it’s kind of untrue, because we have people who have been adapting in present-day society. So we have the skills to adapt and figure out how to make things work from what we have. So yeah, that was my point.

John: [00:35:34] That’s a really great point.

Reuben: [00:35:37] That’s a great point. I can’t think of anyone being more equipped to like, oh, you need some help surviving a hostile environment because I have some tips. Right?

A.T. Greenblatt: [00:35:45] Right.

John: [00:35:48] I want to say that any any science fiction story that begins with like, the apocalypse happened, but disabled people’s network survived it. Like, I’m gonna finish reading whatever that is. You give me that on like page one, and I’m there.

A.T. Greenblatt: [00:36:03] Yeah, I really like Station Eleven. But one thing I hated about that was the one disabled character decides to kill himself in the apocalypse. Like, honestly, if he’s been through this much already? That’s not going to be his go to solution. 

Reuben: [00:36:25] Sorry, Robyn, did you have something? 

Robyn: [00:36:27] No, except to just agree vehemently. 

Reuben: [00:36:27] That’s good. Bear?

Elizabeth: [00:36:34] I have a lot of questions overall about Station Eleven and medical science. I realize that that’s not what the book is interested in. But…

Reuben: [00:36:49] Yeah. Well, it does make—that’s actually a really interesting craft point about there’s a lot of avoidant stuff you can do, especially in fantasy, of I don’t want to have to learn about this thing. So it’s not going to be in my world, right? Like I’m writing a pre-gunpowder fantasy, because I’m just not a gun person. And I don’t want to have to bug enough of my gun friends to get it right. But there’s sort of a double-edged sword with apocalyptic fiction, in that regard, I think. Where, on one hand, you can kind of take away the stuff you don’t want to write about and learn about. But on the other hand, if you’re writing an entire breakdown of society, that means you kind of got to pay attention to all of society, so you can break it. It’s a real, I think, a real test of your fact checking skills.

[00:37:40] Bear?

Elizabeth: [00:37:39] I have some problems with the sort of baked in ‘70s racism in The Stand. But one thing I did like about it was its treatment of disabled people. The idea that when you have, that people are intrinsically useful, and even that being useful is not the point, is very baked in and I appreciated that.

[00:38:14] Another property that I think handles it pretty well is Zombies, Run, which is… it’s a game but it’s also a narrative, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic future involving, spoilers, zombies. And there is a lot of discussion in the context of the narrative about accessibility and accommodations. It’s a very woke zombie apocalypse in a pretty good way.

[00:38:56] Woke Zombie Apocalypse, that’s my brand.

Reuben: [00:39:00] I think Woke Zombie Apocalypse is just like a Federalist headline. 

[00:39:07] So I wanted to touch on something that really has been interesting me since I signed up for this panel. We talk a lot about the question of scale when it comes to apocalypse. And that’s sort of like one of the key things. How big to make your earth shattering kaboom, and where to located it and how closely to zoom in on the details. But distance isn’t the only unit of measurement. I’m curious what people think about the scale of time as it pertains to the apocalypse. And what you can do with playing with a story set with a long ago apocalypse as opposed to a recent or an impending one, or an apocalypse that happens immediately versus something om drawn out stages.

[00:39:48] And if I can ramble for just a second about, I don’t want to say one of my favorite series, but one of the ones that takes up the most real estate my head is Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series, which is the sort of… the title of the metaseries is the second apocalypse and it’s a big like, gigantic fuck off epic fantasy set 4000 years after the world ended in the Bronze Age. That Sauron and the orcs essentially destroyed all but a tiny corner of the world. 

[00:40:16] And the initial trilogy really, I think, does a fantastic job of locating us in a civilization built in the ruins. There’s a sense of depth to it. And one of the main characters is essentially a conspiracy theorist wizard who has the very unfortunate situation for a conspiracy theorist, of his being true. And what happens is that he’s a character who remembers the apocalypse, that every night he has dreams of it, that are drawn from reality, and it’s this great way of sort of siting the reader, right in this incredibly traumatic destructive event, while still showing you how to removed the rest of the world from it. That the person who knows that it really happened comes off as the wizard equivalent of the lone gunmen on The X-Files, this complete wacko. 

[00:41:09] So I thought that was like one, for all that series’ other problems, of which there are many, that was a really fantastic way of… I immediately bought into that sense of apocalypse. 

[00:41:22] So yeah, what do other people think about time as it relates to the scale of the end of the world?

[00:41:32] John?

John: [00:41:33] Yeah, I think time lets you play with how much gets recontextualized and how feverishly it gets recontextualized. I’m a big sucker for a post-post-post-apocalypse where somebody is like, “What’s a Bib-La?” Just like trying to read the cover. Just anytime that something is horribly misunderstood. We’re the hermit crab apocalypse. And all the people are gone. But they’re just flooding all the Tesla plants to steal chassis to wear as their shells. Anything like that. I just, I find it adorable. 

[00:42:06] And while and while you can do wild, humorous things with it, you can also do, the context of how much is supposed to have been processed. You get something like Meg Elison’s Book of the Unnamed Midwife, and you’re watching her day after day, contextualizing this horrible fever that is killing off pregnant people. And her learning like well, then I have to… Our main character is male passing, although she identifies as a woman, and she specifically male passes to mess with a society that’s starting to establish itself in order to do good that people would prevent her from doing if she didn’t. 

[00:42:45] You contrast that with something like The Last of Us, where there’s a prologue and there’s hard cut. And we have prologue sad dad, and five years later sad dad, or 18 years later sad dad, and you see that jump from the heartbreak of the moment to the resignation, to the soreness, the slowness, but still wearing the watch that his daughter got him right, the night that it all went down. It allows you to appreciate okay, this is the kind of context of emotional resonance we’re going to be playing with is the pain of the old world has started to rust over.

[00:43:22] Then you could do with a much bigger scale to something like Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz where people just don’t know what blueprints are. And they find like schematics for things for the first time and they’re like, is this a religious text? I don’t know. Let’s take it to the monastery. And then we unpack from there that like it’s rough, the pain is rusted over so, so much that people don’t even know the apocalypse is the thing that they are suffering from. It’s that much of a part of history. So I think the scale, scale lets you play with context. That’s my big thing. 

Reuben: [00:43:54] I like that. A.T?

A.T. Greenblatt: [00:43:56] Yeah, I’m gonna agree with that. I think that’s one of the powers of video games and movies versus book. It lets you see scale in a way that I think books sometimes have a really hard time conveying. 

[00:44:10] I’m thinking of two examples. One is Horizon Zero Dawn, which is set in far future, where you’re seeing like the remnants of a slightly more futuristic world than we live in now, but it’s like everything is collapsed. Only pieces of skyscrapers are there and it’s covered in ivy and stuff like that. And the people who live now are tribal and don’t really have any answers for what came before. It’s been lost. And it’s an open world game. So you spend a lot of time running around and collecting coffee mugs sometimes, because no one knows what a coffee mug is, but this guy thinks they’re really cool and wants all of them. So it’s a fascinating way to look at the after effects way beyond the effect in the moment. 

[00:45:14] And my other examples is slightly different, where we’re talking about scale and how we have a hard time visualizing it. I think it was a scene in Gone with the Wind where, in the camp with all the wounded people on it, the camera zooms out, and they realize it’s like a whole field. It’s one person, and then the camera zooms out and you realize the whole field is just covered wounded people and I still remember that scene even though I watched it, like 20 years ago.

Reuben: [00:45:47] Stuff that sticks with you. I really, I really love the idea of the the post-apocalyptic collector. You know, like a Mad Max warlord, he’s just collecting Funko Pops. Doesn’t know what they are. They’re like some sort of a witch’s trophy there.

Elizabeth: [00:46:08] Yeah, what A.T. just said about scale. And that zooming in zooming out, thing as a way to create impact also plays into the time thing. I was just thinking about Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book where you have an apocalypse that’s taking place in the past, and an apocalypse is taking place in the future, simultaneously. And, spoilers for 30-year-old book, the statute of limitations is over. The protagonist is a time traveling historian who accidentally gets sent back to the black plague. 

[00:46:54] Meanwhile, in the future, there’s a massive influenza epidemic going on. Which I think is actually supposed to be, it’s been ages since I read this book, but supposed to be started by the 1918 flu. So there’s a a historical link there, too. And the way the two timelines are juxtaposed is really fascinating and is used to sort of build out thematic elements. 

[00:47:28] And there’s also this thing where we get a very in-depth single person narration of the events in the 14th century. And then we have another character come in at the end of the book, who walks in as a naive witness and sees the contrast between two places, basically. Comes back in time to rescue the person who’s essentially been stranded there, because everybody in the future was dying, too.

[00:48:01] Oops, bad day at work, everybody. And there’s a really effective camera thing going on there. I don’t know how else to describe it. Where we get this, we see how bad it could be. And then we see the place that’s been ameliorated and it’s still terrible. But there’s still that sense of catharsis when you get there because you know how bad it could have been.

Reuben: [00:48:29] Yeah, I like that. So we are getting near time as Casey has checked with me. I wanted to make sure on this question of scale, Robyn or Jasmine, Robyn and/or Jasmine I would love to hear from either of you on this subject. If you have any thoughts. If not, that’s fine, too.

Jasmine: [00:48:46] It’s been super well covered. I would just say Octavia Butler did super well. I think also she does really short scale and then really long scale really well in the same series and the same world. So if you haven’t read, I was just thinking about the difference between Parable books and then like getting all the way to like Clay’s Ark in Patternmaster. It’s just such a different scale and all of those are very effective in very different ways. So that’s Grandmaster stuff there, though. So us mere mortals will have to live with what we got.

Reuben: [00:49:17] Oh god, I can’t believe that Patternmaster books didn’t come up until two minutes left in our panel.

Jasmine: [00:49:22] Well I proved myself wrong because I was like, wait a minute Parable of the Talents, they do build the ship to leave the planet so I just debunked to my own theory about the stay behind, choosing to stay behind and work it out. They actually do just peace out of the scenario.

Reuben: [00:49:40] Robyn?

Robyn: [00:49:41] And to second, yeah, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, that is a masterclass in how to explore present day society. It through an apocalyptic lens. Most apocalyptic writers, you see them shining through in their view of other people once the bounds of society have been broken. And some of those views are very nihilist and cynical and some of them are very nuanced and you know if you want if you want to see how to do it nuanced, Parable of the Sower.

Reuben: [00:50:23] I guess a good you know sort of closing thought is a well what did Octavia Butler do about this? When in doubt.

Elizabeth: [00:50:37] T-shirt, what would Octavia do? 

Reuben: [00:50:43] We are getting about to the end here. Did anyone have any closing thoughts they would desperately like to pitch into this whirling vortex of bread this analogy is not going anywhere good.

John: [00:50:58] If the world ends please only steal as much toilet paper as you need. 

Jasmine: [00:51:02] Somebody send me a text message because I will have no idea what’s going on.

Reuben: [00:51:07] Yes, I do think that’s one great thing to think about is sort of the apocalypse as information. An information apocalypse the idea of like, okay, it’s all happening but does everyone know about it? 

Elizabeth: [00:51:21] The apocalypse will be tweeted. 

Jasmine: [00:51:25] I have major FOMO of the apocalypse.

Elizabeth: [00:51:30] Instagram apocalypse influencers. 

Reuben: [00:51:35] Halloween costume. Okay.

[00:51:36] Well, I think that just about wraps us up here. Thank you all so much for sharing. Thank you to everyone who has been listening to this in the future. If the world has not ended by the time this panel is posted, then it will be our delight to welcome you to a Q&A session on Saturday the 19th. 

[00:51:56] Until then, this has been the Fourth Street personalizing the apocalypse. Thank you all so much for being here at the end of all things.

Transcribed by Keffy Kehrli