In the early 1950s, humanity realized that we could destroy all human life on the planet. This realization spurred the emergence of a new sub-genre of sci-fi focused on stories about what might happen after the world as we know it ended.
Post-apocalyptic stories are not the same as dystopian stories such as 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale that imagine a world still populated with humans but enduring some terrible social or political predicament. Post-apocalyptic stories instead posit that all, or most, human life has been destroyed by some calamity and examine what comes next.
Writers have imagined such stories for a very long time. The New Testament’s Book of Revelation (aka, Apocalypse) is one of several that assumes a divine cause for the end of the world. Then, starting in the early 1800s, the industrial revolution spawned other P-A books where the ominous cause was more secular. Two of the earliest actually shared the same title, The Last Man. The first tale of the last man was published in French by Jean-Batiste Cousin de Grainville in 1806. The second Last Man was published in 1826 by none other than Mary Shelley — the inventor of sci-fi, although her post-apocalyptic novel was less concerned with hard science, so it wasn’t strictly sci-fi.
The atomic bomb and nuclear proliferation coincided with the golden age of pulp science fiction in the 1950s and ’60s. Many of the leading sci-fi authors of the time wrote post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories, including two of my favorites by Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison.
Ray Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains — 1950 Colliers Magazine
Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream — 1967 IF: Worlds of Science Fiction
Both these stories presume that all or most humans are gone from the Earth but intelligent machines survive humankind. In his gentle, pastoral, trademark style, Bradbury describes a single, sad day in the lives of servile machines after humanity has ended. That day happens to be August 4, 2026.
Ellison’s story, on the other hand, describes a more brutal scenario in which a malevolent AI has decided to keep just five humans alive as pets, and it tortures them for its amusement. Caution: Some aspects of this story are quite disturbing.
The question of what might happen after the end of the world as we know it is a rich field of imagination for sci-fi writers. Both of these powerful short stories by masters of the golden age examine unnerving post-apocalyptic scenarios.
Will humanity end with a whimper or a scream?