Daydreaming of Apocalypse

Why do we crave dystopia?

Despite claims that readers would turn away from post-apocalyptic fiction during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, the genre has continued to thrive. The popularity of post-apocalyptic narratives raises questions about why people are fascinated by fictional narratives of doom in times of trouble, and whether it is a form of escapism or a desire to come to terms with an unpredictable, dangerous world. The current climate crisis has made it difficult to imagine that our familiar world will continue, and the universal relevance of apocalypse creates the conditions for two antithetical forms of cultural engagement: utopian impulse and fantasy-as-wish-fulfillment, writes Florian Mussgnug.


With daily news of war, atrocity, earthquakes, cyclones, and record-breaking temperatures, who needs fictional narratives of apocalypse? During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, a version of this question enjoyed unexpected popularity. Cultural pundits claimed that readers were fed up with dystopia and post-apocalypse and predicted that speculative fiction would go out of fashion for at least a decade. Lockdown and fear, so the argument went, left people craving for stability and familiarity. Experiences of loss and feelings of disorientation were too widespread and, for many, too raw to find expression in genre literature. Instead of fantasising about zombies, it was said, readers would turn their attention to the intimate details of everyday life, or engage with the great classics, from Middlemarch to War and Peace. Surely, the last thing that anybody needed, in the midst of a global pandemic, were fantastical versions of their own, unsettling experiences, cast in the fictional language of post-apocalypse.

In June 2020, Penguin published a survey of more than one thousand readers, which appeared to confirm this idea. Sixty percent of participants declared that they had no interest in stories about the pandemic, while a quarter announced that they would never again pick up a dystopian novel. Commentators leapt on the news: the collective experience of real planetary emergency, they declared, had made literary fantasies of global catastrophe irrelevant.



 The apocalyptic imagination is no longer limited to any given worldview or set of values



This was, of course, nonsense. Post-apocalyptic narratives did not die out in the early 2020s. Zombies remain popular, across media and languages, and continue to delight those in search of hackneyed, predictable plots, while also providing rich inspiration for more original, creative forms of storytelling. Some of the world’s most popular writers – including Isabel Allende, Louise Erdrich, and Emily St John Mandel – have written fictional narratives of the pandemic, drawing from the traditions of fantasy, the gothic, and science fiction. In brief, the unstoppable rise of the post-apocalyptic – in literature, film, television, videogames, scholarship, artwork, and music – has disproven the claim that audiences, in times of real emergency, turn away from fictional narratives of doom. The opposite turns out to be true and continues to be the case, as can be seen, for instance, from the recent success of HBO’s serial television drama, The Last of Us.

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So why, in times of trouble, are we fascinated by post-apocalypse? Is the genre inherently escapist, as some have argued? Or should we treat its popularity as the expression of a deep-seated desire to come to terms with life on an unpredictable, dangerous, and heating planet? Is apocalypse literature a form of “new ecological realism”, ideally suited for a world that bears a troubling resemblance to the dystopian fantasies of earlier generations?

[2] In their co-authored volume, The Ends of the World, philosopher Déborah Danowski and anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro stress that the enjoyment of fictional apocalypse, until recently, appeared to be a privilege of the relatively affluent: planetary elites, upwardly mobile middle classes, and, more generally, inhabitants of the Global North, who imagined themselves safe from the environmental and social consequences of civilisational or climate breakdown.

Film studios and publishing houses kept these audiences entertained with a seemingly interminable stream of near-identical narratives of collapse, in an atmosphere of otherwise unperturbed optimism about the future and without any evident awareness of the apparent contradictions that this entailed. According to a frequently cited Bon Mot, people found it easier to fantasise about the end of world than to imagine the end of capitalism.


 The enjoyment of fictional apocalypse, until recently, appeared to be a privilege of the relatively affluent: planetary elites, upwardly mobile middle classes, and, more generally, inhabitants of the Global North


Cultural theorist Evan Calder Williams has described this public and commercial interest in apocalypse as a schizophrenic obsession with civilisational collapse and mass death, in a world that believes itself to be never-ending. Apocalyptic blockbusters, for Williams, are “visions of frozen decay, a halted approximation of the process of disappearance that serves only to insist on stasis.

The unfolding climate catastrophe has made it difficult, for anybody, to imagine that our familiar world will simply go on. As Danowski and Viveiros de Castro point out, global environmental breakdown will “drag with it a sizeable portion of human population, obviously beginning with the destitute masses that inhabit the ghettos and garbage dumps of the world system”, but ultimately hitting the majority of human and non-human life on the planet.[4

While this definitely puts a damper on our enjoyment of apocalyptic movies, it also has consequences for the scholarly study of apocalypse. Present-day narratives of planetary collapse no longer belong to any particular philosophical, cultural, or religious tradition. They are not the exclusive domain of Judaism and Christianity, or even of those self-styled “moderns”, who, in Bruno Latour’s words, coined the idea of man as a “being par excellence capable of extricating itself from nature […] thanks to its soul, its culture, or its intelligence”.

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[5] In other words, the apocalyptic imagination is no longer limited to any given worldview or set of values. It cannot be reduced to a single motif, genre, medium, or horizon of expectation. It has become, in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s terms, a “shared catastrophe”, which appears darkly relevant to all potential victims of environmental collapse, and therefore to all present and future people on Earth.

This universal relevance of apocalypse creates the conditions for two different and antithetical forms of cultural engagement. In his seminal study, Archaeologies of the Future, Fredric Jameson draws a neat distinction between utopian impulse and fantasy-as-wish-fulfillment. The former, according to Jameson, emerges where speculative writing seeks to tackle a concrete political situation, “respond[s] to specific dilemmas and offer[s] to solve fundamental social problems to which the Utopian writer believes himself to hold the key”.

[7] The latter, by contrast, remains firmly focused on the artist’s or reader’s subjectivity and private history. Quoting from Sigmund Freud’s essay, “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming” (1907), Jameson highlights three fundamental characteristics of wish-fulfillment fantasy: first, a thoroughly egocentric narrative structure; secondly, a sense of providentiality and omnipotence (“Nothing can happen to me!”); finally, a rigorously dualistic worldview, which divides the world into helpers and enemies. Significantly, these characteristics are also common to many cultural traditions of (post-)apocalypse, from millenarianism to gaming, and from survivalist counterculture to the peculiarly repetitive sub-genre of last-man fiction, with its characteristic focus on regenerative violence, virility, and procreation as a male duty towards the species.


 Christian eschatology, in its earliest forms, was an act of discursive resistance against Empire: a gesture of radical hope


Egocentrism, moral dualism, and fantasies of omnipotence recur in reactionary worldviews that are frequently associated with the apocalyptic: the belief systems of ethnonationalists, evangelical fundamentalists, tech tycoons, apologists of white power, and so on. For these groups, events cohere as part of a familiar, universal, apocalyptic script; actual or perceived opponents are agents of evil; expectations of social collapse inspire fantasies of cataclysmic violence or hubristic dreams of interstellar world-making. Apocalyptic daydreaming might therefore be described as an inherently reactionary cultural practice.

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On the other hand, Jameson’s reflections of utopian impulse also provide the basis for a different and more rewarding engagement with post-apocalypse. He reminds us that narratives of catastrophe can also read as reflections on the contingency of hegemonic belief systems, and on the vulnerability of social and political structures. In this way, the genre may be used, and has been used, to outline concrete strategies for progressive political and social transformation. Recent examples of this include Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, and Helen Marshall’s The Migration (2019), to name but a few.

It is important to acknowledge the wealth and inspiring diversity of apocalyptic traditions and their potential for radical politics. Cultural interest in the end of the world spans many periods and contexts, from Gilgamesh to twenty-first century films and novels such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Michael Haneke’s The Time of the Wolf. Christian eschatology, in its earliest forms, was an act of discursive resistance against Empire: a gesture of radical hope. This important fact may not fully transpire in contemporary consumer culture, but it has never been forgotten, especially in the Global South and among the world’s most vulnerable human communities. Beyond the familiar dichotomy of apocalyptic escapism and fatalistic acceptance, we can still find numerous different ways of conceiving the end(s) of world(s): narratives that can serve – and have always served – as an inspiration for critical, creative, and political practice.



[2] Monika Kaup, New Ecological Realisms: Post-Apocalyptic Fiction and Contemporary Theory (Edinburgh, 2021).

[3] Evan Calder Williams, Combined and Uneven Apocalypse (Winchester, 2011), p. 92.

[4] Danowski and Viveiros de Castro, p. 2.

[5] Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, translated by Catherine Porter (Cambridge, 2018), pp. 85-86.

[6] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses”, Critical Inquiry, 35, 2009, pp. 197-222 (218).

[7] Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London, 2005), p. 11.

[8] Florian Mussgnug, “Naturalizing Apocalypse: Last Men and Other Animals”, Comparative Critical Studies, 9 (3), 2012, pp. 333-347.

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