Jeff Carlson on Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

By Jeff Carlson

I think we’re programmed for hardship.  In my experience, human beings are happiest when they’re working themselves to the bone.  Call me crazy, but from what I’ve seen people are more likely to feel adrift and unsatisfied when they have too much leisure time.  Purpose is the greatest gift.  Obstacles are good.

Here’s why.  For hundreds of thousands of years, life was brutal.  It still is for a good chunk of the planet.  The technology and wealth we enjoy in North America is a very new development in history, and I think we miss the challenges of day-to-day survival in our comparatively easy modern lives.  Some people will even create problems if they have none.

Everyone’s had a psychotic girl- or boyfriend, right?  Well, lots of ‘em really are just nut-flavored bologna.  They have a neurochemical imbalance or ate too many paint chips as a kid… but some people look for drama and emotional upheaval for reasons they can’t explain themselves, reenacting the shortcomings, chaos, or abuse of their childhoods.

Surprise.  These drama kings and queens might be exactly the kind of person you’d want at your back during the zombie apocalypse or the aftermath of a comet strike.  Each of our nut-flavored friends is a sponge.  They’re ready to soak up as much as trauma as anyone can dish out.  They have the stamina, heart and depth to keep on slogging through the radioactive bugs even long after the last shotgun shell is gone.

They’re not the only ones.  I like to think I’m the kind of guy you’d give the keys to the bomb shelter and I’m extremely boring and normal — wife, kids, mortgage, bleh — ha ha — except to say that I grew up fascinated with books like Lucifer’s Hammer and The Stand.

We like to be scared because we have a huge capacity for fear.  The most basic element of storytelling is conflict because we respond to it.

For me, writing post-apocalyptic novels isn’t so much about exploding helicopters and fifty megaton doomsday bombs as it is about the pleasure of dealing with the best of everything that makes us human: cleverness, grit, loyalty, and self-sacrifice.

Sure, the hot-sex-with-our-last-breath and the gunfights are fun, too, but ultimately my novels boil down to the ability of some people — the greatest of us — to overcome nearly any hurdle.  I back my heroes into corners just to watch them wiggle free.

People are tough.  We’re evolved for less food; more exercise; less sleep; less security; more paranoia.  The irony is that we’re so good at what we do.  We strive for more food; less exercise; more sleep; more security; less paranoia — and we’ve succeeded.

Look around.  Humankind has remade the entire face of the planet, blanketing Earth with electrical grids, highways, super-agriculture, shipping lanes and aircraft, even wrapping the sky in satellites.  It’s easy to complain about your bills or morning traffic or the neighbor’s neglected, ever-barking dogs (you know who you are), but these are fantastic problems to have.

The grocery stores are loaded, we have the industrial strength to roll off three cars per household, and every other family has enough money to spare to feed two dogs and a cat even though they don’t have any inclination to walk Sparky and Spot every day and choose instead to leave their canines to noisily go insane, each set of dogs fenced off inside their own isolated little patch of suburbia.

Anyone with a computer to read this blog is richer than 99.99% of the human beings who’ve ever lived, and yet we can’t help imagining what things would be like if we had to start over.  Nuclear armageddon.  Superflu.  The living dead.  Nanotech.

Give me a wild scenario and some smart good guys and I’m happy — just so long as the lights stay on and there’s iced tea in the fridge.  I’d really rather not be sifting through the rubble for canned food and medicine while we keep one eye peeled for roving gangs of illiterate cannibals.

Jeff Carlson is the international bestselling author of the Plague Year trilogy. To date, his work has been translated into fourteen languages. He is currently at work on a new stand-alone thriller. Readers can find free fiction, videos, contests and more on his web site at