Uncategorized | writing | writing tips

Worldbuilding? More like World Breaking.

February 13, 2016


I’m working on a project. It’s spiralling wildly out of control and part of the reason why is that this project of mine is set in what I’ve lovingly termed the post-post-apocalypse. We’re talking so far into the future that people don’t even remember the event that sent their distant ancestors running from their city flats and into the wild, there to live out the rest of their days in tenuous peace. We’re talking so far past the apocalypse that the apocalypse has literally no bearing on the content of the story any more, and yet still I have spent hours and hours researching likely apocalyptic scenarios in search of something that sticks.

Why is that important? Because the apocalypse might be irrelevant to the here and now of my story, but it forms the backdrop of literally everything and everyone in it.

Also, researching horrible apocalyptic scenarios that could reasonably happen in the next 50 years or so has been marvellous fun. Here’s how you too can cosy up with the NSA and start planning your very own apocalypse.

Step one was to decide on the sort of apocalypse I was interested in. I knew right away that I didn’t want anything too permanent, because I didn’t want my characters to still have to deal with imminent danger every day, and I didn’t want anything too fatal, because I wanted to actually have characters in the first place.

So, a sort of backwards engineering took place. I wrote down everything that I needed to be true ~500 years after the apocalypse. Here is that list:

  • The population of Britain has to drop from 61.4 Million to 18.8 million.
  • The population must have a reason to disperse into small countryside settlements.
  • Imminent dangers i.e radiation, famine, disease must either be avoidable or have been significantly reduced.

The good news (for most of us) is that it turns out most of the common apocalypse scenarios are totally survivable. The bad news for me is that most of the common apocalypse scenarios are totally survivable. I initially ruled out all-out nuclear war firstly because it seemed a bit obvious, and secondly because it seemed a bit untenable. The truth is that (according to nukemap) if a H-Bomb of 10.4 megatons were to hit London today, fatalities would number around 2,320,460. That’s terrible. But it’s not terrible enough. Even if that same H-Bomb hit every major city in the UK, the fatality rate would be a measly 5.5 Million, barely a dent in the total population – and everywhere south of Woking would be relatively untouched, along with most of Wales and Northern Ireland. That said, the fallout effects spread over everywhere else in the UK, across the North Sea, and even reach parts of Denmark. That’s bad news, because the effects of fallout hang around for (I couldn’t really find an accurate number on this) a really really long time. And that’s not the fun kind of fallout where you get three headed cows and giant blue dicked superbeings, it’s the kind of fallout where all your children die of radiation poisoning and you can’t grow any food and every day is a ceaseless struggle for survival in a decaying landscape and it could potentially last forever. 

And apart from all of that, if nuclear war ever actually became a threat, we (and by ‘we’ I mean the very rich and maybe some lucky engineers) would likely have a contingency plan. Like some kind of massive shelter. And maybe 500 years after that nuclear war we’d be able to reemerge from our shelters into a very different but very survivable landscape, but that story is called Fallout and it’s full of glitches anyway.

Let’s rule out some other scenarios. No meteors. 99% of the time they are totally harmless, and the one percent of the time they’re not they’re totally fatal. That’s ‘totally’ as in ‘they are responsible for at least one mass extinction event’, not ‘totally rad’. Ditto for solar flares, which would incinerate all life on earth in moments and probably won’t happen until the sun reaches the end of its life cycle several billion years away.

So let’s talk zombies. Well actually let’s not, because I ruled out zombies because they are a dumb idea that has been done to death, resurrected, and whacked in the head repeatedly until all semblance of consciousness has been destroyed. Let’s talk instead about the possibility of pandemic. A pandemic is like a zombie apocalypse, but less bitey and with more sneezing. As anyone who’s ever played Pandemic 2 (or its blatant ripoff, Plague Inc.) knows, it’s totally possible for the right virus to completely wipe out humanity. It’s also completely possibly for that virus to wipe out a little bit of humanity and die out because it wiped out a bit too much. Perfect.

Now let’s take that virus, or maybe another virus, or a parasite, or a particularly tenacious bacteria, and give it to our food. The 2001 foot and mouth epidemic (sorry, epizootic) in Britain resulted in the deaths of around ten million livestock. Fusarium Wilt is in the process of wiping out banana supplies the world over. Bees are dying out, which means that our plants are becoming harder to pollinate. We rely on GMOs which may or may not be susceptible to horrible diseases (no sources for that one, because this is a worst case scenario, remember?). The long and the short of it is, we are a few poorly-timed outbreaks away from nationwide famine. Throw in some new strains of flu, ebola, or meningitis in there and we have the makings of a pretty plausible minor apocalypse. People mass-evacuate from cities as the virus spreads among the densely packed population. Food shortages mean that the government resorts to rationing, which widens the class divide still further, which leads to rioting, distrust, insurrection, which leads to a military response… and it goes on.

If that seems a bit much, remember that the apocalypse is unlikely to be a single event, but rather a series of horrible, horrible mishaps. It will have to take place not just in one country, but in every country worldwide. Every failsafe must fail to be safe. Maybe war will be involved – it certainly hasn’t been beyond humanity in the past to pass up helping their fellows to make an ill-advised power grab. I’m not saying that the scenario I’ve envisioned is the most likely apocalypse, but it’s certainly the most workable one for me. Maybe your apocalypse will be different. The most important thing when planning world-end scenarios is to have fun, be yourself, and leave as much as you possibly can to artistic license. That’s how you avoid spending all night explaining to your new buddies in the sharp suits why you needed to know the effects of an improvised nuclear weapon in inner-city London.