Guest Post: When Did “Science Fiction” and “Apocalypse” Become Interchangeable?

by Guy Stewart

Every year, I teach a science fiction and fantasy writer’s workshop for fifth through eighth grade gifted and talented students. As an initial ice-breaker/exercise, I ask my students to take a minute to create a list of words they associated with science fiction. Then I go around the class and have them read from their lists. This year, one word appeared over and over. “Apocalypse.” 

When did this word become so closely associated with science fiction?

My own, crotchety-old-man opinion is that it has its origins in the veritable flood of dystopian “science fiction” that current adult angst has foisted on the young people of today. While dystopias and dark futures are part of the grand history of science fiction, apocalyptic novels like A Canticle For Leibowitz, The Postman, The Stand, On the Beach, and I Am Legend, were not targeted and marketed to Young Adult readers as they are now. Can you name a current YA science fiction novel with a strong message of a hopeful future? 

I’ve been a science teacher for 32 years, teaching mostly earth science, physical science and biology. I’ve taught sciences from Astronomy to Zoology for students who are special education, gifted and talented, whose first language is not English, and those who are perfectly average in every way.

While it has always been my intent to teach the facts of chemistry, physics and biology, I cannot say that that was what I taught. For students who are 10-18 years old, more than anything else, I teach the love of science.

I believe this is what’s missing in today’s YA science fiction.  Many of todays books present grim futures in brutal clarity . But where’s the inspiration, the sense of wonder? 

Our society and technology is hardly the epitome of endeavor; to believe we’re at our pinnacle is mild hubris at best. So why should our future be worse? 

In an interview, Neal Stephenson, a Locus, Hugo, BSFA, Clarke, Nebula, Campbell, and Prometheus nominated and awarded author best known for his book Cryptonomicon, has said he “fears that no one will be inspired to build the next great space vessel or find a way to completely end dependence on fossil fuels when our stories about the future promise a shattered world.”

Based on what I’m seeing on the bookshelves these days, I share his concern.  But it need not be this way. Writers have the wherewithal to produce compelling, though-provoking tales in which science solves today’s problems, in which technology turns those solutions into tools to forge hopeful tomorrows. Science fiction can inspire young adults; it need not turn dreams into nightmares.  I believe in a better future and I want our kids to be able to imagine one too.


Guy Stewart is a husband, father, father-in-law, grandfather, teacher, counselor and writer — not always in that order! His work has been published in Analog, Cricket, Cicada, and The Writer as well as in several anthologies including Stupefying Stories, The Aether Age: Helios and was produced as a podcast by Cast Of Wonders. He’s also a member of SCBWI as well as serving on the second and third Norton Award Jury. He’s been shopping Heirs Of The Shattered Sphere a YA novel that takes place on a hollowed-out asteroid that collides with an ancient AI, remnant of an interstellar war fleet sent to annihilate the Solar Masters on the first planet. …

20 Responses

  1. Nihonjoe

    I suggest reading David Weber’s new young adult series set in the early history of his Honor Harrington universe. The first book is titled “A Beautiful Friendship”, and the second book (which comes out in October) is “Fire Season”. They are not dystopian at all, and I think they imagine that better future you mention.

  2. Guy Stewart

    Ah! I missed those! I’ve enjoyed the Honor Harrington books I’ve read. I’ll have to make it to my nearest bookstore and find it! Thanks.

  3. Arley Cole

    Wow! This was the post I was looking for! I’ve been doing way more fantasy myself lately largely because of the dystopic focus you mentioned. Science fiction always made me dream of a better world with neater stuff and higher ideals. The idea that today’s students will not have that dream of creating something better saddens me. Here’s hoping things turn around. Meanwhile, a post-apolcalyptic novel with a sense of renewed optimism would be The Girl Who Remembered Horses.

  4. James Davis Nicoll

    My own, crotchety-old-man opinion is that it has its origins in the veritable flood of dystopian “science fiction” that current adult angst has foisted on the young people of today.

    This is incorrect. Obligate doom and gloom in SF predates doomy YA books. Doom-addled YA is a symptom, not a cause.

    Blame the people writing doomy adult SF, along with the editors who privilege doom, the reviewers who praise every piece of crap doom book for supposed realism [1] and all the readers who keep buying dooooooomy adult SF.

    1: Incoherent rant about The Windup Girl goes here.

  5. kaye draper

    This is a great post! When I think sci-fi, i definitely think aliens bent on destroying the world,mor technologybgone horribly wrong (slaps hand). Why we just assume things will go to hell is beyong me, but it does make for tension and drama…
    This brings up another point too, I think: the question of whether adults writing teen/middle grade fiction have a responsibility to use it as a platform tomteach morales, or if authors are bound to simplynwrite whatbthe readers seem to demand. I could see arguments for both sides.
    Thanks fornthe food for thought!

  6. Guy Stewart

    I am absolutely certain (and was TOLD in no uncertain terms by TWO young adults — one 15, one 22) that “they” (young adults) would NOT truckle (verb (used without object), truck·led, truck·ling. to submit or yield obsequiously or tamely) to adult administered morality plays or morality PREACHING. BUT (both noted), if a hopeful future were logically arrived at, was REALISTIC and NOT SACCHARINE, they would accept it as the linear conclusion of a story set up.

  7. David Madore

    Great article, interesting observations.

    One thing to add? Science fiction can be a form of prognostication – people look to it for visions of “things to come.” So, why is it currently associated with apocalyptic visions? Simple: it’s merely reflecting the truth of the future! We are most certainly facing a future full of zombie hordes roaming the earth and decimating our human population.

    That’s why it’s apocalyptic! The zombies are coming! Popular notions of what science fiction has to offer simply reflect that growing tension.

    We all know that zombies are coming and they’re going to eat our faces off – people are beseeching science fiction to offer remedies. The field, however, can’t offer *true* solutions (just stories), that’s why we, The Madore Brothers (internationally recognized zombie experts) are bringing SCIENCE to the battle. Enough fiction, let’s get the science going!

    Leave science fiction to otherworldly events: zombies and the apocalypse should be in the hands of scientists!

    Have a great day folks and…. stay alert!


    ~David Madore
    The Necropology Institute

  8. Sy

    Maybe the use of Apocalypse is just a wider definition of what the word has come to mean in the media. The association with things like zombies and the ever seeming need for people to exaggerate and shock in order to get noticed.

    Perhaps also people are just ‘wondered out’ by the huge input of information that we process everyday, and the implied sense that nobody reads anything unless it is sensationalist.

    With the ease of access to new information, some imaginations skip like a pebble skimmed over the water, picking up little as they go but ultimately not getting very far, not getting enough immersion to understand enough and get that sense of wonder?

    As a member of our community on reddit (where I posted a link to this btw) said, we are in the dystopia imagined in the ’80s in some respects, it is interesting to see responses from different generations and how the sci-fi / fantasy has differed over the 20 years I have being enjoying it.

    Thanks for a great post!

  9. steve m.

    Hey! I enjoyed ‘A Canticle’ ‘The Stand’ and ‘On the Beach’ but I think you forgot the ‘Book of Revelation.’ There is also the origin of the of the word ‘apocalypse’ itself to be considered.

    The dawn of the nuclear era may have preceded this darkness.
    (it’s always darkest after the flash)

  10. Mishell Baker

    The answer is simple but sad: young people intelligent enough to enjoy science fiction are intelligent enough to know their futures are bleak as hell. Their version of hope is reading about individual people who manage to at least eke out personal, individual triumphs in a world where the myopia of those in power has left the next generation with next to nothing.

    I am one of the most optimistic people I know, but for me, optimism means believing that I can weather what’s coming. The world is not what it was when the baby boomers were growing up, and intelligent young people have adjusted their expectations accordingly.

  11. Aimery Thomas

    I would suggest that more sinister flavours of sci-fi are popular right now because people of all ages are genuinely concerned with the state of the world in which we live, and are increasingly willing to be forthcoming about their belief that our future isn’t looking terribly bright. The abundance of overt negativity in the world naturally inspires their reading and viewing habits.

    In specific regard to young adults, what should science fiction authors and writers do?

    Should we pull the wool over their collective eyes and proclaim to them that it is wrong to compare and contrast a dystopic future critically with the times in which they live?

    Should we tell them that regardless of the pain and dysfunction that they are very capable of witnessing on the nightly news, that they should presume that “everything’s gonna be alright somehow”?

    Should we force feed our children with positivity, mouths agape and eyes sealed shut, until their tiny livers explode? The young are not blind, nor can we treat them as captive geese.

    (full comment on my blog)

  12. Guy Stewart

    Aimery: I never said any of that. I never implied it, either. And the two (of many) young adults with whom I spoke didn’t WANT a syrupy vision of the future. I didn’t want the wool pulled over my collective eyes, to be prevented from comparing and contrasting dystopic futures critically, told that regardless…”everything’s gonna be all right somehow”, force fed positivity with my mouth agape and eyes sealed shut until my tiny liver exploded, nor treated like I was blind and treated as if I was a captive goose. I’ve been a classroom teacher for 32 years and I’ve never treated a kid that way.

    That being said, I also don’t think that my generation’s failure to establish a colony on the Moon, a long-term presence in space, cure the common cold, create a cheap and limitless energy source, stop pollution and create an equitable distribution of Earthly wealth AUTOMATICALLY means that young adults today will fail as well. The end is not automatically nigh because I HAVE failed as an adult. I am saying that I can, as an elder PRESUME that brilliance, intelligence, courage, vigor and ideas I cannot today comprehend CAN be nurtured in the next generation and THAT IT IS MY RESPONSIBILITY TO DO SO just as I was nurtured in the past. To assume that this next crop of maturing Humans will have to “live with” our legacy does them no honor. I will work then to nurture and to inspire — what other elders do is entirely up to them.

  13. Aimery Thomas

    Sorry, Guy, but I think that you might have misinterpreted my comments. I never suggested that you said any of those things in your well-written post.

    My rhetorical questions were posed to the community in general. I’ve always had the greatest respect for educators, and no offense was intended.

  14. Guy Stewart

    None taken! I’m glad we both had a chance to clarify our discussion — no one can move anywhere unless we ALL have as good an understanding of the undiscovered country as possible. Thanks!

  15. Pingback: The Great Geek Manual » Geek Media Round-Up: July 16, 2012

  16. Susan McNerney

    I would be more worried about the apocalyptic trend if there wasn’t also a vampire trend. I don’t believe young people are really worried about vampires, so I’m not sure why I’d believe they are more worried than usual about the apocalypse.

    And both trends are probably tapped out in the agent/publisher pipeline by now, from what I’m hearing. So, this too shall pass.

  17. Pingback: Fantasy Literature's Fantasy Book and Audiobook Reviews