[Essay] The Evolution Of Social Issues In Post-Apocalyptic Narratives

This post is an essay written for a Science Fiction class at SUNY New Paltz

Post-apocalyptic narratives are a common topic for science fiction books, especially because having to find ways to survive can tell a lot about human behavior. Most science fiction stories are mainly politically biased rather than just entertaining, which is why those anticipations have to be seen as messages and commentaries on our present. However those messages differ, especially according to the time the novel was written, but also the gender or the race of the author. While older novels such as Day of The Triffids seem to be more conservative, most recent stories including The Handmaid’s Tale or The Parable of the Sower, both written by women, have definitely more liberal messages.

Indeed, although Wyndham’s Day of The Triffids still has interesting commentaries on the environment and human’s control over nature, the fact that it was written in 1951 is the cause of some messages that would be hardly accepted today. One of the biggest critiques that can be made in the book is the way disabled people are seen. In chapter 6 (Rendezvous), Bill Maisen reflects on what actually made humans superiors: “I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that man’s supremacy is not primarily due to his brain, as most of the books would have one think. It is due to the brain’s capacity to make use of the information conveyed to it by a narrow band of visible light rays. His civilization, all that he had achieved or might achieve, hung upon his ability to perceive that range of vibrations from red to violet. Without that, he was lost.” (Wyndham 93) In this passage, Maisen implies that without sight, humans become some sort of animals. With the word “superiority,” he refers to humans’ superiority over animals, or nature. First, many anti- specists would easily disagree with this statement and idea. But even without looking at it this way, it puts blind people at an inferior level than the able-bodied, and worse, he sees them as inferior to the Triffids, which are nothing more than biologically modified plants.

The whole plot of the novel is based on the idea that blind people are similar to zombies, and when looking at it closer, the apocalypse they are living in isn’t even due to an attack from the Triffids, but from the fact that humans have lost their sight. Therefore, this vision of people with disabilities, in this situation blind people, is quite conservative and reflective of an era were ideologies were different, far less inclusive and less understanding. It is also obvious that this is the vision of the author and not the main character since the whole plot is based on this idea. This type of narratives harms the cause of people with disabilities, and readers will keep feeling superior toward them rather than making them think.

At the same time, minorities are underrepresented, there is no character of color for example. Day Of The Triffids is also known for its misogynistic elements, portraying the ideology of the 1950s. To repopulate the planet, Dr. Vorless suggests that all men should practice polygamy and have a harem, while women should only have one man. He uses the Bible to proof his point, and show that this is acceptable: “Solomon had three hundred-or was it five hundred? -wives and God did not apparently hold them against him” (Wyndham 101) It is pretty easy to assume that using “God” to moralize something that is socially unacceptable is pretty conservative. Although we could believe that only the character is conservative, the other characters don’t necessarily object to the idea and Wyndham does not seem to be against. Josella, the only woman who could stand against this idea, does not only agree but also actually reinforces it, trying to prove to Bill, and at the same time, the reader, that this is necessary. Bill, here, represents the reader, who might also think “That’s rather cynical” (Wyndham 102) after reading that most women want babies (Wyndham 102) But Josella will show the contrary to him, and us at the same time. When trying to convince Bill that he should “take two blind girls” to impregnate them, she says: “I know it sounds a bit startling at first, but there’s nothing crazy about it” (Wyndham 104) To her arguments, Bill reflects the following: “I ruminated a little on the ways of purposeful, subversive- minded women like Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Fry. You can’t do anything with such women-and they so often turn out to have been right after all.” (Wyndham 105) In this passage, Bill implies that we, the readers, may think the concept of polygamy is crazy, but it is only because we are narrow-minded and that there is no actual issue with the fact that women have become machines to procreate. He goes until comparing a social reformer who revolutionized nursery and even fought against prostitution, to Josella who is telling us that women should be used to make babies. Implicitly, Wyndham uses the apocalypse to reinforce his conservative vision of gender roles.

On the contrary, some novels, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, conservative elements are a reflection of the society the characters live in and it makes us think about our own. Although there is no real apocalypse per se, the novel is set in a dystopian future after a political coup. The story actually portrays the idea that Dr. Vorless and Josella defended in Day Of The Triffids: a world where women are used for their bodies to procreate as if they were machines to make babies. Love does not exist anymore, and men use many different handmaids for reproduction. When the narrator is taking her bath, naked, she reflects on what her body has become: “Did I really wear bathing suits, at the beach? I did, without thought, among men, without caring that my legs, my arms, my thighs and back were on display, could be seen. Shameful, immodest. I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.” (Atwood 63) In this passage, she explains that she is “determin[ed]” by her body because this is why she exists. She is a handmaid, that is to say, a fertile woman whose goal is to give birth. She does not have a personal life nor an identity, it is her only purpose and only her body matters. Here, the narrator uses moments from her past, i.e, our present. It is a way for us to reflect on the society we live in nowadays, and make us understand that we should not take it for granted. In our days, women are supposed to be determined by their personality, not their body. However in Gilead, it is impossible to have one, and this is the case in some countries where women are only here to please their men, and their body has to be hidden. In another part of the novel, she says the following sentence: “’So now that we don’t have different clothes,” I say, “you merely have different women.’” (Atwood 237) It is once again a good portrayal of the dangers of this ideology, where women are objectified. Being seen only for their abilities to procreate, they have almost lost their souls, and are closer to machines than human beings, since they don’t have any identity. Margaret Atwood, in this case, wants to make us aware of the dangers of objectifying women, and the dangers of losing our freedom little by little.

In The Parable of the Sower, society hasn’t lived an apocalypse either if we follow the pure definition of the word, but the future presented in the novel still represents some sort of disorder and anarchy. This type of narratives uses decaying societies to tell messages about human behaviors and make the reader aware of social issues such as race, poverty, and gender. For example, in chapter 8, Lauren Olamina, a black girl, explains that interracial romantic relationships are not well seen, even in 2027: “No interracial feud this time. Last year when Craig Dunn who’s white and one of the saner members of the Dunn family was caught making love to Siti Moss who’s black and Richard Moss’s oldest daughter to boot, I thought someone was going to get killed.” (Butler 80) Contrary to what we saw in Day of The Triffids, this time the conservative views are held by the characters and the futuristic society and not the author. Because the story is set in the future, the reader can more easily have a critical view on what is happening, and will also try to relate or not with some of the characters, because they know it is fiction. For example, if we think that a situation is horrible, we can then reflect on our own society and understand that it has some aspects that are similar to what is happening in the story, which is why our awareness will be enhanced. In this case, we might think that the idea of two people of different races love each other is so taboo that someone could die for it is crazy. However, interracial couples are not always well seen in our current society and is an actual issue that many people have to face every day. Displaying this dystopian society where it is a norm to be racist and communities cannot live together is an effective way to make us compare with what we know and make us understand how the world may look like if things don’t change.

The concept of debt slavery is also interesting in this novel, and it can portray poverty in our own society. In chapter 11, Lauren says the following: “Anyone KSF hired would have a hard time living on the salary offered. In not very much time, I think the new hires would be in debt to the company. That’s an old company-town trick—get people into debt, hang on to them, and work them harder. Debt slavery. That might work in Christopher Donner’s America. Labor laws, state and federal, are not what they once were.” (Butler 111) Here, the idea of company towns is a good representation of American capitalism, and it is not so fictional. Some towns in America are almost exclusively controlled by one company, which owns most of the stores and housing. For example, McDonald, Ohio was created by a steel company and housed only workers in the steel industry. Furthermore, the idea of debt slavery is much relatable to many Americans. In the quote, it is explained that people cannot live with the salary offered by KSF, which is also the case of many Americans who have to cumulate several jobs just to pay their rent and their food. The term debt slavery means that people have to work even harder, without consent, because they have to pay their debts. Unfortunately, it is once again relatable for some people who work only to pay off their school loans, and don’t have the choice to look for better jobs because failing to pay their debts could lead them to important troubles. This is close to the definition that most of us have of slavery. Therefore, even if “labor laws […] are not what they once were”, the average reader might this is a horrible future, but it actually parallels the reality of our present. This portrays the liberal ideologies of the author, trying to make us understand that our society has real issues dealing with poverty and work laws. And once again using a dystopia to present it will make us aware of the issue.

Therefore, all of the science fiction novels studied in this essay show several views on social issues. However, the main difference is that the first one, Day of the Triffids, portrays the point of view of the author, while the other ones portray issues the authors want to make us aware of. This is why, even with similar apocalyptic narratives, the messages they carry can be much different, and even if they all represent the future, they still portray the ideologies of the time they were written.


• Wyndham, John. Day of the Triffids. Intro. Edmund Morris. New York: Modern Library 2003.
• Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor, 1998.
• Butler, Octavia. The Parable of the Sower. Women’s Press, 1995


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