What Writers Get Wrong (and Right) in Post-Apocalyptic Stories
The so-called ‘end of the world’ scenario has been a robust subgenre of science fiction, fantasy, and horror for decades. Post-apocalyptic stories are a reflection of how we fear our civilization might end, whether it was nuclear war in the 1950s, or a global pandemic in the era of COVID-19. Like many readers and viewers, I too enjoy the speculation as to who and what would survive, as well as the day-to-day minutiae of how the characters endure in such a world.
Sometimes, though, Hollywood, authors, and game developers don’t do their homework, and assume many of the things we’ve built and use will still be around not months, but years into whatever apocalypse serves as the background for the story. To the average fan, these may not ruin the suspension of disbelief, but for many of us, the disregard for how things actually work dispels that illusion. But sometimes these creators are spot-on, and they deserve credit for that.
Many post-apocalyptic stories show characters still driving automobiles even though the world has collapsed to such a state that oil production is highly unlikely. The first two Mad Max films and the early seasons of The Walking Dead are guilty of this. Vehicles in the Fallout setting are powered by nuclear fusion, so they’re in the clear. But what about all the unused gasoline and diesel sitting around, that no one would be using? Surely the survivors could simply use that without worrying about a lack of oil production? Well, no. Those substances possess a shelf life, in sealed containers, of three to six months for gasoline, maybe one year for diesel, and one to three months for ethanol (source: JD Power). Adding fuel stabilizer can increase that shelf life to one to three years, but this works only for new gasoline, not old (source: Bob Villa). So even in a best case scenario, no one, without oil producing facilities, will be driving automobiles for very long in a post-apocalyptic world.
Canned, preserved food and MREs (Meal Ready to Eat) are a staple food source in post-apocalyptic stories. If the apocalypse recently transpired in the narrative, then there is no reason for such goods to be inedible. If civilization has been largely gone for years, even decades, and…