Cities hollowed out by a deadly infection. Once-crowded streets that are now quiet avenues bereft of human activity, lined by rows of empty cars. Vines and vegetation creep up the sides of buildings and homes. This is the world of “The Last of Us,” HBO’s adaptation of the acclaimed post-apocalyptic video game and potentially it’s next hit show, but it might sound familiar. There are the obvious echoes of the real-world COVID-19 pandemic. Although the game came out in 2013, the show’s arrival on Jan. 15, 2023, carries unavoidable psychological baggage.
But the world of “The Last of Us” is also likely familiar because of how popular and omnipresent the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic genre is. With talk of World War III still hovering in the air, generalized apocalyptic anxiety is here in 2023. But the end times have been a fixture of fiction for centuries, from before the Book of Revelations to “War of the Worlds.” It begs the question: Why do we love stories about the end of the world?
“They appeal to us on the level of hope as well as despair,” says Dale Bailey, Shirley Jackson Award-nominated science fiction, horror and fantasy writer. Bailey has been thinking about the end of the world for decades. When the author of “The End of the End of Everything” started reading sci-fi around 10 years old, he found himself drawn to stories about the end of the world from the 1950s and 1960s, all of which were charged with Cold War anxieties about nuclear armageddon.