The noxious orange smoke that descended over New York this month reminded me of a parlour game I used to play with my husband: Would we have what it takes to survive the apocalypse? We abruptly stopped enjoying this thought experiment in March 2020 and when I had a child the next year, I became even less tolerant of blithely considering the end of the world. But now, suddenly, versions of our game are everywhere, in a new and near-unavoidable genre: stories that revisit our pandemic trauma via even worse — but plausible! — scenarios. Making these works doubly poignant, many of them have children at their centre.
There’s “Station Eleven,” the 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel about the aftermath of a swine flu, which was turned into a much-discussed 2021 HBO Max series, in which an 8-year-old girl manages to survive with the help of a stranger turned surrogate parent. “The Last of Us,” HBO’s video game adaptation, which debuted in January, features a zombie-fungus pandemic; a seemingly immune teenage girl is humanity’s one hope. “Leave the World Behind,” Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel — soon to be a movie — about a bourgeois family vacation gone very bad, features a vague but menacing threat of apocalypse. Also loosely belonging to this category are the shows “Yellowjackets” (2021-present) — a girls’ soccer team turns to cannibalism after a plane crash — and “Class of ’07” (2023) — a school reunion coincides with a climate apocalypse — and the new-to-Netflix 2019 Icelandic movie “Woman at War” (a renegade activist tries to stop the destruction of the environment and adopt a child).
These stories are, in various ways, about how and whether our children can survive the mess that we’ve left them — and what it will cost them to do so. In “Station Eleven,” post-pans (children who were born after the pandemic) are both beacons of optimism and conscripted killers deployed by a self-styled prophet who hopes to erase anyone who holds on to the trauma of the past. And in “The Last of Us,” Ellie, the young girl with possible immunity (played by the actor Bella Ramsey), is forced to kill to survive, and to grapple with whether it’s worth sacrificing her own life in the search for a cure.
The anxieties that these works explore — about planetary destruction and what we did to enable it — are, evidence suggests, affecting the desire of some to have children at all, either because of fear for their future or a belief that not procreating will help stave off the worst. But following the children in these fictions, who didn’t create the conditions of their suffering, isn’t just a devastating guilt trip. Almost all these stories also frame children as our best hope, as we so often do in real life. Children, we need to believe, are resilient and ingenious in ways that adults aren’t. In these stories, when the phones stop working and Amazon stops delivering, it’s children, less set in their ways, who can rebuild and imagine something different. They’re our victims but also our saviours.
Nowhere is this more explicit than in Lydia Millet’s 2020 novel, “A Children’s Bible,” in which a group of middle-aged college friends rent an old mansion for a summer reunion. When a superstorm sets off a chain of events that erodes society, the parents drink and take ecstasy but the kids — teens — remain clearheaded. They care for a baby, grow food and plan for an unrecognisable future. This fantasy of a youth-led solution is both hopeful, Millet implies, and a deplorable shirking of responsibility. (It recalls somewhat Greta Thunberg’s rebuke of grown-ups: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic.”) Its price, these works suggest, is a childhood robbed of innocence. In the rare moments when kids are allowed to be kids in these narratives, there is always a sense of foreboding; for every romp through an abandoned shopping mall, there’s a zombie lying in wait in a Halloween store. “Is this really all they had to worry about?” Ellie asks Joel, her companion in “The Last of Us” (played by Pedro Pascal), about the teenage girls who lived before the fungus hit. “Boys. Movies. Deciding which shirt goes with which skirt.”
This current crop of postapocalyptic stories isn’t the first to feature children prominently. Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road,” published in 2006, early in the so-called war on terror, followed a father and son after civilisation had been levelled by an unnamed flash from the sky. (“Are we still the good guys?” the son asks the father as they ignore others’ pain in their struggle to survive.) The movie “Children of Men,” released the same year, imagines a world so destroyed that most humans have lost the ability to reproduce — and hope lies with the only pregnant woman. Of course, one reason these fictions foreground children is that a world without them is the most doomed world of all. It’s no accident that some of the earliest near-apocalypse stories — the biblical flood, the one in the ancient Mesopotamian poem “The Epic of Gilgamesh” — imagined that the world was saved by bringing the “seed of all living creatures,” as the latter work puts it, onto a boat.
But maybe more than any particular fear of a civilisation-ending calamity, these fictions are most useful for helping us work through an unavoidable, terrifying truth on an individual level. That the world, in whatever state it descends to or remains in, will go on without us after our death, and unless tragedy strikes, our children will live in it without us. It’s not comforting to imagine, but it can be illuminating. They will navigate things we can’t imagine, but — just maybe — they’ll do better than we did, even without our help.