Nicholas Sansbury Smith Guest Post–“Paranoia or Pragmatism?”
Prior to my career as a writer, I worked for Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management in disaster mitigation. My job was to help communities prepare for natural and man-made events, some of them bordering on apocalyptic. I spent most of my time working with communities to prepare for these disasters, but I also spent time in the field observing and documenting the aftermath when disaster struck. Seeing how devastating these events are inspired me to write in the apocalyptic genre at a time when its relevance to our culture is more evident than ever before. My work experience gave me a window into this world, and writing provided an outlet to reach people. Now, five years later, I’m starting to realize the genre is actually changing the way many of us live our lives.
The popularity and significance of apocalyptic fiction isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. End-of-the-world stories date back to the beginning of written language where we see them in the Bible and other religious texts. More recently, the greatest generation probably remembers H. G. Wells’ classic story War of the Worlds and the effect on culture at the time. Baby boomers may remember the old mass-market paperbacks from the Cold War era about the aftermath of a nuclear war and the monstrous mutated creatures that lived in the wastelands. Today, we see all sorts of post-apocalyptic stories. From environmental disasters, alien invasions, world-ending asteroids, and nuclear Armageddon to electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons, vampires, and zombies.
But how do these stories affect the way we go about our daily routines and plan for the future? For some readers, it might be hard to relate to the characters living in these situations or to picture us in their shoes. One of the great challenges of a writer is creating these types of characters without having experienced their plight.
When I worked in disaster mitigation, I saw firsthand what people dealt with after disasters. In some cases, entire communities were wiped out from massive floods or tornadoes, creating apocalyptic scenes of debris and death. Survivors lost their homes and much of their life. Witnessing the aftermath, the heartbreak, and the scenes of destruction, gave me a glimpse into what the apocalypse might look like. Some writers try and mentally transport themselves into their story—I was able to see it firsthand. But what about a truly apocalyptic world where only a sliver of the population survived?
My Hell Divers series depicts this type of world. In it, World War III has left the surface of the Earth poisoned and uninhabitable. Electrical storms block out the sun and survivors live on giant airships that hover over the planet at around twenty thousand feet. Hell Divers are men and women that dive through these storms to the surface, where they retrieve parts needed to keep their ships in the air. This world is far different than the natural disasters I was used to seeing while working in disaster mitigation.
When I first started writing Hell Divers, I had to picture what living on one of the airships might be like or how I might react as a character to what was happening. That’s the thrill of the genre, I think. Many of us love imagining these doomsday scenarios, but we aren’t just fascinated by how they happen. We’re also fascinated by the resilience of people in the face of these enormous events. Some readers may ask, “What would I do?” or “Would I survive?” Other readers might actually try to do something about it and prepare for these types of scenarios.
Oftentimes, our fascination with the end of the world shapes our view of the way we live our lives. Some people might not be affected at all, but for others, preparing for the end has become a way of life—some of us have taken to a new lifestyle known as “prepping.”
When I used to talk about prepping, I got the tilted-head reaction. Today, most of us have heard of the growing movement across the United States and the rest of the world. As you may suspect, preppers are people preparing for the end times. Unlike my career in helping entire communities prepare for disaster, these people have become their own disaster mitigation specialists, focused on personalized and family safety.
This movement reaches from blue-collar and middle-class families who are stockpiling supplies at home, putting together bugout bags and bugout plans, to the wealthy one percent from Silicon Valley that have purchased million-dollar condos in undisclosed underground locations or spent millions creating their own bunkers under their houses. It seems the genre is affecting a little bit of every social class.
The realism of my Extinction Cycle and Trackers series and the frightening premise of Hell Divers and Orbs have people reacting. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve heard from readers that actually say they are preparing due to my stories. Other readers have reached out and asked what they should be doing to prepare. The first time I heard this, I was blown away, but now I’m not surprised when I get a question like this in my inbox, and I know other apocalyptic fiction authors are getting them as well.
That’s the effect the genre has on a growing percentage of the population, and I believe this is just the beginning. We’re going to see more prepper conventions, more companies created to build shelters, more companies selling bugout bags or disaster preparedness supplies. We’re going to see more families creating escape plans and stockpiling goods.
Many will say this is paranoia, not pragmatism. But as someone who’s worked in disaster mitigation, I believe preparation should be a way of life. Sure, there might be some paranoid people out there, but if the general population knew how close our species was to extinction from a postapocalyptic event, I think the prepper movement would grow even more. That’s why I felt a calling to write in this genre. Not to fuel fears, but to help people understand and prepare for the future.
Today, I state the reason I write in this genre is for two purposes: entertainment and as a warning of what could happen at any moment in a world where civilization could end in the literal blink of an eye. My responsibility as a writer and as someone with a background in disaster migration is not only to provide survival tips in my stories, but to make them as realistic as possible just in case someday, God forbid, we end up being these characters.
One thought on “Nicholas Sansbury Smith Guest Post–“Paranoia or Pragmatism?””
Survival is a hockey-stick curve; a disaster so immense that most humans won’t survive will not be staved off by a bug-out bag or hucksters at prepper conventions. Lesser events will allow survival by large numbers of animals and humans and won’t require extreme measures. For example, experience at seeing towns swept away by a natural event in no way compares to the experience of a nuclear winter. The species cannot store enough food to survive the extinction of most plant life. Sentient life on the planet will cease to exist.
Having said that, working out the fantasy of humans surviving extinction is an interesting experience for both author and reader.