I've been enjoying post-apocalyptic fiction lately. ("Enjoying" isn't the right word for something so bleak, but we'll go with it for now.) There's "Life After People" on The History Channel, showing realistic portrayals of what would happen to our world if people suddenly disappeared. Two weeks ago I saw Terminator Salvation which is a different sort of apocalypse. And this evening I finished Cormac McCarthy's The Road, about a father and son trying to survive after a holocaust of unimaginable proportions. Plus, any time I Am Legend pops up on my cable box I end up watching part of it, and I watched 28 Weeks Later over the weekend. And I still think about Stephen King's The Stand, though I read it over 10 years ago. I'm on a bit of a nightmare hellscape kick lately.
What struck me about The Road was the utter bleakness of the environment. McCarthy doesn't tell the reader how long it's been since the big event that destroyed the world. But judging from how little his protagonists are able to scavenge from the houses and stores they encounter, it's been a few years. Nearly everything consumable has long been picked over. They find empty cupboards and bare shelves in crumbling houses. What little they do find may be contaminated. They drink filthy water from feeble streams and sift rat droppings out of cornmeal. There is no hope that the world they once knew will ever be restored.
The universe of "Life After People" isn't as desolate, but it is just as lonely. Within a matter of days, nature will begin to reclaim our cities. In a few years habitable buildings will become barely recognizable relics. The natural world would go on without us. If humanity were decimated but not eradicated by a global virus (for example), it would be virtually impossible for the survivors to maintain civilization as we know it. Our cities would crumble and fall, and there would be no going back to that kind of life, not for hundreds of years. We would be bereft of all the modern comforts of electricity and heat.
(That's one thing that bothered me about Terminator Salvation. Where did the resistance get all their technology? They had laptop computers and futuristic touchscreen cellphones. If Judgment Day had happened in 2004, then there would have been no more laptops or cellphones after that year. Anything they had would have to be cobbled together out of spare parts, and would look appropriately jury-rigged. That's not quite how things looked in that movie. There were far bigger problems with it than the look of the technology, but the fact that the resistance didn't seem to be limited by their scavenged gear took me out of the movie.)
I think the first year after a cataclysmic disaster would be the worst. Assuming you were one of the survivors, you'd have to figure out how to get along without running water, heat, or light. Everything you knew about life in the 21st century would be gone, never to return. Just as an example, I thought about my iPod. Its battery would last for about 15 hours, used conservatively, and then my MP3 player would be a useless hunk of metal and plastic. Eventually you'd find a way to live without these conveniences, but what kind of existence would it be? I don't know if I could survive in that world. I hope I never have to find out. I don't really worry about the end of the world, but if I think about this subject when I'm trying to fall asleep, I tend to be awake longer than I'd like.