Apocalyptic Legacies: Writing the End in Fiction and Non-fiction

Stephen Joyce, Ann Tso (Guest editor)

Research output: Contribution to journalSpecial issueScientificpeer-review


Special Issue 30.4 CFP

We think of the end as something that lies ahead of us but, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and amid the now painfully manifest reality of war and climate change, it may be time to reassess how we imagine finality in both speculative fiction, such as the post-apocalyptic genre, and non-fiction that concerns personal and historical endings in various national contexts. The shadow of nuclear war encouraged the anthropocentric view that the end of our current ways of life would be the end of all things, and yet we do not always see destabilisation as the final act. This is not the first time a world has ended, and it will not be the last.

The end-times, then, lie not only ahead but also behind and beside us, becoming, as Frank Kermode argues, immanent rather than imminent (2000, 6). Writing about the ends of worlds—whether our planet, a civilisational collapse, or a person’s subjective world—is increasingly concerned with something that seems paradoxical: the legacy of an apocalyptic moment and the constructive acts to be undertaken in the wake of radical destruction. Dualities abound in these detail-oriented visionary writings: there cannot be hope without palpable, often spatially registered discontent. The fear of stasis galvanises movement, thus re-orienting the narrative of the end towards the future. These dualities engender a sense of cyclicality, but what is the value in thinking in apocalyptic terms if the end is part of an ongoing series of events? Where is narrative situated in relation to the end? Is narrative itself the end, i.e., an afterthought to what actually happened?

This themed issue examines how the ‘end of a world’ in both fiction and non-fiction is a means of creating a temporal parallax shift that allows us to imagine a way of life from the other side of a historical rift that seals it off in the past. Insomuch as the figurative other side eludes us, the postlapsarian order necessarily entails self-erasure, which gives rise to polyvocality, hope, and, potentially, utopia. But even in the midst of these hints of possible futures, we, alongside our narratives, remain grounded in the present as it seemingly approaches the end, our attention focussed on how we want our histories remembered. What elements are considered worthy of preservation? Are our forms of remembrance primarily spectacular images, like the architecture and statues of the ancient world, or does the end allow for the re-creation of historical meta-narratives? How have these images helped us overcome the rhetoric of the end, and in this vein imagine time beyond the narrative end?

In speculative fiction, the apocalypse does not nullify meaning but rather prompts its reinvention. For Claire Curtis, the attraction of the post-apocalyptic genre is that ‘the apocalyptic event creates the social contract thinker’s state of nature’ (2012, 2), allowing a reimagining of society. This transforms the genre into what Mark Payne describes as ‘political theory in fictional form’ (2020, 2). In what ways do apocalyptic narratives clear the ground for new political and social imaginaries in various literary genres? In non-fiction, such narrative worldbuilding is a necessarily incomplete process; non-fiction uniquely foregrounds one’s epistemological limits, beyond which lies only the end of one’s subjective world. AnnJeanette Wiese cites the example of Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Holocaust memoir Fragments (1996) to argue that even well-established historical truths cannot help us surmount our ‘inability to know with any accuracy what is true’ (2021, 27). But these ends also hint at further ways of knowing, making world re-building possible. Reportages, as Richard Quang-Anh Tran argues, offer ‘rare and often rich documentary evidence of the lives of those who are less likely to appear in official records’ (2020, 172), although these elusive lives also mean that endings in non-fictional works are infinitely expandable. The ‘end of a world’ is also criss-crossed with continuities and, in both fiction and non-fiction, that may allow us to envision the end not as a moment of destruction and finality but as the initiation of a process of world re-building.

Our interests include—but are not limited to:
· The utopian-dystopian spectrum
· Urban versus pastoral imaginaries
· Nonfiction, especially writing that is commemorative in tone, e.g., life-writing, memoir, confessional writing
· Worlding in speculative fiction
· Narrative time in (post-)modernism and the post-apocalyptic
· Travel writing

Works Cited in the Synopsis

Curtis, Claire P. Postapocalyptic Fiction and the Social Contract: We’ll Not Go Home Again. Washington, DC: Lexington Books, 2012.
Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New
Epilogue. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Payne, Mark. Flowers of Time: On Postapocalyptic Fiction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 2020.
Tran, Richard Quang-Anh. “Sex in the City: The Descent from Human to Animal in Two
Vietnamese Classics of Urban Reportage.” International Quarterly for Asian Studies, vol. 51, no. 1-2, pp. 171-192, 2020. https://hasp.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/journals/iqas/issue/view/761
Wiese, AnnJeanette. Narrative Truthiness: The Logic of Complex Truth in Hybrid
(Non)Fiction. University of Nebraska Press, 2021. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1vmnqfw. Accessed 18 July 2023.
Wilkomirski, Binjamin. Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood. Schocken, 1996.
Original languageEnglish
Issue number4
Publication statusAccepted/In press - Dec 2024
MoE publication typeC2 Edited work


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