On Friday at 4PM in Westin Chastain 1-2, the Apocalypse Rising track presented a panel discussion called “End of Days: The Loner vs. The Community.” In addition to moderator Tara Lynne, the panel included Jay Boyce, J.F. Brink, Gail Z. Martin, Frank Morin, and William Joseph Roberts.
Lynne began by noting that much of post-apocalyptic fiction and other media focuses on the loner rather than the community. She asked Boyce, who suggested the panel, why she wanted to discuss it. Boyce replied that there’s always someone who cares about building community but isn’t in it, maybe a leader but an absent one.
The panel then discussed leadership, noting that the kind of leadership required depends on whether the story is set in a new world or has people still dying off. Sometimes leadership revolves on whoever has the most power, but not always. After the apocalypse, it isn’t necessarily the loners who survive the longest but those who build a community, not necessarily through force. One interesting aspect of such stories is how a group deals with altered reality. They need enforcers, yes, but also people who can get others to work together. Loners may move among such groups.
The conversation then turned to the American emphasis on independence, on not needing to be part of anything, which doesn’t work for most people. Roberts said he grew up in a part of West Virginia where reliance on community was strong. Writing about it is thus second nature to him. Leadership might not fall on the strongest person. It might, for example, fall to the smartest one.
Several of the panelists write LitRPG, which focus on loners who know how to game the system.
Morin observed that it’s “hard to write a really gripping board meeting.” He described that as important but boring compared to plagues and monsters. He likes to embrace both aspects, using a loner but weaving in community as well. Martin picked up on that to point out that if you’re totally rebuilding agriculture, it’s not exciting or fat but is necessary.
Addressing the disparate abilities and knowledge base that would matter in such circumstances, the panel thought relying on information from preppers instead of going to herbalists, homesteaders, and the Amish wouldn’t lead to a broad enough knowledge base. The skills that will matter depend on the nature of the apocalypse. Mainstream media tend to focus on sudden downfall, and LitRPG, on EM pulses. But the responses to a sudden downfall will differ from those to a series of rolling collapses.
On the question of tropes the panelists like or dislike, Brink said he would like to see the antisocial, edgy loner go away. The panel agreed that people can choose to be loners for reasons that have nothing to do with mental instability. Authors should show why a person who chooses to be alone would then choose to step up and assume responsibility. What’s the internal reason?
Seeing more “average Joe” types, like the leader of the raiders in a post-apocalyptic movie about a mail carrier. He had been a copy machine repairman. The group were raiders, but they created a community that enabled them to succeed at what they did. A character who’s a quirky oddball, like the pizza delivery driver in a recent zombie-focused television show, can be a leader too. Our culture, though, is generally not good at recognizing and rewarding the skills involved in a regular job, which may include getting people to work together, sustaining optimism, and seeing what needs to be done. All of a sudden, after an apocalypse, these skills become valuable. It can be fun to explore what changes in a society and what new skills matter. And what happens to those who can’t adapt.