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I'm writing a story that takes place after the decimation of almost all of humanity, and follows a group of survivors who, some time in the future, have formed new societies. Let's say the apocalyptic events occurred around 2100 and now we are at around 2250.

I don't want the survivors, or their great-grandkids who are now alive in 2250, to know exactly what originally happened to the old Earth. I think it would be cool to have each new society have different beliefs about what happened, based on existing artifacts, old wives tales, etc.

What would be an interesting way to do this? I was thinking that, if part of the initial apocalypse was a global virus, it could have some effect on the memory of survivors; but I feel like the whole memory loss thing is a bit tired. I also thought maybe a virus could affect only people over a certain age - say early teens - and so the survivors really just don't know or remember what happened? Has that been used before, I feel like I might have read it somewhere.

Please note I'm assuming no more access to computers/internet. There might be some access to old books, which help survivors to learn, but there wouldn't be any books about what happened in the apocalypse.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding, please take the tour and visit the help center to better understand our community. What is interesting is highly depending on one's opinion, I think your question would benefit from defining a suitable metric of what you want to have and what not. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Feb 21 at 8:58
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    $\begingroup$ but there wouldn't be any books about what happened in the apocalypse. => this is a big assumption. I mean, unless it's an instant apocalypse, there would be at least tons of newspaper talking about it. And even after that, people will still continue to write. Best you can do is not printed books, but no writen source about apocalypse? meh $\endgroup$ – Kepotx Feb 21 at 9:02
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    $\begingroup$ We live in a highly literate society, highly technological society. There is no way to not have written testimonies about the event; the only possible solution is to have a very catastrophic event (with the death of 99.999% of mankind) and to place the story a much longer time after the apocalypse. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 21 at 9:07
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    $\begingroup$ (a) Where, exactly, are the survivors from your story? Achieving your goal in the depths of S. America or Africa would be much simpler than for someone staring at the remains of the London skyline. (b) How much of the physical past is gone? buildings? roads? Mt. Rushmore? I've seen 100+ year old cars that have sat in a field nearly all that time that still very much looked like cars. $\endgroup$ – JBH Feb 21 at 9:16
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    $\begingroup$ This question can be interpreted in a number of ways. What has to be forgotten: 1) What exactly happened during the apocalypse (and why); 2) The world before the apocalypse; 3) The apocalypse itself. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Feb 21 at 18:25
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As mentioned in the comments you will need to engineer your apocalypse in some specific ways to make this probable.

Speed

The faster the apocalypse happens the better. As @Kepotx mentioned printed media can be produced astonishingly quickly in the modern day and age. The longer an apocalypse takes to happen, the more time there is for media about it to accumulate. It's highly unlikely that no media will be produced about something dangerous enough to wipe out a significant portion of society, but the faster and more unpredictable it is the better from your perspective.

Location

One way to mitigate this is to choose the right locations to set your story in. You have two options here.

The first is to pick somewhere poorly developed, or somewhere very isolated. Somewhere you are highly unlikely to find large numbers of newspapers littered about (or alternatively somewhere that newspapers are very unlikely to survive for any time post-apocalypse). Somewhere like the Congo is an ideal option. Large numbers of isolated people, poor transport infrastructure, wet climate that means any existing newspapers aren't likely to survive. This also has the benefit of the population having a lower literacy than the West, so any printed media that does survive is less likely to be interpreted correctly.

The second option is to engineer the world of 2100 such that print media has spectacularly fallen out of fashion for news. It's already a process that's sort of underway with the rise of digital media. All you need to do is shift it along a bit quicker, which isn't all that unbelievable in an 81-year timespan.

Population Effects

You've already touched on this, but this is also important. Even without print media, people are very good at maintaining oral histories with a reasonable degree of accuracy. For instance, Inuit oral history is phenomenally accurate, and has been used to untangle previously unknown historic events.

The apocalypse is a massive thing. People are going to remember. For reference, it's likely that the high instance of flood myths in a large variety of religions are echoes of a widespread prehistoric flood event; either the flooding of the Mediterranean or the Sea of Azov are prime candidates. Stuff like that tends to stick around.

Some of this can be solved by location. Pick somewhere detached enough and the people aren't going to know in the first place. Somewhere like the Congo, or perhaps a closed state like North Korea if they continue to be paranoid into the 22nd century.

Another way to solve this could be to force your population through a historic bottleneck sometime post-apocalypse. The fewer people there are, and the younger they die, the less likely it is that an oral history will survive intact. This also has the added bonus of making it less likely that your people will be literate. It takes a lot of investment to teach someone to read, which may not be feasible in a pressured environment. This is also fairly likely as the population adjusts to a new and presumably dangerous environment.

Conclusion

If you touch on all of these effects then as far as I'm concerned it's eminently believable that your characters won't have a clear understanding of what caused the apocalypse, with two caveats:

Firstly, it's important to remember that the understanding of what happened will vary across the different populations of the globe. Some will have access to more stable information, some will maintain their oral histories better, some will start from a greater level of knowledge to begin with. However, if the transport and communication infrastructure is ruined, there is no good way to share the remaining information with distant populations.

Secondly, it's important to understand that even among the populations that do not remember precisely what caused it, they will still have some inkling that their world has changed massively from what came before, and they will try to rationalise and explain it.

What those explanations will be will depend on a myriad of different factors (prior knowledge of the event, how obvious the cause was to the layman, memories of other apocalypse fiction, cultural history, religious history, some random guy in the dim and distant past making up a story that stuck in people's minds etc.).

Hope that helps!

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer and pointers. The part about the shift to digital media is a good point, and the Inuit link very interesting! I'm not sure how I would go about writing it from the perspective of an illiterate community, although if they became illiterate in the bottleneck period and then developed a new form of English/whatever language, that could be interesting. I think that combining with your main points - the location, varying accounts from different sources, and a general myth-ifying of real events over a long time could make it work. Thanks for the notes! $\endgroup$ – JP90 Feb 21 at 13:35
  • $\begingroup$ No probs :) there's an excellent XKCD comic about just how fragile digital media is, so a wholesale shift to that would be pretty worrying from an apocalypse perspective. I like your idea of falling into illiteracy and then developing new written language. All you really need is them not to be able to read whatever the old official language was and you're sorted :) $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Feb 21 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ Cool, thanks I'll check it out. My problem with the new language idea is, how to write it? Given that I would write it in English, whats the best way to for example write conversations between characters that are not in English, at least not in a version of English that would allow them to understand doomsday newspaper articles? Or could they remember how to speak English but just not read or write it? That seems more unlikely. A bit off topic, but still worldbuilding I hope! $\endgroup$ – JP90 Feb 21 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ That's probably more suited to Writing.SE, but the usual trope is to simple write in english as a translation for what's said. You write so your audience can understand, not so your in-universe characters can. Also, it's eminently believable that someone could speak English but not write it. For the vast majority of human history that was the case for all languages, and people have specific evolutionary adaptations to pick up spoken language as an innate trait. We have to be taught to write it. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Feb 21 at 17:18
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A flood of details, but no analysis.

The Question describes a place where folks have only pieces of the picture: Family stories and perhaps a few factoids. Keep the historians and journalists out of the office and toiling in the fields for a generation or three, so key leaders and witnesses die uninterviewed and most records are lost. Without primary sources, everyone can speculate based on what they learned from their parents - thousands of points of view, without any context to tie them all together.

How many people today, without reference material, understand when/why/how WWI started and ended? Most can regurgitate a few factoids they learned in school ("Uh, there was an assassination"), but that's well short of real understanding. It was apocalyptic for Europe, happened much less than 150 years ago, and most events were well-recorded at the time. Much of the memory of the war has faded without any need for technological reversion.

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One day fire rains from the sky, the earth shakes, electronics stop working and nearly everyone dies.

So what happened?

Was there a world war that resulted in mutual destruction and over in a matter of minutes?

Natural disaster with earthquakes and volcanoes?

Alien attack maybe?

Wrath of a vengeful god?

Truth is most people won't know and those that did would be immediately concerned with the aftermath and their own survival.

People will start to group up after a while, but they will all have their own take on it. Individual theories will become prevalent in distinct groups. Enterprising individuals will claim to have the answer to get people to follow them. I can envisage preachers spreading the word of how 'the great goddess x caused the apacolypse, follow her or be destroyed.

Even if there were survivers who know the truth and tells their local group of survivers, by the time they start meeting other large groups, it's just one theory among many.

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The key question I how you make sure the first generation don't pass on their direct knowledge of what happened to the second and third generations, you could try some or all of the following (Maybe different tribes have different stories, maybe some know the truth!)

  1. Make them reluctant to tell the story, You could make the survivors directly responsible for the apocalypse, so they are ashamed to admit what really happened, different groups could make up a different lie about the cause of their situation. Or, you could make the apocalypse so horrific they can't bear to discuss it, maybe they didn't cause the apocalypse but did unspeakable things to survive etc.

  2. Make them totally unaware of what happened, maybe the survivors were prisoners, or passengers on cruise ships, or arctic explorers, etc.

  3. Kill the 1st generation survivors as quickly as practical; a post-civilisation society is likely to be affected by pre-civilisation illnesses, which are likely to kill off older, weaker members of the tribe quite quickly. Maybe they survived, but just barely, so by the time the second generation grew up the elders were already dying off.

  4. Make life really hard for the 1st generation, they're constantly on the move, constantly scratching for food constantly in danger etc. So they don't have time to make and retain a written record, even if they wanted to.

Of course, if your narrator is a member of the new society, they won't know about what happened before and nor will they know why they don't know!

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"but there wouldn't be any books about what happened in the apocalypse". Oh, but I disagree. There will be plenty of books describing what happenend, sometimes in full detail, at least from the perspective of a descendant 4 or 5 generations removed from The Event.

Say they find one day a copy of Lucifer's Hammer, or of World War Z, or any other book describing an apocalypse whose details at last loosely relate to the small bits and pieces left from oral tradicion user535733 so nicely describes.

So you do not only have your survivors with little information of what happened, you actually do have them misled by their findings of old books, sometimes maybe just some still legible pages, they do not recognize a fiction but believe to be an accurate description.

You can actually even have conflicts built around it; believers and followers of the truth revealed by Lucifer's Hammer vs. believers in the truth found in The Hammer of God.

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"When your grandfather was yours age, the monsters came from nowhere and took everybody who couldn't escape, it was night, nobody had clear understanding what happened. Also all PCs and smartphones stopped working. So, if you would not go to sleep, and behave like a good boy, monsters will come back and take your to their lair" - father explained to his son, who refused to go to sleep.

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Perhaps the virus originated from contaminated coal, or fossil fuels. It was processed and unleashed at Power Stations, the workers were the first to be affected and as there was no longer any workers at the station it caused the power grids to fail.

We are extremely dependant on electricity and internet, if you remove that first, you also prohibit media, journalists, writers, and publishers from publishing work to the masses. They would undoubtedly document the events (it would be cool for a survivor to find a journal, and try an oust a cult), but it would be extremely difficult to get it out there. Then in the chaos the follows the out-break most of this documentation would be lost.

The survivors may develop a form of Alzheimer's from exposure to the virus, the information would not be able to be passed on to the following generation; the information that could be passed on would be addled and unreliable.

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The only survivors are preliterate children.

Only very young children survive the apocalypse: 3 and younger. Rare ones can read, and those not much. The written world is lost to them.

A good thing about this apocalypse is that there will not be bands of raiders to victimize the little kids who survive. There will be food enough for years in stores and in fields gone feral. There will be lighters, and clothes. A three year old might be clever enough to keep a 1 and 2 year old alive in a civilization emptied of adults.

Flashbacks to those years will energize the story. I suspect these children will grow up thinking about dogs very differently from how we do.

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