Chain Reaction: Teenagers Versus the Apocalypse

Welcome to Chain Reaction! Introducing a monthly column that will showcase three titles that have a common thread, theme, or plot device.  I’ll take one known quantity and introduce two more along the same lines — something that made me think of another title, and then another. They might be recent; they might have been around for awhile; they might be forthcoming. They might be film, TV series, books, comics, podcasts, or even music. The idea is to get people excited about reading, thinking about, viewing or listening to things that they might not have known were out there. Comments are always welcome!


Post/apocalyptic tales have captivated readers and viewers for years. They’re so prevalent in science fiction, literature, fantasy and YA that this subgenre can be further divided into sub-sub-genres. A typical story either occurs as the apocalyptic scenario takes place, or can be a post-apocalyptic “cozy catastrophe” set some years after the event; and oftentimes they can be quest stories.  Quests to find food, quests to find civilization, quests to overthrow warlords — quests to find some place that’s better than the character’s current surroundings — somewhere, somehow, civilization is rebuilding itself. This can be positive (the TV series Jericho; the YA book The Eleventh Plague) or negative (Alexandria in The Walking Dead). This is partly what made Mad Max: Fury Road so awesome, because it turned that quest trope on its head when (spoiler alert, but honestly, if you haven’t seen this movie, go do it already) the main characters leave a dystopic community to find a utopia, but when that proves too elusive, they wrest control of that dystopic society, with the promise of making it over for the better.

Despite what older readers might think about the “current fad,” post-apocalyptic and dystopic tales have been prevalent in YA for decades. Recent titles such as The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Divergent, and The Fifth Wave, only build on earlier successes by Sir John Wyndham, John Christopher, O.T. Nelson, Ben Bova, John Neufeld, Octavia Butler, and William Sleator, among many, many others.

The selections for this first edition of Chain Reaction are not necessarily about surviving the apocalypse — they’re stories about teenagers banding together to prevent or fight back against invasion.

Without further ado:

128143_frontRed Dawn (film; 1984 & 2012): Probably the most well-known representation of this sub-sub-(sub-?)-genre. Sure, it’s cheesy now, and it was cheesy then, but the premise still fascinates us. Charlie Sheen and Jennifer Grey star among a group of 80s heartthrobs whose Colorado town turns into a World War III battleground when Russian and Cuban military forces invade the United States. The kids band together, snap up machine guns, and go to work (trigger warning: the first ten minutes evoke a school shooting]. In the 2012 version, starring Thor Chris Hemsworth, Bobbi Morse Adrianne Palicki, and Peta Josh Hutcherson, Russia bankrolls a North Korean invasion of the West Coast, and the responding Marines give the rebellious high schoolers a mission to recover an EMP-resistant radio from the enemy. Both movies are thin on characterization, but worth seeing, especially the 1984 version, which has a cult following — and unavoidable if you’re into post-apocalyptic stories and/or the 1980s.

TWWB cover Tomorrow, When The War Began (book series, begun 1993) is often called the “Australian Red Dawn,” but author John Marsden takes the concepts introduced in Red Dawn and fashions them into a gripping book series (that is, happily, available in the U.S. and probably at your local library). Tomorrow, When the War Began is to Australia what Harry Potter is to kids in the U.S. — it’s part of the country’s young literary canon.

In Tomorrow, When the War Began, a group of graduating seniors take one last camping trip into the wilderness before college, only to find on their return that Australia has been invaded and occupied by a foreign army. Marsden never names the invading regime, or describes its soldiers, other than to make clear there is a significant language barrier between the main characters and the invaders.

The genius of this series is the voice of the protagonist, Ellie. Marsden (a guy!) writes Ellie (a teenage girl!) very convincingly — she documents her friends’ evolution into guerilla fighters as they all wrestle with issues of morality, development arrested by war, and even romance.  Throughout the series Ellie and her friends are annexed and used by the Australian forces, and in the sequel to the series, they return home to Wirrawee to try to find a new normal after the invaders are repelled. Tomorrow, When the War Began was finally brought to the big screen in a competent, faithful adaptation a few years ago (available on Netflix, so start streaming). A six-part TV adaptation is currently airing down under; episodes are available on iTunes.

Invasion: America (animated miniseries, 1998) first aired on the WB as a primetime animation offering, and is currently available on Youtube. Sheltered high schooler David discovers he is half-alien and tries to keep his father’s people from invading Earth — and Earth from retaliating — all while searching for his missing alien father and evading half-alien bounty hunters.  Invasion: America was pretty heavy-handed in its deployment of the special snowflake trope, but otherwise was original to itself, and it also featured a fresh take on animation. It ended after six episodes, but had gained quite the adult following, who were angry with Steven Spielberg and the WB (rightly so) for choosing to discontinue the story. The series was novelized by Christie Golden, famous for her in-depth Star Trek novelizations and continuations.

What do these things make you think of? Can you think of more examples of “teenagers versus the apocalypse?” Keep the chain going in the comments!

12 Comments

  • steelvictory August 23, 2016 at 12:32 pm

    I’m just here to verify that my favorite book in high school was included in this list. Tomorrow, When the War Began is amazing. I’ve been sitting on the adaptation in my Netflix queue for a while, because I was worried it wouldn’t compare, but now I’ll have to check it out!

    Reply
    • Shara White August 23, 2016 at 3:56 pm

      I’ve never read nor watched it, so there’s more fodder for a rainy day!

      Reply
      • J.L. Gribble August 23, 2016 at 5:03 pm

        I restarted the book again about 2 years ago, just to see if it held up, and got about halfway through before I felt guilty about my stack of books that have yet to read once. But it definitely still sucked me in and and works well as a tale for the 21st century.

        Reply
        • careymballard August 23, 2016 at 11:10 pm

          I discovered TWWB and its sequels about twelve years ago and I was wowed. They don’t get a lot of love here in the U.S.; I’ve seen readers pass them up, and without being too judgmental, that’s a mistake, because these books are solid adventure and character development. I finished the first book in the sequel to the series, called The Ellie Chronicles, that has everyone readjusting to life in Wirrawee after the war, and I want to read the next one.

          Reply
  • Shara White August 23, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    So to continue the chain, I keep thinking about AMC’s FEAR THE WALKING DEAD. I don’t think the show itself is good, but half the cast happens to be teenagers, with one promising storyline where one teen is a recovering addict. The show seems to be drawing interesting parallels between how an addict feels cut off from the world, and, well, zombie-ism.

    Reply
    • careymballard August 23, 2016 at 11:11 pm

      I have not seen any of FTWD, although I bought the first couple of episodes on iTunes…

      Reply
  • Shara White August 23, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    There’s also THE 100, which gets a lot of acclaim. I’ve seen just the first few episodes of the show, and I know it’s a book series by Kass Morgan, which I haven’t had the chance to read.

    Reply
    • careymballard August 23, 2016 at 11:13 pm

      Ooo, good one. I hadn’t thought of that. I haven’t read any of the books, and I have seen only a few episodes of The 100 mostly to try to catch a glimpse of a grown-up Katie Stuart (aka Cassandra Fraiser from SG-1). The episodes I did see were compelling, but I want to wait until I can binge-watch it.

      Reply
  • ntaft01 August 23, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    I keep thinking of things, but hey all turn out to be just books, haha. Also, The animation of Invasion: America reminds me a lot of the animated Batman series and Gargoyles…

    Reply
    • Shara White August 23, 2016 at 10:05 pm

      Nothing wrong with just books! What are they?

      Reply
  • careymballard August 23, 2016 at 11:14 pm

    Yeah–no such thing as “just books.”

    (I miss Gargoyles.)

    Thanks all for your comments!

    Reply
  • Ron Edison August 24, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    I loved TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN and read them all back to back. The movie version is pretty good and features an interview with Marsden that’s worth watching. Didn’t know there was a series–I’ll have to put it in my Netflix que.

    Reply

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