Something hugely nasty has happened to humanity. Be it nuclear war (which was once very popular but has gone out of vogue, in part due to the end of the Cold War), The Plague (which currently seems to be the most popular), natural disaster (which some view as the most likely to happen in the near future in Real Life despite nuclear war being far deadlier and still very possible), supernatural disaster (usually the case with a Sealed Evil in a Can or missing Cosmic Keystone), devastating environmental changes (which, in this kind of fiction, happen too quickly for civilisation to adapt), a Zombie Apocalypse (also hugely popular these days), or an Alien Invasion (God help us if that one happens) - most (if not all) of humanity is gone.
The result is generally that you have the remnants of humanity fighting to survive in a hellish and devastated Crapsack World full of Scenery Gorn, Ghost Cities and a lot of nastiness in every corner of whatever remains of past civilization. This environment is perhaps also a Scavenger World which may have pieces of Schizo Tech and Lost Technology (or even Weird Science) here and there, but also where people inevitably degrade down to Disaster Scavengers and Crazy Survivalists, for whom staying alive may well mean being Reduced to Ratburgers or worse, especially if they're Too Desperate to Be Picky. The world often becomes a Points of Light Setting, with enclaves of survivors separated by long stretches of wastelands and dangerous wilderness and connected by fragmentary and unreliable roads. If enough time has passed, those Born After the End may hear stories of The Beforetimes from those few who survived the catastrophe, trying to impress upon the children what humanity was and still is capable of. Expect a Fish out of Temporal Water who Slept Through the Apocalypse to wake up to see their world changed. At any point in the setting an Apocalyptic Log may be found to explain exactly why the world was devastated in the first place, and/or an Archaeological Arms Race might break out to reclaim the old world's technology.
Large civilizations that were able to recover or at least preserved can include a Divided States of America and multiple interwarring states fighting each other for the corpses of a former superpower, a Dystopia struggling to survive, or a Days of Future Past with a Future Imperfect attempt to recreate happier times.
In any post-apocalyptic story created after the release of Mad Max, it is almost assured that the obvious and natural way for the world to look after a civilisation-destroying cataclysm is "the Australian Outback". There is no need to explain this. Global catastrophe turns the world into a gangster-infested anarchist Wretched Hive Australia. It just follows logically. However, in any After the End story created around the 1950s, expect to see plenty of Nuclear Mutants due to Rule of Cool. Additionally, if civilisation is depicted after a Bizarro Apocalypse, expect things to be really strange.
Related, if not quite the same, is the period immediately after the fall of Rome; most Film and TV set in this time tend to depict it as a time of post-apocalyptic anarchist savagery populated by interwarring warlords; medieval Europeans also tended to perceive themselves as a diminished people living among the ruins of a greater, fallen world. Thus, After the End stories will reference historical parallels about humanity's decay into Medieval Morons wallowing in filth and superstition, fighting for survival, and exterminating any "mutants" with fire. In fact, while there was a significant increase in banditry and piracy, most areas were peaceful most of the time. Fantasy series (especially JRPGs) are chock full of ancient, highly advanced civilizations that met their end and pitted humanity into a long Dark Age in a similar manner.
If you're really lucky, you may get a Cosy Catastrophe, in which case it's best to be friendly and humane, but also adaptable and brave. Of course, that's not a bad personality in Real Life. If you're really unlucky, the only ones left to mourn at Humanity's Wake will be robots, mutants and aliens. Or dogs — you just better hope you brought yours along for the ride, and it stays faithful...
While this is a legitimate trope, like Luke, I Am Your Father, it's also a very popular fan theory for shows that don't seem to take place in our world.
Compare Just Before the End, End of an Age, From Cataclysm to Myth. Not to be confused with The Stinger, an after the end credits scene. See also Soiled City on a Hill and Depopulation Bomb. The people who lived before the end will often come to be seen as Precursors of some stripe or another.
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- In Ling Long Incarnation the world is a barren wasteland, covered in the ruins of once advanced cities. It's also a setting rarely explored in Chinese works of fiction, as noted here.
- Near the end of Johnny Hart's life, he revealed B.C. to take place in a post-apocalyptic world by having new character Anno Domini have copies of, among other things, phone books and The Bible in his cave. So it was Earth All Along sorta.
- The infamous Halloween 1989 Garfield storyline (Oct 23-28) has the title character finding himself in a seemingly post-apocalyptic world (or at least living in a long-abandoned house). This has led fans to wonder if this is the true setting of the strip.
- Analog: The March 1941 cover has the Statue of Liberty overgrown and being visited by two people on a raft wearing skimpy leather clothing, indicating that some disaster has happened many years ago.
- Two variations show up during the Gemini arc of Sequinox.
- The first is set in a world where Sequinox accepts the offer to join the Sky Queen and end up taking over the world.
- The second is in a world where the Stars decided to stop Monster of the Week plans and invade as soon as Scorpius is defeated, forcing the surviving humans to hide in underground bunkers while Sequinox struggles to fight off their endless army.
- The Adventure Zone: Ethersea takes place in the underwater city of Founders' Wake. Twenty-five years before the start of the campaign, a magical storm wiped out the entire surface world, forcing humanity to move under the sea in order to survive.
- Battle Action Harem Highschool Side Character Quest is set 58 years after the Antagonists have invaded Earth.
- Dino Attack RPG takes place in the aftermath of an apocalypse at the hands of mutant dinosaurs, though its not entirely objecting to the possibility of reconstruction. The alternate ending December 21, 2010, on the other hand, takes this up so high it makes The Road look optimistic in comparison.
- A Geek's Guide: DeathWorld Earth is set 7 years after the accidental release of an alien Bioweapon on Earth that mutated all Fauna, and 5 years after an ancient self-replicating weapon crash landed on it.
- The misanthropic recluse, Hamm, his servant Clov, and Hamm's parents Nagg and Nell appear to be among the last survivors of humanity in Samuel Beckett's Endgame.
- Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play, by Anne Washburn, takes place after a catastrophic event that seems to combine post-nuke and Post-Peak Oil. In the first act it's established that humans are keeping alive distorted memories of their old culture - notably The Simpsons — through oral tradition. The second act takes place decades later after another apocalypse.
- The Last Breakfast Club is a musical sequel to The Breakfast Club, in which the film took place on the day of nuclear holocaust, with the seven main characters being the sole survivors. The musical takes place years later, as they survive in the school building and contemplate leaving to attempt at restarting society.
- The Bara Magna setting in BIONICLE, the Desert Punk remains of a larger planet after an Earth-Shattering Kaboom. Also, the Alternate Universe known as The Kingdom, where Matoro failed to save Mata Nui, and so those who escaped the ensuing collapse migrated en masse to the surface, creating a new society on the Island of Mata Nui.