49

In The Walking Dead, Rick is shot, goes into a coma, and wakes up to find that the world has ended:

In 28 Days Later, Jim is in an accident, goes into a coma, and wakes up to find that the world Britain has ended:

What was the first appearance of this trope? It doesn't have to be the entire world - any story where someone comes out of a coma and finds the population (global or national) has been decimated by some sort of cataclysm will do.


Update:

There seems to be a lot of confusion about what I see as a very straightforward question, so I'll try to clarify.

What counts as a coma?

  • A medical condition that causes the character to sleep for more than a couple of days, usually much,much longer.

What counts as the end of the world?

  • A horrific cataclysm. In other words, the vast majority of the population of the planet or a country has died off. See the two examples: On The Walking Dead, we have a global near-extinction of humanity (5000 zombies per living human). In 28 Days Later we have a nationwide near-extinction of humanity in Britain, and in the sequel (28 Weeks Later) it spreads to continental Europe and presumably the entire world.

What doesn't count as a coma?

  • Going to sleep as usual and waking up hours later; being temporarily blinded; in short, anything that isn't a coma.

What doesn't count as the end of the world?

  • Dystopias that aren't post-apocalyptic; a normal, thriving world that is merely different from the one in which the character used to live; a world that annoys or confuses the character; a world that is pretty much okay but thas governments that suck more than usual. In short, anything that isn't the end of the world (like The Walking Dead) or the end of a nation in a way that would end the entire world if allowed to spread (like 28 Days Later).
  • 14
    Do you want to limit is specifically to comas, or would other examples of missing out on an apocalypse due to unconsciousness or convalescing in a hospital be OK? This article mentions that the opening of 28 Days Later was inspired by a similar opening in The Day of the Triffids, but there the character was just in a hospital suffering from temporary blindness with his eyes bandaged. – Hypnosifl May 29 '16 at 23:55
  • 4
    What about intentionally induced coma-like states, like hibernation or cryosleep? – Todd Wilcox May 30 '16 at 0:21
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    Looking at the TV Tropes page for Slept Through the Apocalypse and searching on the page for the word "coma", I couldn't find any clear examples predating 28 Days Later...the 1994 game System Shock does feature a protagonist who goes into an induced coma and wakes up to find that the space station he's on has been turned into "a chamber of mutant and cybernetic horrors" by a rogue AI, but it's limited to the station--does that count as a large enough "population"? – Hypnosifl May 30 '16 at 0:32
  • 6
    @WadCheber You might have hard time saying that anything "ended" in the story, but for sake of argument, are you speaking in broad enough strokes that Rip Van Winkle's 20 year sleep would fit? – jpmc26 May 30 '16 at 5:47
  • 4
    In old german myths its a recurring event for someone to sleep under an oak, only to awake a hundred years later to a strange world. I once heard a story being told about a man who awakes to a city that has died out due to the plague. Would that count? (I assume about ~14th century) – Angelo Fuchs May 30 '16 at 12:25
65
+500

The Day of The Triffids, 1951. I know it's a lot later than The Sleeper Awakes, but it's also much closer to an end of the world scenario. In fact, now I think about it, it's almost exactly the same plot as 28 Days Later.

I just went back and reread the start. The protagonist wasn't is a coma, he was temporarily blinded, and thus wasn't exposed to the astronomical event that blinded almost the entire population of the world. The protagonist was capable of sight the day after the blinding event happened. Society went from what was considered normal in 1951 to a post apocalyptic nightmare world nearly instantaneously, so the coma wasn't really required; you just had to not be paying attention for 24 hours. There was a guy who was in a booze induced coma though the whole thing, so he probably counts.

  • 2
    I would also say the plot of Day of the Triffids better fits the "world has ended" criteria. – user22478 May 30 '16 at 5:03
  • 1
    For those who haven’t read Day of the Triffids, the situation (after the protagonist wakes) is that civilisation has collapsed and a few humans are surviving in small isolated groups — so very close indeed to the modern zombie apocalypse trope, only with plants instead of zombies. (Hmm, would be an interesting concept to pit those two against each other…) Mobile, predatory, genetically engineered Russian plants, to be specific. – PLL May 30 '16 at 10:08
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    @PLL perhaps some sort of Plants versus Living Dead in some fashion. Maybe a video game. – Broklynite May 30 '16 at 12:51
  • 3
    Earth Abides, 1949: a hiker is knocked out for a few days by snakebite, during which a plague kills nearly everyone. (I'm not posting this as an Answer because Darkness and Dawn, posted below, easily beats it.) – Anton Sherwood May 31 '16 at 7:12
  • 3
    Day of the Triffids features protagonist alone in hospital, waking up and finding the world has ended. Initial scenes involves realising that something is amiss in the hospital: the lack of human activity being a particular feature. Some time later, a monster which has become ubiquitous emerges as a threat. This structure has been very closely mirrored in things such as 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead – Stumbler Jun 1 '16 at 9:32
91

The Sleeper Awakes (1898) by H.G. Wells

This H.G. Wells novel was released as a serial in 1898 before being rewritten as a single book in 1910. In either version, a man by the name of Graham takes sleeping pills in 1897 to cure his insomnia but ends up falling into a coma until the year 2100. When he wakes up, he finds that the world is now a dystopian society, controlled by a group — the White Council — who have used the interest from Graham's own wealth over the intervening 200 years to establish an oppressive world order.

Not exactly an "end of the world" story — no viruses or zombies — but it does firmly establish the notion of falling into a coma and arising to a world that is fundamentally worse than it was before.

  • 59
    I thought the White Council was supposed to destroy Sauron, not establish him? – Matt Gutting May 30 '16 at 3:04
  • 8
    However, if "dystopia" is accepted as equivalent to "end of the world", then I can mention a couple of slightly earlier stories where a sleeper wakes up in a future socialist dystopia. 1907: Horace Newte, The Master Beast. 1893: J. W. Roberts, Looking Within. 1891: Conrad Wilbrandt, Mr. East's Experiences in Mr. Bellamy's World. – user14111 May 30 '16 at 8:19
  • @user14111 Wonderful, please add a new answer, or expand on your previous one! – Ciacciu May 30 '16 at 10:03
  • 7
    Excellent answer, but since this question is about the earliest use of the trope, it might be helpful to note that TSA was published originally as a serial starting in 1898. Wells was a bit disappointed with the serial version, hence the 1910 rewrite. – kviiri May 30 '16 at 13:13
  • 2
    @kviiri : Good point! Thanks. – Praxis May 30 '16 at 14:16
35

How about Washington Irving's 1819 story Rip Van Winkle?

from the Wiki link:

One autumn day, to escape his wife's nagging, Van Winkle wanders up the mountains with his dog, Wolf. Hearing his name called out, Rip sees a man wearing antiquated Dutch clothing; he is carrying a keg up the mountain and requires help. Together, they proceed to a hollow in which Rip discovers the source of thunderous noises: a group of ornately dressed, silent, bearded men who are playing nine-pins. Rip does not ask who they are or how they know his name. Instead, he begins to drink some of their moonshine and soon falls asleep.

He awakes to discover shocking changes. His musket is rotting and rusty, his beard is a foot long, and his dog is nowhere to be found. Van Winkle returns to his village where he recognizes no one. He discovers that his wife has died and that his close friends have fallen in a war or moved away. He gets into trouble when he proclaims himself a loyal subject of King George III, not aware that the American Revolution has taken place. King George's portrait in the inn has been replaced with one of George Washington. Rip Van Winkle is also disturbed to find another man called Rip Van Winkle. It is his son, now grown up.

It's not exactly a Slept Through The Apocalypse scenario (TVTropes link), but from Rip's perspective it might count.

  • 10
    This is exactly what I thought of when I first read the question. Though like you said, he doesn't wake up to discover an apocalypse scenario, I imagine this story was at least a minor source of inspiration to the stories in the other answers, whether directly or as an inspiration to that story's inspirations. – Joe Kennedy May 30 '16 at 16:46
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    I agree that this is the progenitor of the genre. Certainly Van Winkle awakes to a personal apocalypse, while the story's successors substitute an apocalypse writ large. – recognizer May 31 '16 at 15:09
19
+500

1912: Darkness and Dawn by George Allan England, available at Project Gutenberg; published as a book in 1914, but originally serialized in The Cavalier in 1912-1913. The following is from Everett F. Bleiler's review in Science Fiction: The Early Years:

Sentimentalized adventure in a future primitive world.

About 2915 A.D. on, mostly the New York area and the bottom of a chasm where the Middle West used to be. This very long novel was first published as three serials, installments of which usually ended like motion picture cliffhangers. The common background to all three parts, revealed gradually, imperfectly, and not too consistently, is that in 1920 the Great Death struck. England is not precise about what happened. Perhaps an asteroid collided with the earth and gouged out a huge fragment that became a small, second moon, or perhaps there was an internal explosion. In any case there is now a chasm, perhaps six or seven hundred miles across, perhaps five hundred miles deep (England gives varying figures) where the Middle West used to be. Gases liberated by the shattering of the earth's crust killed almost the entire human race.

[a] Darkness and Dawn. (Cavalier, 6-27 January 1912) Allan Stern, an architect, and Beatrice Kendrick, his secretary, awaken in the penthouse of the Manhattan skyscraper where Stern has his office. Beatrice is almost nude, but has an enormous growth of hair, while Stern's modesty is preserved by a few rags and a gigantic beard. The office is a shambles of dust and decay. A glance out the window reveals that New York, which a few minutes earlier, subjectively, had been a bustling city of 1920, is now a wilderness of trees and fragmented buildings. Kendrick and Stern have been preserved in suspended animation. (Presumably they were high enough that the lethal gases did not reach them in full strength.) Stern at various times attempts to work out how long they slept, since the Pole Star is slightly altered in position, and settles on about a thousand years.

Allan and Beatrice gradually get themselves under control and start to search the ruins for survival material. They are fortunate enough to find a sealed chest of furs, which are still in good condition, and for the remainder of the book (until civilization is reestablished) Beatrice wears only a tiger skin. [. . .] Allan rummages through the ruins and finds functioning revolvers, rifles, and sound ammunition. Finding a ruinous steam engine and a corroded dynamo in one of the buildings, he gets them working long enough to send a radio message. But there is no answer, and the boiler explodes.

The two survivors face their first crisis when a swarm of small, bestial animal-like beings invade their area. These distorted, apish, blue-skinned creatures, which are too high to be apes and too low to be humans, are numerous, very vicious, and cannibalistic. [. . .]

When it becomes impossible to avoid these creatures, Allan and Beatrice pose as gods, but this does not work. The Horde attacks them and besieges them in the skyscraper. Allan resolves the problem by whipping together a large batch of nitroglycerine, which he tosses onto the Horde. The monsters are temporarily beaten, but much of the Manhattan ambience is also blown up.

No longer safe in Manhattan, Allan and Beatrice move up river to a well-preserved bungalow, once the property of a vicious capitalist, and look, starry-eyed, into the future.

England apparently planned to end the story here, but it was so popular that the editors requested a sequel.

14

In the 1862 French novel Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, an alcoholic character named Grantaire drank himself into unconsciousness and slept through most of the June Rebellion in 1832 Paris, awakening just in time to be executed along with one of the leaders of the Rebellion.

Grantaire was treated disrespectfully by Enjolras, causing him to fall into a constant state of drunkenness - eventually leading to Grantaire passing out for the majority of the June Rebellion until he awakens to find Enjolras about to be executed by the National Guard. Grantaire dies alongside him, whilst finally announcing his support for the Republic.

It's not really "the world has ended" in the way that you mean it, but it is earlier than most of the other answers users have given.

  • 1
    This is by far not one of the earliest appearances of that trope. There is (at least one) german/austrian story of someone sleeping for many years and returning to the city after the plague had hit it (I'm still searching that one). Also there is Epimenides who slept for 57 years in a cave only to wake up to a different king and country: 7th century BCE. – Angelo Fuchs Jun 2 '16 at 7:25
  • @AngeloFuchs I amended my answer. At the time I answered the question, it was the earliest example in the list. I also found the couple from Norse Mythology that you mentioned, but I decided to post that one as a comment because it could be considered a religious text. – Nzall Jun 3 '16 at 8:30
11

1891: Mr. East's Experiences in Mr. Bellamy's World: Records of the Years 2001 and 2002 by Conrad Wilbrandt, translated from the German (Des Herrn Friedrich Ost Erlaubnisse in der Welt Bellamy's) by Mary J. Safford; available at the Internet Archive and Google Books.

This story of a man who wakes up from a long sleep to find himself in a socialist dystopia is apparently the earliest of a number of rebuttals to Looking Backward, 2000-1887, Edward Bellamy's 1888 tale of a future socialist utopia. It is not an "end of the world story" (as required by the OP) but it shows that "the notion of falling into a coma and arising to a world that is fundamentally worse than it was before" was already firmly established in 1898 when H. G. Wells wrote When the Sleeper Wakes.

The following is from Everett F. Bleiler's review in Science Fiction: The Early Years:

Mr. East, a Berliner, is impressed with Looking Backward. At a small party he and his friends, drinking a little too much, have a heated argument about the possibility of suspended animation like West's. The argument ends in a dare for East to try it. Present at the party is an intelligent young Hindu who has been a pupil of Yogi Haridas and knows Haridas's technique for suspending life. He performs the necessary physiological processes on East—cutting his tongue ligature, folding the tongue back, sealing body orifices—and East is stored away, to be revived in a short time.

Something goes wrong, however, exactly what, East never knows, for he does not awaken until 2001, when his body is found. He regains consciousness in a hospital, where he is tended by Sister Martha, a sympathetic, intelligent young nurse who acts as an introduction to the world of the future.

East is very enthusiastic at being in Bellamy's world and cannot understand why Sister Martha and others do not share his enthusiasm. He is gradually enlightened.

His first disillusionment comes when he reads through a file of newspapers to see what life is really like. There are, of course, no personal advertisements, since there is no personal commerce, but the newspapers are filled with announcements of government products that are now available at certain warehouses and of projects that will be undertaken in certain areas. There are also regional protests that such projects have never been finished. East reads of thefts of credit cards, crimes of violence, domestic disputes arising out of governmental policies, charges of sexual favoritism, complaints about scarcities and shoddy goods, protests about job assignments, objections to educational classifications, and similar matters. He learns that the original idea of assigning work on the basis of individual preference had to be abandoned, for one-third of the population of Germany applied for positions as hunters and game keepers, and no one volunteered for the hard physical work. All this is upsetting for East, but he still has not lost faith.

[. . . .]

The upshot is that East is assigned a job as a minor inspector of agriculture, since he has had farming experience. His special assignment is to discover why egg production has fallen off. He is given a very small salary and told to make do with it.

After a while East sees what has been staring him in the face from the beginning: The fault lies in the system, which is wasteful, inefficient, and shortsighted. This is proved when war breaks out unexpectedly in Central Asia, which had been Germany's best customer. Raw materials will no longer be available, and there will be no market for German goods. As the book ends, the government has been forced to declare very severe food rationing, and it is obvious that the culture will topple, with what results cannot be foreseen. The manuscript ends abruptly.

Also included is a series of journal entries by Sister Martha, East's nurse. She had planned marriage, but state allocations and assignments made her postpone marriage for years.

Well-reasoned, but the fictional vehicle is not strong. It is probably the best critique of Bellamism from an economic point of view.

10
+250

The Quiet Earth (Novel 1981 by Craig Harrison, filmed 1985) features its protagonist waking up after taking an overdose of sleeping pills and finding that (almost) nobody else exists in the world. It is later revealed that to survive the apocalypse, he must have been in a state that was more than simply asleep, so coma seems like a good bet. While this is a later example than many given in other answers, I think it is a closer match.

  • 1
    That was made into a film in New Zealand. I remember seeing a scratchy VHS copy of it 20 or so years ago.. – Spike May 31 '16 at 1:32
  • 1
    Good movie, interesting sound track (if I remember correctly... been a while) – Almo May 31 '16 at 16:15
  • It was a good movie, well worth finding a good quality video of it. The ending is both mysterious and evocative. – Howard Miller Jul 5 '16 at 3:36
4
+500

The 1949 novel Earth Abides by George R. Stewart sort of fits. From the Wikipedia page:

While working on his graduate thesis in geography in the Sierra mountains, Ish is bitten by a rattlesnake. As he heals from the bite, he gets sick with a disease that looks like measles and he moves in and out of consciousness. He recovers and makes his way back to civilization, only to discover that most people died from the same disease. He goes to his home in Berkeley. In the city near his home Ish meets few human survivors – a man drinking himself to death, a couple who seem to have lost their sanity, and a teenage girl who flees from him as someone dangerous. He comes across a dog (a beagle bitch), friendly and eager to join him. The dog, which he names Princess, swiftly adopts Ish as her new master and sticks by him for much of the book. He sets out on a cross-country tour, traveling all the way to New York City and back, scavenging for food and fuel as he goes. As he travels, he finds small pockets of survivors, but has doubts about humanity's ability to survive the loss of civilization.

  • 1
    Debatable. He wasn't unconscious for more than a day or two if memory serves (having read the book several years ago). – ApproachingDarknessFish May 30 '16 at 6:35
  • Even if it doesn't fit the category, it's well worth reading. – Howard Miller Jul 5 '16 at 3:38
2

This is a VERY old trope, going back into prehistory. Finding a definitive start date on it is unlikely to be possible.

According to tvtropes' http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SleptThroughTheApocalypse page, "Lif and Lifthrasir in Norse Mythology are foretold to survive Ragnarok this way, leaving them ready to repopulate the world afterwards." That is: they DID repopulate the world. Ragnarok was a past event, and a cyclic one.

But it could be argued that this doesn't count, since as far as I can tell, they didn't sleep; they just hid in a wood, surviving on dewdrops. And this was just another retelling of an even older Germanic story, where a shepherd hid in a tree.

There are other tales of Rip van Winkles throughout the world, and not all of them only sleep for a hundred years. However, these typically don't end apocalyptically; it's more about seeing those around you age and die.

Also, many tales of dead heroes are put as "And there they will sleep until the end of days" or somesuch: the implication being that there will be a time when their heroism is needed and they will rise once again. I don't feel these should count unless the end of days is said to have already happened and their actions thereafter are described, though.

  • 2
    @Dewi I actually posted an answer concerning Lif and Lifthrasir. Also, all other sagas I know about "falling asleep, waking up to some bad world" are all newer than that. "falling asleep for long" is older (I found a greek philosopher ~500 BC who slept for 57 years in a cave), but none that has the "end of the world" element to it, besides Lif and Lifthrasir. So, I don't think it is overly hard to find "the oldest" of them. – Angelo Fuchs May 31 '16 at 15:41
  • @user14111 - That one too. chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/198?m=30038282#30038282 – Wad Cheber Jun 4 '16 at 0:31
  • @armadillo The fact that people can find hundreds of examples, stretching back for thousands of years, of stories that do not meet the stated criteria, does not make the question too broad. – user14111 Jun 5 '16 at 3:34
  • @AngeloFuchs If you posted it, it's been deleted. The two names appear only in my post, and your comment to it. Your name appears on no answers. Are you sure you responded to this question? – Dewi Morgan Jul 6 '16 at 1:07
  • @DewiMorgan Yes. I've deleted it after a meta discussion that came to the conclusion that all religious material is off topic. meta.scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/9738/… – Angelo Fuchs Jul 6 '16 at 6:57

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