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This trope is used so frequently that I wonder just how old the concept is. There are two variations I'm aware of. In the first, a population shelters from some sort of catastrophe and exist for so long underground that they lose knowledge of the world above or are waiting for some event to happen before emerging. The other slightly less frequently used trope is a team of bad-ass scientists are outfitted, bunkered down and cryogenically frozen in preparation to restore civilization after a predicted cataclysm.

Some examples are the movies Logan's Run and THX-1138, and the roleplaying games Paranoia and The Morrow Project.

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  • 4
    + many points for 'The Morrow Project' - I didn't think anyone else had heard of that
    – Pat Dobson
    May 26, 2021 at 13:45
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    Though only a single person rather than a team or community, the concept of emerging into a post-apocalyptic future might apply to H. G. Wells The Time Machine (1895) based on a short story he wrote in 1888.
    – JonSG
    May 26, 2021 at 14:52
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    Would Noah's Ark be considered a floating bunker?
    – Syntax138
    May 26, 2021 at 14:54
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    Another candidate, depending on how strict the question is, is Philip Nowlan's novella Armageddon 2419 A.D. from 1928, in which Anthony 'Buck' Rogers is exposed to a radioactive gas and wakes up in (you guessed it!) 2419 AD, where most of America is a wasteland after the invasion of the Han civilization. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armageddon_2419_A.D. May 27, 2021 at 7:42
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    @Syntax138 Noah? You mean Utnapishtim? May 28, 2021 at 0:25

9 Answers 9

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I seem to understand that the need to escape a global disaster is the distinguishing element, not the voluntary alternatives like, say, the urge to visit the future (through prolonged artificial sleep, cryonics or stasis) or the attempt at colonizing a distant planet (through generation ships), that also put humans in a confined space and would very likely lead them to lose civilization.

Hence I'd say one of the earliest instances of characters emerging from a bunker, if not the earliest, is "Tumithak of the Corridors" by Charles R. Tanner, published in Amazing Stories of January 1932.
You can read the full story here.
There are four connected stories about Tumithak, the last of which was unpublished until 2005.

In this series, humans sheltered underground to escape an alien invasion from Venus (the spider-like shelks) and now, thousands of years later, they are accustomed to living underground in complexes that look like huge nuclear bunkers, as people living in the 30s (that is, before the Bomb was a thing) might have imagined such installations.

Early on, the protagonist finds a book written some two thousand years ago explaining how the invasion happened and where humanity escaped:

Ever, as men found themselves defeated by the shelks, they drove deeper and deeper into the earth, their wonderful disintegrations dissolving the rock almost as fast as man could walk through the corridor it dug. Men were forced from the surface at last, and a million intricate warrens of corridors and passages honeycombed the earth for miles beneath the surface. It was impossible for the shelks to ever thread the mazes of the innumerable labyrinths, and so man reached a position of comparative safety.
"And thus came the deadlock.
"The Surface had become the property of the savage shelks, while far below them in the pits and corridors, man labored to hold on to the dregs of civilization that were left him. An unequal game it was, for man was sadly handicapped--the supplies of elements that produced the disintegrating rays gradually diminished, and there was no way of renewing them; they were unable to secure wood, or the thousand and one varieties of vegetation on which their industries were based; the men of one set of corridors had no way of communicating with the men of another; and always came hordes of shelks, down into the corridors, hunting men for sport!
"The only thing that enabled them to live at all was the wonderful ability to create synthetic foods out of the very rock itself.

These shelters are clusters of corridors and hallways with rooms and apartments opening on both sides - several of them abandoned - where people live, with the addition of communal rooms and the so called “food-rooms”, were synthetic food is processed from rocks.

As far as eye could see the long somber corridor extended. Fifteen feet high and as many wide it ran on and on, its brown, glassy walls presenting an unvarying sameness. At intervals along the center line of the ceiling large glowing lights appeared, flat plates of cool white luminescence that had shone without attention for centuries. At intervals equally frequent, were deep-cut doors, draped with a rough burlap-like cloth, their sills worn down by the passing generations of feet. Nowhere was the monotony of the scene broken unless it were in some places, where the corridor was crossed by another of equal simplicity. From somewhere far below this corridor came the steady beat and throb of some gigantic machine; a beat that continued unceasingly and was so much a part of the life of these people that it was only with difficulty that they could be brought to notice it at all. Yes its beat bore down on them, penetrated their minds, and, with its steady rhythm, affected all that they did.

Now, countless generations later, humans live in isolated communities like primitives (some more, some less) in their corridors, since all their knowledge has been lost for centuries: they have lost knowledge of the world above as well, since they never leave the deep corridors. Even the thought of going near the surface scares them, as the shelks live above ground in their towers ever since the invasion and hunt (even feed on) humans whenever they want.

"So it was that man's civilization, fought for and won after centuries of struggle, collapsed in a dozen years; and over it was imposed the Terror. Men, like rabbits, lived a life of fear and trembling in their underground holes, daring less each year, as time went by, and spending all their time and energy in devising means to sink their pits deeper and deeper into the ground. Today it seems that man's subjugation is complete. For over a hundred years, no man has dared to think of revolt against the shelks, any more than a rat would think of revolt against man. Unable to form a unified government, unable even to communicate with his brethren in the neighboring corridors, man has come to accept, far too willingly, his place as merely the highest of the lower animals.

Tumithak is the first human to reach the surface and even kill a shelk: needless to say, his actions in the first story will have consequences and, in the next stories, will lead humans to rebel and regain control of the ground.
By the way, the surface of the Earth isn’t a post-apocalyptic world in today's sense (a barren wasteland) but still was abandoned after a catastrophe hit humanity and was no longer suitable for living.

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    Nice, thirty years (give or take) earlier than other answers.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    May 27, 2021 at 17:53
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    I wouldn't discount "alien invasion" as a catastrophe, actually. :) I don't remember why humanity retreated underground in "The Machine Stops," but that might fit too.
    – DavidW
    May 27, 2021 at 17:54
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    This story carries a little premise similarity to Dark Universe by Daniel F. Galouye but predates that by thirty years, too.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    May 27, 2021 at 19:17
  • And 30 years after H.G. Wells talked about it. May 28, 2021 at 16:51
  • I read this story some 40 years ago on Asimov’s anthology “Before The Golden Age”. It was surprisingly enthralling, one of my favorites in the whole book. It holds rather well for a story of that era. May 29, 2021 at 6:59
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How about The Poison Belt by Arthur Conan Doyle from 1913? In it a scientist predicts the end of the world and so prepares a room to wait it out with his friends. Once the danger has passed, they emerge and explore the world that is left.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Poison_Belt

It's free to read online as well:

https://gutenberg.org/ebooks/126

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Ziusudra. The original Sumerian great flood story that is carved in stone dating back 2900 BCE. But only if you consider a "bunker" as a survival enclosure rather than an underground stronghold.

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    I'm not sure if that counts as post-apocalyptic though?
    – DavidW
    May 28, 2021 at 4:45
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    @DavidW I'd say a great flood is pretty apocalyptic... :) May 28, 2021 at 8:05
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    The core of this answer is excellent, but it would be improved by fleshing it out a bit. (1) It’s helpful to mention the better-known version of this myth (at least for Western readers), Noah’s flood. (2) It’s worth pointing how closely the ark myth fits the “bunker” trope outlined in the question as “a team of bad-ass scientists are outfitted, bunkered down and cryogenically frozen in preparation to restore civilization after a predicted cataclysm.” The ark-builders aren’t frozen, and “scientists” is a nebulous category in pre-modern times, but otherwise it checks every box.
    – PLL
    May 28, 2021 at 10:22
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    @PLL I agree that the ark builders could be considered geo- and zoologist- scientists. After all terra forming came after, so the story goes. Didn't reference Noah for 3 main reasons: 1) Ziusudra predates Noah. 2) Some would stubbornly argue that I am being unchristian for including it as a novel. 3) Even more stubborn people would argue that terra-forming is science and thus has no place in a biblical story. So I am just being diplomatic! ;)
    – WhoShock
    May 29, 2021 at 9:02
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It was mentioned in the original The War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells, 1897...comes up a lot doesn't he?) as a possible response to the Martian invasion. The second time the narrator encounters the artilleryman, the latter has a grandiose plan to go underground using the London sewers, utility tunnels and, well, Underground, to shelter from the Martians and rebuild human civilization, preparing to strike back some time in the future. Nothing ever comes of it as the artilleryman is a delusional idiot, but the concept that you were looking for is described, and for the reasons you give.

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Farnham's Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein first appeared in serial form in July 1964, and was published as a novel later that year.

Hugh Farnham takes the nuclear threat seriously enough to have built a shelter under his house, and when his warning radio pops off during a bridge game he, his wife, his son, and a friend (there to provide a fourth for the bridge game) hot-foot it into the shelter to wait out the alert.

Only problem is, it's not a false alarm, and after a while, there's an immense impact, after which things get quiet and cooler (Farnham had suspected the house was burning over them). When they finally leave the shelter, they find themselves in California hill country forest, with no sign of human habitation, and set out to survive as a group -- but things aren't quite what they seem.

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  • Heinlein was -- and still is -- denounced as a "racist" over what happens next in the book...
    – Mikhail T.
    May 28, 2021 at 18:35
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    @MikhailT. That always annoyed me. There's nothing racist or unreasonable about pointing out to people that they wouldn't enjoy the treatment they are currently dishing out.
    – Peter Wone
    May 30, 2021 at 13:18
  • @PeterWone But Farnham didn't seem to learn anything from that experience
    – Peter M
    May 31, 2021 at 20:22
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    @PeterM Heinlein was a commercial writer. The point of writing stories was to sell them. By the standards of the day this was a veiled slap in the face to the audience and it is entirely possible that Farnham did learn in drafts and Heinlein stopped proselytising at the urging of an editor. It's impossible to know, and absurd to damn someone for crimes that weren't crimes at the time they weren't committed. Besides, Farnham was old and set in his ways. You ask too much.
    – Peter Wone
    Jun 1, 2021 at 0:04
  • @PeterWone Farnham started the story being an ass and ended up being an ass. Sure the mythical editor could have removed the unicorns and rainbows ending over Heinlein's protests, but Heinlein still chose to write his main character as an ass - and during the middle of the civil rights movement in the US.
    – Peter M
    Jun 1, 2021 at 11:41
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Philip Wylie wrote a 1962 novel, the ironically titled Triumph, in which a wealthy man held out in his bunker in Connecticut with a few others while the rest of the Northern Hemisphere died in a nuclear war and its aftermath. The Soviets constructed a much larger bunker, but it was destroyed late in the war. Eventually the survivors were rescued by a team from the Southern Hemisphere, but by then it was clear that there was little point in hunkering down this way while everyone else died.

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The Time of the Great Freeze, by Robert Silverberg, published 1964.

Underground city/cities protect people during an ice age, but appear to be isolated from one another. Rumor of a thaw starting. From NY, contact with London. A group of youths it thrown out of the city, but have done some preparations and manage a trek all the way to London, meeting different tribes of people, some savage, who are basically humans who survived outside the city, in different ways.

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I'm not sure this entirely meets the criteria, but Dark December (1960) by Alfred Coppel has its hero, Major Gavin (ret.) leaving the relative safety of a missile bunker in Alaska in the aftermath of World War III to try to find his family in California.

Quoting from a contemporary review (Analog, December 1960):

Major Kenneth Gavin, a fighter pilot in Korea, has spent World War III underground in an Alaskan missile pad, clobbering Russian cities and bases according to the book while they as diligently clobbered ours. The war ended, he is given terminal leave to try to find traces of his family in California-a part of the world from which there has been no peep of information since early in the war. It is known that bacterial warfare was used there, that those who survived death from radiation have been decimated by anthrax, and that the whole region has been sealed off to prevent contamination of uninfected areas.

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The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells was published in 1899 (as When the Sleeper Wakes).

The main character lapsed into a coma because of drugs, but while he slept, his money, in trust, was used to establish a dictatorship, and he emerges to face the horrific setting. (Not therefore, because of the catastrophe, but on the other hand, very early.)

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