Saturday, August 18, 2012

Why we love the Apocalypse

    The sub-title of Doctor Strangelove is "How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb." I always thought that was a rather profound statement but I could never quite wrap my head around it to why. The Apocalypse is, however, one of my favorite settings for any sort of fiction. It doesn't really matter how the End-Of-All-Things happens; alien invasion, nuclear weapons, zombies, meteor strike, plague, demon invasion, the important thing is it does.

    So what next?

    I'm not too fond of the realistic response to these sorts of things stories, i.e. everyone dies horribly and there's nothing that can be done about it. It's an important thing to remember about end of civilization wouldn't be remotely as fun as various survivalists think it'd be. I, for one, would go tribal and start eating people a week after losing the internet for example. Still, there's nothing wrong with the fantasy of the world ending.

    But why? Why do we want to see the planet reduced to space-dust and human civilization reduced to barbarism? What makes Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Dead, The Stand, and so on so intriguing? Why aren't they depressing as all get out like The Road? The answer, of course, is they're not written to be depressing but about the ultimate struggle. The Apocalypse is the ultimate time of testing and a chance for the human race to start anew or be called to account for all of its sins.

    Literally, in the case of the Christian Apocalypse.

    Prior to the development of the atomic bomb, there had been only a few cases of Post-Apocalyptic fiction. Ironically, the most prominent and one you probably don't think of as such is H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. The future of humanity as pretty but moronic elves and cannibalistic subhumans was a class critique by Wells. What it says is debatable but the setting shows the end of humanity's legacy.

     Personally, I think the Apocalypse works best in two different scenarios. The first is as a cautionary tale and the second is as a story of hope. Cautionary apocalypse tales are easy to identify. They're usually about something specific like biological weapons (Omega Man), overpopulation (Soylent Green), nuclear weapons (too many to count), or whatever.

     It's a simple statement of, "This is what will happen if you do X." Stories of hope are less common but exist with The Postman and The Book of Eli. They're stories where some people have maintained their humanity despite the oppressive atmosphere of the world's end. The two can be mixed but it's ultimately a question of whether or not you think the end will bring out the best in humanity, the worst, or a mixture of both.

    For me, I like the hopeful stories and enjoy the more fantastical Apocalypses. Zombie plagues or aliens or whatever are removed enough from reality I don't have to be weighed down by the depressingly real possibility of how our planet ends. Despite this, my favorite post-apocalypse series is Mad Max and whatever you think of Mel Gibson, they remain the most enjoyable of all action films to me.

    The premise of Mad Max is the depressingly real possibility of human civilization collapsing due to a lack of a oil. It's probably not going to happen this century and may not even happen the next but the reliance on it is something which isn't healthy for our planet or civilization. Yet, at heart, it's about one man's struggle for humanity in an environment deliberately designed to beat it out of a person.

     This highlights what I think is the heart of the Post-Apocalyptic genre's appeal. They're movies about removing a person's support network up to and including civilization. If tomorrow the world ended, would you be a monster or a hero? If you're like me and couldn't survive without take-out, probably neither. Still, there's nothing keeping us from wondering about the people who could survive.

    Is there?


  1. I think it is just modern iteration of the tale of the rugged individualist overcoming adversity and besting the elements of nature. Before there were post apocalyptic tales there were the tales of castaways, mountain men, or pioneers. The only thing that has changed is the settings as technology has improved.

    1. Good point. I hadn't thought about that.