Sunday, February 14, 2010

The End of the World - Part 0: Why?

I have loved post-apocalyptic stories ever since I found When the Tripods Came in the local library as a kid. Imagining myself struggling for survival resonated deeply for some reason, and always has since then. What I liked most when I was young was the sheer grandness of survival. The apocalypse imbues even the most mundane acts and objects with a sense of monstrous importance and immediacy. You might not think much of buying produce at the grocery store, but what if it was the last you would ever eat? What if you had to fight for a can of food? What if gardening wasn't a hobby, but a necessity for life? In a culture of abundance, what's more exciting and terrifying than scarcity? Post-apocalyptic stories recast our everyday world in a new light. Things appear more or less the same on the surface, but all the rules have changed.

I don't think the nature of the apocalypse is really what matters. The point is to reduce society and humanity down to their essence and see how they really function under the ultimate stress test. Modern society and culture too often get in the way of our raw humanity. There's always a veil of expectations drawn in front of us that conceals how we truly think or would choose to behave. How many times a day do you make a decision to do or say something simply because it's the appropriate or expected thing? Remove large-scale society, and you remove the veil. What's underneath are your true feelings.

I also believe that fundamentally, the nature of the apocalypse is irrelevant. Whether it's a plague, a bomb, the undead, natural disasters, or simple societal collapse doesn't really matter. Granted, many stories choose a certain form of destruction for a reason. It's not a coincidence that most of the stories written in the 50's and 60's focused on annihilation by nuclear bomb, and that now we've moved on to plagues and other biohazards. There's a certain amount of commentary that comes along with each individual sub-genre. Zombies can be a metaphor for the perils of consumerism or the fear of society as a whole. Plagues can warn against playing god with biotechnology, or play on the universal fear of illness and bodily deformities. What matters most to me in a story though, is not the means of destruction, but how the characters react to it.

The exception to this is biblical or religious apocalypse stories (such as the Left Behind series). I'd argue that they focus mainly on themes of redemption, and follow a more traditional plot structure, akin to a morality play. It's not that these themes aren't present in other post-apocalypse stories, it's that their function is different. Religious apocalypse stories serve to instruct or warn humanity, while others serve to examine it.

There are different sizes and scales of apocalypses, and different lengths over which they've been examined, but the kind I want to focus on in more detail later on (and probably the kind that is my favorite) is the the "day after" story. In these stories, we see the collapse of society happen and still face the aftermath of the destruction firsthand. It's here that all the key events in its reformation take place. Wait too long and the apocalypse starts to become nothing more than a set piece. While it's interesting to see how society might re-form in full (as in A Canticle for Leibowitz, or in the incredible Liberation), it's the process of immediate reformation that I find most interesting (as in The Stand, or The Death of Grass). It's here that we get to take modern life and subtract society from the equation to see what happens. Maybe this focus is a bit too narrow, but it's where most of the action happens in my mind.

How would I live if the world ended? What would I do? Where would I go? Would I survive? And what would I have to do in order to live? How far would I push myself and my morals in order to ensure that I make it? These are the kinds of questions that I find myself asking when I'm immersed in a post-apocalyptic story, and these are the kinds of questions that I think get to the heart of what it means to be human.

No comments: