Dennis Scimeca wrote an article for Unwinnable‘s fear theme week that I enjoyed reading and I encourage others to read it as well.1 Scimeca’s thesis is that, for all the horror and apocalypse fiction floating around (and there’s a lot), there’s an almost wistful longing for the end of all things because the world as it stands is confusing, desperate and broken. He argues that something like the zombie apocalypse as seen in AMC’s totally overrated The Walking Dead (bitterness mine) wouldn’t be so bad because it would force human beings to work together, which they aren’t doing now. His fear of “us,” I think, stems from all the evidence suggesting that the current powers that be are short-sighted, pig-headed and self-involved (among other hyphenated evils) and that anything that unseats those powers—even something as extreme as the end of the world—could be an opportunity for a fresh new start. A zombie apocalypse would strip power from those misusing it and force a different, possibly more responsible, group to reclaim it.
This is something I’ve seen happening a lot in fiction of late. A sort of longing for the end as a chance to start anew. It isn’t just in zombie fiction like World War Z and The Walking Dead, both of which suggest a new and better world order after the apocalypse. Recent comedies like The World’s End and This is the End chronicle a group of slackers on a steady march through the end of days into redemption after the collapse, Wall-E and 9 are heartwarming adventures of non-humans in a post-human world, The Book of Eli, Attack the Block, The Day After Tomorrow, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and Cabin in the Woods help prepare us for the big, collective shuffle off this mortal coil. Literature has been equally chipper, with Mara and Dann, The Road and Player One speculating on what the end could look like. Games are replete with their own examples: Left 4 Dead, The Last of Us, Mass Effect, Fallout, I am Alive, Bastion all deal with society’s life after death.
Writers of all kinds have probed the end of days for as long as they’ve written, but all the above examples have come within the last ten years. In viewing/reading/playing most of the above examples, and seeing many more like it, it feels like the last decade has seen a massive outpouring of apocalyptic fiction. It points to how nihilist this age is that a significant force in our popular culture welcomes the end of the world. I think this trend speaks to the fear Scimeca addresses in his own piece: the frustration with the world as it is and a hope to wipe the slate clean and give civilization the ol’ college try once more. I sympathize with Scimeca’s thesis: the air is polluted, our food is factory-produced, genetically altered poison, the first-world is over educated and under employed while the third-world is enslaved by glorified toy manufacturers, the world’s superpower is so afraid of the threat that x poses to freedom that they’ve set up an elaborate spy network against their own people. But I think it’s important to examine what such a rosy picture of the end of the world could mean.
One of my favourite works of apocalyptic fiction is Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy. The novels—WHICH ARE DEFINITELY NOT SCIENCE FICTION2—follow different people as they experience the world before and after the “waterless flood” that erases almost all human life on Earth. Before the flood, society is segregated by lower class service workers and upper class science and engineering majors. The world’s soil is burnt to a crisp and the planet’s resources have been completely mined out, governments and are replaced with corporations, a brilliant scientist bioengineers a perfect version of humanity and wipes out the existing population to pass the planet to his creation. All common tropes of DEFINITELY NOT SCIENCE FICTION.
Anyway, two of the most terrifying things that come out of Oryx and Crake are the flood and its consequences. See the flood, on the surface anyway, operates like a zombifying agent. The difference is that, rather than turning the victim into a mindless, lumbering appetite, they retains their mind while they fall apart. Any interaction with a sick person passes the disease on. So where most similar diseases show a character watching a loved one die and start back up (training a gun on them and muttering “ah juss cahrnt do it!”), the flood’s victims crawl toward survivors begging for help or for mercy. The infected don’t charge the survivors to eat them, they’re looking for help. The flood prays on empathy.
The second thing I was especially moved by was Crake the mad scientist (DEFINITELY NOT SCIENCE FICTION) explaining to the protagonist of the first novel that it would be impossible for a human-like species to ever re-industrialize if humans went extinct. All the raw minerals left on the planet have already been processed into machinery or are too deep in the earth to be reached by anything other than the current level of industry. The process of discovery between pickaxe and strip mining drills is cut off, the stepping stages between require materials that have already been used by the previous apex predators. The implication is that it won’t matter who survives: one apocalypse is all that it takes. There is no rebuilding because the human race is so far along its current path that there aren’t enough resources on the planet to sustain another attempt.
Extrapolating that to the fact that the Earth is the only planet in the universe known to sustain complex life. That leaves human beings as the sole intelligent creatures in all of creation. There is no superior race smugly looking down at our mistakes because we’re the first and only ones to make them. If ever we bow out, than as far as anybody can tell, that’s it for conscious life in the universe. I find that equally empowering and terrifying. But considering the hopeful tone of a lot of apocalyptic fiction I’ve been finding that idea scarier and scarier.