Victory For The Apocalypticians?

Dystopia and apocalypse are consistently popular imaginative themes. Between Jericho and The Road, or 2012 and The World Without Us, there is a sprawling middle ground of abandoned metropolises and imagined dooms. It filters into the real world too: online we share photographs of urban decay, wandering into the abandoned corners of our cities to taste what the future might really be like without us. In the world of suits and headlines, even with the threat of global nuclear war so diminished, apocalypse remains at the forefront of policy. What of the climate, the seas, the air we breathe? The sheer numbers? Collectively, we’re keen on wondering if we’re at the brink. And, if we are, then we’re asking: what are things going to look like?

A common interpretation of apocalypse in fiction is that it represents the author’s wishes to radically change or destroy himself: by obliterating everything that makes him what he is, perhaps, he is reincarnating himself, what he has become, or what was going to be. This, I suppose, transfers to the reader. They get to imagine the inverted tyranny of deleted worlds, and their own shattered futures, too.

What does it mean, then, when the default view of the future for a large part of any given society is an apocalyptic one? Are we trying to find a way to express a need for change? We’ve been here before, I think. Plague and war in the Middle Ages inspired an epidemic of apocalyptic thinking, with all the attendant prophesying. There might be disaster, the Christianity-bound soothsayers argued, but heaven would follow for the believers. It might even have seemed sensible to assume the end times really were nigh. And why not? When things are crummy and the chips are down, it’s fair enough to want things to change, whether that’s via disaster or otherwise.

Looking around at the atmosphere in entertainment contemporary culture, the attitude of some of the people around me, and the general climate of fear created by, well, the climate, the same could be true of today. Our situation is rather different, of course, and I’m not making such claims lightly. I am not a doom-monger, nor a climate-change denier. I’m partial to a fictional apocalypse, and I’m probably part of the dystopian centre-ground: I think things need a lot of work. Still, I don’t feel qualified make any real predictions. What interests me is the taste for apocalypse in entertainment culture right now. I’d noticed that taste long before I’d really connected any of the dots. My own shelf was full of end times scenarios, and they seemed like a good idea in games, too. (To balance out the elf and space marine quotas.)

It was last year’s Thrilling Wonder Stories that finally made me sit up and think about this. The key moment was in the talk by science fiction writer Iain MacLeod, in which he spoke about the visions the future that he had been getting kids in schools to produce over the years. Increasingly, he reported, visions produced by children were dystopias, or even apocalypses. The visions of the future produced by contemporary schoolchildren, said MacLeod, were dark. Observably grimmer than those produced a decade, or two decades ago.

A startling thought! The trickle-down effect of what was popular in entertainment culture, and what was popular in international politics, had pooled in the imagination of children. Not for this generation of kids, the lure of the stars, or the wonders of limitless human invention. Rather, they were destined to be pessimists by default: ready to accept the decline of civilisation, or the death of the Earth, as just the prevailing narrative. They parsed the mass of sci-fi images produced by our culture, interpolated them with terrorism and eco-doom, and decided that the funny bald author guy at the front of the class wanted to see transmissions from a future dark.

Perhaps they didn’t actually interpret this stuff as necessarily negative. Apocalyptic imagery is “cool” in terms of imaginative currency. It’s hip and credible in a way that Dan Dare’s rocketship no longer is. Nevertheless, it’s a disconcerting message.

MacLeod’s report is, of course, purely anecdotal. The current surge of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes in films, games, and fiction could be purely coincidental. But perhaps it is nevertheless irresponsible. We might be enjoying the voyeurism of utter destruction, we might be finding release in the portraits of radical change that these destructive fictions offer, but perhaps we should stop assuming it’s our lifespan that matters. Perhaps we should be turning up at the cinema expecting more stories about resilience, or reports from the future where the problems are what to do with limitless energy, or Japanese consciousness multipliers, rather than dustbowls and gasmask hipsters. Authors: is that nihilism really what you want to leave behind? Your silhouette a stoop, rather than a hurrah?

I was banging on about this stuff last week and someone said to me “Yeah, you do like your retro shiny shit.” And I realised that I’ve only recently learned to like it, because I want to rescue something from it. I want to rescue an attitude which said that the imagined future looked more like this:

15 Responses to “Victory For The Apocalypticians?”

  • Diogo Ribeiro Says:

    On playing Metro 2033, but not having read the book at this time, it’s surprising just how much darker that subset of sci-fi has flourished in European fiction. Fallout’s ironic juxtaposition of nuclear war and the 50′s and 60′s optimism was harsh, but 4A Games – and GSC’s own STALKER series – almost revel in that depiction of decay.

    I think that the collective imaginarium of an optimistic future has been mostly undone by the what actually happened in the spheres of the recent past. Where once it was easier to imagine super highways, domestic robots or space cruises, we now observe oil spills, all-seeing governments, and the likes of Chernobyl. The post-apoc fiction of Russia and Ukraine, for instance, seems heavily influenced by ghosts of conventional and biologic war, or environmental disasters, that plagued the regions. When the future is uncertain, and when a society is yet to meet firsthand the downside of its technological achievements, it’s easier to dream about the better aspects. Nowadays, it’s hard not to imagine something terrible may one day happen down the road.

    Kinda feels like the inverse way to achieve the same outlook. The feeling is that whereas shiny red rockets, space suits and high tech applied to everyday life (from super cars to teleportation) pointed to a glorious future earned by our positive thinking, post-apoc points to a future where the only positive thinking possible is found in our ability to survive hunger, radiation and violence. But both seem to encourage a familiar mindset – that mankind will find a way to survive. It’s just that before, we were reaching for the stars and now, we get the feeling we’ll never reach them at all.

  • Rossignol Says:

    Yes, the idea that mankind’s project is slipping toward survival, rather than intergalactic awesomeness, is pervasive, seductive.

  • DavidK Says:

    Rather than dystopia and rocket ships being opposed, I wonder if they are branches from the same trunk? If true, then when we collectively hit a pessimistic crossroad, some *other* factor must push us toward either Mad Max or Flash Gordon; that makes us stoop rather than hurrah (great line!).

    I’m interested in what that other factor is.

  • Will Ellwood Says:

    What do you make of Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s notion of atemporality?

  • Rossignol Says:

    I keep meaning to write something about it, actually.

  • Will Ellwood Says:

    I would be very interested to read that.

    That’s the area of science fiction I’m writing towards.

  • Alexis Kennedy Says:

    Actually I think there’s a recent, specific reason for the popularity of apocalypse (though not dystopia): escape from complexity. This is the age of the attention economy. Excepting the polemic (Orwell, Carson) and the operatically grim (McCarthy, Brunner) apocalypse is clean-slate escapism. We might be living in the ruins but we don’t have to worry about tax or pensions or policy details or Facebook privacy settings. Post-apocalyptic problems are simple and immediate, not complicated baggage. Deus Ex captured this appeal perfectly in the pitch for one of the variant endings: ‘an age of city states, of craftmen, of government comprehensible to its citizens’.

  • Alexis Kennedy Says:

    er, to clarify, the variant ending in which you deliberately plunge civilisation into a dark age. Millions, we are assured, will die. But doesn’t that ‘government comprehensible to its citizens’ sound appealing?

  • Bret Says:

    The current world being a perfect set up to disbelieve in a better future, Archer?


    We have jetpacks, bacterial computing, robot butlers, supremely powerful standard computers, and worldwide com devices that fit in a pants pocket.

    As for global? Utopian futures were written when the two superpowers were making plans to chuck nukes at each other. Often. And most folks more or less knew it. Crooked politicians around since before Rome. Incompetent ones even longer.

    In other words, the future’s not worse than ever before by default. Just, well, all the other motives described above, I think.

  • Stephen Says:

    A really interesting article. Going all the way back to the thirties with Capra films like Mr Smith Goes to Washington we can see the reaction to a recession was to blame the government, but to believe that a good man can change it, that we just need honest men in power(a view expressed since Dickens). Perhaps this is a sign people have given up on the honest man and of any way to fix a system they feel increasingly isolated from. They only way to escape the corrupt is to tear down the system( such as primitivism in Fight Club), showing not just a sense of nihilism but of self-loathing. This is a modern answer for the conflict between the individual and state.

  • Cooper Says:

    Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History” saw not progress, no chain of events, but “one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet”

    Benjamin possibly foreshadowed a sense of history we have in our hyper-mediated world now.

    If there was a sense of post-world-wars planning for the next crisis, possibly longing for it as a response to percieved problems (consider the post-apocs of the ‘return to frontier society’ genre in the 70s and 80s) there’s been a shift away now.

    Instead of longing for a crisis to wipe it all away, we’re at a point now where it’s quite possible the apocalypse has already happened.

    We no longer need to rely upon theology or literature to conjour up the end of times. We need only look at the holocaust, at Chernobyl, New Orleans, ecological and urban wastelands.

    I’s suggest you check out Berger’s “After the End: Representations of the Post Apocalypse”

    He argues that now the crisis is happened – and we probably missed it. As Berger suggests, maybe “the news with its procession of almost indistinguishable disasters – is only a complex form of stasis.” Much like Benjamin’s Angel.

    The irony, then, of the ‘retro’ imaginations of the future is that the sense of wonder behind those imaginations have gone quite horribly wrong. Atomic energy was going to set us free – cars, washing machines, even wathces were to be powered by the wonder of the atom. It didn’t. Computers were going to set us free. They simply became yet another commodity. The internet revolution (without wanting to downplay the importance) was the most banal revolution we’ve ever seen.

    The problem with post-apocalyptic writing is it ignores that the real apocalypses they draw from – the Chernobyls, the World Trade Centres etc. were never apocalypse in the theological sense. There were causes, there were remainders. but that’s the problem with apocalyptic fiction – it always dances around, never engages in the apocalypse itself.

    I’m gonna nick from Berger again (partly becaus it references one of my favourites movies):
    “Terry Gilliam’s film 12 Monkeys provides an extrordinary portrayal and critique of post-apocalyptic sensibility. It shows first that the apocalypse is a product of the imagination and the post-apocalypse a site of fear and desire. … The post-apocalyptic narrative is tautologous. What it cannot contain, what it circles around and can only exclude is, precisely, the apocalypse, the revelation that would explain the catastrophe.
    And yet, the film also makes clear that [this] does not mean that the end of the world cannot happen. … But it does not happen as part of the plot.”

    The problem, then, with the current wave of post-apoc. is that it repeats the mistake of older post-apocs by skipping past the apocalypse itself, by ignoring the causes and the remainder, it never wants to explain the catastrophes, only to move on, always onwards.

    Those ‘retro’ imaginings leve a bad taste in my mouth – the promises of a high-tech atomic world that never came to pass.

    Instead, I think there’s something to be salvaged from the current wave of apocalyptic thinking. It’s to look at the causes of our formative catastrophes and crises (financial, ecological, atomic, etc.), and recognise them as formative, not just part of a slideshow of crises. And to evaluate the remainder. To look past the shallow post-apocalyptic thinking that hides the repetitions of mistakes and the ideologies that hide the damages caused.

  • Winfred Says:

    We live in a world where we’re more exposed to the everyday lives of our fellow humans than ever before. With facebook, twitter and other internet communities people get much more everyday information about people who they’ll likely never meet in person, but whom they, either artificially or actually, consider friends. They’re confronted on a daily basis by the similarities of their lives to other people’s and as a result become part of a global collective as it were. It’s no surprise to me then that the focus of their fictions shifts from a single optimistic/heroic entity bringing about change to events of a larger societal nature, and it doesn’t get much larger than the eradication of our species.

    In earlier times when news and information were scarcer and harder to come by people pretty much had to spend more time in their own world. As a result their fictions were, to my mind, less about societal optimism and utopia in general than individuals (extensions of themselves) being the heroes that bring about this utopia.

    It is interesting that we seem more likely to believe/imagine humans, as a collective, will bring about a dystopia than a utopia. Though I suppose a large portion of that will be regional and the result of residual cold war ideologies. I’d also be interested to see if the average cast size in stories has grown in the last few decades… but that’s getting a little too far off the point.

  • Jakkar Says:

    To commit the sin of generalising the entire ‘entertainment consumer’ demographic..

    .. We’re not exactly sticklers for realism.

    However, believability.. Bare, simple believability, that counts for something. That counts for a lot. It allows the viewer to identify, to imagine the scenario as applies to themselves ever more easily – and therefore, to care. Or to have a reason to.

    Since the end of World War 2, the End of All Things has seemed surprisingly realistic. If not quite likely.

    People like entertainment that seems believable, and they enjoy drama. What is more dramatic than the risk of the apocalypse, and how very believable is it in an age of nuclear missiles and Large Hadron Colliders (manned by a certain bespectacled man with a taste in prybars)..

  • Martin Says:

    Another thing might be that its much easier to create an interesting, engaging story (especially in film and games) in a dystopic or apocalyptic future where the people are struggling and there is room to improve, to fight for something. Then for an Utopian future where the people are happy and everything is fine.

  • Rob Parker Says:

    Dystopian themes manifesting in our arts as a symptom of growing ecological awareness sounds about right to me. We are a curious species, and postulating imagined futures based on our actions today is just one way for us to explore what exactly we’re doing on this bizarre backwater planet.

    I feel the rocket ship and the wasteland are tied together — throwing a ball into the air expends energy; flinging a rocket into space expends a hell of a lot more. The lost optimism you yearn for, Jim, was also a naive blindness. If every human on earth had a plasma screen TV and a car — let alone a jetpack and hoverboard and robot butler — the environment would surely collapse.

    What I’m trying to say is, perhaps this trend for apocalyptic thinking is a natural counterbalance to our drive for bigger, faster, more explodey. A constant push forwards without stopping to ponder the consequences of our actions would be dangerous indeed; a little timidity — McCarthy or Margaret Atwood or the Fallout developers pondering what dark futures we are striding towards — is probably quite healthy.

    Yet where I very much agree with you, if you mean what I think you do, is that negativity and cynicism are not necessarily the best approaches. Striving for better worlds is admirable, and if we have become aware of our mistakes — those lovely cookers and microwaves and air con systems melting the ice caps, f’rexample — shouldn’t we meet those mistakes head on, positively and without regret, rather than immediately falling onto predictions of doom?

    We are balanced on a razor’s edge, any number of collective decisions our species makes potentially casting us into oblivion. But that has always been true, and, for my money, wailing about what a mess we’ve made isn’t likely to help much. Better to be upbeat and constructive, I reckon. Not a stoop, but a glorious hurrah, as you say.

    Plus, Fallout 3′s writing was, like, pretty piss poor.