May 30 2010

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: