Alex watches too much TV and then thinks about it for longer than is healthy.
Picture the scene: A man kneels in the rubble of a broken future, surrounded by the shattered remains of once towering monuments to progress. Crumpled wrecks of hover-cars litter the streets of this sprawling metropolis. The guttural roar of hordes of re-animated, radioactive, cannibal corpses can be heard echoing in the distance. The man is dishevelled and wearing the tattered remnants of a futuristic jumpsuit, he clutches a bloodied child’s cap with an antenna on top to his chest and repeatedly whispers “His boy Elroy… His boy Elroy…” to himself whilst rocking back and forth.
This would be the opening scene of The Jetsons if it were rebooted today, as our thirst for all things post-apocalyptic is seemingly as unquenchable as a zombie’s hunger for delicious brains. This is by no means a complaint; I love a good post-apocalyptic setting in any entertainment format and this version of the Jetsons would be way better than the disturbingly pristine and non-multicultural future shown in the original. It is interesting though that the list of titles set in one wasteland/ post-apocalyptic world or other is an exceptionally long one at the moment, so the question is: Why are we so keen to see all that we know in ruins?
Visions of the future are a cornerstone of science fiction and have always been a reflection of how we see ourselves in the present, so with all this apocalypsing going on clearly we don’t think a whole lot of ourselves at the moment. Over the course of a century due to the effects of countless wars both hot and cold and an ever expanding and increasingly downbeat media culture our view of the future has changed radically; going from the outlandish and exotic visions of the Victorian age, through the utopian, swiftly into the dystopian and finally into our despondent apocalyptic certainty. Even a dystopian future dictatorship is too much to hope for today, as being constantly hammered by news coverage of the worst humanity has to offer and the burgeoning wealth of evidence that we have pretty much ruined the planet has drained us of what little hope we had. Scary stories of the evil that men do sell papers and get precious mouse clicks but they leave us fairly certain that this whole sorry business will come crashing down within the hour leaving us scrabbling in the dirt wishing we’d paid more attention to Ray Mears. The future is no longer bright because we no longer feel we deserve it, perhaps we don’t and should hurry up and invent some sexy Cylons to destroy us.
The second element to the popularity of the apocalypse is pure escapism. Our lives for the most part are mundane, easy and fairly rigidly structured; we work, we get drunk and moan about work, we wish we had done something more significant with our lives. Rinse and repeat. It is therefore unsurprising that a world without the structures that dominate our existence, in which there would be no need to read job adverts that dress mindless drone work up as something equating to Secretary-General of the U.N. or to reply with the soul destroyingly up-beat set of lies we call a CV ever again, is immensely attractive. A post-apocalyptic CV would be a good read though “I hunter-gather well as part of a group, I bring a can-do attitude to the murder and pillage of rival groups and I have a great deal of experience in the manufacture of homemade weaponry/ jewellery inc. ears on strings. Thank you for considering me for a role within your proto-society.”
A return to nature stripped of all our creature comforts and annoying bureaucracy has always been an appealing fantasy but fails to account for poor physical condition and complete lack of wilderness skills, let’s be honest a management consultant from Slough is not going to turn into some badass Chuck Norris-esque survivalist hero overnight. Suddenly becoming a brilliant woodsman is not the full extent of the fantasy though, both before and after an apocalyptic event humanity as a whole may act like a bunch of jerks but we still have some faith in the decency of the individual. The brilliant Walking Dead and astonishing The Last of Us are excellent examples of this key element of our apocalypse fetish, whilst the whole world might go to hell we are inherently good people and would manage to hold on to at least shreds of our humanity in the grey moral quagmire of a world without structure. The post-apocalyptic hero is the embodiment of our schizophrenic view of humanity, in broad terms humanity is a blight on the world and should probably be gotten rid of but on an individual level people are generally pretty decent and deserve to survive (except those who leave passive-aggressive notes). We hope that when faced with great adversity we would be brave and compassionate. However I doubt that we behave as paradigms of humanity in our daily lives, so it is perhaps depressing that it would take the end of the world to bring out the good person we hope resides in us somewhere.
Guilt perhaps also plays a part in our world ending desires. Our grandparents and great-grandparents faced war on a scale that is hard for us to imagine, our parents lived through the cold war and its constant nuclear paranoia, many people in the world at the moment face hardship we will never experience even a smidgeon of, the most devastating thing that will happen to most of us today is the internet not working briefly and we’ll still get irrationally angry about it. The wasteland would provide us not only with an escape from every day boredom and people who leave notes but also the chance to prove our worth as humans or at the very least to find out what we’re really made of.
We may continually envision the destruction of our future world in cathartic penance for the wrongs of our present one, or wish it would all end because life is monotonous, but our apocalyptic visions are not entirely without hope. In fact the very essence of every post-apocalyptic story is hope; after whatever monumentally stupid human action or act of nature destroys our world, where nothing should survive, there will somehow against all the odds still be humans left to continue being jerks to one-another. If that’s not hope for the future I don’t know what is. So get your pip-boys ready, keep your ears peeled for super mutants and pack your moral compass as it doesn’t look like we’re done working out our issues in the wasteland just yet.
Film: A Boy and His Dog (1975)
Game: Fallout 3
Book: World War Z (Max Brooks)
TV: The Walking Dead (2010-)