Κυριακή, 18 Αυγούστου 2013

What I Think About Stuff-From Post Apocalypse to Post Misery

Ain’t no party like an “Everybody’s dead” party

What I Think About Stuff-From Post-Apocalypse to Post-Misery

The idea of the end of the world and the annihilation of our species (along with everything else) is nothing new to fiction. As a matter of fact, the end of the world has been a staple of human civilization since the time of the Babylonians, who were the first to annihilate the world by floods, barely a few thousand years into the birth of civilization.

The Hinduists predict the end of the world at the hands of one divine emissary, called Kalki, an avatar of the god Vishnu, who will purge the world of sinners and destroy any wayward civilizations before finally crushing the Universe in the palm of his hand, by himself.

In short, don’t fuck with Kalki.

Islam predicts an epic, two-fisted cross-over: Jesus and Mohammed versus the Al-Dajjal, the Muslim antichrist, locked in a battle to determine the FATE OF THE UNIVERSE itself (possibly high-fiving each other the entire time). Moving on beyond religion, Mary Shelley is the writer of the earliest example of modern post-apocalyptic fiction, with her book The Last Man, in 1826, written in the style of the memoirs of the last man left alive in Europe, following the outbreak of a lethal flu epidemic.

Edgar Allan Poe killed us all with meteors in 1839, in his short story The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion, while H.G. Welles destroyed human civilization twice, once in his The Shape of Things To Come (through conventional warfare) and the second time with superior Martian technology, in War of the Worlds (though he pussied out at the last minute, creating one of the most original and misrepresented clichés in science-fiction).

With the invention and field application of the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent development of atomic weapons by the USSR, our secret fantasy of killing everyone was provided with a very convenient (albeit maddeningly powerful) plot device: nuclear annihilation. Coupled with the paranoia cultivated by the Cold War and our couple brushes with disaster in the 60’s and suddenly, nuclear post-apocalypse was the way to go!
“Yes sir, only muthafuckin’ way to genocide…”

In the interim, of course, we had destruction by plant-life, ecological payback, robot uprisings, evil AIs, plain old super-viruses and, when you got sick and tired of being afraid of everyone dying in your life-time, there was of course the inevitability of Universal Heat-Death, spiking your optimism-cocktail with that bitter taste of ‘eh, at least we had a good run’.

It wasn’t long before post-apocalypse became disaster-porn, with destruction taking place for destruction’s sake. Robert Bloch’s This Crowded Earth depicted a senseless (though terrifying) war between opposing species of Homo Sapiens. Howard Philips Lovecraft became a legend, by coming up with cosmic bogeymen. Entire libraries’ worth of stories were written with no other purpose than to depict particularly gruesome endings of the world, without any thought or focus to its characters. We drank in the disaster like the nihilistic addicts that we were and we reveled in it.

And then, it all changed. All of a sudden, the stories we wrote about the apocalypse’s trends altered in a very subtle but very important way: a paradigm shift that served to swerve our attention away from the ruins and the fire and the pools of blood and the warring gods above and below and focus into the huddled little creatures stuck in their nuclear fallout shelters or gunning down Route 66 in a crappy little RV.

Post-Apocalypse was suddenly no longer a genre about the end of the world. It was a genre about the end of the characters’ world, with the death of billions serving as backdrop. Cormack McCarthy was the first to hit it big with The Road and I had trouble grasping why: the entire thing seemed like a subdued narrative about a son and a dad pissing about in the wasteland. It wasn’t until the Walking Dead, that I finally realized exactly what the hell had been going on…

Post-Apocalypse had transmuted into Post-Misery

We no longer care about the end of the world. Oh sure, it captures our imaginations and it makes our shriveled little hearts beat feebly in our chests, but it’s not the megadeaths that make us swoon. Instead, it’s the little deaths and the little lives of the tiny creatures that have made it through the end of the world and are ekeing out their meager existence.

The Walking Dead is a perfect example of this, with its veritable hours of dialogue shoved into our faces, showing the struggle of characters, with the zombies set aside as more of a past-time to alleviate the viewer’s boredom when he can’t stomach Rick’s new tryst with whomever-the-fuck-wants-a-gun-now. Stephen King’s The Dark Tower is about an epic quest and a race against time before the annihilation of existence, but nowhere do we actually ever come face-to-face with the specifics of the disaster.

Game of Thrones does pretty much the same: promising a wintry, zombie-infested apocalypse, while at the same time causing a number of tiny disasters in the main characters’ lives, killing them off or taking away everything they love. The series provides us with a ton of small disasters, while we wait for the Big One to swoop down and turn Westeros into a bone-white wasteland.

Audiences no longer care about disaster, but have changed their expectations for the promise of disaster. Our tastes have become more refined, seeking out the small, concentrated, well-cooked dosages of misery and injustice, in the face of the greater threat. 

We go for Chocolate Ganache Tarts instead of buckets of Cream and Cookies.

We’d rather see a dozen poor bastards killed tragically in what seems like safe haven by a small group of blood-thirsty barbarians (or to watch some poor son of a bitch waste away in a cellar) than to bathe in the glow of atomic fire as the White House is, yet again, reduced to rubble.

We are no longer interested in the reclamation of civilization or the rise of heroes from its ashes. The time for good men and women to restore humanity to its past glory has long since passed. Now, it’s all about misery. We want lives destroyed, we want fear and we want empty bellies and gun hammers stricking empty chambers as we hold them against the roof of our mouths. We want the skittering of claws in the dark and the chattering of tiny teeth coming closer to two huddled, starved children. We want women set aflame, their skin peeling off their bone, their fists feebly sticking at the safety glass through which their weeping husbands watch.

Starvation for famine. Murder for genocide. Wasting for plagues. 

Post-Misery is the way to go, in this day and age. Because our world is no longer under the threat of intelligently-abetted suicide and the next disaster seems so far away. Our lives may not be absolutely pampered, but we are, in one way or another, content. Our fiction needs to find ways to make us miserable. And to do that, it will have to make its characters suffer.


Take some time and visit the website EXIT MUNDI, btw. It hasn’t been updated in a while, but it’s very well-written and has a ton of takes on popular culture’s (and science’s) speculations of how we are all going to die. If anything, it’s definitely worth a read. 


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