It feels strange (and possibly insensitive?) to start a series of posts about the end of the world on today of all days, but it’s also strangely appropriate, I think. It’d be overly simplistic and naïve to say that the 9/11 terrorist attacks are fully responsible for our current fascination with the apocalypse, but it would be equally simplistic and naïve to say that they had nothing to do with it. Bottom line: just about every culture in the world has an apocalypse myth, from the Seventh Day Adventists to the Vikings. It is an ingrained part of any religious system; most polytheistic pantheons have a deity just for destruction. Kali Durga. Sekhmet. The Cailleach. (Funny how all of these are goddesses . . .)

So, no, our obsession with armageddon is not new. Our ancestors saw stars fall and floods happen and they got it. Life is fragile. The world as we know it can be over real quick if that’s what nature/Jörmungandr decides.

By the same token, a lot of contemporary anxieties about the end of civilization have to do, I’d argue, with current events. We see a similar fascination with the destruction of our society during the Cold War, when nuclear holocaust seemed like a real possibility to many. (By the way, Cold War B-movies are the best at expressing our cultural anxieties. They’re beautifully awful and not the least bit subtle.) Post-9/11–in an era when we worry about running out of water or, conversely, having too much water or being hit by asteroids or choking death in car exhaust or simply being undone by our own political system–is it any wonder that the apocalyptic genre has blown open like a faulty nuclear reactor?*

What I find most interesting is how this obsession translates to the dystopian genre, which, while related, is quite different. If there’s anything that fascinates us more than the end of the world, it’s what happens after the end of the world. Or to quote the truly terrible 2012, “the end is just the beginning.” Which, yeah, any zombie movie worth its salt knows that the story is about the survivors, the people who have witnessed the horrors of a cataclysm and by some ill luck lived. But the dystopian fiction of today takes it beyond the stragglers of Beckett’s Endgame or Matheson’s last man standing in I am Legend. These stories allow us to rebuild, to create new societies in the wake of utter disaster.

The problem is, we still manage to bungle it pretty horribly. Hence the dys— in dystopia. I mean, the Capitol in The Hunger Games has not learned any lessons from the totalitarian regimes of yesteryear. Neither have the soulless agricultural corporations in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. Or the isolationist residents of the Dome in Julianna Baggott’s Pure.

What do we draw from this? I think, yes, one of the reasons we obsess over the apocalypse is that it is a strange opportunity for a blank slate. After all, the survivors can be whoever they want in the wake of it, leave their old lives and old mistakes behind. And on a large scale, we can also do that as a society–eventually rebuild civilization as we see fit. But to what end? Because the message behind post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction is that we always manage to mess it all up again–sometimes worse than before.

Do you read apocalyptic fiction? Dystopian fiction? What draws you to it? What trends have you noticed?

*I know, I know, they don’t usually blow up. They just eat through their containers and render the surrounding countryside completely toxic and uninhabitable for centuries.

  1. I just watched Blade Runner a couple weeks ago, so that’s probably contributing to this thought, but it is interesting that in so many dystopias, corporations are a dominate power. Although no real information is given about who controls Blade Runner’s government, Tyrell corp seems to hold all the cards. In The Windup Girl, the calorie companies have broken and gained control over countless countries. I think this probably hints at our underlying discomfort with corporations, as well as an economic awareness that if anybody rebuilds a civilization, it’ll be the people with money, and that won’t be individuals or the government. Long live the Google.

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