Friday, April 12, 2013

Why the Fascination with the Apocalypse?

There is a lot of fiction out there about the apocalypse, a lot of movies, television series, and evangelical screeds. How many times have we seen the image of the slightly off-kilter guy wearing a sandwich board that says ‘The End is Nigh!’? The idea of an apocalypse has been around for a long, long time, and it continues to fascinate us. Why? You’d think after all these years we would be sick and tired of all these apocalyptic stories and dire warnings of oncoming dooms-days. But we’re not. Well, I’m not, anyway.

While I think religions spreading fear of an apocalypse in order to get people to pray harder and/or send in more money to be properly raptured are basically slimy snake-oil salesmen, the idea of an apocalypse provides limitless possibilities in the realm of story (in whatever media it might be contained). Most apocalypse stories at their core are survival stories. How do we survive when the infrastructure of civilization has been fucked? Do we revert to barbarism or do we try to rebuild civilization as we once knew it? Do we try to stick to our morals in a world where morality has gone out the window? Is it every human for him/herself? How do we sustain our basic goodness? Is our basic goodness even relevant any more?

I recently read a couple classic apocalyptic novels, both which I highly recommend. First was George Stewart’s Earth Abides, which is about the rebuilding of society after an apocalypse. Next was A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, Jr. which is about (among other things) the cyclical nature of civilization. Both novels, while using an apocalyptical even as a starting point, are vastly different from each other, but both equally brilliant in my opinion.

As a writer, apocalyptic fiction is a vast sandbox to play in. There are so many ways to examine an apocalypse and its aftermath. You can write about the apocalypse itself. Asteroids! Disease! Zombies! You can write about the survivors, like in The Walking Dead or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. You can write about the rebuilding of society, or its breakdown. You can show an apocalypse in a comedic light, ala Shaun of the Dead.  You can tackle it philosophically, romantically, horrifically, poetically, or all of the above. You can write about it as a story of good vs. evil, ala Stephen King’s The Stand. One of my kids just brought home a picture book called All My Friends are Dead. So there are even apocalyptic children’s books! Endless possibilities...

Why do you like apocalyptic fiction? What are some of your favorites?

It’s fun and satisfying to think What would I do? in the event of an apocalypse. We imagine ourselves the heroic survivor who rebuilds society, who brings the human race back from the brink of extinction. But in the event of an actual apocalypse, odds are that we would become the zombies, the ones flash-fried by nukes, the ones whom the disease rots from the inside out.

In the end, it’s inevitable that we all experience our own apocalypse. Maybe it’s not due to a zombie invasion, or fiery hunks of burning asteroid hurled down upon us from above. Maybe it’s a car accident, or cancer, or we've simply gotten so old that our body decides to give up the ghost. Truth be told, the end is always nigh. Maybe that’s why we enjoy apocalyptic fiction. We can experience it beforehand in the safe environment of our homes or at the theater. Maybe it’s a way of imagining our end as thrilling and heroic and exciting, before the actual apocalypse of our lives, which may turn out to be a bit more mundane. Perhaps the best apocalyptic fiction reminds us that we’re still alive, and so let’s try to enjoy what we have here and now as best we can.

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