End of World Subcategories: The Societal Breakdown (or, DYSTOPIA!)

 

DystopiaThere has been a bit of a debate about whether or not Dystopian fiction belongs with Postapocalyptic fiction, and I say YES! I bring to you the SOCIETAL apocalypse, because it is the apocalypse of a society. Probably not as much death as, say, a zombie or nuclear apocalypse, but there areusually still mass casualties and things are definitely NOT As They Were Before. Oftentimes, dystopia is a result of some sort of larger and semi-apocalyptic event that precedes it (say a small-scale nuclear conflict, or famine, disaster, etc).

In a Societal Breakdown, we often see a culture, a people slowly implode – there is a small minority of folks who have certain and often extreme (Hitler, anyone? The current Religious right, anyone?) views about how things should be, and this small minority of folks either finds themselves in power or seizes power. It would seem nothing is amiss, at first, and life goes on as normal, but then things begin to change. Little freedoms begin to disappear. Curfews are established. Certain people begin to disappear.

Societal Breakdowns, in fiction, are pretty much all over the map. But the thing they have in common, is there are always rebels who disagree. Many rebels and detractors always die early on, and become a cautionary tale and/or inspiration for the protagonist, who is oftentimes disgruntled with the dystopia, but goes along with it until some catalyzing event that forces them to finally become part of the resistance in earnest. Star Wars: A New Hope is a classic example, actually: Luke Skywalkwer dreams of joining the rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire, but is stuck on his uncle’s moisture farm in Tattoine. His parents have died early on (of course, we come to later find out, his father is still alive and at the very helm of the Empire, but Luke believes he is dead until that discovery) as casualties of the dystopian society. The catalyzing event is that he and his uncle buy some used droids that just HAPPEN to have come directly from one of the leaders of the rebellion (Princess Leia), and contain secret plans on how to destroy the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star. Ultimately, Luke blows up the Death Star, which is a huge victory for the rebels, who ultimately bring down the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi.

Unfortunately, in Star Wars, we don’t get to see so much of the dystopian society itself – the Empire’s reach is so vast that it only barely touches Luke’s daily life until he is caught up in the middle of it. Other fiction goes much further into the history of why the dystopia exists, what its characteristics are, and why it’s ultimately unacceptable for the majority of its citizens.

Books: Animal Farm, 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Anthem by Ayn Rand, Dayworld by Philip Jose Farmer, Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood

Movies: Divergent series, Star Wars (original trilogy), The Hunger Games series, Minority Report, Snowpiercer, V for Vendetta 

TV Series: The Handmaid’s Tale, Almost Human, Fringe, Dark Angel

End of World Subcategories: The Viral Outbreak

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Now we come to (arguably) my “favorite” of the post apocalyptic scenarios: the global pandemic. Inplague-based fiction, there is usually some kind of horrible viral outbreak (and zombie fiction could potentially be a subcategory of Outbreak fiction, but I feel it’s gotten big enough to warrant its own subcategory). We see people succumb, one by one, to this disease. Then we see the survivors deal with the end of the world, then we see the survivors come together to form new communities (and maybe fight something else before they get to live happily ever after).

I say “favorite”, in quotes, because, well, who really wants any of these to happen? But, if I had to be a survivor in any of these ways human civilization could perish, outliving a deadly disease would probably be the easiest. I say that with difficulty, because of course it wouldn’t be easy. But, where everything is concerned, it’d do the least harm, because:

1.) No radiation & drastically reduced human population would give the earth a chance to heal, and hopefully, we’d pull back from the tipping point of climate change, and many  endangered species would come back from the brink. As long as the remaining survivors figured out a way to shut down nuclear plants before they melt down, that is…

pandemic2.) Lack of other outside forces to dampen the fun! And by that I mean aliens, zombies or other creatures. Basically, “all” you’d have to deal with are the dead bodies (and I’ll get into THAT in another post), other survivors being horrible and loneliness until you find others. And maybe bureaucrats with creepy agendas.

3.) There’d be vast stores of canned food & drink lying around. Also, you could grow crops out in the open without any threat from aliens or the undead. Or radiation/pollution contamination. And, you’d still have to worry about the weather, but not in a climate-change kind of way.

I mean, that’s not many, but they’re all kinda huge. If I got to pick the type of apocalypse I wanted to survive, this would probably be it. But if I change my mind, I’ll let you know.

Books: The Stand, by Stephen King, The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood, The Last Man by Mary Shelley (this woman was highly ahead of her time), The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, Blindness by Jose Saramago

Films: Smallpox 2002Outbreak, 12 Monkeys, Contagion,

TV Series: The Last Ship, Helix, Containment, 12 Monkeys, The Strain

End of World Subcategories: The Zombie Apocalypse

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Probably (and arguably) the most popular of our postapocalyptic guilty pleasures, if box-office totals and ratings are any indication, and one that has, in particular, gained ground in the last decade is:

The Zombie Apocalypse. Okay. So. Full disclosure: I didn’t have a whole lot of respect for this subset of the genre until recently. I mean: I’m a vampire girl. I cut my teeth on The Vampire Lestat and The Lost Boys. Zombies, on the whole, just don’t make for that fascinating or cunning of a monster. They’re dead, and pretty gross, so it’s hard to feel much empathy or compassion for them. And honestly, if it’s only one or two, they’re pretty easy to take out, especially if they’ve been undead for awhile and are in an advanced state of decay.

I mean, not that I didn’t enjoy The Evil Dead and Night of the Living Dead (and all their exponentially campy sequels and remakes), but the reasons I had a good time had less to do with the quality of the movies and more to do with the people I watched them with. There also was a bit of philosophy going around that zombie fiction tended to be hotter during Republican presidencies (mindless hordes) while vampire fiction tended to be hotter during Democratic presidencies (compassionate bloodsucker), which was always kind of interesting. And of course, now we are in the unprecedented time of the demigorgon, but I digress – that is a tale for another time, and may, indeed, predicate an ACTUAL apocalypse.

The zombie movies I traditionally liked best were the ones that tried to do something slightly different, like 28 Days Later and its rapid-moving rage zombies & Shaun of the Dead, high comedic parody about a group of extremely self-absorbed friends who are more interested in their interpersonal drama than they are aware of the world falling apart around them.

Also: zombies straddle genres: if you look at horror as a subset of Speculative Fiction, and Post-Apocalypse as a subset of Horror, zombies can either squarely fall under Horror, in the further subset of Monster, or Outbreak. For my purposes, I am discussing the Outbreak variety, since that seems to be more likely to result in some sort of global collapse, though below, I will give share my favorite zombie Monster fiction as well.

At any rate, I still didn’t find them to be that interesting a monster, and all around me, zombie culture was exploding: zombie walks, zombie survival courses, zombie video games, zombie birthday parties, you name it. The Walking Dead became the highest-rated cable show, and they were even having Walking Dead parties on Good Morning America. I wasn’t interested.

Then, I read some friends a short, postapocalyptic play of mine (plague-related apocalypse – think more The Stand than anything zombified), that featured a mother talking about her deceased daughter, Sophia. Both friends immediately asked me if I watched TWD. I sighed, rolled my eyes, impatiently said no, and told them why I just wasn’t interested. They pushed me further, saying TWD was more about the post-apocalyptic world that just happened to have been brought about by zombies.

I still was hesitant, but then found myself with some free time the next week…binged the first 5 seasons over two weekends (felt like I’d been sucked into the Zombie Apocalypse myself!), and was, of course, rabidly hooked. The walkers (love that they are NOT called zombies here) were still not that interesting in and of themselves, but some of the things the show has done with them are pretty innovative, from the different ways to kill them, to people keeping their undead loved ones alive or being faced with having to kill them, to weaponizing them in some truly unique ways, did capture my interest, and of course, a television series has more opportunity for long-ranging character development, so I became attached to the dwindling core of main survivors and intrigued, as my friends had said I would be, by the world presented in the series, and the opportunity to examine how human beings cope with not only global, societal collapse, but also with repeated trauma and ensuing PTSD.

My takeaway is this: Zombie apocalypse, while difficult for survivors, would be a great season of rest to heal the planet, and start to reverse climate change. If one manages to survive the undead and the opportunistic living, tempers the waves of repeated PTSD and ends up in a relatively peace-loving and somewhat democratic community, once the zombies finally start dying off (I mean, they have to rot into liquid and bone at some point, right?), the world left behind is likely quite beautiful, from a nature perspective, and maybe an opportunity for humanity to rebuild anew. Thus, as something to live through, I’d prefer it to the nuclear variety.

Other examples of Zombie fiction:

Books: The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks, Cell by Stephen King, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith, Rot and Ruin by Jonathan Maberry

Movies: The Serpent and The Rainbow, Night of the Comet, the Resident Evil series, World War Z, Quarantine

TV: iZombie, Z Nation, Fear the Walking Dead, The Returned/Les Revenants, Resurrection

End of World Subcategories: The Nuclear Holocaust

the-world-is-facing-a-growing-threat-of-nuclear-warAs I was first thinking about the sorts of things I might want to write for this blog, it kept occurring to me that there are, indeed, many different ways the world as we know it could end, and that it might be useful to define those subcategories for the purposes of discussing books, movies and other media. Truthfully, it seems to always be some combination of a few, but usually, there is a predominant, overarching cataclysm that sets the ball rolling and the dominoes falling. So let’s start with one of our favorites:

The Nuclear Holocaust. This variety of catastrophe haunted my teenage dreams in the 80’s, the era that brought us the radioactive trifecta of The Day After, Testament and Threads. The basic formula with all of these: we are introduced to the protagonist(s) a few days before the nuclear attack, establish who they are and how they react as international relations seem to be headed in a bad direction. Then the attack happens – we often don’t know who initiated it, we just see the protagonists react. After that, of course, is the post apocalyptic aftermath, our survivors have to navigate survival in usually a toxic and ruined world: those who don’t die in the blasts are subject to fallout, radiation and other survivors rapidly descending into barbarism to fight for the remaining resources. With the exception of Threads, however, the aforementioned movies don’t usually explore much of the aftermath after the initial few weeks and months. Shoutout to Threads for upping the anti in a devastating and factual, documentary-style take as we see the Ruth, female protagonist (kudos to BOTH Threads and Testament for their female protagonists in the early 80’s!), struggle through discovering she’s pregnant as the world is falling apart, living through the blast when her fiancé dies,  giving birth to her daughter by herself in a back alley with barking dogs and finally dying in her 30’s (though she looks about 80, due to the effects of radiation). Her daughter is about 13 at this time, gets raped and pregnant, and the movie ends with her giving birth, looking down at the baby (which the audience never sees) and the camera frozen on her face in a silent scream, presumably because the baby has some kind of horrible mutation.

I have to give brownie points to the Mad Max franchise as well for delving further into post-apocalyptic society post nuclear blast. Having seen ALL the movies in this franchise, I’m still not quite sure WHEN the nuclear blasts occur (if anyone has any concrete info on this and can back it up, let me know!), whether before Mad Max, or at the end of it, but it’s clear that, by The Road Warrior, we are at full post-apocalypse, and Beyond Thunderdome actually begins to explore the reforming of society with Bartertown.

Another MORE than honorable mention must go to the currently-running The 100, which I will likely dedicate a plethora of writing to, as it really delves into the aftermath and the bleak idea that human beings never seem to learn from their mistakes! One thing in particular I want to point out about The 100 is that, in the most recent season, they explored the idea that, with all these nuclear power plants around the globe not being staffed for so long, they are going to start to melt down, causing a secondary wave of global radiation (“Praimfaya” as it’s called in grounder patois) for a nice little round 2 radiation blast in a world that had finally been bouncing back from the initial nuclear war.

The trouble with nuclear holocaust, at least fictionally speaking, (and please, let’s keep it to fiction – take note, world leaders!), is that it’s so, well, BLEAK. And most folks, when watching something, want there to be at least a small, uplifting and/or hopeful element to the story. I have to say – just remembering Testament (and reading the Wikipedia posting) made me tear up, especially with all the reports we’ve been getting recently of North Korea’s missile testing.

Other examples of nuclear holocaust fiction:

BooksAlas, Babylon by Pat Frank, The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr., On the Beach by Nevil Schute, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Films: On the Beach, Dr. Strangelove, Damnation Alley, The Postman, The Book of Eli

TV Series: Jericho,  Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Battlestar Galactica, Genesis II

5 Favorite Post-Apocalyptic Books

I remember reading a short story in Starlog magazine when I was a teenager about a girl who thought she was the last survivor on earth after a nuclear war. She was super surprinuke-park_2-1-1024x700sed and stunned when one of her friends called her.
“I thought I was the last person alive!”

“Nope – the whole group is alive.”

“How is that possible?”

“Don’t you know? Books absorb radiation.”

I loved the notion of it – that those of us who read and had shelves full of books as a comfort blanket might somehow be spared if we had hoarded enough books. My friends and I were voracious readers – junior high was a minefield of mean kids, and we were big nerds. The idea of all those who’d bullied me dying in some kind of enormous calamity was tempting to fantasize about.

The Stand1.) The Stand by Stephen King – I think this may have been the very first post apocalyptic book I read, when I was 15 or so – I’m glad it was a good one! I’ve read it several times since then, make a point to read it again every few years (think I’m due again). 99% of the world’s population is decimated by a superflu bug, and the survivors begin receiving messages through their dreams – one from an Adversary and another from a messianic figure – and these dreams, whichever they choose to follow, lead them to either Boulder (the good guys) or Las Vegas (the bad guys). The Adversary (Randall Flagg), of course, leads through fear, while the messianic figure (Mother Abigail Freemantle) leads through example. There is the title Stand-off towards the end.

Handmaids Tale2.) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – I was on my way to see the 1990 movie in the theatre and picked the book up on the way, which I read afterwards, helped me figure out why the world had gotten to where it had gotten in the movie. YES, this is postapocalyptic, though not in the traditional sense – it’s dystopian, and while many dystopian societies in fiction are the result of a prior, more physical apocalypse, I propose the idea that a dystopia IS actually the product of a social apocalypse of some kind. In this social apocalypse, Offred (Of Fred) has tried to escape Gilead (which rose from the ashes of the US after a terrorist attack and gov’t takeover by religious extremists – also, fertility rates had gone WAAAAAY down) with her daughter and husband, and gets caught and since she is still fertile, she is forced to be a handmaid in the house of the Commander and his wife, which is basically a monthly and ceremonial rape to provide them with a child. I am enjoying the Hulu series so far as well…curious to see how they will expand into a 2nd season.

The Road3.) The Road by Cormac McCarthy – this was a fairly recent read, and I’m very glad I read it in the summer and during a period where I was pretty content, because had I been depressed, it likely would’ve thrown me over the edge. It is BLEAK. Takes place years after some kind of apocalypse – because nothing grows anymore and there were so few survivors, I am assuming either nuclear war or asteroid/comet strike – it’s not specified. A father realizes he is dying and needs to find someone to take care of his young son, so they journey towards the coast through and extremely bleak and ravaged landscape. The fact that McCarthy’s prose is SO eloquent elevates it literarily, and makes it THAT MUCH MORE DEVASTATING.

glimmering4.) Glimmering by Elizabeth Hand – I read this one at some point in the late 90’s, and reference it to artistic collaborators all the time. Was probably the first climate-based apocalyptic fiction I ever read. There is an avalanche in the antarctic ocean that releases methane into the atmosphere, which mixes with the bromotetrachloride particles left there by a solar storm. The depletion of the ozone layer hastens, and the particles begin glimmering. No one can see the stars anymore, there is no more normal night, only a constant glimmering in the sky. Several of the main characters have AIDS, and one of them starts being aware of…ghosts? Visions?…as he is dying. It has kind of a bleak or hopeful ending, depending on how you look at it. The interesting takeaway from this was that the AIDS virus was a path towards human evolution towards less corporal, light-energy forms…hence the aforementioned ghosts/visions.

 

Birdbox5.) Bird Box by Josh Malerman – devoured this one on the beach in Crete last September! Apocalyptically-speaking, it was kind of in a category of its own. In bits and pieces, the characters figure out a hypothesis for why people are suddenly going mad and killing themselves and each other: some kind of interdimensional creatures have arrived on earth (this is nowhere as cheesy as it sounds), and they are SO out of the realm of human comprehension that just looking at them drives people insane and they immediately try to end it all in horrifying and violent ways for themselves and anyone around them. Those who survive manage to do so by staying inside with all the windows closed and blocked. The protagonist knows there is a surviving colony of people “down the river” and must journey with her two young children to find this colony, and all of them must be blindfolded for the entirety of the journey.

 

 

Earth 2100

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Since I use it SO OFTEN as a reference, I thought I’d give a shout-out to Earth 2100, a little mockumentary I saw when it was first aired on ABC back during the summer of 2009. It basically chronicles what I like to refer to as a “slow, comfortable apocalypse” via climate change. It explores what might happen if every climactic, worst-case scenario were to happen using both scientific facts, mock-commercials, and is seen through the eyes of “Lucy”, the fictional narrator, as she lives her life, born in 2009 and living until 2100, and how the dominoes fall to total, societal collapse, via environmental disaster.

I seem to bring it up during nearly every discussion I have of climate change, apocalypse and dystopia, and my writing partner Jen and I have used the world at the end of this mockumentary as the setting for the post apocalyptic play we’ve been creating over the past few years (and will hopefully be produced at a TBD theater in Seattle sometime during 2018!).

Given what is happening with current United States “leadership” (abolishing the EPA, ignoring science, appointing climate-change deniers to prominent positions, etc), it is especially chilling to revisit this film in 2017. I think we may already have passed the tipping point. Please check it out and leave comments – would love to discuss it!

You, Me & The Postapocalypse

When I was in 8th grade, The Day After aired on television. It was the junior high equivalent of a water-cooler topic – we were ALL talking about it beforehand, and we were definitely all talking about it the day after. As a movie, it wasn’t the most perfect example of speculative fiction, but it served as great fodder for classroom discussion (especially in the middle of the cold war!). I remember a friend and I, during summer vacation, creating our own fictional bunker in case of nuclear war – we’d spend hours just figuring out how long we’d have to stay underground, who we’d like to bring with us and what kind of sewage/water/food systems we’d have to subsist on.  The Day After was probably my formal introduction to the subgenre, likely the first I’d thought of it, and was the kickoff to a lifetime’s fascination.

Sub-genre of what, you ask? Is apocalypse/aftermath fiction horror? Is it science fiction? I’ve long had a fear it will become science FACT. I like the umbrella term “Speculative Fiction”. Under its wings, you might find Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, etc. And I suppose, depending on the type of apocalypse, you would then go on to put things under those subcategories…zombie apocalypse might fall under horror, whilst robots destroying the world might fit better with Science Fiction.

​In high school, I read my first Stephen King novel, The Stand, which tells the story of a world decimated through a superflu plague. Another of my friends had also read it, and we spent hours on the phone each night imagining what we might do in such a scenario, where we might travel, what and who we might bring, and how we might rebuild society. Obviously, I was hooked.

Several decades later, I am no less fascinated and intrigued by the different iterations of fictional apocalypse, and have happily devoured many television, film and book tales with varied and imaginative end times. I’ve even written a couple of post-apocalyptic plays. And there is no shortage of end days’ paranoia, given the current political situation and global climate, to think about. Climate change anyone? Nuclear war? How ‘bout some Ebola?

Right now, my intention is an entire apocalyptic blog on the subject and of course, all its potential subcategories, because, though I have very little control over things unfolding on the world stage, at least I can have some control over this.  I’ll discuss zombies, aliens, asteroids, WWIII, acts of god, no Armageddon is off limits, and maybe I’ll throw in speculation about how one might survive such a thing, and even discuss putting together different sorts of survival kits for your more run-of-the-mill cataclysm. I’ll make book, film and tv recommendations on each subcategory, because lord knows I’ve consumed a lion’s share!

If this is your thing and you’re intrigued, feel free to take a look! And if you have any suggestions, thoughts, or ideas on topics you might enjoy reading about within the subject, please feel free to share your feedback.