Armageddon isn’t supposed to be funny…or is it? The fact that there are enough films, tv and literature to create an actual funny end-of-days category says otherwise. I mean – the end of the world is a pretty big, scary topic, and we, as humans, actively seek catharsis, so it makes pretty good sense this would be a bonafide class of its own.
My earliest example of this was Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which basically begins with the end of the world…and starts out swinging: the Dolphins leave Earth, thanking us for the fish, because they are supreme beings who know the planet is about to be blown up because it’s in the way. And wacky hijinx ensue. Also in the 80’s, we were treated to Night of the Comet, teenagers survive the tail of the comet only to have to deal with all the humans who were turned into zombies because they were outside when the comet hit. There is, of course, a mandatory scene where the teenagers go to the deserted mall and play dress up.
I have to confess: though I think most of these are funny and clever, with the exception of You, Me and the Apocalypse (and maybe because, in addition to its being comedic, it was also EXTREMELY DARK), I haven’t tended to enjoy them as much as their more serious older sisters. What can I say? I’m attracted to dark. I’m attracted to bleak. Mostly because it makes our current life seem less so. But considering the way things are headed in contemporary society, that may just be a matter of time, (nuclear war with North Korea? Coming soon to a west coast near you! Anthrax outbreak via ISIS? Coming soon to New York City! Oh, and let’s not forget the ever-present specter of climate change, likely coming soon, period!) and another thing I enjoy about the more serious shows is they are partly instructional. And of course, there’s the gallows-humor aspect, and always another opportunity to examine ourselves as human beings, and see those things that make humanity great…and not so great. What do you think?
Books: The Gone Away World by Nick Harkaday, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
Movies: Zombieland, This is the End, Dr. Strangelove, Wall-E, Idiocracy
TV: Aftermath, iZombie, Z Nation, The Tribe
Two months ago, 6 theatre artists met for the first time at ACT theatre to start devising a new work for MAP theatre’s first-ever off-night (MAP’s Night Off) production. It was an experiment: come up with two 45-minute pieces based on the set rendering for MAP’s mainstage production Greensward, which would be playing concurrently on more traditional show nights.
Armed with nothing but that and our own thoughts and interests, we set to work. One thing we kept going back to was how we all felt we’d gone through some kind of twisted wormhole to an alternate universe after the election events of 2016. That, and this patch of grass ended up being the spine of what was to follow.
Rather than two pieces, we ended up envisioning the future as it took place in two parallel universes: one that is our current timeline, with our current U.S. president, and one where the election went in the other direction.
A thing we realized pretty quickly was that, going forward, neither of these worlds is idyllic. If you take November 8 of last year as the jumping off point where the two worlds split, there was still bad stuff happening, particularly where climate change is concerned. In predicting a future where the Democratic nominee won, yes, we decided things probably wouldn’t have gotten as bad as quickly as they do in the other future (like, probably the U.S. wouldn’t have pulled out of the Paris climate change agreement, for one). But realistically? On Nov. 8 we were already past the tipping point where global warming is concerned. We are. Now. Past the tipping point. But more on that later.
In the world where victory went to the Democrats, things were already bad, with regard to the environment, but instead of vilifying or denying scientific claims, we embraced them and actively tried to prevent…but things were (are) already too far past the point of no return to be anything but temporary Band-Aid fixes. The population continued to grow, putting even more strain on already limited resources. New scientific discoveries were being made to cope with these limited resources (my character, in fact, created a cheap and easy way to desalinate water – GO ME!) but it was all far too little too late. So, it’s not like everything was all hunky-dory.
The other world is the future of OUR timeline, where victory went to the Republicans. Things in this world went downhill much faster. Low-scale nuclear war with North Korea, paired with already-bad things getting worse: denial of climate change dumped more carbons/toxins into the air, permafrost melt spewed more noxious gasses (and also microbes that had lain dormant for thousands of years) into the air, warming the earth further, things went from bad to worse. The population was reduced drastically in this world, and as society collapsed and people were more isolated from each other and began living in smaller, tribal communities, dormant psychic abilities began to flourish, and at the time our play takes place, most surviving human beings are telepathic and have the power to control one element or another.
In both worlds, we wrote in an eruption of the supervolcano under Yellowstone that occurs in roughly 2060. So, in both timelines, things were not going too well…until this grass emerged (perhaps lying dormant under the permafrost for thousands of years?) that could metabolize ash and restore soil back to its original state, ready to seed and harvest in a few weeks. For a few decades, famine declines and crops flourish again in both worlds.
Which brings us to somewhere around the year 2135, where the play takes place in both worlds. The grass has been dying for a decade or so and our characters, prominent scientists in one world and powerful magicians in the other, have been tasked with making sure the grass doesn’t die. The play begins when our heroes are at the last patches of grass: a temple in one world, a research station in the other.
It was interesting to write something that had roots in actual science, but we did! Even more interesting to write about a possible future of our own world…we’d discuss all these horrible scenarios with excitement and gusto, and it was really sobering once we realized we were actually talking about the potential future of our own world. I was formatting the script one day, and a little girl came on some talk show and sang Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and I burst into tears mid-edit.
Yesterday, I read this in its entirety before our dress rehearsal, which was quite depressing…and then to read some of the comments below, lots of mansplaining about how people are just being extremists and it’s not really that bad. I think to myself, “Well, if it’s not really that bad, if we just ACT as though it’s that bad, and have some kind of plan in place and start really working on fixing it in earnest, it can’t possibly hurt. But if we do nothing and it actually IS that bad, I guess the joke’s on us.” It seems as though, well, the joke IS on us. I don’t have much hope of us fixing things, and am glad I’m not leaving any kids behind to have to suffer through it…I’m sure I’ll see enough in my own lifetime as it is.
The actual set for both pieces ended up being quite different from the rendering (above), but also ended up working even better for feed\back, (9 smaller patches of grass instead of one big one!)and it’s actually QUITE stunning (as are WE in our labcoats rehearsing Act I, the “science” part of the script):
So, you have the backstory. I can’t divulge much of the actual plot until after it’s opened, but if you’re in town, feel free to come check it out – it runs, mostly on off-nights, through the month of July, and there will be talk-backs fol-lowing selected perfor-mances, to solicit thoughts & feedback about feed\back!
Click here for dates and tickets, and please feel free to ask me any questions, I am always happy to answer.
This subcategory is smoking hot right now, and I mean smoking…HOT…pun intended because we are quite literally in the beginnings of it RIGHT NOW, we ARE the frogs hanging out in that boiling point. Call it what you want. Climate change. Global Warming. “Cli-Fi”. I’ve also seen it lumped into the clumsy catchall of “slow apoca-lypse”. And if you google it, you’ll find more references to what’s actually happening in the natural world right now, than you will anything regarding fictional television, film or literature. Because, despite the fact the current administration is denying it, we are already in the primary stages of this right now, and though it may be slow and gradual, less immediately tangible than, say, nuclear annihilation, the threat is highly real and even probable unless we drastically and promptly change our collective behavior.
But, I digress, since I am here mostly to discuss & define the Ecotastrophe as it exists in fiction (at least for the time being…there will be plenty of opportunity to examine the reality of it in the near future). Probably the piece of ecological fiction I’ve been most influenced by in recent years is Earth 2100, a futuretrip mockumentary that aired on the ABC network back during the summer of 2009. I’ve used this fake history as the jumping off point in two plays I’ve written now, as it follows the events in the life of a fictional character, Lucy, who was born in 2009 and lived through to the next century to witness the effects of climate change and the dominoes that ensued to eventually lead to total collapse.
The thing that fascinates (and terrifies) me is that with climate change, you get several directly relevant situations that will result from this. It’s not just, “Oh, wow, summer is really hot now”. It’s the entire globe getting warmer as a whole. It’s the melting of polar ice caps, which in turn causes severe change with regard to weather patterns (Super hurricanes, anyone? Intense drought?), not to mention flooding and rising tidelines. We mention the “Seattle Archipelago” in the play (feed\back) I’ve been working on this summer, as the various hills of this city become a city of islands. And when coastlines get eaten and drought occurs, flooding ensues most beachfront property is destroyed, crops fail. Then: stagnant water often leads to new, bacterial diseases we don’t necessarily have vaccines for. People move inland. Famine and border skirmishes occur. Mass extinctions of several species of insect and animal, severely affecting the food chain. The dominoes fall, one after the other into one giant chain reaction.
And then there are other things we are doing/have done that probably help this along: oil spills, meltdown of nuclear power plants (us older kids probably remember 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl – more recently, Fukushima in the 2011 earthquake/tsunami sucker punch that hit Japan and is even now contaminating the Pacific Ocean), and let’s not forget fracking, which is even NOW beginning to cause small earthquakes in historically non-seismic areas, like Oklahoma.
As fictional “what if” fodder, it’s awesome! …but I think we are getting to a place in reality where that fodder is becoming a highly possible cautionary tale I would love for us to avoid. What are your thoughts? I realize this is potentially a hot-button topic…
TV: I can’t remember any series dealing with ecological collapse as the main catalyst for the series…not fictional ones anyway, there are several documentary-type series such as Nat Geo’s Years of Living Dangerously. There have been episodes of Star Trek that have dealt with it, as well as Black Mirror. Fringe’s alternate universe had some shades of it, as did SyFy’s Defiance, 12 Monkeys, and to a greater degree, Incorporated.
I’m gonna take a little respite between End of World Subcatogories (back to that next time!) to ponder something I’ve been stewing on for a bit, particularly since a friend of mine tagged me on this particular tweet:
Whilst it specifically mentions dystopian fiction (the Societal Breakdown!), I would say I’ve had many more Disturbing Thoughts regarding postapocalyptic and disaster fiction as well since the advent of the wormhole this country seemed to collective fall into on November 8th of last year.
Depending on the day, it feels like we will either explode in some kind of nuclear conflict with North Korea, with all the unhinged tweetings of this creature who is supposed to have the best interests of every American in mind (fat chance) (I still can’t put his name after the word “president”), or plunge headlong into something resembling The Handmaid’s Tale at the hands of our current vice president. And then there is the very real and imminent threat posed by climate change/global warming. You don’t have to be a scientist to believe this…we are rapidly approaching the tipping point of no return.
I used to find this sort of fiction cathartic – not sure I can fully describe why, but it has something to do with “Oh, it’s just fiction – as bad as things might be, we’re not THERE yet”…because I don’t think I’ve ever felt this close to THERE as I have over the past few months. And thus, my interest in this type of story has shifted a little…rather than being as completely cathartic as it was before, I look to these movies, television shows and books as a means of instruction, really. What are these people doing in these simulated situations that I could learn from, in the very real possibility of the Sh*t Hitting The Fan for real.
From Walking Dead, I’ve learned not only how to kill a zombie (it’s gotta be the brain!) but which weapon tends to be better in this type of apocalypse. Guns work, of course, but they’re SO loud!Better to use something like a katana, a crossbow or a barbed wire-covered baseball bat: they’re quieter, and get confiscated less. And that the following skills are better than currency: hunting, farming, healing.
From The Stand, I learned to trust my gut – especially when it comes to my dreams. From The Last Ship, I learned that in an outbreak, one should keep one’s distance from others as much as possible.
From most dystopian fiction, I’ve learned that if something is amiss with the way things are being run, don’t ignore it, don’t go with the flow. Resist early, resist often, enlist like-minded people to your cause and fight tooth and nail to keep the freedoms and benefits you have.
From nearly ALL postapocalyptic fiction, I’ve learned one HUGE fundamental thing: other survivors can be your source of greatest strength and your biggest enemies, because the collapse of civilization brings about all sorts of opportunists who size you up according to what they can take from you. Darwinism at its most base, I suppose.
Oh. And if I start talking about what I’ve learned from speculative, climate-change scenarios, I’m going to start crying.
Would love to hear why this type of fiction appeals to you, and what, if anything, you’ve learned from your experiences of it!
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 surprised 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.
1.) The Standby 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.
2.) The Handmaid’s Taleby 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.
3.)The Roadby 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.
4.) Glimmeringby 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.
5.) Bird Boxby 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.
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!