Too Close For Comfort: Current Times & The Postapocalypse

FlagI’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:

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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!

 

 

 

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.