Escapism and the End of the World as We Know It

Post-apocalyptic literature troubles me.

I should qualify that.  I enjoy a fair share of post-apocalyptic storytelling.  The Road is minimalist and bleak to the point of horrifying beauty.  Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is an exceptionally realized far-future fantasy.  Battlestar Galactica takes the most profound kind of end of the world scenario and puts real humans in the midst of it.  Even Star Trek is a post-apocalyptic society, given the events of First Contact.

The genre has a legacy of post-apocalyptic lit, starting at its genesis with H.G. Wells’s the Time Machine.  But lately apocalyptic literature of all kinds has proliferated.  Besides those mentioned above, there’s the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, Shipbreaker and the Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, and the entire nouveau zombie trend.  Even James Howard Kunstler, a dismal pop-science author (and a major spokesperson for Peak Oil doomsday scenarios), has jumped on the bandwagon with his World Made By Hand series.

Kunstler presents an interesting case.  I first learned of his work in college, when a professor first introduced me to Hubbert’s Peak theory.  Kunstler at the time was known as a nonfiction author.  I don’t know why he made the transition to fiction, but I speculate that it gives him a broader audience for his ideas.

It was also in college that I noticed an interesting trend: many students who bought into the doomsday-type scenarios of Peak Oil and other looming social and environmental issues did so with the hope of a new society emerging post-crisis.  When the old order collapses on itself like a deflating balloon, the world would be more receptive to whatever ideology they had in mind for a new society.  (Many I encountered were anarchists of different stripes, but one could argue the same for Marxism, Objectivist Capitalism or any other ideology.)  Utopia through the lens of apocalypse.

Is post-apocalyptic literature escapist?

Much of fiction is escapist in intent.  Much of the time we read to be entertained, and the best way a story can entertain is to transport you from the world you know into a wonderful, alien place straight from the imagination of the author.

This is what troubles me.  The scenarios in fiction for world-ending events are now too realistic, the authors too gleeful in the willful destruction of the world.  Kunstler’s series is an excellent example.  Kunstler would argue that a post-Peak world would be a much better place — we would be closer to our physical neighbors, more in tune with nature, and more inclined to take pride in our work.  Here’s what isn’t so rosy in this scenario: the deaths of millions, if not billions, from starvation, exposure, and preventable disease; the collapse of government, followed immediately by a rise in crime that would make a third-world country today look well-policed; further environmental catastrophe due to our sudden uninvolvement, such as spikes in deer population where we have displaced natural predators.

I’ve written post-apocalyptic stories, but none of them cast the rosy picture of the literature above.  In the real world, if a plague wipes out most of us, or we endure a nuclear holocaust, or EMPs knock out all of our electronics, we wouldn’t be thinking of how we would return to the Earth and set aside our prejudices.  We’d be struggling to survive, fighting over food and potable water, and keeping watch for roving gangs in the night.  A new civilization might arise from this, but without the resources the old world had, and not in any position to adopt some new, utopian ideology.

We live in a world where we face apocalypse frequently.  The earthquake in Japan last Friday has been catastrophic not only for that country, but for the world as well.  The US has been living in a kind of limbo state after 9/11 that we’re just emerging from; its citizens face the dual threats of radical fundamentalist terrorism and the chipping away of civil liberties by those in power.  And there’s the internet, which only twenty years ago was little more than a toy for wealthy urban consumers and otherwise the domain of the government.  My life can be split in two parts: the time before I was connected, and the time afterwards.  Never mind Peak Oil: the world changed irrevocably when we first typed a URL into a web browser.

We’re uncomfortable with the revolutions that have taken place in our world, so we seek out more comprehensible, understandable scenarios.

Nausicaa, which I mentioned earlier, is different.  Miyazaki paints a grim picture for the future of humanity: living in the few hundred square miles of land that haven’t been overrun by enormous fungi; wearing masks to filter out the thick pollutants in the air, water and soil; few children surviving to adulthood, and fewer adults surviving an early onset of old age.  But in what he calls the “twilight of the human race,” he shares a message of hope and understanding.  No easy answers, no hope for a new world order, no utopia among the ruins.  Unlike most other fiction, it is a story that encourages engagement with the world, not escape from it.  We authors would do well to follow his example.