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Post-Apocalypse: Then & Now

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It's always interesting in tracing the cultural mindset of a time period through popular culture, and sometimes, it is even enlightening. In fact, the time during which fictional works - be it magazines, novels, music, film or television - are created, actually are more telling about the mindset of the period than the majority of non-fiction accounts, including those written during the time period in question by the academics and cultural observers themselves.

When scholars examine the UFO or aliens or flying saucer science fiction of the 50s and 60s, they look beyond the art or message of the work and pay closer attention to what they unintentionally communicate about the collective unconscious of the post-war, early Cold War Americans. These stories are chock-full of a sense of dread about being destroyed by a clever and sinister technologically advanced "other." These aliens would rain death from above, turn people against themselves, take over the world through a highly advanced version of the Holocaust or through subversive body snatching strategies from within. The protagonists of those stories were earnest, clean cut All-American types, sometimes athletic farmers and a couple of sassy & buxom women, who saved their villages and communities, and the entire world. So the creators were unconsciously betraying their own period based anxieties, a well of collective paranoia the Americans experienced during the early Cold War where worries of nuclear annihilation, Soviet invasion, or secret Communist subversion through spies and brainwashing were rampant. Only the zealously morally upright white Protestant youth could save the planet from the errors of society's ignorance.

In other words, the post-apocalyptic fiction from the eighties, set in some distant future tell us more about the 1980s than they could about the bleak future of humanity. In the eighties, we had: The Road Warrior. Night of the Comet. The Day After. The Quiet Earth.


that show a horrible post-apocalyptic future where a Mad Max-styled hero travels around, distributing Dr. Pepper. The cola wars had destroyed the planet, and all that's left was a George Miller-styled vision of civilization as the Australian desert.

The reason we don't make 'em like that anymore?

Just look at the post-apocalyptic future in current movies and fiction. Quite different from the wasteland of the 80s' dystopian futures.

WALL-E. The Road. Cloud Atlas. Oblivion.

And yes, Interstellar.

They all show a world that's abandoned, but visitable by people in environment suits, blessed with hyper-technology, and live mostly off world. It's a sterile and utopian future that meets the barren past. Basically, Earth has been destroyed, and the climate became so inhospitable that man had to move offworld.

Is the current trend in post-apocalyptic fiction more or less pessimistic than those from the 80s? Is it too optimistic to think that we will develop the capability to move offworld someday? Or a resigned pessimism that admits we're gonna screw the pooch so badly that not even Mad Max will be able to make sequels?

In the 80s, the post-apocalypse was about survival. No matter what, something will survive, and there will be heroes.

In the 21st century? We just run away.

In the 80s, apocalypse is always nuclear. One and Done destruction of Earth. No time to prepare, no second chances. As for the 21st century version of the apocalypse? It's environmental. A slow decay, gradual climate change. At least there's time to prepare. But according to those stories, it's easier to build a space based civilization than it is to fix the environment we've known about for years and decades. Basically, the scifi geek is yelling: "You can live in space but you can't come up with tech to fix Earth?" Then again, Earth in the current films isn't home. It's the antagonist.

And what does that say about Pantheon and its depiction of Earth as a barren wasteland? :heh:

Then again, it fits neither post-apocalyptic trope, and perhaps closer to the end of AI, in the far distant future where human race has gone extinct one way or another. :nod:

Edited by The Heretic
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I'm not sure it's so straightforward. Several of the current era of post-apocalyptic themes rely on the quick end, especially if you include the zombie flavor of apocalypse. I'm listening to The Dog Stars on my commute and while I don't recall if Heller describes the timeline of the fall I gather it was relatively quick. Soft Apocalypse, on the other hand, follows a handful of characters over the--like it says on the tin--slow degrade of human civilization. Danny Boyles' 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later describe a quick fall based on the speed of viral transmission.

Maybe what you're talking about is two strains of cultural zeitgeist that are wrapped in confusingly similar garb. The quick-fall apocalypse that leaves survivors with a quiet earth seems to speak to enthusiasm for some nominally simpler time. I know my particular attraction comes from feeling caged by obligation. Obligation to the state and its bureaucracy. Obligation to nominally future me, to ensure what I do now maximally supports what he will want to do then. Obligation to social tides and eddies, the need for small talk and email etiquette and chatting about the weather. The standard set of obligations modern Western adults sometimes fantasize about escaping, even if, contrarily, we are happy to do all those things with a similar degree of earnestness for people for whom we feel positive connections. E.g., I am happy to engage in small talk with some of my coworkers because I like them in general so it's not very taxing. With others, I feel like a blind man navigating a strange house. This apocalyptical fantasy doesn't want a clean slate, at least in my take; it wants simplicity as an end, not a new beginning. Even if that simplicity is also barbarism, which carries its own brand of catharsis, particularly in the zombie apocalypse in which killing the undead is the simplest moral choice.

Then there is, possibly, another version of the apocalypse of fancy prescribed by sweeping away our troubles and mistakes, personal and societal, and starting over having learned from them. This is nearly the entire conceit of Star Trek: that human race can control weather and invariably all species exist as planet-wide societies rather than as several separate countries with competing resources demands and political systems. It's the homogenizing of the human experience combined with the purging of any of our logistical frustrations. We still want human society in this form, and perhaps we want more of it.

Nevermind that there's no fantasy necessary for the quick apocalypse. People live, today, in settings not terribly unlike that of Fallout or Mad Max, except for the robots and ray pistols of the former. Roving bands of marauders capture, torture, and kill the weak. Lives are lived entirely under the thumb of warlords exploiting hyperlocal economies of slave labor. The poor eat sparely, and not well when they do. This occurred to me one day when I was lost daydreaming about living in Fallout New Vegas' Mojave wasteland, that if I was really that into it I could book a series of planes and boats and vans to various parts of the African continent or parts of Asia or the Australian Outback or maybe even American Appalachia and live out my life in this brutal simplicity. My fantasy was born on my immense privilege. Maybe that's another thing to gain from looking at these themes: an analysis or at least increased sensitivity to how our privileges shape our view.

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