So stories about the end of the days have been hip since Orson Wells was a drunken fumble in the back of his father’s jalopy (or whatever the hell you fumbled your lady in the back seat of back in 1915), but never, it seems, so much as now.
Whether you’re talking the staggering (har, har) Rise of the Zombie in popular fictions/videogames/film/television, the annual big-budget shitty disaster film, the increasing popularity of dystopian themes in literary circles or even (enormously popular) YA literature, everyone seems to enjoy savoring the notion of “the end of the world”.
Or, more accurately, the end of humanity. Because let’s face it folks, the world is going to get on just fine without us.
So why do we seem ever more in love with the notion of mass extinction and the collapse of this construct we’ve named society? Why has the ending of it remained a constant in our entertainment over the past thirty years and beyond? Since the setting of my book (STORMDANCER, out in spring 2012 through Thomas Dunne & Tor Uk plugplugplug) could be accurately described as dystopian, I’ve been having a think about the possibilities. Here’s my thoughts, for what they’re worth:
Everybody wants to be a hero. In the world we live, most people aren’t in love with their lives. They work jobs they hate to pay the credit card bills they racked up buying shit they don’t need. If they’re lucky, they enjoy fifteen minutes of fame in a world that consumes flavors of the month in moments. You’re never going to be a rock god or a movie star. You’re never going to beat the bad guy and get the pretty girl. Why? Because you’re ordinary, son.
But in dystopia, the ordinary folks are the heroes. In a zombie apocalypse, the only pre-requisite to play the part of “hero” is to be standing among the ranks of the “not yet eaten”. Post nuclear war? Still alive? Hot damn kiddo, welcome to the role of protagonist. Doesn’t matter if you were an accountant in your former life. Doesn’t matter if you’ve never kissed a pretty boy before, because there’s one standing right there, and you’re the only girl with a pulse or an aversion to eating human flesh for miles around. You are SO IN.
The Culture of Fear. Threat is a great motivator – advertisers have known that for decades. You sell screen doors? You just need to convince the world there’s a bad guy outside who wants in. You sell life insurance? You just need to convince people they’re gonna die. A culture of a fear is a culture of consumption – consuming to both alleviate the fear through goods and services to protect/deflect, and to numb/escape the fears that can’t actually be deal with in any real sense.
But I genuinely believe that enough of that threat has soaked into the zeitgeist that it needs to manifest in ways that we can deal with it mentally, albeit indirectly. We see the mainstream media whipped into a frenzy over SARS, AIDS, anthrax attacks. So we create dystopias born of viruses to help us push the real fear into the realm of “make-believe”. We have melting polar caps, rising global temperatures, flood and drought. So we make the big budget disasterpieces where Mother Nature herself turns against us. We have fear of gods, fear of war, fear of outsiders, fear of each other. And we turn that fear into entertainment, either as a means to actually deal with it, or to marginalize it, or to laugh at it. I have no idea which. Maybe all three.
Fear as a Drug. Let’s face it – people like being scared (if we didn’t, Stephen King would be a squintillionaire). We like to imagine “what would it be like?” We like to feel our pulses race and our breath come faster. We like to be horrified. As a culture, we’re in love with that endorphin rush, that moment of adrenaline kicking in, coupled with that overarching knowledge that it’s “not real”, that it’s all “pretend”.
It’s all pretend, right?
Pessimism. This is where I come in. I think a lot of the people in western society can sense there’s something deeply wrong with the world we’ve crafted for ourselves. While polar ice caps are melting, people spend vast amounts of time an energy arguing (and even killing each other) over what flavor of flying spaghetti monster they believe in, or the gender of the consenting adult they would like to get busy with. 90% of our wealth is controlled by 10% of our population. Somewhere between 30 – 150 species are rendered extinct every day as a result of human activity. A soup of plastic particles the size of the continental United States is floating in the northern pacific Gyre. One and a half acres of rainforest are chopped down every second. And deep down, all of us feel it in our bones.
There is something wrong with this picture.
In dystopia, the bad guys get what they deserve. It’s up to the common man/woman/child to find the new way, to forge the new path, setting aside the crimes of the past to make a better tomorrow. All the wealth and power of the neo-aristos means nothing in the face of zombie-geddon or virulent plague or neutron holocaust. Armageddon is the great equalizer – the eraser that wipes the slate clean and gives regular “good’ people that chance to build something better.
And finally Optimism. because in the realm of fantasy, it’s a rare story indeed that doesn’t end with the good guys winning. Sure the planet might be FUBAR’ed, and society in ruins, but there are still honest everymen/women left behind to build something out of the ashes. In almost every dystopian setting I’ve ever seen, humanity survives. In the bleakest scenarios being proposed by modern-day scientists (not fiction writers, mind), humanity doesn’t, and old Mother Earth is left with a dirty slate in which to craft the ascendancy of her next favored species.
And that’s an epilogue most of us can’t bear to imagine, so we fool ourselves by writing our own.