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What the Stale Air Tastes Like: An Apocalyptic Overview

Her Silent Silhouette by arcipelloThe stars are going out. The nuclear fallout bunkers were built in a rush. Your cat seems to be mutating into some sort of slug monster. We have reached end game. All our endeavours are for nothing, apart from that collection of bottle caps that you’ve been storing just for this day. The end is more than nigh, it has arrived, and there are so many other worlds that will come after it…

But what exactly is that you are writing there? Post-apocalypse? Dystopia? Or maybe, after the end, we were all the luckiest buggers around and we build Utopia? And if you are writing those delicious little genre nuggets, what makes them tick (I apologise for using a bomb metaphor for your novel, I am sure it is only explosive in its scope and entertainment, not for any other reason, even if a bomb did make your story).

The big three doom genres hang over one another like spectres. Here is an attempt by one screenwriter and novelist to break them down into bite sized chunks of delicious evil goodness.

Post-Apocalypse

I read somewhere a woman’s annoyance at the term post-apocalypse. By the very nature of The Apocalypse there can be no after, so the concept of a post-apocalypse is moot. This leads me, albeit rather early, to my first example. A series of games by Bethesda Studios, called Fall Out.

Fallout New Vegas by Juan0GFall Out is set in an America ravaged by nuclear attack, but in a universe where 1950s science fiction technology became the norm. Cue valvepunk robots and laser guns; cue insane cultist governments and mutated bear monsters. Upon producing Fall Out: New Vegas (the latest game in the franchise), the company interviewed a collection of scientists to better understand how to construct their maps. In short, what would Vegas look like after nuclear attack? They were simply told there would be nothing left. No buildings. No life. Just a smouldering crater the size of a state. Naturally, Bethesda ignored all the advice, because a long flat landscape nothing can live in with no landmarks doesn’t make the most exciting of games, but this further exemplifies the issue with the post-apocalyptic genre. What is left after the end is very minimal.

However, there is in fact a plethora of reasons why the end is nigh, not just smoking crater nuclear attack. The Last of Us video game for example envisages a planet Earth being eaten alive by zombifying fungi, which isn’t a lot stranger than truth. The Postman by David Brin uses EMPs rather than nukes, and The Children of Men by P. D. James uses mass infertility as its scenario.

The term apocalypse originally did not mean mass extinction, destruction and death, but rather related to enlightenment in a biblical sense. And before that, the term translated as “a great change.” “A change is as good as a rest,” my Mother used to say, and if we take that into consideration the world you build after the end can be as beautiful, balanced and societally active as you could ever wish. Or, as in the case of my next big-slapbang-in-the –middle-of-the-article example, the exact opposite.

Scream by comics-grrlI Have No Mouth But I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison is the scariest concept involving Artificial Intelligence I have ever come across on my literary and gaming journeys. Fall Out, being rife with references to previous texts, definitely has a IHNM vibe with its artificial intelligences, but it is Ellison’s work that really grasps pure artificial evil. The monstrous godlike AM gives this tale that devious balance between the end of everything you love, and a great change leading to enlightenment (though, the latter, never for its characters).

AM, in a vision of the future destroyed by an ever-escalating Cold War, is the last A.I. that remains after the end. AM saves five humans and tortures them endlessly, seemingly for no other reason than to pleasure itself. Where the enlightenment comes into play is seeing our own flaws and horrors. Through AM we see what it truly means to be greedy, selfish, cruel and unruly; what it means to wield too much power and what it means to be suppressed.

It is only through post-apocalypse that we can bring out of the woodwork concepts that we may not wish to deal with in a real world scenario. Infertility, the greed in war, the results of our disastrous labours, pure unfathomable cruelty: these are all ideologies that exist within our present day culture, but if we used real world examples to get the public to acknowledge them – and perhaps show that even your average day-to-day white collar worker possesses them – we would merely hit a brick wall of ignorance or fear. Post-apocalypse creates a world where showing horrible things for the purposes of enlightening others is entirely acceptable.

Dystopia

So, the world’s done for. Or perhaps it hasn’t ended, but everything has become pretty cruddy. What we have here, is a dystopia. Literally translated as ‘bad world’, a dystopia is where your government, society or general human bods have all gone a little bit cynical. The government is totalitarian. The people are suppressed. And the most hopeful thing for tomorrow is that you’ll live beyond the designated age as appointed by the grand overlord.

V for Vendetta by Luke ButlandThe kind of dystopia I am describing here is similar to 1984 by Mr. Orwell, or V for Vendetta by the ever bearded Alan Moore, where a government body overrules the thinking man and decides what is best for everyone involved. And this thing that is ‘best’ is usually the ‘worst’. But these are quite obvious examples of dystopia, where the author uses the fiction as a method of delivering an intense one-sided argument for a certain political view (i.e. I think X social/political/etc ideology is incorrect, because of this extreme reason). Usually, they are correct (dictating everyone’s beliefs doesn’t necessarily end well), but a dystopia can be so much more.

Sin City by Frank Miller (and then translated to film by Robert Rodriguez) is seen as a rare example of a present day dystopia. Inspired primarily by film noir, and old pulp fiction novelettes, Sin City depicts Basin City as a place completely overruled by crime. All the police are bent, the government isn’t totalitarian, just corrupt, and the murder and rape is seen as day-to-day practice and atmosphere. Dystopia, as said, literally translates as ‘bad world’, and that expands greatly what a dystopian genre novel/comic/film et al. can be. As much as 1984 shows how the world would be terrible if language and free-thinking were manipulated and subdued, Sin City shows how horrid it would be if everyone just did whatever they damn well pleased (albeit under a heavy dose of crime thriller writing). In that regard The Purge is the perfect example of both worlds: government doing wrong, controlling everyone, whilst letting everyone do whatever they please.

As much as post-apocalypse is about showing commonplace ideologies in an extremist environment, dystopia is about making horrible things mundane.

Utopia

The trickiest one now…

Utopia by jerry8448The word Utopia was coined by Sir Thomas Moore, in 1516, in his book of the same name. The term caused some initial debate as the translation of Utopia comes from both the Greek “outopia” meaning “no place” and “eutopia” meaning “good place”. Sir Thomas Moore rectified the complication by announcing it was indeed the latter, but I can’t seem to shake off this serendipity.

Utopia means somewhere that is perfect to live in, the most beautiful, bountiful and gorgeous of universes. This raises one main issue: stories rely on conflict, and where the hell does conflict live when everything is just so fan-dabby-dozy?

Writing about how you survive when the mutant mole rats are after you, or writing what it feels like to not have power over even yourself, is relatively easy. Everyone has felt suppressed at one time or another – merely exacerbate that feeling of having a terrible boss. But to write how it feels to be happy, safe, but real, that is a real challenge.

I call upon the might of The Culture as an example of a Utopia that functions. The Culture is a mass galactic organisation of various species and societies, ruled by a collective of hyper-intelligent A.I.s known as Minds. The Culture is post-scarce, full of entertainment, and infinite in possibility.

Culture ROU Over a Orbital by MallacoreThe scope of how much awesome a single member of this mass society can accomplish is near limitless, and there aren’t even rules, just etiquette. Yes, part of The Culture’s success lies in the fact it is pseudo-ruled by a collective of ridiculously named self-aware spaceships, but what Iain Banks achieves here is a society based on realistic principles of economics, politics and ‘how people really think’, combined with a lovely dash of issues that keep a plot flowing. Yes, The Culture is Utopian, but what about renegades outside of it. Special Circumstances – a kind of FBI/MI5 for a quasi-collective thirty trillion scope civilisation – deals with these events, and it is through the eyes of people contacting the grand, rebellious outside universe where conflict arises. Iain accomplishes his series of novels through understanding that living in a perfect place does not mean bad things don’t happen; it just doesn’t necessarily mean it is happening to you or that you are aware of it.

And yet, deep down, I can’t help but feel an emptiness to a culture where everything is possible (from gender changes over a month, the annihilation of rape and murder, to mass drug imbibing without consequence), because where’s the fun in anything if there isn’t any danger? The Culture is somewhat hollow, though a place I would adore to live within, the perfect conglomeration of ‘perfect world’ and ‘nowhere’.

The end is nigh…

Engie by IIDanmrakWe have come a long way, haven’t we? I suppose not. For each mountain range that are these three godly genres of the fictional world, I have merely scraped a few measly gravel pits on the top of a couple of hillocks.

All I can tell you is this. Debate with yourselves, and your inner selves. Write as much as you can. I want people to write things that really break the moulds here. I’ve given you some templates, and some canapés of thought, of what it means to write in these genres, but don’t get lost in the genre fiction. All I’ve done is show you the corner of a bigger, nastier picture. There are infinite texts in this real world, right now, that delve into the concepts these three genres offer as premise, and I bet half of them will prove this entire article wrong. And isn’t that just brill?

I’ve given you a bitter taste of what it means to live and breathe these universes, now you tell me what the stale air tastes like.

Title image by IIDanmrak.

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar Alec says:

    Funnily enough, post-apocalyptic fiction was the topic today in the Science Fiction course I’m taking with Prof. Nnedi Okorafor at the University at Buffalo.

    “I read somewhere a woman’s annoyance at the term post-apocalypse. By the very nature of The Apocalypse there can be no after, so the concept of a post-apocalypse is moot.”

    Actually, apocalypse literally means ‘revelation’, so if the nuclear or zombifying or what-have-you event is the “revelation”, there can certainly be something after it. A post-revelation world. Which is exactly what post-apocalyptic fiction is about.

  2. Avatar S. C. Flynn says:

    Agree with Alec about the meaning of “Apocalypse”. A very good piece, though.

  3. Avatar Mark says:

    Apocalypse seems to be an overused term in the YA field, but I think it’s only overused when everyone thinks that they can write an original post-apocalyptic story. I’m looking to a few writers to break these norms. I think that Brandon Sanderson with his space-opera/third Mistborn trilogy is going to be a breath of “fresh air” in the science fiction realm.

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