The post-apocalyptic genre is popular largely for the romanticist atmosphere. Proud, mighty mankind reduced to primitive roots, while we get rid of all the bureaucratic hassles of modern life. But why listen to my sermon when Stephen King penned his thoughts on writing The Stand, which by golly is the closest thing to our current doomsday scenario?
From Danse Macabre:
> “Much of the compulsion I felt while writing The Stand obviously came from envisioning an entire entrenched societal process destroyed at a stroke.”
> “In this frame of mind, the destruction of THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT became an actual relief. No more Ronald McDonald! No more Gong Show or Soap on TV – just soothing snow! No more terrorists! No more bulls***! Only the Gordian knot unwinding there in the dust.] … [ Yes, folks, in The Stand I got a chance to scrub the whole human race, and it was fun!”
That’s the attitude common to most of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre. You don’t like the rules, here, let’s chuck the rulebook and you go back to being a barbarian hunter or leading a biker gang. Now see, isn’t that better than being an office drone in the procurement department?
If we do get to that point, we now know that a worldwide pandemic is the least fun way to get there. At the same time, we have a handy cheat sheet for future authors. Anybody writing a novel set After The End can use these notes from the people who were almost living that, in the interest of producing more realistic stories…
Expectation: Humanity unites against the menace
Reality: Most of our problems are caused by each other
You would think one deadly threat to all of humanity would get people to be a little more, you know, cooperative. But then you have derps licking the deodorant or coughing on groceries. You have whole groups of people who rank their party-time as more important that public health, disregarding their own. Jerks, amazingly enough, go right on acting like jerks even as the Four Horsemen ride in. Which, if you ask me, tends to help make the Horsemen’s point.
You don’t see the jerk factor in apocalyptic fiction. Nobody in The Walking Dead takes a selfie with a zombie group to post on TikTok. Nobody sides with the aliens in Independence Day. No politician makes a speech about how Godzilla is an absurd liberal myth while the beast continues stomping the parking garage.
Expectation: Quests for rare totems and promised lands which will rebuild civilization
Reality: Next week, I’m going to have to pay a visit to an abandoned subway tunnel flea market to haggle with Dennis Leary over a roll of toilet paper
Talk about putting it all in perspective! In Waterworld, they were in search of dry land, not toilet paper. In The Matrix, they were seeking The One, not Mr. Whipple.
The reality has us less concerned with whatever Holy Grail will save us from our doom, and more concern with making sure we go to meet our makers with the tidiest of heinies.
Which makes me ponder why more post-apocalyptic fiction doesn’t address plain old logistics. Zombieland builds up a lot of enthusiasm for Twinkies, but disregards the fact that the power is still on everywhere. Both versions of Dawn of the Dead have the band of survivors holing up in a mall: Clean, well-stocked, no signs of looting anywhere. The merchandise is still hanging on the racks with intact price tags. Our malls don’t even look this good right now!
Expectation: Survival of the fittest, banded up in self-sufficient gangs
Reality: Mommy isn’t there to nuke your chicken tendies, so you die
Where are all of our doomsday preppers, rugged survivalists, stockpilers, vigilante monster hunters, and desert nomads? At the least, you’d think more Army surplus stores would be renting pop-up slots at the mall. I expected to see way more trenchcoats and rifles by now. Post-apocalyptic fiction is chock-full of rugged characters who trap their own dinner, cook it over an open fire, and sleep with one eye open.
But I’m afraid we’ll have to look to places like Somalia for that level of survivalist training. Meanwhile, I’ve met dozens of soft, round dumpling people who swear they’d be a warlord by the end of the first week of the apocalypse, but are meanwhile in bunches as to how they’ll get through the day without their herbal scented vape pod.
I’m afraid first world industrialized society is far too comfortable and sugar-fed to adapt back to jungle law within a week. Everybody plays the video games where they shotgun hordes of zombies. Let’s replace those games with scenarios where you drive a car up to a four-way intersection whose traffic signal has stopped working. Your challenge is to decide what to do before you sit there and starve to death.
Expectation: Laissez-faire Libertarianism
Reality: Ah, so this is what it takes to get Socialism
Well, so the hell much for that Invisible Hand of the Marketplace, eh? Still think privatized health care is the way to go? Wait, you say the market was going to solve everything? Here we are with the perfect opportunity for industry to show off its resourcefulness and flexibility, but it’s too busy dying in that tar pit over there. I thought we were all supposed to be serfs working within the fiefdoms of corporate city-states at this point?
Meanwhile, the most collectivist dream of the Andrew Yangs of the world – a Universal Basic Income – is being launched by… the free-market Capitalist in chief! Never saw that coming, did you? It’s going to take a lot more than the first stimulus package, too. We’ll need one next month and the month after that, and then pretty soon it will be a habit. The only thing harder than starting a Socialist program is stopping one.
Other Socialist dreams-come-true: CoronaVirus has done wonders for the environment, there’s now a major focus on the blue-collar worker while celebrity culture can go pound sand, and people all over the world are singing choruses off their balconies like they lived in a commune. Churches (mostly) are closed, so there is literally no religion right now. We expected Rush Limbaugh and we got John Lennon.
Don’t get me wrong, I would love the opportunity to live in a Robert-A-Heinlein-sized corporate city-state about now. It might suck, but at least it would be a stable, predictable suck. But apparently the exact opposite is going to happen. After this is over, that’s all I want to hear for days is Libertarians ripping their Ron Paul posters off the wall and shredding their Atlas Shrugged copies, yelling “I’m never poisoning my mind with this garbage again!”
Reality: No prophets
Why is it we have the End of the World prophecy for every other year in history except this one? No Harold Camping – remember the 2012 Doomsday vans that would drive around with the scary graphics of the hourglass over the globe? We got that every year except this one. No Y2K, no religious cult springing up, nobody scrawling “the end is nigh” messages like the walls in 28 Days Later? As often as apocalypse predictions break in the media, which insists on taking them seriously every time, you’d think 2020 would be the year where one lucky freak would win the lottery and at least enjoy a few months of validation.
There are animals who predict the Superbowl that officially now have a better track record than every doomsday prophet ever. Great time to sit on the bench, prophets! I award you zero canonizations, which you may share with your fellow psychics, astrologers, fortune tellers, and Tarot card readers.
The Prize For Most Realistic Apocalypse Goes To…
12 Monkeys (1995)
I’m not even the first to point out that 12 Monkeys nails it closer than any other sci-fi movie. Well, OK, except for the time travel part.
There are rumors about the plague being deliberately engineered as a bio-terrorist weapon, though we won’t support them here because this post is pessimistic enough already. In the absence of humanity, even if we’re just temporarily squatting in our homes, wild animals have taken to the city streets again. The movie is filled with the same kinds of jerky characters in both the present and past that ring true to our headlines. Even the experts in the story barely have an idea what they’re doing. Humanity lives underground in perpetual quarantine.
Yeah, 12 Monkeys, from the visionary director who brought you Time Bandits and Brazil. A Monty Python member just became our new prophet. I might have known.