Why do we love post-apocalyptic fiction?
“What’s going to happen is, very soon, we’re going to run out of petroleum, and everything depends on petroleum. And there go the school buses. There go the fire engines. The food trucks will come to a halt. This is the end of the world.
- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Rolling Stone, Aug. 24, 2006
It might just be me, but I think that deep down inside, each of likes the idea of a little chaos. Think about it – if the world were to come to a sudden “end” it would mean that we could say goodbye to all our trivial stressors! No more having to study for that exam, done with the commute to that soul-crushing job, or I’m not broke anymore – now I’m just average! Some of these thoughts might materialize as tiny celebrations in your mind upon realizing that the end is truly here, and for a brief moment, a terrible weight of present burdens would be lifted from your heart! However, approximately 30 seconds later, you would then realize, in one sudden flood of comprehension, that none of those things was really such a big deal after all! In fact, you’d take that old life back in a heartbeat! That’s because now, in your new world-burning reality, you’ll be fighting just for survival.
How’s that for some perspective?
It’s easy to take the good things that any of us has for granted. One thing I’ve always tried to tell myself when frustrated by the challenges of our modern society, is that even some of the poorest Americans today still have a higher quality of life than many wealthy or royalty of centuries past. Of course, we should always strive to make things better for everyone, but at least we’ve already come a long way. As much as I enjoy the idea of living in a gilded palace in the middle ages, if I really had to choose between a life of ancient luxury versus a modern run-of-the-mill middle-class lifestyle with internet and modern medicine… hmmm, tough choice! I think this high quality of life is something that I take for granted at times, and if you’re like me, then immersing yourself in post-apocalyptic fantasy helps to put things into a little perspective. Maybe apocalyptic fiction helps us have a little more gratitude for what we do have and reminds us of the fragility of our complex modern world.
The quote above, by Kurt Vonnegut, strikes me as representing this contrast. At times we get frustrated with modern life (often for good reason!), and yet all it takes is for one essential cog to fall out the machine, and we’re back in the stone age!
I also think that apocalyptic fiction goes even beyond this comfort-contrast perspective and taps deep into the human psyche in other ways. One of the things I often think about with characters in apocalyptic settings is, what I would do in such terrible situations? Probably roll over and die – the thought of spending the rest of my life living like a hunter-gatherer would present a sense of hopelessness for me. How on earth can anyone find any sense of meaning or live of life of value in such a setting? Yet, somehow, people do find meaning amidst chaos. Maybe it’s this very challenge that encapsulates our human existence, and it’s just as relevant in a modern complex society as it would be in a ruined world that’s forced to rebuild?
To me, apocalyptic fiction is really all about that age-old question – what, exactly, is the meaning of life in the first place? Maybe that’s something each of us has to decide for ourselves, regardless of our life circumstances…