Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Apocalypse Junkies

Sometimes I think humanity is still recovering from the year 2000 and the Millennium.

It is an odd thought, given that we're 15 years into the new century and forging ahead, but still, it's there. It’s as if there's a big hangover that won't shift, no matter how many hairs of the dog we have. A nagging feeling that perhaps, just perhaps, we should not have survived. Wherever I look, it seems as if we face competing agendas for our destruction, whether that’s something from the natural world in the form of epidemics or threats to our food supply, or Climate Change. The shift to a multi polar world after a century where only the USA and the USSR were the big players, the fall in our living standards, unbridled capitalism and the way the nation state as a political entity is slowly losing its validity. We've lived through Ragnarok, the Year of One Reed and other mythical apocalypses without so much as a goose farting. In fact the end of the world has happened so often, it’s become rather a damp squib.

Our culture too, has filled up with apocalyptic and dystopian motifs, especially in Hollywood blockbusters and Japanese anime shows. Apes rise to usurp us as the dominant species on Earth, aliens invade with strange machines, intent on wiping us out; cyborgs travel back to ensure that the apocalypse arrives according to schedule. Perhaps the biggest manifestation at the moment is the zombie apocalypse. It sometimes feels like you can't turn around without being confronted with a shambling horde of the undead dragging their way into your field of vision, be they in books, films or television series). In terms of cinema we've come a long way from White Zombie, the 1931 Bela Lugosi film which introduced the monster to the silver screen; today's offerings draw far more from the Romero Dawn of the Dead films. I think they catch the Zeitgeist in a way that no other creature has, flipping society away from the more personal fear of the vampire. In a world that in some respects is safer than ever, where we are the closest we've ever been to achieving legal, if not economic, equality, why are we so obsessed with the end of everything?

Admittedly the use of the apocalypse for entertainment is nothing new, when I was a child we had Threads, Doomwatch and Raymond Briggs' When the Wind Blows. Dr Who, the Tomorrow People and superhero comics often touched on these themes too, though not exclusively. But they felt different to today’s offerings, a warning not a celebration, often tucked away in the geek ghetto with only short shrift from non-geeks. Threads was the probably most well-known, living in common memory and mythology as the film shown in schools to terrified children as a way to warn against the seemingly imminent nuclear attacks from Russia. Hindsight tells us the Cold War was winding down at the time, Perestroika and Glasnost only a handful of years away but, crucially, Threads was made pre-Gorbachev; relations between the West and the Soviet Union were strained. So it was made and shown, and children were terrified.

I missed it, too young to be subjected to its eye wrenching horrors, and it remains something I haven’t seen, though I sense I must force myself to in the near future. My education in the Post Apocalypse was American, rather than British and came later, through Logan’s Run and the Amtrak Wars novels, amongst others. When Threads debuted, I was largely innocent of the post apocalypse genre, or even SF. I was unaware, too, of the works of John Wyndham, George Orwell or H.G. Wells. Those were discoveries I’d make in my teenage years, or early twenties but now, I’d argue that their work is the closest Post Apocalypse books got to respectability but even they struggled. SF was dismissed as lurid, childish; or it was in my family anyway. My parents viewed my love of all things weird with confusion, and my attraction to this sort of fiction is probably rooted in my Grandfather letting me read mythology and Tolkien at an impressionable age.

Today the apocalypse is no longer trapped in the Hollywood B Movies basement or thin novels destined for the second hand bookshop. On the contrary, it is often celebrated, welcomed and respected. Cormac McCarthy's The Road won praise and was adapted to film, possibly inducing the BBC to revive Survivors for the first time since the 1970s. And a few years ago the zombie novel, The Passage by Justin Cronin, won praise and awards from the press. Taken with the glut of films, TV shows (the Walking Day for example), comic series like Crossed, computer games like Half Life and Fallout, and it's hard not to see the apocalypse as a major slice of popular culture. If you shift into subculture, it becomes even more so, with Steampunk and Goth riding the tailcoats of zombie outbreaks albeit in different ways. Post Apocalypse has become such a pillar of Young Adult work that it dominates a good chunk of the market, and in the wake of the Hunger Games, Hollywood is taking everything it can find to milk that particular cow dry.

In some ways this just seems bizarre to me, with all the problems we face our will to do anything but wallow in fantasy seems to have been sapped. A sense of hopelessness pervades the human race, in Britain at least. We rail against the order of things, but do nothing; succumbing to cynicism. That’s one reason why nine million odd Briton’s didn’t vote in the last election because they don’t see how the system can be changed, or how it is relevant: something that just creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This reflects a societal shift too, we're far more worried about gangs of 'feral youths' than we are lone strangers all of a sudden and in the wake of the Credit Crunch we've seen a lot of 'kicking down' as the focus switched away from bankers' greed to the undeserving poor (and if you ask who the undeserving poor are, the answer is probably 'you are'). Twenty years of post Cold War politics have taken us back to something like a Victorian approach to class, leavened with a more pugnacious attitude. To be poor now is often seen as a moral failing, rather an accident of birth. If you can’t have a good life, it’s your fault for not working hard enough; the wider context of society, education and family is ignored. We are all islands, and if you’re affected by the shitty wind blowing in from the neighbours’, well that’s your hard luck.

In apocalypse terms, my concern remains that the zombie has become a stalking horse for class; they're a good way of expressing basic misanthropy, for fear of the mob: giving us a safe outlet for our frustrations with the rest of the human race, with a good dose of Malthusianism and fear of disease thrown in for good measure. I think it’s an understandable feeling, just crossing Birmingham City Centre during December leaves me wishing there were fewer people in the way. In America this often seems to reflect fears about immigration, whilst in the UK there are class and age elements at play; even if they are accidental; reflecting the internal psyches of both countries perhaps. Romero’s films were famously concerned with consumerism, and these elements remain true to many zombie narratives but I sense the metaphor has moved on.

The kind of violent crisis zombies, aliens and the like present feels as if it appeals to our nature as organisms, to our ape brains. They can be dispatched quickly, violently with no consequences. A recent study suggested that a zombie outbreak would be dealt with within weeks and that far from the new way of life posited in the likes of World War Z, people would continue in the same mode as before in the aftermath. It isn’t so much of a crisis as a speed bump, and a conservative one at that. It rocks the boat, but it sure as hell doesn’t tip it over. Compare that with the long game we're playing with climate change, which will doom our civilisations just as surely but will play out over the course of generations and you can see a stark difference. For many people the jury is still out over whether climate change is actually happening, despite the swell of scientific evidence. Similarly, I imagine a lot of Westerners haven’t heard of Ug99, a virus that’s attacking grasses in large parts of the world. There a dedicated teams addressing the problems, but they’ll never catch the popular imagination, no matter how many times you show devastated fields or drowned cities. Everything is happening too slowly for us to retain our interest in most of what is being said, and the prospect of a world without the animals we’re used to is in some respects too alien for us comprehend. Add to that it relies on us to respond thoughtfully, carefully but to actually do something. Instead we seem to be spinning our wheels against what looks like a ‘sleeping menace’, something we just won’t respond to in time. Our ape nature, our instinctive side, deals with what’s happening now; immediate dangers, and the ape is what drives our behaviour on a day to day basis. Anything else seems to be impossible.

I find myself wondering, too, if this has coincided with the death of choices in politics and the slow but inexorable drawing up of the ladder into power for a lot of people. For all the politicians' cant, it looks very much as if there's no chance of things changing, that their central message is 'be good children and we won't get cross with you'. Friends of mine have said that they think there's no point contacting their representatives; anything they raise will be dismissed quietly and politely. In the UK, this is compounded by the fact that reform to our political system seems to have ground to a halt, or even sabotaged by the very people who promised to implement it. The expenses scandal from before the last election still rolls on, untended despite promised to fix it. The state, as an edifice, has been unshaken and Parliament increasingly looks like a closed shop, an echo chamber talking only to itself.

Even the move away from a unipolar world to one where China, Russia, India and Brazil are all growing economies that are now levelling the global playing field. As they rise up, the West will inevitably fall down. The only saving grace is that as those economies become more expensive many of the jobs that have been shifted overseas may come back to our shores. It represents upheaval though, and a sign that Western success story, which has arguably dominated the past couple of millennia may be at an end.

Why not kick it over and start again?

It's an attractive proposition, a blank slate to build on. The world would become simpler, more focused on the domestic and the manageable. Without media or The News we wouldn't have to think about what was happening in faraway places. Nor would we worry about whether our politicians are lying scum bags or if you're going to rot on the dole for years - it puts the focus back on your life and what you can do. You want to eat, so you work, you cultivate land, you plant seeds, you raise a few pigs for slaughter and so on. It takes work out of the realm of bosses and time sheets and all that crap, you own the things you do rather than being forced to labour for someone else. What you work at is yours too, nobody will take your share, not even the taxman. It all gets a bit News From Nowhere, a blessed utopia where people only take what they need, food and accommodation are free and the Houses of Parliament are used to store dung.

This is where we hit a snag. We don't know is if things would actually develop that way or if there would be a rapid advance towards a more Lord of the Flies set up, gang driven, inclusive; where 'protectors' force the ordinary people to provide for them; no matter what happens, shit tends to float to the top. We can see that, in one form in the likes of the feudal, almost Nazi group who make their presence felt at the end of Day of the Triffids, or the Church of Zoot in the Tribe. Death of Grass by John Christopher explores this idea, portraying how even the most liberal humanist might, by circumstances, be forced to become harder, more violent until they’re not much different to the people they fear. They might even enjoy it. It seems more likely to me that this is what we would get, for a time at least and that the rise of petty kingdoms or similar states would be the result, in the short and the medium term. It’s pretty far from the idyll of the cottage in the wilderness, untouched by outside forces, as seen at the end of 28 Days Later.

We'd also lose so much which has enriched our lives, not just technology given how attractive it can be to see a world where the TV, internet and so on aren't barking at you all the time, but books, art and knowledge. Can you imagine a world without paintings or music? Can you imagine how it would be to be divorced from history and culture? I'm not sure it would be a good thing, more a recipe for some very twisted ideologies to set about recreating the world in their image (there's a reason why so many of the apocalypse nuts out there seem to be a bit whacky after all). Even if we don't go into the realms of hyperbole, there's truth to the Bernard of Clairview's statement that 'we are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants'. Without the past and the knowledge it provides, we're back to staring at the shadows on the cave wall, wondering what's out there. Maybe not immediately, but within a few generations. That's the cost of shrinking the world.

Physically of course we would lose a lot more, the food we eat would change radically, as the bite of the seasons took hold again. We'd be healthier for it of course, but would we enjoy the slim pickings of winter, or foraging for food in autumn, desperately trying to make sure there was enough to last until well into spring? Would we cope without electricity or gas to power our homes? There's no guarantee that solar panels or wind turbines would last, and even if they did they rely on ‘rare earths’, most commonly found in China; it'd be hard to get replacements when they eventually failed. Again, you're looking at generations but eventually there would be no more electricity, no more power.

The shape of the society we produce is more in these circumstances is something straight out of the history books. In fiction the closest approximation I can think of is the village in Greybeard, an agrarian set up, dependent on the land; embattled in a world humanity has lost control of. Farming, not technology would become the main occupation. Twitter spats and the vagaries of the online world would fade into mythology in a couple of generations, can you imagine trying to convince teenagers that once you could publish something that could be viewed easily all around the world, with a click of a mouse button?

Of course most of the post-apocalyptic vigour is wish fulfilment, stuff that will never be acted upon (if it weren’t then I assume that outward bound courses would be stuff to the gills with wannabe Bear Grylls’ and we’d hear a lot more about British survivalists, stocking up against the imminent End) and a pining for a simpler, more comprehensible world. It’s a fun fantasy, and it drives us on, otherwise why would we make running apps where you have to stay out of the zombies’ grip?

What’s interesting is how mainstream these ideas have become, we’re not talking about young men with a fetish for weaponry espousing these ideas, but the outwardly respectable. Whatever the cause is, the post-apocalypse has caught the Zeitgeist and run with it. Perhaps it won’t shift until the world starts to make more sense, or until we find something new to distract ourselves. With it feeling as if the century is still in its teething stage perhaps we need to get past that to shuck our apocalyptic addiction. To do that though, we need to have faith in the system, and the ability to fix it; something that seems out of reach at present.