Post-Apocalysm, -or- How America Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb

Republibot 3.0
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In our recent roundtable discussion, it turned out that Republibot 2.0 *really* doesn’t like The Road Warrior. He doesn’t like post-apocalyptic movies. I mean, he *really* doesn’t like them. In our long and storied history together, I’ve only rarely come across this kind of thing from him, and when I do it’s generally rather interesting. Is this a legitimate viewpoint based on some specific insight or aspect of the sub-genre that he finds objectionable on some valid level, or is this merely a case of something he simply ‘doesn’t get’ - like Punk Rock - and which he refuses to attempt to figure out because it clashes with his aesthetic sense? Is this a valid rejection, or mere intransigence? Dunno, but that’s always an interesting nut to try and crack with him.

Here’s *my* take on the post-apocalyptic genre as a whole:

In terms of a visual genre, Post-Apocalyptic cinema really does start with The Road Warrior (1981). This is by no means the first such movie, nor is it the last, but it’s the first one that really captured the imagination of the public and the spirit of the times. It remains a benchmark of the genre, and arguably it’s highest water mark as well. It influenced the outlook, fashion, and cinematic style of the 80s to a very high degree, and spawned a zillion inferior imitators - including it’s own sequel. On the face of it, that seems a little odd. We are talking about the end of the world, here, right? So why should The Road Warrior make the end of the world seem so damn sexy and cool? If I had to guess, I’d actually imagine that this is what R2 is bristling at. I don’t pretend to know, though.

Post-Apocalysm is as old as Science Fiction itself, really. In Frankenstein (1818), Victor is forced to build a bride for The Monster, which he becomes increasingly engrossed in. Then, fearing the apocalypse that will result from this new species coming in to conflict with - and ultimately replacing - man, he kills her on the operating table. In the 1890s, there were a whole bunch of proto-apocalyptic novels - most of them cautionary tales - about the apocalypse that would result only five to ten years in the future if the Germans gained an advantage in battleship technology. Likewise, there’s an equal number of German proto-SF cautionary tales about the apocalypse that will result if the British are allowed to maintain their massive advantage in Battleship Technology. The martian invation is “War of the Worlds” (1897) has a massive number of post apocalyptic elements - the devastated, abandoned London, gaggles of survivors living in the sewers, fighting amongst themselves, the end of human civilization itself. This is supposed to be appalling and horrifying - and it is - but there’s also an unmistakable creepysexycool element to it, too. Ultimately, this is undone by the Martian’s own biology, but the batter is in the stove, even if it hasn’t been cooked yet, you know? Jack London - who wrote a surprising amount of SF - had an almost archetypical post apocalyptic story that he wrote around the turn of the century which had tiny bands of people wandering around in the wilderness, having survived a devastating war with China that wiped out the world. Buck Rogers - 1929 - has always been inherently post-apocalyptic.

The seeds of this kind of thing have been with us since the beginning of the genre. Arguably, they date back further still. We have an inherently eschatological outlook. That is, the religious views that underpin our culture are based around the notion of progress (As opposed to a static universe a’la Buddhism and classical paganism), and also the inevitable notion that progress leads to an ultimate conclusion. Islam is eschatological, as is Christianity before it, Judaism somewhat less so, but it’s definitely got those elements, and Zoroastrianim before all of them is the great granddaddy of religions that feature an end to the world. So with all that pumped directly in to our subconscious, it would be unreasonable to assume it wouldn’t pop out in to our dreams and hence our fiction, right? So the whole ‘post apocalyptic’ thing has been in our cultural unconsciousness (Assuming such things actually exist) for three or four thousand years now, to a greater or lesser extent. That’s not to mention that Norse/Germanic society - which our culture is partially based on - was inherently escatological even before it adopted Christianity: Ragnarok, anyone?

For the record, my personal favorite pre-Road Warrior apocalypse in film is the 1962 Zombie Vampire Vincent Price film, “The Last Man on Earth.” My favorite literary apocalypse is “Earth Abides.”

But if our fears (and occasional hopes) for the end of the world have been around since the bronze age, it wasn’t until World War II that we actually put a specific plausible face on them. I mean, we always knew the world would end, but we were never sure exactly how it was gonna’ happen, right? Then we had nuclear weapons, and it was a simple retcon to assume all the devastation in the book of Revelation was the result of a global thermonuclear war.

The shift from a theological concept to a real-world plausibility was a tough one for our grandparents to swallow, and it scared the hell out of them. They, in turn, scared the hell out of their baby boomer children, who spent a generation in the shadow of the bomb being horrified by its mere existence, and - as we’ve discussed elsewhere on the site - kind of incapable of thinking rationally about it. But in a society built on progress like ours, the great rite of adolescence is rejecting the viewpoints of your parents, right? Mindless rebellion? It’s fun, it’s intense, it’s sexy, and sometimes, if you play it nihilistically enough, that hot spooky girl in your Marine Biology class will make out with you. Win/Win!

Seriously, a degree of adolescent rebellion seems hard-wired in to us as part of our normal neurological development.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the fear of nuclear war began to seem stodgy and old-fashioned and square, and that said fear would be rejected out of hand just like disco and prog rock were rejected in favor of punk and new wave, respectively. This is a good thing, because the fear of nuclear war was largely irrational to begin with. There was no way either side was ever actually going to start something when Mutually Assured Destruction held sway over the world. Mexican Standoffs are good for the international status quo. This was hardest on the baby boomers, of course. They’d grown up their whole lives fearing an unexpected destruction from the skies, fearing that their leaders really were destroyers of worlds and not just petty burrocrats on both sides attempting to ossify their control of their own societies. They never understood the nature of the game, and their heads were so far up their own arses in fear (You need fear to make the game work), that they could never understand how irrelevant their beliefs became.

Put it another way: The threat of nuclear war and global extinction was still novel for them, many of them were in their teens or 20s before it really sank in. Meanwhile, *we* grew up knowing no other kind of life. It was normal for us. Our parents could rant all they wanted about the bomb, but we tended not to notice the same way a fish tends not to notice the water.

What’s more, there were a lot of attractive qualities to Armageddon. Really. I mean, on the most primal, stupid level, who *hasn’t* has an Algebra II test coming up, and thought “Damn, I wish World War III would start so I could get out of this?” In an increasingly complicated, increasingly inscrutable society, the idea of sweeping clean the board and starting again on a more level playing field is actually rather appealing. No good with electronics? Confused by computers? Bewildered by international real politick? Don’t like reading? No matter: Nuclear war will wipe it all away, and return us to a somewhat more ideal 19th century existence. Granted: Billions dead, plague, disease, and the breakdown of social order. Sucks for them, and that might be daunting to some people, but really, honest and for true, we’re Americans, right? The myth of the eternal frontier is bred in to us, even if we don’t consciously like it.

I was assigned to read “Alas, Babylon” as a freshman in high school in 1981. The teacher - a middle-aged hippie-lady, clearly a straight-ticket democrat - clearly intended to horrify us about what Reagan was up to. I expected to be appalled - clearly, Pat Frank’s book was intended as a cautionary tale much like those 1890s battleship apocalypses - but in fact, it seemed kind of quaint and enjoyable to me. It warmed the cockles of my little black Republican heart to see the teacher’s abject horror when several people in the class said they thought the book was pretty cool, and the post-apocalyptic world seemed like the kind of place they’d like to live in. A world of rugged individualists and straightforward expectations, a society lacking in subtext. It seemed keen, and full of lots of steamed crabs and orange juice. What’s not to like? Granted, they make a point of saying all the diabetics died quickly for lack of medicine, but the book does seem to kind of unintentionally glorify the thing it intends to terrify us with. It was fun watching her ritualized horror at the appeal the thing she was ritualistically horrified about had to us.

“Earth Abides” - not a Nuclear War apocalypse, but a biological one - has a similarly wild-west existence, with the few survivors eventually transmogrifying in to a second wave of American Indians. It’s cool, and lyrically beautiful.

You find a lot of this in JG Ballard’s work. Though he shied away from writing nuclear war-related fiction, there was an undeniable, almost sexual attraction to destruction in his work. His vintage novels are all post apocalyptic earths rendered hopelessly alien by changing circumstance - the coral lagoons of London in “The Drowned World,” or the destruction of every structure on the surface of the earth by a new permanent global weather system in “The Wind from Nowhere,” or the breakdown of time itself in “The Crystal World.” Probably the clearest example of this, however, is the environmental devastation in “Hello America” that renders our entire continent virtually unlivable. While in every case this is seen as an unmitigated, colossal disaster from which the human race is only questionably likely to survive, it is simultaneously shows to be a personal triumph for the protagonist, a kind of liberation physically and mentally.

The Road Warrior fits nicely in to this scheme because if you’ve seen it, it is essentially a spaghetti western in an SF milieu. Specifically, it’s “Fistfull of Dollars” - there’s two evenly matched forces that have been stalemated indefinitely. The Man Without A Name - in this case, Max Roketinski - wanders in to town and upsets the status quo. The difference, of course, is that while both Max and Clint Eastwood are antiheroes, Clint is entirely amoral and Max is ultimately an antihero because he’s walking wounded, not because he’s a fundamentally bad guy. We get some great, moody scenes, some deliberately minimalist storytelling (Max has only 15 lines in the movie!), culminating in the greatest stage coach chase ever filmed. As denouement, we’re told that the people Max ended up helping survived and flourished, and the world is begun anew. Ultimately, it’s a hopeful story. As is “Alas, Babylon,” as is “Earth Abides.”

These stories aren’t about the end of the world, they’re about the rebirth of the world. The end of our civilization is actually considered as kind of desirable. This isn’t nihilism, actually, it’s hopeful, but it is the kind of thing that scares the living hell out of people who are over-attached to society, just as much as it appeals to people who feel marginalized or shut out by that same society. People with a pavlovian fear of nuclear weapons frankly couldn’t understand this new way of thought any more than their own parents could understand the stupid lice-infested clapped up drug-addled hippies.

It was inescapable. It was the zeitgeist: The baby boomers had destroyed our love for and attachment to our own society, and we’d lost our fear of the bomb to the point that we actually kind of looked forward to it in a daydreamy summer romance kind of way, a chance to cast off all the things we were required to do, but hated, a chance to chuck all that off and play cowboys and Indians. The Road Warrior perfectly captured that.

And since we no longer had any fear of destruction, the cold war had to end…