Friday, August 14, 2009

Apocalypse Soon

The Imminently Forthcoming End of Mankind

Man has always been fascinated with the idea of death at a mass scale. We all die – that’s part of the human experience. But we expect that we have a chance to make an impact on our society and through our work or our children leave something better behind. But from the Norse myths surrounding Ragnarok to the Christian tradition of the End of Days and the Rapture, people have explored the idea of the loss of mankind as a species. During the Cold War, it was assumed by many that nuclear destruction would bring about an ironic self-promulgated end to man’s endeavors. More recently, climate change and disease have become popular, and not entirely without reason. Yesterday, I saw a report that India is depleting its water supplies at an astounding and dangerously unsustainable rate. An ABCNews Special, Earth 2100 hypothesized a whole series of issues likely to confront mankind in the next 90 years, from the abandonment of the Mojave desert to plague and coastal flooding. There’s even a show on the History Channel, Life After People, that focuses on how the world would adapt to a complete absence of humans, from the growth or loss of plant and animal species to the eventual collapse of notable buildings and relics. It’s pretty clear that people are intrigued by the potential for our civilization to crumble. And some really excellent stories have been told that focus on the often-heroic efforts of the few survivors.

One of my favorite stories would have to be The Road Warrior. The original, Mad Max, was pretty good, too, and they make a great set, but The Road Warrior is the one that really sticks with me. Mel Gibson’s portrayal of a former cop trying to survive in a lawless land is just a terrific story. The action is intense, the characters are interesting, and the redemption of the hard-as-nails character when he agrees to help the embattled civilians is almost moving. I say almost, because, let’s be honest, this is an action flick and it’s not making any great attempt to pull at your heartstrings. Still, a really outstanding movie.

Another film I really like is 28 Days Later. In this movie, a character wakes up alone in a hospital. While he was in a coma, a disease known as “Rage” had crossed from monkeys to people, turning nearly all of Britain into a wasteland inhabited primarily by infected victims driven mindless by the disease. He meets up with some other survivors and eventually they find themselves a haven in the well-defended compound of a military unit. But in a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease, the soldiers turn out to be not much better than the crazies running around the countryside, and the main character must transform himself from a fairly mild “everyman” into a true hero.

The third of my favorite Armageddon stories is not just one film, but at least three, plus the novel that inspired them. I’m of course referring to Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which was made into The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price, The Omega Man starring Charleton Heston, and I Am Legend starring Will Smith. It’s a great novel and interesting in that all of the movies based on it are more similar to each other than to the original book. The Price film is a little dated for my tastes, but The Omega Man was always a favorite of mine and I thought Smith’s portrayal of vampire-infested world-gone-mad survivor Robert Neville was an apt modernization of the story, if a bit linear. In this story, a plague turns men not just into zombies, but into vampire zombies that shun the light and seek to destroy the last remaining man. The story gets interesting as Neville learns that the vampires are growing smarter with the passage of time, eventually forming their own society to replace the one that birthed them. At which point Neville is the outcast – the threat to the orderly operation of civilization. Matheson is a giant in the world of 20th century fiction and this is among his best-known works.

I recently read two other well-regarded “end-of-man” stories, one of which I liked and the other I didn’t. I thought that George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides was excellent and holds up reasonably well for having been written in 1949. There are some anachronisms, of course, but the story’s mostly about the people, not their stuff. The book covers a wide swath of thematic elements, from population control to law & order to how societies grow and change. His characters come alive in a way that many writers can only aspire to replicate and the book is gripping, chilling and thought-provoking all at once. It tells the story of a geographer who comes down out of the mountains to discover that in the weeks he was away mankind had all but perished to disease. From the ashes, he becomes one of the leaders of a very small community near San Francisco and struggles to cope with what they’ve lost while appreciating what they’ve found – a sense of freedom, a community spirit, and a peace that was unattainable in the press of cities and nations overflowing with people, traffic, crime, pollution, and disease. I wouldn’t say the book ends happily (I mean, how happy can you be when a couple of billion of your brothers and sisters have perished?), but it ends well and with a message that man, as an animal, is capable of getting back to basics if given a push in the right direction.

Immediately after, I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and I can’t say I really cared for it. It’s impolitic of me to say so – everybody else raves about it, right up to the committees that awarded it various prizes including a Pulitzer. I’m probably just missing something really profound, but both the writing style (consisting of, as far as I could tell, 70% fragments and only 30% complete sentences) and the story itself (about a father and son traveling across a post-cataclysmic land, primarily evading human predators) turned me off. I think the point of the story had something to do with the nature of the interactions between the father and son and, like I said, it’s probably something very profound that I’m just not smart enough to see. Fair enough. To me it just read like a story where not a lot really happened except for the main character making a few outrageously lucky “search for secret door” checks that made me think the Dungeon Master was giving him a little helping hand. Granted, I used to do this for my Dungeons and Dragon players all the time, but I never went on to write a Pulitzer-winning novel about it. Yet.

Regardless, this list barely scratches the surface of post-apocalyptic stories in literature and film. Hell, if you want the earliest “modern” example, it’s probably the story of the Eloi and the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. That’s a pretty good read, too, now that I think of it. So while this list isn’t exhaustive, it certainly reflects some of my favorites and it’s a genre I definitely plan to explore in my writing at some point. What’s more fun than a story of a lone survivor, especially when the story begins with the assumption that anyone who’d be inclined to read the book must already be dead?

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