“This is how the world ends…”

13 Jun

“… not with a bang, but with a walrus mustache.”

Of course before I continue on with the thought contained in the subject line I suppose I should engage in the obligatory apology for the lack of updates. I’ve spent the past couple weeks devoted to largely doing nothing. I’ve kicked around a few ideas for posts, but none of them really seemed like anything worth following through on, at least not in their current forms. This prolonged period of slack has involved a fair bit of the game playing, Fallout: New Vegas playing a rather prominent role in said gaming.

I’ve always been interested in post-apocalyptic settings. Maybe it’s the anti-authoritarian in me, that sneaky little voice that longs to see outdated, inept, and corrupt systems brought to a screeching halt. Maybe I’m intrigued by the possibilities for building something new that the end of the world might offer (which is not incompatible with point number one). Could be it’s another reason entirely. Regardless of the source of my post-apocalyptic affections, it’s the second of these two hypotheticals that is currently bouncing around the old gray matter.

I suspect it was the work of Alan Moore that first made me start musing about the end of the world. I’ve talked before about how a Nietzschean reading of Watchmen casts Adrian Veidt in a less than flattering light; which is putting it rather mildly since a Nietzschean reading of Veidt, or at least my Nietzschean reading of Veidt, leaves him pretty unambiguously painted as a villain. This is less because of the fact that Veidt killed a bunch of people to save the world, and more to do with how he went about the killing of a bunch of people to save the world.

A similar strain runs through Moore’s V for Vendetta. In this case the offending party is Norsefire. In the case of Norsefire they respond to the end of the world through an ultra-conservative return to pre-apocalypse values. The narrative that Norsefire spins for the people of post-apocalypse England is one which claims that it was not the values themselves that failed, it was the moral fiber of the citizens that failed.  As Nietzsche, Sartre and others have argued when the alternative is recognizing the meaninglessness of the world, of being forced to stand on our own with no transcendent support, being told that it was we that failed, rather than the things we believe… it’s an attractive way out.

Which brings me back to Fallout, and the post-apocalypse in general. While it is not a universal truth, it is generally safe to say that for all the faults of society as it existed before the apocalypse, post-apocalypse society generally tries to rebuild itself in the image of the pre-apocalypse. From where I sit, I find this to be troubling in the Nietzschean sense. Nietzsche’s death of god, and the ensuing nihilism that would come in its wake, was in a metaphorical sense a type of end of the world. In that sense it was an eschaton, rather than simply an apocalypse. I would that when confronted with a more physical sort of eschaton, an event that wipes away the old world to allow something new, would present the ideal opportunity for engaging in Nietzsche’s revaluation of values.

Yet often, too often, those who tell stories of the post-apocalypse tell stories which feature protagonists, and societies trying to return to what was, rather than forging ahead to create something new. Admittedly even writers who might be using the post-apocalypse to comment on our world as it is face some difficulties; trying to imagine a post-Nietzschean society is not an easy thing, particularly since Nietzsche didn’t leave us with a handy roadmap. However, by remaining locked into the old ways of thinking, I feel that post-apocalyptic stories ultimately suffer. Not simply as on a philosophical level, but on a story-telling level. The strength of science fiction is that it allows us to examine our own culture, our own time, at a distance; opening up possibilities for critique that readers might not otherwise have been open too if confronted in a more direct fashion. Yet when we present post-apocalypse narratives that adhere to the old ways of thinking and being, we lose much of the strength otherwise inherent in the genre.


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2 responses to ““This is how the world ends…”

  1. Bleeyargh

    June 14, 2011 at 8:20 am

    Particularly when you understand how the word “apocalypse” became popular– it’s Greek for “revelation”, which in Biblical terms (only) describes the end of this world and subsequent transformation of existence. In other contexts, it’s about learning something important and defeating self-deception. Once again, popular English shits on the proper meaning of a word from a not-particularly-great height. I feel so impacted.

    These narratives further abuse the term, since they’re presenting transformation into the unfamiliar as being an inherently terrible thing. Sure, in the book of Revelation, God and the devil chop the world up and divide it between them. The over-arching theme of the book is identifying with a group (“the righteous”, if you like) and knowing that the big guy likes your group and will punish the other one. Pardon me if I fail to produce my golf clap. Because of this nonsense, anyone left over (after the eschaton) is inherently wrong and is being punished.

    All this means that writers have their sympathetic characters demand a “do over”, while the villains have actually adapted to the situation. It’s the villains of these pieces that have achieved a lifting of the veil.

    • Josh Benton

      June 14, 2011 at 9:20 am

      Hmm. An interesting perspective. I do agree that in some cases the villains do have a more interesting, even better perspective than the characters we’re supposed to sympathize with, though I wouldn’t extend that to all situations. Most of the Fallout baddies, for example, fall into the “puppy-kicking monster” category. This is even, and perhaps especially, true of the latest Fallout big bad in the form of Caesar’s Legion. In addition to being assholes in general, they’re very specifically attempting to resurrect the past; though the past they’re trying to bring back in this case is a version of Rome crossed with the worst aspects of modern culture. (Plus the puppy kicking.)

      You’re also quite right about the over and mis-use of the word apocalypse. That’s why I tend to use eschaton when I’m talking about the end of the world qua transformation, since despite it most frequently being connected to Abrahamic contexts (and often misused there), it hasn’t picked up the same pop-culture baggage that apocalypse has.

      There are of course those narratives that don’t necessarily treat the transformation of the apocalypse as a negative thing; Moore’s Promethea and Morrison’s Invisibles spring to mind, but these sorts of treatments are admittedly few and far between (and as is the case with Moore and Morrison often tend to come across in ways that many readers find bizarre and/or incomprehensible). I remain hopeful that we might eventually see a shift toward more interesting post-apocalyptic storytelling, whether it follows in the footsteps of Moore and Morrison, or simply deals with the more conventional post-nuclear wasteland, but handles things in a more robost fashion. Admittedly I don’t see it actually happening, but I remain hopeful.


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