Have you noticed the proliferation of futuristic post-apocalyptic dystopic narratives? Perhaps it’s just me, because I am a self-identified science fiction fan – not an expert by any stretch of any social construct, but a definite fan of the genre, so maybe the pervasiveness of this type of narrative is all in my imagination, but humor me, and please deliberate on the following list, which are in no particular order:
Zombieland, 28 Days Later, Afterworld, Resident Evil (x infinity), The Book of Eli, Captain Planet, V, Total Recall (original and remake), Twelve Monkeys, Knowing, Independence Day, Daybreakers, Alien Resurrection, Blade Runner, Terminator (x4), Signs, WALL-E, Firefly, Serenity, City of Ember, 2012, Children of Men, Sērā-fuku mokushiroku, I Am Legend, Jericho, War of the Worlds, Madmax (x3 with number 4 in production), AEon Flux, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, The Day After Tomorrow, Battlestar Galactica (original and remake), Dune (x franchise), The Matrix (x3), Le Temps du Loup, Judge Dredd (original and remake), Terra Nova The Hunger Games, Revolution, and Falling Skies.
This list scratches the surface of productions from the last thirty years, because the only criteria most of these have in common is that they are reasonably well-known films or television shows. Authors, Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, and Stephen King seem particularly obsessed with this sub-genre, considering they’ve all written several novels that are set in dystopic worlds. E. M. Forester flirted with this topic with The Machine Stops. Almost a hundred years later, David Mitchell wrote Cloud Atlas and once again envisioned a world were technological supremacy fails to solve all problems and ultimately gives way to the natural world.
End of the world, general states of global misery that exist beneath the thumb of a tyrannical super government, or fragmented police states surviving in conditions of environmental degradation are also settings frequently employed in graphic novels, manga, and anime. Consider Vampire Hunter D, Y: The Last Man, The Walking Dead, Jyu Oh-Sei, Darker than Black, Nausica of the Wind Valley, Cowboy Bebop, and Now and Then, Here and There names but a few.
So why the fascination? Why the regular return to narratives that predict the end of our existence, or at the very least the end of the current existence we so decadently enjoy? I think some of this stems from fear, and the possibility that we are but a mere blink away from the end of all we hold dear and comforting. But let me get a bit more psychoanalytical and hypothesize that the attraction lies not in our world laid to waste, but in the possibility of surviving that destruction, the illustration of what that survival might look like, and whether it is truly worth considering.
I know more than a few, on my island home, who hold fast to the belief that we would be one of the first to go in nuclear conflict, and that we should be grateful for this particular outcome, because we would not be around to muddle through in an unrecognizable and inhospitable environment.
Most of the storylines, of the works already mentioned, do not describe total oblivion, but stay true to the speculation/hope that the human species does, in some way, go on. And this is comforting. Maybe. Consider this: would you want to survive in the un-survivable? Is continuation necessarily the ultimate goal? Biology holds the easy answer. The need to survive is inextricably bound to our genetic selves. But if survival holds such a powerful drive over our species, why is it that we are equally skilled at bringing ourselves to the edge of annihilation at increasingly regular intervals? When we look at our relationships with each other and our environments, questions and theories testing evolutionary assumptions, based on biological imperatives, become more complex and tangled. For example, which matters most, the continued existence of a single person, a few dozen people, a few thousand people, a hundred thousand people, a million people, or a billion people? Now, decide which people should survive. What if that single person is you?
These fictional visions, and the conjectures they provoke, call us back to the philosophies of manifest destiny and infinite growth (code name globalization), and demand a reevaluation. How can any of these ideas work when we have already found the edge of the world and discovered the foreseeable end to our infinite resources?
These questions seem particularly pertinent, if you live, as I do, in a geographically isolated place (2500 miles from the closest land mass) that is criminally reliant on external food sources. We import approximately 85% of our food, so at any given time, we are equipped with a 7 day food supply. In other words, if the shipping lines and air traffic were to stop tomorrow, our population of 1.3 million could survive for 7 days, yet our islands are home to some of the most fertile lands in the world. For more than a century, most of these lands have been dedicated to mono-crops, like sugarcane and pineapple, products that may have been profitable, but crippled our ability to build sustainable agricultural models. Most of these lands have yet to be used to feed the people living in Hawaiʻi. E komo mai, to the Zombie Apocalypse. Imagine 1.3 million people suddenly without food.
These are the legacies of colonialism, imperialism, and economic expansion, which all seem to rely heavily on the idea that problems at home can be solved by going somewhere else, but what happens when there is nowhere else to go? This is the fundamental question that serves as the foundation for these post-apocalyptic dystopic literatures. What do we do when we have existed ourselves into a corner, and our failures have piled so high, we can no longer climb over them to find a new territory with more resources than what we have left behind? What do we do when there are so many of us disease is uncontrollable; food and fuel sources cannot keep up with the demand; financial machines and governments collapse beneath the weight of their over optimistic debt; once habitable environments are unable to support human populations; and we fight each other over the scraps that are left? Perhaps herein lies the answer to the question of why we return to these rather depressing storylines, because really, there’s nothing futuristic about them, and their settings are recognizable as today, or a tomorrow that is not distant, but sits just around the corner.
But what does this have to do with poetry, orature, or literature? Much as I love dissecting the ends and outs of the work I call home, I must also acknowledge that limiting myself to these discussions is an irresponsible luxury. Yes, I do embrace art for art’s sake. Why the hell wouldn’t I? That is what I call fun, which is a necessary piece of the lifestyle equation, but as an artist, who also works as an educator, and gets the occasional opportunity to speak with communities beyond the realms of art and academia, should I not use my toolbox to engage the questions and answers that impact the place in which I live? In this post-apocalyptic, dystopic, zombieland frame, restricting my conversations to investigations of metaphor and process feels elitist, naïve, and even spoiled, so rather than considering only if we should eat the peach, shouldn’t we also be asking where it came from, how did it get here, and whether it should be here at all?