Where Do Governments Go In The Post-Apocalypse?

In the absence of actual, non-Sandy news today, the conversation has turned to whether the approaching hurricane will end up influencing the presidential election, and if so, in which direction. I can’t pretend to any insight into whether Sandy will hurt Obama, help Romney, or what impact losing a day or two of early voting will have on either campaign. But this conversation did get me thinking about something that’s always bothered me about post-apocalyptic fiction: why there are so few central governments playing major roles after huge disasters.

I understand that it’s narratively quite exciting to explore landscapes that are anarchic, the psyches of men like the Governor in The Walking Dead who rise up and assume dictatorial control over small communities, or the group decision-making of a place like Haven, the refuge in Justin Cronin’s vampire novel, The Passage, that’s struck a terrible bargain to stay alive. The post-apocalypse is an opportunity for ordinary men and women to test themselves, and to have opportunities to become heroes, to take up arms and reveal their inner badasses, to stand up for decency and civilization in the absence of other structures supporting those values. We like watching Rick Grimes rise to the occasion, to be surprised by Amy Wolgast’s survival and what it means about the resilience of little girls, be they enhanced with vampiric powers or no.

But in apocalyptic scenarios, established governments have enormous advantages, both in beating back whatever dreadful things are coming down the transom, and in consolidating communities after the worst dies down. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, which has really settled in as one of my favorite movies of the past couple of years, is a terrific example of this: as a dreadful, flu-like illness spreads across the globe, individual government employees who go out into the field are vulnerable, but the bureaucracy takes great care to preserve the health and well-being of its core leadership. They get vaccines first. The chain of command both restores order and helps make citizens dependent on the government. People who are frightened for their lives may raid pharmacies and loot their neighbors’ houses, but they’re not exactly likely to storm National Guard barricades of the highways, and they may protest the order in which vaccines are distributed, but they’re unlikely to totally jeopardize vaccine production or their chances of getting their own treatment, much less their chance of being defended against a terrible and rising tide. The Passage at least has a nod to that—the surviving colony is founded by FEMA—but like most post-apocalyptic stories, it skips over the question of how the central government fell in the first place. It’s too bad that most stories try to get away from national, or even local, governments survive or fall as fast as possible. There’s a lot of interesting storytelling to be done about what it takes to lead in crisis, what it takes to resist the temptation to seize dictatorial power, what it means to fail, and what happens when bureaucrats who have been invisible for much of their careers suddenly become the people who stand between a wider population and disaster.