Over at New York Magazine, Heather Havrilesky has a great piece that posits an answer to one of the things that gets me twitchiest about post-apocalypse stories: the lack of an explanation for how everything got so terrible in the first place. She argues that the point of shows like The Walking Dead or novels like Colson Whitehead’s Year Zero is to clear away some of the complications of modern society and to let us revel in the possibilities of stark choices or stark scenarios: the opportunity to wander around a city alone, unencumbered by security guards or a need to justify turning up someplace, the possibility of nobly sacrificing yourself for your baby, the opportunity to demonstrate your love and commitment to someone you love who is in danger in a visceral, even violent way. She writes:
The focus of these novels isn’t on the shape and form of the catastrophe; those details are often pretty vague. The apocalypse mostly serves as a way to turn up the contrast on a hero’s solitary battle to adapt and sally forth. Stripping away the complications and distractions of the modern world, what is our protagonist left with? The same melancholy and longing he or she always had, of course, but with far more of an excuse to feel these heavy emotions at every turn. Instead of injecting desperation, romance, solitude, and morbidity into a banal tale, these qualities are encoded in the apocalyptic novel’s DNA, minimizing the trivial clutter and heightening the stakes. Values and ideas about morality are stripped down to their essential nature: Kill or be killed? Conform and tolerate oppression or escape and risk death? Somehow, though, even in older works like Ballard’s The Drowned World, such disturbing questions are savored and relished. There’s an obvious delight taken in the awfulness of the transformed planet. In his survey of science fiction, A Billion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss refers to this tendency of authors to concoct enviable end times as “the cozy catastrophe.” As others suffer and die around him, our hero runs wild, enjoying the fruits of the worldwide holocaust.
This fascinates me in part because I think my reaction to post-apocalypse fiction, and really, all sorts of futuristic narratives, is to be more interested in how we got there than what we do when we’re there. I love the first two books in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy because they’re all about the choices the characters make to extend their lifespans, to terraform Mars, to embrace new religions, and ultimately, to declare independence from Earth, but I’m relatively bored by the third novel, which is about all the sex and drama a new generation has once the future’s finally arrived. Reading The Hunger Games, I always want to know how the Capitol seized enough power to bring the Districts to heel enough to set up the Games in the first place. I wonder about first contact and the Bugger Wars in Ender’s Game, though I think Orson Scott Card is smart enough to weave a lot of backstory about the way the world changed into his story about what it’s become now. I love Contagion so much because it’s the rare, beautifully optimistic movie about how we avert a post-apocalypse, rather than bowing down to the inevitability of disaster.