Why So Serious? Dystopias and Post-Apocalyptica

There are many warnings of human greed or knee-jerk nuclear wars that leave the world in ruinous dust. If I’m honest, it doesn’t make the future much to look forward to. Where’s the hope gone?
Freedom of information can be a dangerous thing when it demonstrates the cracks in your world’s safety. A whole wealth of information about recession, government corruption, climate change, drug statistics and a million other things can make you believe the Earth’s a lost cause. Anything can kill you, or threaten to unseat civilization as we know it (especially according to the Daily Mail).  You begin to wonder what the point is. A story that runs over and smacks you round the head screaming ‘WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!’ won’t help; more likely make you curl into a ball and mutter yourself into a safer existence.
I don’t believe in being bleak. A favourite line of mine in the Glee episode ‘Born This Way’ is when Emma is seeing a psychiatrist for her OCD, and, being in denial, she says that it’s part of her and she was just born that way. The psychiatrist retorts: “You’re a guidance counselor. If a student came to you and said ‘I have diabetes,’ would you give them insulin, or tell them ‘that’s who you are supposed to be’?” That’s generally how I feel about hopeless visions of the future.
Not only can dystopias/post apocalyptic worlds be ultimately dingy and depressing (everything looks like rust, even the plants), too often they convey the wrong message about how to avoid them. I want to feel good about the effort I’m supposed to make, rather than chastised for doing nothing. I dislike the endless charity adverts that show lingering pictures of crying children or abandoned dogs, not because I don’t care, but because it dejects me into hopelessness (they’re also overdone, clichéd and ridiculously overstuffed with schmaltzy guilt-trip). Generally, unless I find a cause that I identify with and believe can make a difference, I feel more compelled to give out of guilt than by reasoning, and it disturbs me that the rationalisation seems to be lost- even giving to charities I know nothing about just out of guilty admonishment. And it’s not a true acceptance of the change I’m making, it’s just not wanting to have my ear pulled about it.
Frightening or saddening children with scary and depressing stories might work, but when you’re adult enough to reason, you need a much stronger explanation as to why it makes a difference. You also need to show that it’s easier than people think. The complicated terms that adults think in make decisions a lot harder, especially if they require considerable effort to put into practice. For kids, it’s a no-brainer: something’s wrong, so fix it. If a TV series or book is good, make more. Candid interviews with kids are amazing to watch for the innocent simplicity of their answers.
The Problem With ‘Pocalypses
So how do you address a serious issue, maintaining the gravity of the situation and rally people to a cause at the same time? Hope. There has to be that moment that suggests things are going to turn around. That’s what people respond to. Depression nurtures introversion, which doesn’t necessarily equate to benefaction. Happiness, or hope at the least, creates extroversion through positive reinforcement and inspires motivation, communication, and the idea that helping others and using your voice to express a concern is the right thing to do. It’s at least partly why people turn to acts of charity after a bereavement- they find hope, and the desire to see others survive perpetuates it.
Dystopias and post-apocalyptica make good settings for video games for this very reason- your purpose, as protagonist, is to make the world better. Whether for yourself or otherwise, the purpose and meaning behind your quest would be pointless if you got to the end and found out that all your work was undone. You have to feel like you’re making a difference, and that requires reward for all your work. That’s why the end of Half-Life 2 was so damn annoying, as you didn’t even get to see the payoff (at the time, anyway).
While dystopias preserve more of a functional level of society, at least superficially, they’re just as bleak at times- we’re all alive and doing well but vampires, or mutated, or have lost all vestiges of our humanity. Great. It still serves as a warning, especially in books like Brave New World by Adolus Huxley, but the fact that we devolve into deranged, sex-crazed drug addicts at the slightest excitement doesn’t exactly fill you with inspiration. Or it might, if sex and free-will eliminating drugs are on your to-do list.
I Am Legend (the book), then, treads a really unique middle path, where what begins as twilight for humanity becomes dawn for another kind of existence, and the balance is re-struck, albeit at the expense of everything we know. And through the horror of the end of the human race you see the justification of it in the eyes of Earth’s new inhabitants whose civilisation actually becomes the better path for the world. There’s a twisted kind of hope, but if you’ve been cheering for the protagonist it leaves you in complete shock. So that’s not an ideal example.
Brave New World’s contemporary, Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang, by Kate Wilhelm, bears similarities but has the greater promise of something good coming by the end of it. We’re not the same, but somehow better. While at the beginning the human race is ending and struggling to come to terms with inevitable extinction, cloning technology enables more generations to be constructed, and groups can be assigned specific purposes according to specialised genetic structures. These clones at first cannot exist without the confines of company created for them, but as ‘isolation’ sets in, they begin to discover what had made humans ‘human’ before them, and it in equal part inspires and terrifies them. The terror of silence means they aim to, essentially, eliminate individuality and free will from all members of their race. By the end, it’s clear that while you may ‘create’ a human for a specific purpose, it is doomed to extinction without these differences and idiosyncrasies that enable free, unrestricted thinking. The human race effectively dies out, but is reborn a few short generations later by virtue of its own recessive genetic memory. And even in a near-barren world, life grows, and the scars of the world fade.
Planting the Seeds of the Future
The thing is, what makes the story compelling to follow is the idea that things can change; you root for good winning out over evil. That works even if you hate the protagonist- you follow the story for the characters you like. Yes, create the jeopardy and ruin the world, but save it afterwards if you want to make people feel like saving it was the right thing to happen.
But if something’s completely hopeless and laden with guilt, my motivation disappears entirely, and I don’t want to invest emotionally in a situation that makes me feel bad every time I think about it. People are drawn to making the changes that are productive, both selfishly and through altruism. It’s the same reason you don’t give a homeless man a huge sum of money knowing he’ll spend it on drugs or Crocs shoes.
The post-apocalyptic story I want to talk about most, probably my favourite, is Shade’s Children by Garth Nix. This is one of the better adventures which maintains equal desperation and hope throughout. It’s not sappy, far from it- the characters have to work every step of the way to secure even the smallest victory and escape with their lives. They experience horror and huge losses, but never stop moving towards a goal that ultimately reshapes the altered world they’ve known for years.  It’s an incredible book, and it made me want to fight alongside the characters all the way, even after the end. It’s not been through human error that the world’s been all but destroyed, though, so that’s a fundamental difference. But the establishment of a terrifying hierarchy rings true whether it’s a dystopia or otherwise; something that, while maintaining power, works consciously or unconsciously to destroy everything beneath it.

A good book isn’t one that patronises and tells you all the way through that it’ll be all right. Sugar-coating the reality of the work involved or the dangers of complacency is equally as fruitless, not least because it’s false (and generally boring). But you should still necessitate the idea that justice can continue, because that’s ultimately what makes any sacrifice worth the price. I’m always fascinated by Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution as an example. Not that Los Angeles is a dystopia just now, though. Maybe.

That’s not to say stories can’t be bleak. I wrote a couple of Animatrix fanfictions that were dark and didn’t end well, and I enjoyed them as much as anything else I’ve done. Each author should be free to build their story as they want, but I get fed up with being told how bad the world is and how little I have to look forward to. What a load of bull. Get out some and enjoy life. We’re not on fire yet.

UPCOMING POSTS:
Why I feel like Jamie Oliver
TRUKK NOT MUNKY: Steampunk hates Furry?
She-Man! Beefing up Women in Fantasy
Steampunk 101: How to be the Future We Never Had Yet
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