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

Werewolves vs Vampires vs Teenagers

I hated puberty. The insults, the isolation, the hormones, the mood swings, pretending to fit in for fear of being alone, and anger at nobody taking you seriously. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was just a week, but this thing lasts around six years. There’s a lot to discover during puberty, and it’s not always great. I look back at it with a real trepidation, wondering how far I’ve actually moved from those swirling insecurities and the restless, adirectional meandering between friends and ambitions trying to find what my true dreams were.

There is a comfort in mystery during puberty though, to an extent. If I admitted it, I sometimes enjoyed hanging onto depressive feelings; they were my problems and nobody else’s grievances could take them away from me. It felt more satisfying to tell people that nothing was wrong even though I was lonely or jealous of everyone else’s girlfriends or just generally pissed off. Being able to tell people would suddenly devalue them, either by comparison or because helpful advice would solve them. For the most part I already knew they were fuelled by hormones or rather superficial situations, and at the time I didn’t want to lose that, because I wanted to have something larger to grasp onto in my life, something true to me. It’s an odd, almost detrimental selfishness, and given that puberty’s a whole swell of new, often quite dark or unfamiliar emotions it’s not hard to see why paranormal creatures of choice begin creeping into our minds as allegories for our own transformations.

I want to suck… 
Vampires are not my favourite cryptid, I’ll be blunt. I hated vampire films, books, tales, anything much to do with them. Even though I helped a friend write one. That was different.

I guess for my part they represented the more attention-seeking emotional lot that wandered around. I was definitely more goth-orientated when I was younger, not that I had the confidence to show it completely. Being more introverted myself, the goth friends I had who were into vampires always seemed to take what seemed like more than their fair share of the issues and attention that I wanted from those around me. They wore their feelings in their clothes- black, baggy, and hooded, as if trying to dress themselves in shadows and hide their insecurities. It’s a mask, and anyone can attest that the clothes you wear are a reflection of how you feel about yourself.

Perhaps it’s just personal bias, but I could see great parallels between the emotional state teenagers considered themselves to be in, and the aesthetics vampires seemed to provide. Sleeping habits are disrupted during puberty, and the excitement of staying out at night makes the prospect of activities in the dark (whatever they might be) far more exciting. A whole new fascination for life after 9:00 opens up once you’re old enough to start asking questions and challenging your own boundaries. As your emotions develop, you also start experiencing more of the bittersweetness of emotions, the idea that things can be both good and bad, and that both can exist almost constantly within one entity. Anti-heroes and even villains become opportunities to experience the darknesses of life and actually wallow in them for a time.
The fascination with blood comes hand in hand with a sense of adventure and adulthood. The link between both vampires and werewolves with the advent of periods is probably too obvious to go into; monthly transformations and free-flowing crimson is probably all the description you need to make the connection. But more than that, blood signifies danger, risk and assertion, and an irreversible pact with whatever spills it. I can remember fantasising about wanting to protect something so much that I would throw my life in front of it, and wanting to feel that heroism within me. It didn’t seem worth it without the spilling of blood, almost. And as a teenager, when you’re struggling to find a way to express your emotions to anyone, friends or relatives, the frustration can become so much that hurting yourself, drawing blood becomes a justifiable, almost enjoyable pain. I’ve only done it myself once (I pinched part of my skin between my fingernails; hardly substantial), and I’ll never do it again. But I understand the inescapable frustration, and with that the feeling that you know better what your feelings need to resolve themselves (usually someone being hurt or bumped off) and the ‘rage superiority’ that comes with being affronted. The idea that you could swoop down on someone of your choice in the night and suck out their life-force becomes immensely satisfying, and becomes an emotional quest for justice, whether it’s against you or vigilantism for a friend.
Werewolf Bar Mitzvah
For werewolves then, the emotions are similar, but the expression is subtly different. As anyone knows, werewolves are normal people about 95% of the time, but every full moon turn into hulking powerful creatures and go on a rampage. Where vampires are consistently dark and brooding creatures, werewolves have a greater deal of balance, at least until the rage quotient builds up enough that they explode in a fit of fur, muscle and poor special effects. Werewolves, then, are better at concealing their emotions and have a greater disguise than vampires, who have to be more overt about their nature simply because they have a fundamental disability to do otherwise. Turning into cat litter when you step into the sun makes you more obvious than someone who inexplicably disappears once every four weeks.
While vampire-archetype personalities might revel in the emotional turmoil they feel and mutually licking each other’s wounds (and thereby reinforcing the need for wounds to be greater), werewolf-types may well be embarrassed by it or feel they’re unworthy of those same emotions. I’d refrain from telling others about my issues because I believed theirs had greater merit or urgency, or that nobody would be interested anyway. But I still got angry. While a vampire has precision-killing abilities, the anger a werewolf feels is more omni-directional, a rage against many things leading to a situation rather than a single vendetta. There are definite parallels between both, though: the aspect of darkness and self-isolation, introversion, an injustice or imbalance against something the ‘creature’ holds close, and the idea of a hidden power that could unleash deadly force if provoked.
And, perhaps, coming to terms with a sense of loneliness. Puberty teaches us so much about emotions and how different we each are, so the longing to find someone who we can share ourselves with becomes hugely important. Everyone at some point will feel like a monster or a freak, and for some those feelings will last a lot longer than others. We’ll start to analyse what makes us different, and often there isn’t an answer, something that leaves us trying to create one rather than be left without an explanation. The idea of transforming one way or another into a deus ex machina that can tear all our problems apart and rid ourselves of the need to ask questions becomes very attractive.
“But… what am I?” “Over-reacting. Now piss off and get on with your work.”
I suppose it would boil down to what causes your angst and how you deal with it. The popular image of vampires of being dark, clad in leather and fiendishly strong is well-established in the media and will rarely fail to appease a budding pubescent with dreams of becoming equally impressive. Werewolves have far less to go on in media portrayals that aren’t dated or fairly crass, so their image remains more internal and personal. It’s easier to be a vampire not least because it ties in well with goth fashions and popular culture- you can see more clearly what you belong to. In return goth fashions embrace people who feel (or at least want to look) ‘abnormal’, and popular media enhances the ‘lone wolf’ image attached to it. Because a werewolf can look like anyone, you’re wandering without a pack a lot of the time. Unless you’re one of these spiritual therians, but… well… different strokes for different folks. I’m not judging.
It’s always interesting when the next vampire movie comes out what they’ve done to address the emotional perceptions that these characters have. To be honest I don’t think certain popular teenage franchises have done anything good for either race, and I always wonder why it is that werewolves come such a distant second in the race for screen-time. Van Helsing was a crap movie, but at least the werewolves didn’t look like the greasy, oversized rats of Underworld. Vampires get all the glory, in both good and evil, while werewolves seem to be the plight of the accidental and ugly. I guess majority perceptions of furries probably haven’t done any favours to appeal to the eyes of Hollywood (I like anthro characters, but too much sex, guys, seriously). But it still seems unfair when there’s an untapped mythos waiting to be unleashed. Vampires, for all their self-obsessed vanity, are dull and overplayed.
But maybe that’s my inner werewolf talking.