Fallout 4’s confirmation brought waves of excitement all across the internet. People active in the fandom and even people outside of it cheered upon hearing the new title being teased just a couple of days ago. As for myself? I had a mix of cautious optimism and the kind of cynicism a curmudgeonly old fart would have, but none the less a renewed interest in Fallout, if not the post-apocalyptic genre. Granted, the newest entry in the Mad Max franchise helped too. And while I’d love to focus on Fallout games more than I already have, I just want to ponder about the genre as a whole; metaphors, cautionary tales, and tropes of course. While this started as a rambling rant (much like my chaotic “review” of HATRED), this became another longwinded look into some aspect of speculative fiction and the media by yours truly. So, let’s ride into the atomic sunset and soak in some healthy radiation once more!
The implications of the apocalyptic genre are pretty overt. Society as we know it is gone, a vast chunk (if not the majority) of the population is dead, resources have either become wide spread or non-existent, terrible things roam the ruins of civilization and life as a whole is worse than before the end-times. Though, the biggest mover behind apocalypse is great change on a massive scale. As anyone with a google sidebar can tell you in a matter of seconds, apocalypse stems from Greek origin. “Apo”- means to undo something, while “kaluptein” means to cover. Together and with different sentence structure, we get “Apokalupsis”. So in a sense, it’s a great unveiling or revelation. Some could argue that massive shattering events in fictional worlds count as apocalyptic, some bordering as such.
Take Lovecraftian horror, for example. The basic premise is distant beings that dwell beyond a reality we can comprehend used to live here. However it happened, they either left or were pushed back and lay dormant; either pondering methods to seize what’s theirs’ or glaring from beyond the veil as their hatred continues to grow. For the most part, this knowledge renders the protagonist mad in terror and confusion. For such information to become widespread, it would be an apocalypse on both fronts of uncovering that revelation as well as the collapse of society as we know it. And what’s worse is this widespread chaos would likely set in before these elder beings were able to reach our realm at full power. In a sense, the apocalypse of dark insight leads into the apocalypse of cataclysm.
Perhaps the best insight into apocalypticism is through the biblical book of Revelations. Needless to say, there’s some terrifying end-of-the-world type shit going on throughout its verses. From rising dead to visions of four horsemen, we’re given bleak revelations from angelic visions. However, these scriptures weren’t supposed to be about doom and gloom so much as the trials of heavenly might compared to the struggles of the faithful. They went on to detail the need for righteousness and bastions of “good” amidst evil, sometimes detailing what evil even is. And despite evil bearing down upon good, all good rewards come in time. So, while these revelations may be bleak, there are means for conquering the struggle in order for a brighter tomorrow. In a sense, these revelations sound more akin to heroic narrative than the actual collapse of all things. So this begs how the genre became the failure to heed the revelation?
For starters, countless civilizations have had stories about previous collapsing… seemingly since the beginning of civilization itself! One of the first recorded stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh, details what could be one of the first interpretations of The Great Flood. This refers to a massive flood that washed away civilization at the hand of divine retribution. Countless cultures all over the world have variations of this, the most well known in modern conscious being the Abrahamic interpretation with Noah and the Ark. And as years followed and great tragedies came with it, many bleak events in history were penned as being related to divine revelations. Whether was the bubonic plague that wiped out a massive chunk of Europe and Asia or “The War to End All Wars” causing a massive number of deaths before conceived, there was some connection created as a test for “good” to triumph over or perhaps even the failure of “good” itself. Now granted, these views are easily up for interpretation and were propagated to push various points. But beyond real life and real scripture, you could say the genre could fit one just as easily as the other.
So, since I wanna bring this back to pop culture, what makes the contemporary fiction apocalyptic? I discussed some tropes above, but what more is there to it? How bad was this end of the world? Yoinking from Mad Max once more, the trilogy gives us a chronology of the apocalypse, from the early days to years after the absolute end of the old world occurred. To sample from ever beloved TVTropes, the first film probably falls on Class 0 (or societal disruption) as urban infrastructure begins to collapse and law falls with it. As resources for fuel and power become unstable, everyone starts to go a little mad! Of course, in the sequel, law and society have completely decayed! War (or rather, the early days of nuclear war) has claimed countless lives, leveled cities, and pushed people into the outback wastelands. However, countless raiders hungry for remaining resources are desperate too or “Class 1” as the site says. By Thunderdome, the old world is class 2 deader than dead and the bombs from 15 years ago helped to make that a fact of life. As for Fury Road? I’m still not sure, but I guess it takes place not too long after Thunderdome. At the very least, the villain has some pseudo-civilization set up, even its a dictatorship where he and his cohorts hog most of the resources he found.
Now, like all science fiction, there is usually some sort of statement either being made about the science that’s being explored or something about our world itself. By all means, the world of the apocalypse is no exception. Jumping back to Lovecraft, his apocalyptic visions count, even if they’re “pre-apocalyptic fiction” on most accounts (save for a few, which are debatably even post-apocalyptic depending on your view.) A lot of his stories made statements unsurprisingly about him. Diving too deep into a culture you don’t understand could drive you crazy, at least so said HPL. While that’s obviously a load of bunk, the man had a massive load of personal issues that he hadn’t begun to completely fix by the time of his death. More on topic, The War of the Worlds is a great example of early sci-fi using doomsday as a means to make commentary. The revelation of alien invaders stems from an allegory of both British imperialism and struggles between species.
Now, more than commentary, there’s very much an emotional response too. To sample from HPL one more time, the strongest human emotion of fear and the strongest fear is of the unknown. What’s more uncertain than the end of everything we know? Civilization and life as we know it is disrupted at best and completely destroyed at worse. Among the things that people are most adverse to, radical change is among the top. Now, I’m not speaking of political change, so much as global shaking events. To be fair, apocalypse-levels of metaplot are what drove away legions of D&D fans with the Forgotten Realms setting, but that’s a story for another day. Back on topic, to think about losing everything is a terrifying prospect. I’m not talking about materialism, so much as that comfort of normalcy, this world of the mundane we’ve grown accustomed to. Now, this isn’t the case for countless people. In areas torn apart by violence, angry factions, and hatred; they experience their own sliver of the apocalypse. Some have become used to this bleak life, while others yearn for something more. That said, I’m not here to create a larger social statement, even though the genre is known for doing so. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to The Walking Dead, we’ve come to fear the destruction of not just life, but the world around us. We fear the deaths of ourselves and our loved ones, but also civilization and the world.
To attempt to tie up this pretty loose mess (akin to my “ramblings” posts), the apocalypse is many things; dark tidings of a grim tomorrow, the grim tomorrow itself, or motivation for divine retribution. Whether fantastical or scientific, the end of the world is a fear that has been imbedded within us for aeons. Countless tropes define the genre, while others reinvent it; past, present, and future. The apocalypse is very much a part of us. It’s our culture, our desires and fears of change, the existential dread of death, and countless other things. One could argue we’ve experienced it many times in our own world, just not quite mirroring the cataclysms we write about in fiction. So, this begs the question when the next apocalyptic event will rear its ugly self… and how devastating it might be? And even worse, could fiction have predicted it?