Friday 16 September 2011

P is for Postapocalypse

Judging by occurrences in popular culture, especially online, most people hear “Postapocalypse” and think of Mad Max or The Road. When they fantasize about the fall of civilization (and, when we’re honest, who doesn’t?) these people see themselves, clad in leather, metal, and 1970s hairdos, possibly riding a motorcycle, armed to the teeth defending themselves against the lawless hordes roaming the countryside. They have mottoes such as “Trust no one,” “Look out for yourself” or “Always know who’s behind you.” They follow the law of the road and believe that only the strong will survive. (And most of these stories, I’m afraid, involve a chauvinistic and heteronormative world where the strong also get all the chicks.)

But in a real fall-of-civilization scenario—be it due to a zombie outbreak, nuclear war or bio-engineered plague—it is not the strong who will survive. It is the social who will survive. People like to cluster together: we’re social animals (unless they’re psychopaths, but those can only thrive if they’re a tiny minority), especially in time of danger and uncertainty. Yes, there will be chaos: a real fall of civilization needs a period of chaos to be complete. But then people will start to form communities; first for defense and safety in numbers, but then to share resources and labour, exchange skills and learning, raise and teach children, try to preserve as much of our learning as possible; to save as much of the good of our civilization before it is lost.

As fun as it is to read or write about people riding around having adventures on motorcycles, fighting zombies and marauding gangs, surviving in a world with all morality and law gone, there are more interesting things to write about. When I see a postapocalyptic landscape, I try to imagine how people are surviving, not in the face of humanity mysteriously turned into prehistoric savages, but in the face of the loss of sanitation, energy infrastructure, organized food production and freight, clean water, light at night and heat in winter. And against marauding savages, of course, because there will always be those who don’t possess the imagination to see they can benefit without taking from others, and grouping together with others with some kind of social contract is the best way to keep the sociopaths at bay.

Even more interesting might be to imagine how these nascent communities of postapocalypse humans choose to organize themselves (or not): they could choose to repeat all the errors of the past, and set up a plutocratic corporate economy where the resources of the community end up concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller élite. Or they could not. There are so many other forms of government to experiment with, and no doubt some would choose to live in agrarian hippie communes; others would try to build a libertarian or anarchist utopia. Some would choose deliberate simplicity, living close to the land; others would try to build up a more technophilic home, with renewable power generation, computer networks, physical and virtual libraries, networks of expertise feeding into both education and R&D. Some would be isolationist, others would actively reach out to other communities and individuals in an attempt to rebuild.

If you’re writing a story in the socio-political speculative genre, there’s a lot of scope for such speculation in the postapocalyptic theme.

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