08 November 2012

What makes an apocalypse contemporary?

First an update: I’m still alive, I’m still writing, and the first draft of Bad Influences is almost complete and still scheduled to begin posting in January, despite a few setbacks this year.  Otherwise, I’ve been reading contemporary apocalyptic fiction and thinking about the place of Bad Influences in the genre as it stands.

In his introduction to Wastelands, John Joseph Adams notes a recent resurgence in post-apocalyptic fiction, with a fallow period for the genre between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11.  It seems to make sense that we have a greater interest in the end of days in times of heightened global conflict, until we look at global history and current events a little more closely and realise that, from a global perspective, there’s never really been a time without the presence of some potential civilisation-levelling disaster, whether man-made or natural or a combination of the two.  Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, famines, plagues, tidal waves, hurricanes or the ever-escalating disaster of war, at any given time some form of large-scale devastation is taking place somewhere, or being awaited with helplessly inadequate preparation, or its aftermath is being survived.  What high profile events like 9/11 spark in our apocalyptic imaginations is not the idea of apocalyptic danger itself, but a different perspective on it, a new way to articulate the ever-present anxiety that the fragile egg-shell of human civilisation can be smashed at a moment’s notice.

Contemporary apocalyptic fiction is ultimately, in its underlying anxieties, the same as classic apocalyptic fiction.  What differs is the perspective and focus, whose anxieties are explored and how they are expressed. Wells and Wyndham explored both the causes and effects of disaster, with evident social critiques and dire warnings from what seemed, to them, a fairly neutral viewpoint. Both War of the Worlds and The Time Machine were concerned with humanity’s decadence and complacency.  Wyndham was interested not only in how his Triffids worked and where they might have come from, but how a lack of social cohesion could set the stage for their takeover. Neither Wells nor Wyndham was excessively interested in the personal losses or inner emotional lives of their protagonists. Their narrators were everyman figures, excluding specific viewpoints (which, of course, means excluding the viewpoints of anybody not in the demographic of the narrator and the writer.  Women cannot be everyman.)  The traditional apocalyptic narrator is white, male, middle class, practical and knowledgeable on relevant issues, usually with no family of his own to complicate his observations, experiencing disaster like a BBC reporter, choosing the shots and angles from which to portray the events while avoiding visible sentiment or detectable bias where possible.  He can explore the differing perspectives of those he meets, he can even be persuaded by them and change his mind several times, but ultimately he will occupy the middle ground.  He is neither cowardly nor foolhardy, neither aggressive nor weak, neither emotionally cold nor hysterical.  It’s not that the classic disasters don’t relate personal and harrowing stories, but they do so at a distance.  The protagonist isn't made of stone, but in the end it's not important how he feels about the collapse of society, only that he records humanity’s reactions to it in all their extremes without discrediting the account by doing or feeling anything too extreme himself.

Contemporary disaster fiction, when it focuses on the disaster at all, often does so through a character who has some personal reason to be particularly affected by it, or must make important decisions regarding it. Otherwise, it uses a range of viewpoints, rather than attempting neutrality. Each viewpoint is specific, and they differ in order to give equal weight to their differences. Conclusions may be implicit in these experiences, but in contrast to the classic disasters it is the experiences rather than the conclusions that are assumed to interest the reader, so that the experiences are described in intimate detail, and the conclusions are often left ambiguous.  In The Testament of Jessie Lamb, it's not important whether or not Jessie becomes pregnant; it’s her struggle to make that decision, and the responses of her friends and family, that interest us.

Disasters themselves can be specific or interchangeable.  The specific kind explores events and decisions prompted by a strong central "what if" premise - what if the human race became infertile? (Children of Men) What if a virus wiped out or otherwise endangered a specific group of people, such as men (Y: The Last Man), pregnant women (The Testament of Jessie Lamb) or adults (Jeremiah)? These disasters explore a targeted aspect of our present society by focusing on a specific cause. In the Interchangeable kind of disaster, it's disaster itself – collapse, conflict, societal breakdown – that is being explored. The nature of the disaster is random and affects enough people to be considered untargeted: zombies (World War Z), pandemic (Contagion), nuclear war (The Road), environmental (Flood) or economic disaster (Player One) - it doesn't really matter, as the effects on society are similar, if not exactly the same. These disasters don't pose an original dilemma through their nature, but allow a more general exploration of human nature in adversity. The general nature of the disaster means that these stories need some other specific point of interest to focus on.

Sometimes it is the medium or format of the story that determines its focus - the Fallout series tells a post-apocalyptic story interactively in the form of computer games.  It could be that the nature of the disaster is a premise for a hard science plotline, while the characters’ actions are driven by the jeopardy it creates (Contagion, Flood).  It could be that a particular character or character type is explored, with a significant role in the disaster or the society that follows, or an interesting reason for surviving (When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth, Oryx andCrake). Sometimes the focus is the intimate story of one person who, through their ordinariness, tells a story tragic and plausible enough to signify the entire societal breakdown (TheRoad, Then), not through their detachment (as in the older tradition) but through the intimate portrayal of their personal apocalypse.  This is the most disturbing kind of apocalypse story, because it is so easy to identify with.  In the Wastelandsintroduction to his story The End of theWorld As We Know It, Dave Bailey says:

“We don’t need the destruction of entire cities to know what it’s like to survive a catastrophe. Whenever we lose someone we love deeply we experience the end of the world as we know it.  The central idea of the story is not merely that the apocalypse is coming, but that it’s coming for you.  And there’s nothing you can do to avoid it.”

We’re no better equipped to take on board and deal with the deaths of a hundred strangers than a million.  We can’t imagine such numbers.  It’s only when death touches us, personally, that we feel loss.  If we lose somebody close to us, even if they were one death in thousands, that one death means more than all the others.  Disaster gives us the sense that we should be drawn together by a shared loss, but all loss is personal, and it sends us into scattered, isolated disasters of our own.  Every survivor experiences their own personal apocalypse, every bereavement entails the personal decision to come out fighting or retreat into solitude, to rebuild the world or leave it to rot. 

Bad Influences will be the Interchangeable, format-driven type of apocalypse: the nature of the disaster is not important, what's important is how the characters respond to it, and to each other, as their societies collapse.  It uses a multiple viewpoint format to give a global perspective on events, but it uses just four blogger-narrators.  My aim isn't to provide every perspective and scenario but to explore the contradictions inherent in publicly blogged experience, in online relationships, and in personal experiences of global disaster.

Blog Fiction allows for multiple perspectives that are both geographically distant and strongly connected, a re-imagining of the survival-group microcosm.  An apocalypse seems the perfect scenario through which to explore the group dynamics of online relationships, the ambiguous intimacies and antagonisms that the medium provokes. The blog seems, initially, like a diary, or a memoir, but blogs are more public than diaries, more disputable than memoirs. The writer of a blog may be writing a personal, honest testimony, but unlike Jessie Lamb they know that what they write will be instantly viewable by friends and strangers, who will be in a position to respond, and they will have to deal with those responses.  Blogs are a contradictory social phenomenon: at once intimate and self-conscious, personal and public, revealing and concealing. They look like diaries, but act like newspaper columns.  The characters use them to desperately reach out and connect with people, while constructing personas that hold back the part of themselves capable of doing so, and getting defensive and possessive of their words when somebody tries to break through that barrier to what they’re hiding, the deepest fears that they’re desperate to communicate and unable to express, until such time as they believe they could be writing their final post.  Then, the walls come down.  Then there are connections, and the influences can break through.  The characters are all, at various points, self-quarantined, and their blogs are both their connection to the outside world and the barrier that separates them from it, their emotional quarantine.  Their apocalypses are personal, except for the moments when they can break through the self-conscious nature of the medium to truly influence one another.

If recent disaster fiction has broken out of the traditional, generalised, neutral perspective to concentrate on the personal, then the next step is to break through the seclusion and atomisation of the personal perspective in search of common experience.  Douglas Copeland’s Player One, dealing with a group of survivors trapped in their own viewpoints and failing to connect, broaches the idea of how an apocalypse shatters post-modern individualism:

“Information overload triggered a crisis in the way people saw their lives.  [...]  The crux seems to be that our lives stopped being stories.  And if we are no longer to have lives that are stories, what will our lives have become?  Yet seeing one’s life as a story seems like nostalgic residue from an era when energy was cheap and the notion of the super-special, ultra-important individual with blogs and Google hits and a killer résumé was a conceit the planet was still able to materially support.  In the New Normal, we need to strip ourselves of notions of individual importance.  Something new is arising that has neither interest in nor pity for souls trapped in twentieth-century solipsism. Nonlinear stories?  Multiple endings?  No loading times?  It’s called life on earth.  Life need not be a story, but it does need to be an adventure.”

Blog Fiction seems like a good medium from which to explore this premise.  Of course, the characters’ lives are stories, but they do not write about them as if they expect them to be.  Narrative tension comes from anxiety about present and future, not mystery awaiting revelation (though there will be revelations).  While stories imply conclusion, the blog format implies endless continuation.  Since the characters can neither be certain of their futures nor blog their own deaths, their individual stories must be inconclusive, but their interactions can have conclusions, and the reader can extract the resolutions they’re looking for from these.

1 comment:

  1. [Nat] Oooh! Only just seen this, interesting stuff. Really looking forward to this starting up...