David Mitchell’s stunning 2004 novel The Cloud Atlas features several intertwined stories occurring in different time periods. One of them takes place in a distant post-apocalyptic future where technology is a thing of the past and humanity’s future is a primitive stone-age lifestyle. Both come together for a split second when an elderly survivor of the high tech past shares his story with a modern tribesman. It’s not exactly a horrifying image – solitary, sure, maybe even comfortingly austere. I found myself thinking of it, and similar scenarios, with a wistful heart. And it kind of scared me.
The apocalypse is a pop culture staple: the whistling report of incoming missiles heavy with radioactive death. The incessant moans of the living dead. Angels, demons, plague, famine, and pestilence…or worse: We worry that the end is coming, and we fear it. But like many things we fear, we’re also attracted to it as well. There’s an allure to the apocalypse. A romance, if you will.
To clarify, none of us – or most of us at least – desire pain, fear and death. Those, however, don’t really exist in our fantasies of the apocalypse…at least for us. That stuff is for the other guy. We’re heroes in our own minds, and innately, we believe in a just world, despite all evidence to the contrary. The good guys are rewarded and the bad guys are punished, and when the end comes (and this in itself is tricky: what do we mean by “end?” What exactly is ending? Ah, discussions for another day), you can bet your last can of emergency pork n’ beans that it’ll come for the bad guys first.
Maybe the zombies or killer flu will get us, too, but we’ll die nobly – perhaps in service to our loved ones, and only after a long, righteous fight. The people who die terrified and alone and, even better, in the sudden and absolute knowledge of how mean and rude they’ve been to us, those are the bad guys. How do we know they’re bad? We said so.
Oh, and not just the bad guys, either: the bad things, too. Forget about clocking in for work. The clock is gone and the boss with it. Taxes? Nope, not anymore. And in the words of Alice Cooper, “School’s out forever…”. Sounds great, right. It should, because it’s fantasy.
See, the romance of the apocalypse is that we imagine that it will set all the wrong things right. It’s a childish wish-fulfillment fantasy, but one that has its numerous adherents. There are those who seek to hasten the end: Radical religious and political groups that believe that great violence will trigger the “End Times.” They think that a well-placed bomb here or a poisoning there will bring their particular version of heaven – Earthly or otherwise – to fruition. Charles Manson’s “family” wanted to trigger a race war. Inexplicably, they believed that the survivors would accept them as leaders. More wish-fulfillment: the meanies who rejected them and called them freaks suffer for their sins, and the “good” people assume the vaunted role that society had unjustly denied them.
The real world isn’t like that, though. Good people suffer sometimes, and evil people triumph. There’s no rhyme and reason, and a few megatons of nuclear ordnance won’t help set the balance straight. Your problems won’t go away: The zombies will eat us all with gusto.
Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. That’s sensible. But maybe we can think about the present a little bit, too.