Post-Apocalyptic Fiction: Holocaust as Metaphor


Seen from one perspective, the works of post-apocalyptic fiction that populate American movies and television are an example of the doomsday industry that has emerged in contemporary societies. This industry, consisting, in part, of political activists and journalists, specializes in warning us of potential catastrophes. Over the last few decades, it has churned out nightmare scenarios involving global warming and ozone depletion; nuclear war; overpopulation; the growing divide between rich and poor; genetic manipulation; television addiction; even world-destroying meteors hurling toward the earth. Its warnings are usually intended to scare us into doing something, whether it is joining a cause or watching a news program.

Post-apocalyptic fiction has a peculiar place in this industry: its role is to take these exaggerations and exaggerate them. It doesn't merely warn of nuclear destruction; it creates an image of a nuclear wasteland of the future and lovingly dwells on scenes of bizarre mutants and urban ruins. It doesn't merely warn of environmental catastrophe; it shows us an earth inundated by water, with a few miserable survivors clinging to a life-raft of a society, adrift in a world that dreams of promised land. Nor does it bother warning us about television addiction by offering disturbing statistics or psychological studies; instead, it depicts all of humanity immersed inside television-like illusions, in a world in which people really do mistake the programming for reality.

But there is more going on in post-apocalyptic fiction than a desire to scare us into taking some kind of action, or a fashionable pessimism about the human prospect, much as it may delight in taking what we are worried about today and using it to destroy a fictional tomorrow. These works are also among the most nuanced and interesting creations of popular culture. They are essential expressions of our new mythology, whose message is that our wisdom will have to keep pace with our power if we are to use the new powers of technology correctly. They tell us that we will have to learn the difference between true and false forms of freedom -- and between genuine progress and regression that masquerades as progress -- if we want to prevent our world from becoming like the ones we see on the screen.

Post-apocalyptic fiction conveys this message, in part, by showing us the dark side of technology, (which is really our own dark side) -- as a weapon and a tool of manipulation, and as something that can run amok because of unintended consequences. It shows us what happens when technology is paired with corrupt societies and our own failings as people, by depicting a future that has been destroyed by overpopulation, war, crime or ecological disaster; or by showing us a future humanity that is infantilized by automation, lost in decadence, or controlled and persecuted by human and technological villains.

Its greatest strength -- which also makes it ideal for the movies -- is its ability to draw us into settings and societies that, for all their strangeness, we can almost recognize as our own. It takes us into a fictionalized version of our own world in which the familiar and the unexpected have been mixed together, to shock us into some larger recognition. We can see this mixing of the familiar and the unexpected in the way some works of post-apocalyptic fiction take images of enclosed malls, office parks, singles complexes, and theme parks, and use them as the raw material for depictions of walled-in high-tech cities full of inhabitants who have retreated from nature and the larger world. The contemporary mall, as an island of safety and comfort amid a desert of blacktop and crime, is transformed into a future city in a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of mutants and bandits. Mall security, watching the video screens from the central office, gets turned into a depiction of future armies and police monitoring distant events from their high-tech headquarters. We can see another example of the way the familiar is used to create something jarring and unfamiliar in depictions of cities after the holocaust in which high-rises are lovingly turned into ruins that look like labyrinthine underworlds full of caverns and mazelike passages.

Just as these works adapt images from the present, many also draw from the past, giving us so many variations on decadent Rome, marauding pirates, and desert outposts on trade routes in the ancient Mideast. And they draw from other works of fiction and nonfiction, as well as from religion and myths, and from popular ideas that originate from these sources. They adopt ideas and images from the mythologies of the past to add to our new mythology, inventing ancient and strangely futuristic heavens and hells, along with monsters and redeemers that represent our own lives transformed by the imagination.

In drawing from so many sources, and mixing and altering and exaggerating what it takes, post-apocalyptic fiction is obeying the imperative of contemporary culture, which is forever mixing disparate elements in order to create new editions of meanings we are familiar with. To some degree, of course, both contemporary culture, in general, and post-apocalyptic fiction, in particular, are merely following the universal technique that is used in the creation of all metaphor and narrative, which is to take different things and blend them together into a new unity.* But contemporary culture has taken the combining of disparate elements to a new level. In essence, it has taken all of the past and present, and all of fiction and nonfiction, and used it to create a library of stories, images, archetypes, styles and ideas that artists and creators can draw from to create their narratives. This "library" is all of world culture, in which elements of fiction and nonfiction, past and present, can now be used as models to spin out images and stories. (In a few years, it will be a virtual library, as all elements of world culture are stored in the form of images and words, in computers.) Post-apocalyptic fiction (and science fiction, in general) may be the most interesting example of this process, because of the way it mixes and transforms so many elements, in order to expand and update our "cache" of universal archetypes, evoking a rich set of conscious and unconscious associations in audiences to get them to see the way life is affected by the use and misuse of technology.

A good example of this process can be seen in the 1976 movie, Logan's Run, which depicts the last vestiges of the human race, shut in an enclosed city that is like a giant mall and singles complex, with interior public spaces, escalators, plantings, even an exercise room. Inside this artificial world, a race of people under 30 live in decadence, epitomized by one of the city's mall-like "shops" -- an orgy room where they breathe intoxicating vapors as they writhe in ecstasy and lose themselves in the sensuality of the flesh. What they do not do is control their own lives. That task is engaged in for them by a dictator-computer that gives everyone a life of carefree delight and kills them at 30, to hold down the population, with the false promise that everyone has a chance to be reborn. When the inhabitants reach 30, they participate in a ritual in which they float into the air and are destroyed, as the rest of the city (which hasn't yet reached 30), sits in a giant amphitheater, screaming  "Renew!  Renew" in the hopes that the 30-year-olds who are being destroyed will be reborn. Stuck in this prison of a world, the inhabitants are lost to nature and human nature. They are unaware of the outside and know nothing about the natural cycle of marriage, procreation, aging and death.**

But the movie doesn't just depict a society modeled after a mall and a singles complex. It mixes in images from the classical world. This second, less obvious, realm of images starts with the clothes of the inhabitants, which include draped material and have just enough of a hint of togas to evoke an association in us to Greece and Rome. In this imagery, the city's mall-like spaces are the monumental public spaces of the classical world; the exercise room and hot tub are a gymnasium and baths; the police force modeled after mall security is the Praetorian guard; the ritual of death is the gladiator games, and the orgy room is the orgiastic culture of the Roman Empire. What the movie is evoking in us is a virtual Greece and Rome, as most of us know it from television and the movies.

The movie thus gives us a crossover of associations conveyed in images -- our mall and singles culture is like decadent Rome. It offers a visual metaphor linking two disparate meanings -- one that concerns the pre-Christian classical world and one that concerns our "post-Christian" world of self-oriented lifestyles. Both are incorporated into a depiction of the future to comment on an aspect of contemporary life that is of direct concern to the audiences.

Like much of the imagery in post-apocalyptic fiction, this depiction is a form of irony. It turns the familiar into something unfamiliar to make ironic comments about the present and show us how our creations can take a different character than we intended. Other examples of irony in Logan's Run can be seen in the depiction of artificial intelligence, which is supposed to serve humanity, but which ends up trapping humanity, killing it and, in one instance, freezing it, with the idea of preserving it as a frozen dinner (for a meal that never arrives). Similarly, the idea of population control and the maxim "Don't trust anyone over 30", have been blended together to depict a society in which everyone dies at 30 to make room for the next generation.

We can see the same images of a world turned upside down in other works. In the movie, The Time Machine, we see a ruling class of mutants that lives in underground caverns where it toils to stay alive, much like a proletariat, while the exploited class lives what looks like a life of leisure on the surface, until it too becomes dinner. In Planet of the Apes, it is evolution that is reversed, with intelligent simians who evolved from human society. In the future portrayed in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, contemporary game shows, with contestants who can win prizes, have been used as a model to turn justice into injustice, with a wheel of fortune that decides the often-gruesome sentence of the accused. In The Running Man, hunting human beings has similarly been turned into a television game show, giving us a fictionalized depiction of what we now call reality programming.

Post-apocalyptic fiction usually shows us a number of contrasting settings and societies that have these characteristics, separated from each other by space or barriers or time or in some other fashion. Each represents a realm of experience and a way we might organize our lives. As the characters move between them, they (along with the audience) experience the possibilities of life, depicted as a journey from place to place. And as these settings and societies come into various other kinds of contact with each other, we see the possibilities of life being worked out in the story.

By depicting these mythicized settings and societies of the future, post-apocalyptic fiction lifts us out of our own lives and gives us a sense of the inexorability of time, as we see the way history has gathered up what we thought were our enduring creations and used them for its own purposes. By letting us see this from the outside and letting us encompass it in a single narrative of unfolding images, painted with words and pictures, it temporarily lets us experience the vastness of time, and our own limited place in the larger scheme of things.

Into these worlds, which are our own and not our own, post-apocalyptic fiction places one or a handful of main characters whose job it is to experience the pageant of the future, confront its demons, and often undergo an ethical transformation and bring about a new world. These characters escape from and destroy oppressive dictators or machines that control human life; they go on journeys to find better ways of life; and they found new societies in which civilization will get a second chance. Their role is often to fight so that humanity will have a second chance, and to manifest ethical qualities that demonstrate it deserves a second chance.

As we observe them in our role as the audience (or reader), our identification with their struggle puts us in touch with our own ability to think and care about the fate of the human race. Similarly, as we are drawn into their battle, we get a sense of what it would be like to sacrifice for this very large goal and all-encompassing value, the human prospect. This not only puts us in touch with our better selves, it gives us a sense that our location in the unfolding of events might not be so inconsequential after all. It tells us that we can change our own world-turned-upside-down, the way they try to change the one they are in, to prevent a world like theirs from developing.

All of this links post-apocalyptic fiction with other forms of science fiction, which invent the future to show us the way we use and misuse technology, and to get us to think about the human prospect. What is intriguing is that it also links post-apocalyptic fiction with many stories that depict our own society and those in the past, as fallen worlds. These works of "pre-apocalyptic fiction" show the same dangers, the same flaws in human character, before the collapse.

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Partial footnotes:

* The idea that metaphor and narrative bring disparate elements together into a new unity, to create a new meaning, is elaborated by Paul Ricoeur.

* * The word combination, nature and human nature, comes from the social philosopher Herbert Marcuse.