Post-Apocalyptic Fiction: Holocaust as Metaphor

Decaying High-Tech Societies
and Societies That Are 
Replaying the Tape of History

Now we leave the facades of the high-tech cities and manufactured images behind for another category of post-apocalyptic fiction that depicts decaying urban worlds. These works show us a technological civilization of the future that has survived and maintained continuity with the past, but it is in a state of partial or near-total collapse, with no deceptive appearances to cover it all up. Civilization has itself become a jungle or a desert, barely hospitable to its inhabitants. Cities or human habitations often resemble labyrinthine underworlds. Structures may look like ruins and many interior spaces have the distinct feel of basements and warehouses about them. They are often shrouded in darkness and shadow, with a prevalence of earth tones and monotones. These societies may be out in the open or enclosed in protected bastions, and they can suffer from various kinds of breakdown induced by crime, overpopulation, depleted resources, poverty, dictatorship; anomie, and pollution, all of which are exaggerated depictions of the present, filtered through contemporary ideologies and social philosophies. The overview of these works will be brief.

An example is Millennium, an imperfect but underrated science fiction movie, in which we see a dying humanity of the future that has retreated into a labyrinthine and enclosed space, in the face of pollution. It sends salvager-rescuers into the past (which is our present) to collect healthy people, just before those people die in airplane crashes, so it can use them to repopulate the future. Those who govern this future society are benevolent, so the movie doesn't include the heavy weight of symbolism of exploitive parent/dictators. At the end, when the future is destroyed by a time quake caused by changes accidentally made by a salvager in the present, the people who have been collected are led into a more distant future which holds out the promise of renewed life, showing us an apocalypse and the ascension of a remnant with distinctly religious overtones.

In 12 Monkeys, we get a similar story. A humanity of the future is forced to live in a labyrinthine underground by a virus. They send someone to the past -- our time -- to get samples of the virus before it mutated into something deadly, in the hopes that it will give them information that will save their world. When the movie depicts the present, it shows some of our own urban spaces as labyrinthine worlds to suggest a continuity between now and the post-holocaust future.

In both of these works, the primary contrast is between the disordered future and our own world. In both, our world is the future's salvation and its destruction. The characters who return to the present in an effort to save the future are ourselves, with the capacity to stop the present from evolving into the madness of a post-holocaust world.

Other works in this category also depict a high-tech future society that has become a jungle. But they depict contemporary urban spaces that are in various stages of breakdown. In Robocop, a corporate elite, ensconced in the comfortable bastion of a high-rise complex, is surrounded by a society beset by crime. In Escape From New York the division is between a future society, beset by crime, and a Manhattan full of ruins, which has become a maximum security prison surrounded by containment walls, in which the inmates are in control. The cynical anti-hero (himself a criminal) descends into Manhattan to save the president, who is being held captive by sadistic prisoners. His mission represents a journey to save someone trapped in an underworld and in a contemporary urban ghetto. It is also a journey into the bowels and into the unconscious, to save the internalized father (the president) from his own gruesome violent desires. In essence, Manhattan represents what we exclude and wall off. At one point, after passing graffiti that says "colon",  the main character walks down a Dantesque hallway of human madness and suffering, where he encounters a rape, an attempt to rob and kill him, and a man being repeatedly punched in the face. The symbolism would have worked better if the movie was not itself so lost about what ethical ideas it wanted to convey to audiences.

But the dominant movie in this category is Blade Runner in which the future has become an urban hell of pollution, poverty and overcrowding. The setting of the movie has much in common with the 1926 movie, Metropolis, by Fritz Lang, which is one of the forerunners of many contemporary works of post-apocalyptic fiction. In what must have seemed a startling vision to audiences at the time, Metropolis showed a lifelike futuristic city of the same name, with giant skyscrapers, elevated highways and flying vehicles. The city is a heaven of leisure where the elite frolics in a garden of pleasure, insulated from the reality that makes its life possible. Far below, is the underground city where the workers toil in mechanical synchrony with the machines they operate, and live out miserable lives. Like many of the undergrounds depicted in post-apocalyptic fiction, this one is a geographic embodiment of the oppression of the lower classes, and it is a mythic underworld and a disguised depiction of the bowels and the unconscious. The story depicts a Christlike hero who descends from the futuristic heaven of Metropolis, where his father governs, to suffer along with the workers. He moves between the two realms and ultimately helps reconcile them.

In Blade Runner, humanity is too far gone for such an optimistic ending. The movie shows us the same kind of futuristic city with massive skyscrapers that look like worlds onto themselves, and flying vehicles. Here, the elites live a protected life of luxury in the towers, while an overcrowded, multi-ethnic, humanity does its living and dying in the labyrinthine streets below, which look like an exaggerated depiction of our own sites of urban decay, mixed in with images of trading cities of the past. Artificial people, called replicants, do much of the dirty work for humanity, beyond the earth. Four escape and come to earth, in the hopes of finding a way to extend their four-year life span, while Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, hunts them down. Toward the end, the one surviving replicant confronts Tyrell, the powerful and wealthy inventor of the replicants, in a scene which simultaneously represents the lower classes confronting their rulers, a child confronting an exploitive father, and a person confronting God. He comes to Tyrell in search of more life. The patronizing inventor offers him platitudes about burning bright while he is alive, before the replicant takes his gruesome revenge and gauges out his eyes. But in the final scene of conflict (which gives us one of many variations on Pinocchio), the replicant becomes human and more than human, saving Deckard instead of killing him, thus demonstrating he has a soul. His time up, he dies, as a white bird he was holding flies into the sky. And it becomes obvious that his encounter with Tyrell was also a scene of Christ on the cross, speaking to God.

"I don't know why he saved my life," Deckard says. "Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life. Anybody's life. My life."

In another movie, Time After Time, it is the present that is the post-apocalyptic urban jungle. Here, the character H.G. Wells travels to the future, which is our time, and discovers a society of advanced technology and mindless violence.

The ideological and ethical messages of these works are obvious from the descriptions. They offer warnings about crime, poverty, pollution and other sources of social breakdown. In Robocop, the abusive governing classes are challenged and overthrown. In Blade Runner, the hero travels between the underworld of the streets and the heavenly world in the towers; he sees the "transfiguration" of the dying replicant, and then he and his love interest (a "female" replicant) leave the corrupt city behind. As in Metropolis, we see a society not merely of abusive authority, but one that can no longer recognize the humanity of those it enslaves, whether they are replicants or human beings.

The third category of post-apocalyptic fiction shows us a post-technological future that has returned to an earlier level of civilization, after a holocaust. Here, no well-scrubbed high-tech cities hang on to a sheltered existence, protected from the outside and no dying urban metropolises sprawl across the landscape. What outposts of civilization remain are in the form of fortresses, trading cities or small settlements of human habitation in a sea of wilderness or desert that may be thick with bandits, monsters or other dangers. In these works, we see humanity (and the movie) replaying history.

Two of the best examples are Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, in which nomads and outposts of humanity live in a post-holocaust desert, and Waterworld, which gives us the same story as the Mad Max movies, but in a desert of ocean. Both depict saviors, who, like Moses, lead the lost to a promised land but are unable to go, or stay, there themselves. In the case of Waterworld, in which everyone is trying to stay alive in a world of water, what the hero leads people to is literally promised land.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is a richly textured movie and an important expression of our new mythology. It brings to life a world made up of starkly ironic contrasts, embodied in three settings and societies, surrounded by a post-nuclear desert -- a walled-in trading town that has been created by recycling the junk and culture of the past; a tribe of children lost in a fantasy-mythology created by their misperception of our own world of the present; and a new village of humanity that is created at the end, in the ruins of a city.

The walled-in trading town also has three levels. First there is an ethereal "throne room" of privilege, towering over the rest, where a female governor (played by Tina Turner) who created the town, can look down at her handiwork. Second, there is the surface of buildings and streets, such as they are, teeming with the pathetic masses of what is left of humanity. And third, there is an underworld of pig manure, where methane is created for energy, governed by a two-person unit, made up of a giant and a dwarf. As described in a later essay, the town represents Western civilization. More specifically, it represents Sydney, Australia, this being an Australian film. Here the throne room represents government, (especially colonial government); the surface represents Australian society; and the underworld, full of slave labor represents a prison, since Sydney was founded as a prison colony. The trading town is also a disguised depiction of a family, consisting of a mother (Tina Turner); a father (the two person unit); and the children (the inhabitants of the surface level of the town), caught between them. It is a mythic kingdom, divided between the heaven of the throne room; the mundane world of the surface, and an underworld. And it is a mind divided between the conscious will (Tina Turner in the throne room, giving shape to the town), the field of thought (the surface of the town), and the unconscious (the underworld). Within this last realm of meaning, many of the events depicted in the city are disguised representations of the functioning of mind, including acts of repression, eruptions of unconscious thoughts into consciousness, and anxiety attacks.

The hero becomes entangled in a corrupt battle between the Tina Turner character, who is above the town, and the two-person unit below it, which is a battle between classes, parents, parts of mind, and mythic beings. As a result, he faces conflicts and tests over whether he will become part of corruption or assert himself and progress to an ethical adulthood. He then departs for the second society of children lost in a fantasy-mythology, which is a depiction of Australia's aboriginal culture and a disguised depiction of a mind or family lost in daydreams and fantasy. In the end, he destroys the walled-in town and, through an act of sacrifice that completes his ethical growth, he makes it possible for the village of a new humanity to be formed in the ruins of a city. Whereas the walled-in town was corrupt and without dreams; and the tribe of children were lost in dreams; the new village creates the correct balance.

The central image in the movie is one of salvage -- Max, and everyone else, is salvaging the junk and the popular culture of the past to create some semblance of a society, primitive as it is. In the end, Max salvages humanity. He is the redeemer as junk collector: he travels through various places that are states of human experience and depictions of society, in order to bring together the bits and pieces of what is left of humanity, to create a new society.

This partial synopsis obviously doesn't help the reader very much, since the amount of detail in the story requires a considerably longer summary. Readers can check out the essay on Mad Max if they want to learn more.

There are plenty of other examples, which won't be described in any detail, out of mercy for the reader. In Planet of the Apes, we see another society sunk back to semi-barbarism, controlled by a dictator, with a hero who tries to break it open. In the movie, Genesis II, we are shown two post-holocaust societies -- one a benevolent society living underground, that still has technology, and one a slave society on the surface, governed by decadent mutated human beings, modeled after Rome. The hero journeys between them and figures out which is good and bad, before he sets things right.

In The Time Machine, which combines elements from all of these categories, the main character travels into a post-holocaust future and sees what looks at first like the paradise he had always dreamed of, in a world fashioned after a garden, full of young people. But, as noted earlier, they turn out to be dinner for an underground race of mutants who look like giant Iggy dolls, and dwell in a chthonic underground in the bowels of the earth, amid demonic machines. Here, the mutants are an exploitive class (very exploitive -- they eat the lower class); they are persecuting, infantilizing parents; and they are the ghouls of the unconscious that haunt us and come out at night when we dream. The movie also has imagery that suggests it retells the Exodus story, in which the hero leads these young people to freedom from their enslavers.

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