SCIENCE FICTION HAS gone apocalyptic over the last fifteen years in ways unseen in previous generations. I’m talking about American science fiction in particular, because, save for maybe the Japanese—whose techno-horror productions like Akira and NG Evangelion are pretty much responsible for rewriting my brain’s comfort-code—nobody does paranoia better than us. Yes, Americans have been tasting the terminal in genre since the Cold War, for obvious reasons, including fear of nuclear fallout, political takeover, terrorism, immigration, disease, overpopulation, your quotidian laundry list of modern dreads, really. But not since the nineteen fifties have we gone so goddamned mad for Armageddon, to the point where literary agents are calling for a decrease in post-apocalyptic submissions, and four out of every six movie trailers begins with some part of Manhattan or Los Angeles being torn the fuck apart. Deep pulsating bass rumbles through the theater. BaBOOM—the bowels loosen. Mechanical tentacle beast eviscerates Time Warner Center. From the Dark Knight Rises to The Road (the book, not the movie, because why? Really.), we find gritty ruin encroaching on civil society, steadily increasing its output year by year, either directly preceding doom or setting the scene in doom’s scorched aftermath. Our entertainment industry is snowballing extermination to the point where I imagine another decade down the line every film made in America will obliterate earth in the opening credits. Just to get it over with.
Keep in mind I’m not discussing this phenomenon to cast our doings in a negative light. The mainstreaming of cataclysm has done wonders for our society. The Zombie cultural endemic, for instance, has opened up our reality to philosophical topics so intriguing they’re now being discussed in the f-ing Atlantic. This is the world I want to live in, a world where we grapple with our existence through exploring the theoretical, where we imagine ourselves without society so that we ruminate upon its relative merits. But that still doesn’t answer my question about the reasoning behind the recent explosion in the genre, to the point where it runs the risk of becoming gimmicky. Are we really heading towards the point where advice to writers, filmmakers, etc, will be: “If it’s not apocalypse, it’s not going to sell.” Or even worse: “Apocalypse is so 2009. Have you considered vampires?” Where will our cultural sensibilities shift next? And why have they shifted this way in the first place, marketing bleakness and hysteria en masse to a culture that, essentially, has attacked others far more often than it itself has been attacked?
We look to 9/11 and the austerity measures that followed it for a clue. Much of recent apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, The Hunger Games, for instance, popularized for young adults, or World War Z and The Walking Dead, for those high-brow hell-scape enthusiasts amongst us, have been an exercise in fretting for a world where freedoms have been lost, obliterated either by what is essentially free market Stalinism or hordes of humanity, mindless and hungry, cannibalizing itself to the marrow. Both are two sides of the same coin, as far as I’m concerned, with the theme throughout a resounding test of human resilience in the face of a fairly clear assertion that we will eventually destroy ourselves. Yes, these expressions of annihilation serve in some ways as warnings, trying to stave off the self-incurred annihilation of our species, or acting as an libidinal extension of societal paranoia, but I’d also argue that, apart from surface-level cautionary tales, there’s also a quieter, more internal cultural discourse taking place between the lines, or, in film’s sake, between the static blips in ‘found footage.’
When I lived abroad, both in Europe and South America, the biggest differences I noticed in cultural values was entertainment. I don’t claim to have conducted a world-wide analysis of the subject, but my years spent as an international scrounger showed me something important: the signature of an American film in a foreign country is distinguished, most often, by shit blowing up. Most European films, by contrast, have a lot more to do with extra-marital affairs, Madonna-whore complexes, the sultry confusion of youth, and the complications of family. Darkness flows, sure, but much in the way a stale marshland heat ebbs over a sleepy, sex-hungry country town. I honestly felt a marked sense of embarrassment whenever I went to any cinema across the Atlantic. My culture seemed to be represented as animal-like in its materialism. Massive billboards of alien invasions and soldiers armed to the nines practically threatened to consume ones of older women tugging the lapels loose of young men. What the hell was it all about, I wondered? From an outside perspective, did the rest of the world think Americans dressed in exosuits and wrestled crab-jawed aliens in our city’s streets? Though I learned over time that my non-Yankee friends knew better than to think such outlandish things, they did come to one conclusion:
Americans are a troubled people.
Yes, if other cultures around the world could be thought of as the earth’s brain, liver, kidneys, etc., America is most assuredly its dick. Especially considering the wars we’ve embroiled in since, well, our founding. My European pals made this fact known to me daily, usually in the form of insult. I think that perhaps that’s why, for a while at least, I transformed into a rote Pavlovian contrarian in defense of my society. I began to take up marked issue with the Cheshire-like self-assurance of European culture, and any culture that claims to have figured it all out. From France to Norway, I tired of the neurotic fashion in which populations had come to view themselves as finished in their practices. In all parts of western and central Europe, time, homogeneity, and mentality had assured that culture is immutable, accomplished through a not entirely unchequered history. Despite the brain-dead racist vitriol in Arizona and Arkansas concerning self-deportation, never, I repeat never, have I seen so much public bitterness towards immigration than in Europe, where multiculturalism is synonymous with assimilation, and newcomers are, at least from my experience, often regarded as savage or barbaric. Assimilation is not encouraged, it’s expected, and there’s little love for identity enclaves, your Chinatowns, and the like. In the United States, regardless of your political allegiances, one thing is for sure: as a monolithic culture, we’ve become increasingly unformed. You can, and have to, mix things together here, regardless of the friction involved. You can put Korean beef on a taco, or mix a movie theater with a pizza parlor, and on that pizza, you can put pineapples and Tabasco sauce. Some of these things might work and others might not, sure, but combinations and options exist and abound in our country of Armageddon and Apocalypse, as opposed to in the countries of set rules and boundaries, where change, to any great degree, has been rendered risky and untenable.
This is not to detract from America’s many problems (its most successful exports), but to provide some possible explanation for our society’s disaster output. The risks that we take in the United States are often detrimental to the world’s health, and there is a strong if not ironclad case for America to cease from lapsing into adventurism or isolationism, and spending money on healthcare instead of military drones. The recent election campaign between Obama and Romney demonstrates this concept best, as a political war being fought for decades in our country’s vast unconscious rose to the surface and took on world-ending dimensions. In the midst of hurricanes and scorching heat we had billionaire technocrats railing against middle-class stalwarts and the poor. Our country’s salvation seemed immediate and clinical, a wasteland of horrors only redeemable by reaching some sort of compromise between our desire to be recklessly creative and our need to be morally pragmatic.
Thus, is it really that difficult to see why Apocalypse is so popular in modern American culture? It kind of is modern American culture. Even if the world isn’t in existentially terminal mode (yet), the United States is on the precipice of what some, to a fault, consider ethical or demographic destruction. New franchise films, such as the latest Batman and James Bond installments, and the upcoming Mandarin edition to the Iron Man series, seem to have a mandatory “flirt with existential crisis” clause, where the hero must come close to being obliterated in a battle between lawlessness and bureaucratic corruption. Such is the crisis of American identity that has gained steam over the years. Risk assessment versus risk importance.
Maybe it’s a good thing that Apocalypse is becoming passé. Maybe it’s good that literary agents are calling for a decrease in End of the World genre. Maybe, as a national viewership, we’ll tire of the subject, and in another ten or twenty years we’ll have moved on to our next step in the American experiment, new forms of paranoia, or dissection of old ones, expressed through equally marvelous fantasies of superpowers, spaceships, invasions, and mutations. One can only hope speculative elements of the future get the respect that they deserve, anyway. Regardless of the outcome, however, one thing’s for sure: Beyond being at war with others, this country, most of all, is at war with itself, and science fiction is the only glimpse we get into that war, beyond the firewall of real world mediocrity.