Aside from vampires, the most common, verging-on-stereotypical, element in pop fiction is the dystopian/post-apocalyptic setting. It’s been this way for a while; reaching back towards “Mad Max” and 1985, the fingers of dystopian fiction have laced into much of our cultural fictive mindset. “V for Vendetta,” Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I Am Legend (yes, it was a book before Will Smith muscled into the role of Dr. Robert Neville), and, of course, The Hunger Games all lay claim to this popularity.
Perhaps briefly I need to distinguish between dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction. Dystopian has to do with a repressed or controlled social system, while post-apocalyptic describes a post-technological world in which some catastrophe has left humanity without communication, transportation, digital information, etc. Admittedly these often overlap, like Will Smith’s computer in I Am Legend. Literature never really fits into our neat categories.
Despite the difference, the shared elements are so popular. Perhaps the best example lies in the realm of the zombie apocalypse. The Walking Dead is a fantastic work of fiction, but how that kind of zombie fiction makes its way into the real world is fascinating. Once, over chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant, my friends and I plotted our escape plan if the nuclear holocaust or zombie apocalypse instantly occurred. Instructables even has plans for zombie apocalypse survival kits.
Honestly, I love dystopian and post-apocalyptic scenarios. Thinking about the break down of social order, loss of technology, and survival led to my first flash fiction story, Shards. For me, the most interesting part is figuring out how to act when utter freedom with space and material goods is tempered with the need to survive and possible competition. The struggle to stay human inside that framework is substantial and scary.
But I don’t think the philosophical implications really appeal to everyone. No, I think dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories are interesting to us because we are so freaking bored. Consider the following: we live in a (somewhat) orderly society, yet we love the escapism of a broken down society that longs to be orderly like the one we have now. We intimately know a longing for things to be right, and we give voice to that longing through fictive mindsets in which the problem is completely obvious; stories in which social order is broken, stymied, or dictated are easy to perceive, and the fight for rightness or peace is equally envisioned. The explanations to this provided in the Bible are extensive and exposing; suffice me to reference Revelation 22, where the longing for Jesus’ return is exhilaratingly palpable.
Being an American is a little deceptive, though. When you call internationally, you have to first dial the country code. The US code is 1. The US has the most billionaires of any country in the world, and is the largest of the top 10 richest countries to boot. If you’re reading this right now with your own computer you are in the top 10% of the world regarding personal wealth (myself included). Our government hasn’t been replaced in more than 200 years, and we’ve never been invaded by an army we couldn’t manhandle. All the stats tell us that America is one of the most well-off countries in history, despite experiential or personal arguments to the contrary.
But apocalyptic obsessions don’t purely intimate a subconscious dissatisfaction with American life (though the 30 million anti-depresant prescriptions in our country might speak to that). Fiction is inherently escapism, a safe mental vacation. Few Hunger Games fans, given the chance, would really hop into the arena and fight for their lives. How quickly they would long to be back in civilized society with friends, innate politicians, and Netflix. The best part of fiction is that, no matter how dangerous or disturbing, it always ends. We always end up right where we were sitting to begin with.
The existence of fiction as a whole is stimulating. We like coming up with stories that satisfy our longings; “The Avengers” for adventure longings, “The Notebook” for love longings, and every Adam Sandler movie for being mildly entertained by someone you feel superior to.
Perhaps dystopian fiction shows us our longings for adventure or drama, but I think it shows a deeper element of humanity. We don’t just long for rightness, we want to know what rightness is; we just want to know what it is we want. We believe in something better, and I think we honestly long to know what that better thing is and to have it realized in our life-time. In the end, though, we might just choose comfort over rightness that might cost us comfort.