Let’s All Go to the Apocalypse: Why We Write the End of the World

Back when I was a tween and going through a Stephen King phase there was one book I was absolutely too scared to read: The Stand. Everything else I could stomach – the vampires and the haunted hotels and the telekinetic teenagers and the non-stop stream of utter what-the-fuckery going on in his short story collections, sure, fine, whatever. Great, even. Fuck those bullies up, Carrie, we love a girlboss story.

But The Stand was about the end of the world, and the thought of the end of the world Fucked. Me. Up. I don’t really remember if there was even a good reason for this outside of the natural anxiety that comes with slowly realizing that you are not immortal and your parents are not immortal and this moment will not last forever and nothing lasts forever and entropy will eventually see the universe as nothing more than darkness and chaos and every adult you have ever met in your life has known this the whole time and they somehow just, like…live with it, and you’re expected to, too. For three or four years, I avoided The Stand like when you spot your overly-chatty co-worker at the supermarket.

Did you think I was going to like the plague? Tsk, tsk. Shame. Shame.

The summer I turned fifteen I finally decided I was ready and I read the whole thing over the first three days of summer break because I didn’t have friends and I loved two thirds of it and it’s still the only book I’ve reread two-thirds of multiple times.

And yeah, the part I don’t read is the part you’ve already guessed: the end. And while I don’t think it’s terribly good, mostly I don’t read it because I don’t find it as interesting as the first two parts. In fact, I tend to start dropping off when all of our protagonists meet up in Boulder. The interesting parts of that book, to me, don’t have anything to do with some supernatural BBEG or yet another ultimate fight between good and evil. I can get that shit basically anywhere. No, what I want is an in-depth, real time look at the complete and violent collapse of society and I want it on my desk by EOD.

Two decades later and I like end of the world stories so much I’ve written enough to give the genre its own page on my website. And clearly I’m not the only one because post-apocalypses are doing gangbusters these days.

But why, exactly, do we all want to watch the world crash and burn?

And I Feel Fine

We don’t. We want to watch society crash and burn. Sure, there’s some stuff out there that deal with, say, a giant fuck-off asteroid heading to earth to completely destroy all life as we know it, but with those the entire plot usually revolves around trying to stop the giant fuck-off asteroid to varying degrees of success. The far more popular version of this story is the end of the world as we know it. Plagues, zombies (which I guess is just a type of plague), losing a vital part of current society like electricity or eyesight or adults, man, YA dystopian fiction just loves murdering all the adults, anything that really reduces the human population to the point where everything we as a species have built has crumbled and the survivors have to rebuild.

That’s what all of these stories give us. Survivors. And not just because you can’t really write a story about what happens after a giant fuck-off asteroids destroys all life on the planet because you’ve killed all your characters before you began, although that is a significant reason why these stories don’t exist. It’s also that people want to see themselves as the survivors. I mean, I only exist in my own head so I can’t speak for every single person on the planet, but I doubt anyone is watching The Last of Us and imaging themselves as a shambling fungus-piloted corpse roaming the marshy remains of Jacksonville until they get shot in the head by an unshowered hillbilly in an ancient Jaguars jersey looking for food and water. In this scenario, its preferable to be the unshowered hillbilly.

Step back from that for a second and isn’t it entirely unhinged? You’re unshowered because hot showers aren’t a thing anymore, you’re wearing an ancient jersey because no one is making clothes anymore and you don’t know how, and you’re looking for food and water because you haven’t eaten anything more than half a pack of jerky in three days and you’re basically starving to death. Why would you want that? It’s escapism, sure, and no one really wants that, but why do we even want to daydream about it?

I Wake Up in the Morning and I Wonder Why Everything’s The Same As It Was

You may be too young to remember Y2K. Apparently people younger than me can not only read and write, but they have graduated college and have jobs and debt and such? Outrageous.

To sum this up without looking a single thing up because this is not the point of the article and research is for schmucks, when people first started building computers the date was always programmed  with two digits for the year to save space because computers used to have less memory than a couple dozen enthusiastic ants. The problem, of course, was when the year switched from 1999 to 2000, the computers were going to think it was actually 1900 and all sorts of shit was going to break. Why didn’t anyone think of this when they were building programs in the seventies and eighties? I don’t actually know, but I’m guessing the answer is somewhere along the lines of ‘humans suck at planning for the future.’ Because we absolutely do.

There was a fair amount of vague anxiety leading up to 2000. Experts were saying that people were working on the problem diligently and the average person would experience little to no negative effects on their day-to-day lives, while inflammatory morons on the news were quietly wondering if the entire world was going to burst into flames the second the ball finished dropping directly into a microphone and camera and, well, you know who people tend to believe in situations like this. Eventually the new year came and nothing of note really happened and everyone moved on with their lives.

I bring all this up because I vaguely remember an article I read a month later. I don’t remember enough to find it, of course, but I remember the content: basically, some people were having a bit of a Y2K hangover and instead of feeling relieved that nothing happened, they were feeling disappointed. Some of these people were simply disappointed because they went all in on prepping and now had eighty-three boxes of spaghetti and three dozen crates of bottled water and didn’t know what to do with it (preppers gonna prep). But the article also stated that some people were annoyed that they had to go to work the next day. For some people, a complete disruption of society and whatever potential end-of-days bullshit that entailed was more enticing than having to deal with an eight am meeting that goes on for too long because Jeremy from accounting thinks everyone wants to hear how wasted he got at his wife’s family’s New Year’s Eve party.

People were mildly looking forward to the end of the world, and this was the nineties.

London is Drowning, and We All Live by the River

The society we built fucking sucks to the point that its sometimes easier to imagine destroying the whole thing and starting over.

That’s basically it. I pussyfooted all around this particular bush for a thousand words, but that’s the tweet, as they say.

And I’m not going to go into the many, many, many endless ways that it sucks because at this point, you either acknowledge that fact or reject it. But it does. It completely sucks, and more than that, the systems that have been created are so big, so intricately woven, and so in control it’s basically impossible to see a way to fix any of it. It’s going to take so much work, so much time, so many elections and fights and uprisings, and we can’t even get all of the people who are being systematically beaten by the system to agree that they’re getting punched in the groin every morning so how the hell are we going to do anything let alone everything about it?

Fuck it. Destroy everything and start from scratch.

That is the appeal of apocalypse fiction.

Well, part of it anyway. There are also people out there who just really want to be able to fix all of their problems by shooting someone in the head and, super great news here, they all vote.

Now, to be absolutely fucking clear, I don’t actually want the world to end. It’s like that scene in 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard which is a terrible movie, I am not recommending it, sure, Timothy Olyphant is in there doing his usual “I’m Trying to Kill You With the Laser Eyes I Don’t Have” looks but you can get those looks in much better quality movies, I’m simply bragging I saw this movie when it came out and it was really bad, I hated it, but I remember it, don’t watch it.

Anyway, Olyphant’s character starts doing a terrorism on the country, unfortunately not laser-eyes based, but tech based, and Justin Long’s character whose name I have completely erased from memory but I’m betting had some sort of long E sound in there, realizes that it’s something called a fire sale where everything is destroyed all at once. He admits that he and his little nerd friends on Reddit or wherever they fuck they were back in 2007 (Something Awful?) used to giggle about how cool a fire sale would be, but now that he was standing ass-deep in one he very much wanted to get off Mr. Bones’ Wild Ride. It’s like that, only without Bruce Willis’s seething hatred for Kevin Smith.

End of the world scenarios are entertaining to think about but in reality we’d only be exchanging one terrible FUBAR society for a new, already terrible society that humanity can then proceed to fuck up even worse, and also we’d be surrounded by literally billions of rotting corpses.

But it turns out daydreaming about, writing about, or producing a multi-million dollar show about the end of the world can be entertaining, and like, super cathartic for potentially all the wrong reasons but as long as it’s happening in fiction who cares? I mean, nerds on the internet. Nerds on the internet will definitely care, but most of them are also so terminally online if they saw the sun they’d weep so I think you’ll be fine.

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