Post Apocalypse: Nihilism and Heroism

If one were to list the prevailing trends in modern media, be they games or comics or television, post apocalyptic would be #1, #3, and possibly #4, with vampires coming in at #2. Post apocalyptic vampires would be #5. Even yours truly is in the process of writing a post-apocalyptic fantasy novel at this very moment. The end of the world is a hit, given the state of the economy and the state of the world at large.

And this success is largely seen as a bad thing. School children nowadays are comfortable with the end of the world*, and the author of the above blog (Jim Rossignol, who’s a fantastic writer and his post inspired mine) asks of modern authors, Is that nihilism really what you want to leave behind? Your silhouette a stoop, rather than a hurrah?

Here I am, to defend my favorite setting for any sort of fiction. Post apocalyptic themes are not the themes of nihilism and death, but rather provide an outlet for heroism, and the ability for modern day writers and designers to create heroic, benevolent figures like the heroes of yore rather than the depressed, cynical antihero who dominates most other forms of fiction.

The defining characteristic of post apocalyptic media is change. Change for good, or change for ill, all that matters is change. Society has been torn down and a new civilization can be built on the husk of its corpse, out of the parts that have been spared. These parts are seen, initially, as inferior to the people who died, but they are survivors, and they are the ones who will get to realize a new society.

While not the first ever post apocalyptic game, my first experience with the subject manner came in Chrono Trigger, a game surprisingly rife with post apocalyptic themes. There are two apocalypses the player experiences. First, they realize the horror of their own future, a world destroyed by Lavos, populated by weak, pathetic inheritors of humanity. This isn’t their future. This can’t be their future. They are inspired to do something about it, to change history.

And this shows the biggest plus of post apocalyptic media: the ability to characterize people as heroes. The mid nineties were a time when characters were becoming less and less heroic. Rather than the selfless heroes of Lord of the Rings and the Bronze Age of Comics and the protagonists of early video games, main characters were becoming assholes. Inspired in large part by the success of Deadpool, suddenly every Marvel super hero was only looking out for number one, and many fantasy novelists began making their heroes selfish and mean spirited, and video game protagonists became like Cloud and Squall, people who cared more about themselves than others.

Chrono Trigger had heroes who might have been a little selfish at first: Lucca cared only about science, Marle about sticking it to her father the king. Sure, they weren’t terrible people, but they were people who weren’t heroes. They were some punk kids. Then, faced with the knowledge that their world would end, that the planet was mortal, they would band together and fight against the powers they thought would cause that destruction.

Three whole worlds were wiped out in Chrono Trigger, and yet each time society rebuilds, on the scraps of the old, a new, different place. The Reptites died, replaced by the apes who survived through the Ice Age and formed the kingdom of Zeal, only to see Zeal quite literally fall into the ocean and become the final dungeon. However, from the Black Omen, the player managed to reach Lavos, and to defeat him, saving all of history**. It represented all the horrific aspects of the apocalypse: sure, millions and millions died, their land created a monument to nonexistence, but thanks to the perseverance of the heroic PCs, everything was okay. Everyone survived to live to another day. It explains the conversation scraps from NPCs who saw the Black Omen as hopeful, because they knew that, eventually, a hero would come and make the world a better place. A hero would save them.

You get the same thing in the Fallout games. People have criticized Fallout some for not having a whole lot of gray area in its moral choices, that you’re either good, or you’re evil, or you don’t give a fuck. There’s no middle ground. And how could there be? The destruction of the world by some elements (in the case of Fallout, extreme capitalism) leaves the people on that side as a squarely evil, destructive element. People trying to help other people survive are the good guys, because survival becomes an immediate concern. The problems of the post apocalypse are more immediate, more tangible. More real.

And that’s why they’re more heroic, and the target of so much attention. William Gibson remarked in this absolutely fantastic discussion about science fiction that every book set in the future is actually about the present, and we writers write about post apocalyptic subjects now because we look at the problems of the present and our response is that there aren’t any heroes anymore***. There can’t be any heroes anymore. Even those people who we have seen in the past as being the most heroic men, soldiers fighting for our country, can no longer be seen as heroes because while their action might be noble and beyond reproach, they are performing those actions in service of a corrupt, disenfranchising government.

Heroes are dead. Heroism is dead. And post apocalyptic fiction is an attempt to bring it back, by simplifying things to their most basic. Instead of problematic situations like, Humans are struggling because the bank foreclosed on their home that they bought with a subprime mortgage and they can’t get a job because no one is hiring, they are faced with Humans are struggling because their water purifier broke and without it they will all die of dehydration. It is a more immediate situation, with a heroic ending. The person who finds the water chip in 150 days or less will be the hero. In the first situation, who can be the hero? The bank forecloser, who is protecting capitalism’s interest? The man whose house was foreclosed on, who can’t find a job? That’s hardly a hero’s role. In fact, they both play more like victims than heroes. One of last year’s most successful movies, Up in the Air, was about a character like the former. He is not played as a hero. It’s a fantastic film, but it is the kind of nihilistic, terrifying picture that really is a definition of our society at present.****

People who ply trade in speculative fiction are looking at this and desiring a time of societal heroes. A time when we could be optimistic about our lives. Because right now, there’s no optimism. There’s no hope. We’ve been writing about the doom of society for so long, how we were on a downhill slope, and now that we’re finally there, we have no idea what to do about it, besides try to create a world where we can be heroes. Where we can embody characters who can go out and save the world from death and destruction. Characters who aren’t sarcastic shells who snicker at the thought of doing good, but rather characters who will give half their pure water to a sick, dying man because he’s sick and dying, not because of any gain they might give you.

We need to be heroes, and the only way we can save the world is if we blow up the problems.

*if we went back 30 years, to 1980, school children would have been equally comfortable with the world ending. The difference was their vision was everyone perishing in flames from global thermonuclear war, while the present vision is some horrible catastrophe and then them being badass heroes in post-society.

**Of course, all of Chrono Trigger was retconned rather tragically in Chrono Cross. I could try to explain this, but one must know how to perform brain surgery to understand the five million things happening in Chrono Cross.

***Building on the first footnote, people have always thought the world was ending. It comes in waves. As such, I imagine post apocalypticism isn’t a new phenomenon, but I haven’t done extensive research into the topic.

****Admittedly, if one looks, they can find something of heroes in society. The man who saves the children from the burning house. The people who run homeless shelters in the inner city. They are heroes, but they are not heroes in a societal sense. They are heroes in a common man sense.