Talking About The End Of The World
Dystopia. You know you love it. Something has trashed human society and everyone is scrambling to survive. The Walking Dead. The Book of Eli. The Road. The Stand. Alas, Babylon. Midnight Sky (sort of). The list of popular books and movies about the end of the world is pretty long. So what's the attraction?
For me, dystopia is interesting because it strips away the veneer of society and lets the storyteller explore what humanity is "really" like. There are other stories (Deliverance, Southern Comfort) that offer "real" humanity as well, just without the worldwide calamity part. Let's dig in.
First of all, let me get a pet peeve out of the way. I HATE it when a dystopic story doesn't provide at least a short explanation about what happened. TWD has a zombie plague, but we don't know where the plague came from. The Road just has a world that is constantly covered in sunless clouds. The Book of Eli has a water shortage. I know, I know. "But the cause of the setting isn't important." Well it is if enough consumers want to know what happened. And I think I'm in the majority on this issue.
In dystopic settings, survival is paramount. Food, water, shelter, defense. Humanity's greatest "invention", historically speaking, was "free time". Great advances in food production around 8000 BC meant that people didn't have to spend every second of every day searching for plants to eat and hunting tasty animals. This led to a great flowering of thought - technology, religion, art, music, etc. all advanced at a faster rate. The things that made us "human" resulted from us having enough extra time to develop them.
But now a meteor has hit the Earth. Or a plague has killed 99% of the population. Or some unknown event has trashed the environment and with it, the food supply. Suddenly we are back to using 100% of our time trying to survive until tomorrow. We aren't that much different than our forefathers from 10,000 years ago.
But we are more moral, right? We will help each other, right? Debatable. There seems to be a lot of disagreement about whether or not people would "be assholes to each other" or not once The Big X strikes. Maybe I'm a cynic, but I think that most of the kindness is gone around the time resources dictate that it's either "me and mine" or "you and yours". Those with strong religious beliefs become fatalists (since "it" isn't all about this world anyway). Those with no religious beliefs are more likely to become hyper-pragmatic. They divide the world into two groups - those who can (and will) help me and mine stay alive, and those who can't (or won't). The ones in the middle are the most interesting. They are likely to begin with certain principles of acceptable behavior but will modify them as the need arises. Pretty soon, there is only one immutable principle - stay alive.
The character Man from Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road is an excellent example of this last group. He and his son, Boy, find themselves in a world where the sun is almost constantly blocked by thick gray clouds. Nothing is growing and food is at a premium. Cannibalism is running rampant. Boy is about 8 years-old. Prior to whatever Disaster X was, Man had been trying to raise Boy to be a stand up human. But now all of the rules have changed on Man. If he tries to teach his son to be kind and to help other people, he is placing his son at a huge disadvantage in terms of survival. At the same time, he doesn't want to drive every bit of the light out of his son. It is the classic dilemma seen in all sorts of fictional stories - if we have to change to save ourselves, are we really saving ourselves? The situation is made even more grueling because Boy pushes back with some of the things Man taught him before the world hit the shitter. Man is forced to unteach those lessons. Any man who has had a young son can't help but suffer right along with Man.
Dystopia is perfect for setting pragmatism and idealism against one another. Generally speaking, idealism is supposed to be what helps us define what our goals (personal and societal) should be. Then pragmatism tells us HOW to do it. When survival is the only available goal, pragmatism becomes the only guide for behavior. If it works, do it. Period. Dystopia also puts religious beliefs to the test. Maybe God has abandoned humanity. Maybe a Second Coming is imminent. Maybe a prior set of religious beliefs is now seen as bull hockey that would only make it more likely to land someone on another person's spit, roasting over an open fire. Imagine trying to re-establish your fundamental view of EVERYTHING (reality, morality, ideals, etc) in an environment that only allows you time to survive (if you can).
So the more things change, the more they stay the same. Today's humans aren't really much different fundamentally than the humans from 8000 BC. We just have cooler toys. And scifi characters in high tech settings have even better toys, but generally still act the same once they are stripped away. The exploration as to how technology impacts human behavior is one of the things I like about scifi. Because a lot of times, the only reason we don't make certain choices is because we don't have them to make. Unchallenged values aren't really very valuable, or interesting, in my opinion.