I had a brief Facebook exchange with some friends regarding Cormac McCarthy’s The Road recently, and it got me thinking about apocalyptic literature. Now, I should preface this by saying I’ve only read parts of The Road and never the whole thing, primarily because it is such an upsetting book and I don’t particularly relish reading something so bleak. Then again, on the other hand, it is truly beautifully written, so I find myself coming back, reading a bit, and then putting it down with a shudder. This demonstrates it as a work of true and raw power, if nothing else.
It also draws me to reflect upon what, if anything, is the purpose of post-apocalyptic literature as a whole. It is very much in vogue these days (though primarily as interacting with the uninspired trope of the zombie apocalypse. For my thoughts on this, see here.) and this shouldn’t be seen as accidental. It’s a reflection of our cultural insecurities, ultimately, as evidenced by our perceived status as ‘top of the world’ and the added realization of the vulnerability of that status. You can see the same thing happening to literature written in cultures in similar situations, such as HG Wells’ apocalyptic visions during the height of Victorian Britain, the rash of numerological fears in ancient Rome (they had their own version of the ‘2012’ myth), and others, as well. We fear the end because we see no way to go any higher or any further. When you can’t go up anymore, the only way to go is down.
But what, today, does wallowing in our own self-destruction provide us? It’s ghoulishly fascinating, of course, but is that all it is? Is the idea to just sit there and grimace as we watch our society torn down by barbarism and nod sagely, saying to ourselves ‘it had to happen?’
God, I hope not.
Stories that lead us nowhere but to human extinction are upsetting and miserable. Far be it from me to forbid the use of tragedy (it’s a trend in scifi that could use a bit of disruption), but the unhappy ending isn’t wholly my problem. My problem is that the hopeless apocalyptic tale is, essentially, bad tragedy. Tragedy is supposed to be a lesson. You should emerge from the experienced as enriched as you are harrowed. I find nothing enriching about witnessing the end of the human race with no hope for survival.
The subtext of a wide variety of apocalyptic stories I’ve read is that we, humans, are so broken, flawed, and miserable that we can’t help but screw ourselves over even in the midst of devastation. This is partially true, of course – we humans are miserable bastards sometimes and often do stupid, short-sighted, or cruel things. It is not, however, universally true. Stories that portray humanity without that goodness, nobility, resourcefulness, and perseverance that characterize a good bit of our history are lying to us just as thoroughly as those that portray us as exclusively possessing those traits. Presenting the apocalypse just as an excuse to jeer at the meanness of human experience is not terribly enriching, or at least I don’t find it so. It is powerful, of course, and horrifying and all the rest of it. I, however, find tales of redemption all the more powerful, though.
If you’re going to lie to me anyway, I’d rather the lie be sweet than sour. Maybe, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I am still an optimist. Or, perhaps, I just won’t cede reality to the pessimists just yet. The world will yet turn; we may yet be saved. Take the tales of the apocalypse as warnings, but not portents. Our future is not yet written in stone.