the 21st-century post-apocalyptic future

April 24, 2013

A friend of mine recently dug up some old Dr. Pepper commercials from the 80’s, and they’re glorious.  They take place in horrid post-apocalyptic futures where a cowboy Mad Max hero travels around dispensing the glory of Dr. Pepper.  The “Cola Wars” are depicted as having actually destroyed the planet, and all the tropes of the 1980’s post apocalyptic roadtrip movie are there.  Via YouTube, here’s “1984,” and here’s “After the Cola Wars.”

This got me thinking, and not just the curmudgeonly, “Wow, they don’t make ’em like that anymore.” (A commercial with references to Metropolis?  Inconceivable!)  Right now, the post-apocalyptic future seems to be experiencing another round of popularity, in fiction and in movies.  But it’s quite different from that classic 1980’s blasted dystopian landscape.  Look at Wall-E, the frame story in Cloud Atlas, and two of this summer’s films:  Oblivion and After Earth.  All these depict an abandoned Earth that can only be visited by shining, polished people in glowing white skinsuits, who use supersleek technology and now live off-world.  A sterile, utopian future returning to an ugly past.  (The backstory to these always seems to tell us that Earth has been destroyed, that a shattered climate required people to move offworld.  But with the exception of Wall-E, the Earths depicted actually seem quite lush and overflowing with life.  Just not civilization.)

What I can’t decide is if this is a more positive or more pessimistic view of humanity than the 1980’s post-apocalypse.  Is it a gesture of optimism to believe that we will develop the capability to move off the planet someday?  Or a gesture of pessimism that we are obviously destined to frak things up so badly that not even Mad Max will be able to survive here?

See, the 1980’s post-apocalyptic movies are about survival.  No matter what, something will survive, and there will still be heroes.  In the current batch of future-apocalypse movies — all we can do is run away.

I think this may be a function of the types of apocalypses serving as the backdrop for the story.  The 1980’s apocalypse is almost always nuclear.  It’s a one-and-done blasting of the Earth as we know it, with no time to prepare and no second chance.  The current round of apocalypses are environmental — a slow decay, creeping climate change.  Lots of time to prepare.  And apparently, according to these stories, it’s easier to found a space-based human civilization than it is to fix the problems we’ve seen coming for years.  I guess that’s what I find so depressing about it.  I want to shout at these characters, “You live in space, and you can’t come up with the technology to fix things?”  But Earth isn’t home anymore — it’s the antagonist.

It feels like an abrogation of responsibility.  The environmental apocalypse may be decades slower than nuclear war, we may see it coming — but apparently, it’s just as inexorable and catastrophic.  It’s also an example of the kind of conservative, narrow-minded thinking that people are always surprised to find in science fiction, which has a reputation of being so forward and future-minded, but which often serves to show us the worst of all possible outcomes, and the worst of all possible human behaviors.

29 Responses to “the 21st-century post-apocalyptic future”

  1. perditionbound Says:

    I’ve been a huge fan of sci-fi, having grown up in a house of readers where my father always had Norton, Dickson, Asimov and others easily within my grasp. One of the greatest disappointments as I’ve grown older is the lack of hope in the genre.

    I know that in the late ’80s we had the cyberpunk movement with Gibson and still riding the dark and gritty view of Star Wars which countered the clean and positive view by Roddenberry.

    I was also a military kid and exposed to all the movies of the time that continued the Cold War concerns of nuclear holocaust, but we also had moves like the Explorers and a rekindling of the Star Trek utopia.

    I’d love to see a shift return to a more hopeful view of mankind’s future. That we will eventually stretch our arms out towards a waiting and welcoming Universe just waiting to be explored with new wonders awaiting.

    Maybe one day.

  2. James Nicoll Says:

    More Or Less Abandoned Earth does turn up in older SF: The Invaders took Earth away from technologically-sophisticated humans in the Eight Worlds. Sterling’s Shaper/Mechanist stories similarly have Earth under the Interdict. Going back even farther, the Earth of Pebble in the Sky is a radioactive ruin with barely enough people to make a decent-sized city.

  3. WanabePBWriter Says:

    In A.C. Clarks 3001 earth was kind of like a nature preserve. A few people would ocasionaly go down and try to live there. But humanity lived in orbit and off world elsewhere in the solar system.

  4. queenmumsie Says:

    Part of the problem that may result in an off-planet migration comes from the disparity of pollution from the different countries and different amounts of pollution each gives off. The U.S. can control our own pollution (to an extent) but can’t stop N. Korea from detonating an atomic bomb (HIGHLY polluting) or China from irreparably polluting its own water or 3rd world countries new to industrialization from giving off emissions no longer allowed in the U.S., etc. There is no world congress and not much hope for one. The problems with the euro underscore the difficulty of trying to even blend the economies of a few countries much less attempting to blend the political realities of a disparate world. Humanity is still waaay too tribal. The rich will leave & the poor will stay and suffer, evolve or perish.

  5. Asimov’s Foundation series is hinged upon the fall of, not just Earth, but the whole of the Galactic Empire of humanity. It’s worth noting that in the future of Foundation, Earth becomes long-deserted and, if I remember correctly, uninhabitable. But humanity continues on.

    It’s also worth noting that it is a physical certainty, unstoppable scientific fact, that within a few billion years, Earth will, due to rising temperatures from increased solar luminosity, become entirely lifeless (that includes single-celled organisms).

    If Terran life wants to continue beyond that time we -will- need to expand and at least colonize the further reaches of our own system. And if we want to continue beyond that… it’s likely at some point, Sol will go nova. So we’d better try to figure out a way to travel interstellar distances as well.

  6. Carrie V. Says:

    It seems to take time for ideas to filter from written SF into film. I’m just interested in why we’re seeing a number of versions of this trope in film *right now*.

    Moving human civilization to the stars because the sun is going nova is very different from “We’ve been forced into space because we turned the Earth into an inhabitable radioactive hell.” It somewhat mitigates the optimistic aspects of there being a space-based civilization.

  7. The Raven Says:

    No. Not lots of time to prepare. Planetologist Jim Hansen thinks we are already on track for drastic changes unless we do something quick. Other climate scientists think we have a bit more time, but only a bit. And once tipping points are passed, the results will be Old Testament in scale and character. Lots of drama, if you want drama.

    To all the the world’s leaders, so far as I can tell, cutting taxes on the rich and cutting budget deficits are more important than cutting CO2 emissions. I don’t see any signs of sanity breaking out. Do you?

    (My notes on recent reading on the topic, here. I knew things were bad, but didn’t realize how bad until I updated my reading. See also David Roberts Climate Change is Simple.)

  8. James Targett Says:

    Film is always a few years behind. I’m more interested in the kind of fiction that Paulo Bacigalupi is writing which showcases earth-based civilisations in all their horror and glory after the Fall (from peak oil, climate change etc) and suggests what life might be like.

    There was an essay I saw from Charlie Stross as well recently, about how we have two futures ahead of us, or maybe running concurrently, one of environmental catastrophe with a touch of society dying-back / returning to a low-tech, semi-barbarian level with little impact to Gaia, versus a high-growth future with lots of toys and technological gizmos. (Had a quick search for a link on Google, couldn’t find it, started to get distracted by Charlie’s other blog entries … I think it might be in the back of one of his books).
    J.J Abrahm’s Revolution fits into this somewhere.

    I guess that the morale of cyberpunk is that hi-tech doesn’t necessarily mean utopia.In some ways we live in a cyberpunk future, with all its cynicism and compromises: maybe we have forgotten how to dream big and imagine that we can fix things. The debate about climate change is so poisoned with misinformation and propaganda that I can’t see how any political leader (unless they were a benevolent tyrant with an environmentalist streak) could bring about significant change. So maybe SF are working through how humanity changes and adapts .. survives the future … instead of making the future.

    As long as they don’t remake Waterworld.

  9. Carrie V. Says:

    Raven, surely we have a better chance of mitigating climate change at this point than we do *building a space-based civilization to continue the entirety of the human race.*

    That’s what I find so disturbing about the subtext of this trope — it suggests that maintaining a space-faring civilization is somehow a more reasonable solution than *fixing problems here on Earth*. I know I’m dodging your comment by looking at the literary expressions of the issue rather than the reality. But the literary expressions do tell us something about society’s attitude re: the issues.

  10. James Davis Nicoll Says:

    Alex, Earth’s significance gets forgotten before Foundation. In The Stars, Like Dust (4850 AD), Earth is worn out and a bit radioactive but everyone remembers that’s where humans come from. By Pebble in the Sky (827 GE (12411 AD)), Earth as homeworld of humanity is forgotten (although one historian speculates about it. Foundation is something like 11,000 after Pebble.

  11. Calico Says:

    What about Book of Eli? That movie seems to harken back to those films from the 80s. 🙂

    Also, I second someone’s comment about Revolution and will add The Walking Dead, though the latter is more horror than SF, and both are television shows.

  12. Griggk the goblin Says:

    Given human nature, I find it more believable that the mass of humanity would choose to pick up and leave, rather than hang around and clean up their mess. Advancing to space means not having to give up unlimited hot water or automatic dishwashers or shiny white jumpsuits. Machines will recycle our water and waste for us without us having to really lift more than a finger.

    Cleaning up our mess, however, requires sacrifice and hard work. Less reliable energy sources. Colder showers. Population reduction.

  13. James Davis Nicoll Says:

    Absent a supply of very Earthlike worlds, it is hard to imagine the offworld colonies not being pretty constrained in some basic resources, like free air or radiation shielding.

  14. James Davis Nicoll Says:

    And it would be very odd if technology like closed loop life support did not have some applications on Earth. I could see places like Masdar City being interested.

  15. The Raven Says:

    Oh, yes. It’s despair, really—despair of humanity.

    It’s also not plausible (I know, I know, this is Hollywood.)

  16. James Nicoll Says:

    I thought you might find this interesting:

  17. Markysan Says:

    At the risk of sounding like someone with narrow minded conservative thinking, the issue of fixing things *now* is hotly debated. Many think that there’s nothing to fix.

    Hollywood, however, is extremely left-wing. I believe that this is why you’re seeing movies like this now. It’s Hollywood sending out the message that despite conflicting data, we are headed for a climate-driven apocalypse.

    Hey. It could be true. How are we to know when the results they want can be bought by both sides? In the meantime, Hollywood is showering the masses with entertaining propaganda. I’m not sure where the hopeless message comes from.

    Regarding global warming? (in case you think I’m a crazy right-wing extremist) It’s nearly May and we had snow flurries in Pennsylvania last night. On the other hand, you live in Colorado and barely had any snow this year. I don’t know what to think but those released e-mails (that “prove” the data by global warming scientists was falsified) made for some interesting reading and the fact that the media ignored it kind of nudges me to the right a little.
    Just saying.

  18. The Raven Says:

    Markysan, no, after a century of speculation, and 30 years of concentrated research, anthropogenic climate change is established as real. The physical evidence is overwhelming. Climate change means more energy in the climate system. It does not mean uniform warming in the short term; sometimes it means local cooling like, for instance, late snow. The hacked e-mails from University of East Anglia CRU made front pages worldwide. The CRU’s work was reviewed and found valid. Etc., etc.

    I am embarrassed to have initiated a threadjack, so I think I will stop writing here. My apologies. Ms. Vaughn, if you want to use the banhammer of loving correction on this post, it’s OK with me.

  19. Carrie V. Says:

    James, that was kind of adorable.

    No banhammering, Raven. Thanks for your politeness.

    I have learned an important lesson, though: if you want to increase hits on your blog, just mention climate change.

    Markysan: If Hollywood were really that left-wing, Oblivion would have had the woman character be the one in the ship going to Earth and having adventures and had Tom Cruise answering the phone.

  20. James Nicoll Says:

    Girl protagonists in movie SF is unpossible! Everyone knows that the target market is 14 – 24 year old boys and what interest would they have in women?

    I found it interesting to do a compare and contrast of protagonist gender balance in Japanese and American print SF a couple of years ago; if my limited sample was any indication, the Japanese are a lot more comfortable with female protagonists.

  21. I completely agree that this trend is disturbing. It speaks of an unwillingness to face what is actually coming, what is real — even in story. We know it’s coming, that drastic changes in climate can only be averted by drastic changes in our consumption and lifestyles, by accepting a cleaner way of living on a mass scale. Is it so scary that instead of owning up to the tough work we each have to do to solve this problem, we retreat into romanticism? Space is FAR out of reach. Our planet is right here. But we don’t know how to fix it. So instead, we dream. It is disturbing. I believe we can tackle the changes that need to be made, but it starts with individuals living appropriately, and thoughtfully. It starts with individuals electing people who will actually represent these views in policy. Changes are happening. Remember, green was barely a thing in 2003. Now it’s a big deal.

  22. Tim Schmidt Says:

    Perhaps the feeling comes from believing that changes aren’t going our way and there is little most of us can do about it. From climate change to economic change to the lost of relative power and prestige of the west its easy to feel that the best days are behind us (whether this is actually true of not).


    In Oblivion, the world is messed up because a bunch of aliens came along, invaded and pretty much blew everything up.
    The off planet human civilization – not real.

  23. Tim Schmidt Says:

    Sorry about the spoilers. I entered a bunch of blank lines to make people scroll to see them but they got deleted.


  24. Carrie V. Says:

    It’s okay, you marked it, and I guess I knew some of that from the previews…

  25. smsand Says:

    Yeah, I much prefer Mad Max over the current crop. As an aside, I once was hopeful that humanity can not only survive, but also progress and thrive regardless of how bad the situation may get. But running into some high school graduates who didn’t even know who Abraham Lincoln was kinda dashed my hopefulness into bloody bits across a pock-marked nickel-based surface.

  26. James Nicoll Says:

    Well, the Lost Causers have engaged in a more successful war against the dead Lincoln than the live one.

    I overheard a bunch of high schoolers discussing this fascinating sounding woman who escaped from Nazi Occupied Europe despite being blind, deaf and mute. I was very sad when I realized they’d gotten Anne Frank mixed up with Helen Keller (and tacked on a happy ending).

  27. RobertL Says:

    I see a growing acceptance that the planet would be better off without us. The idea that if we got out of the way the planet would eventually take care of itself.

    You are completely correct that it would be far easier to fix the planet than to save the population by moving off world… but. There is an ugly corollary to that. If we continue down the path to extinction It would be far easier to save a small percentage of the population and leave the under privileged masses to pay the price of our shortsightedness.

    All of these stories are taking place long after the exodus. There would have to be a serious number of “egg breaking” that would be upsetting to anyone with a soul.

  28. James Nicoll Says:

    Something I don’t see explored in Western SF* (outside of one Stross novel and a John Ringo series) are the implications of the general decline in total fertility rates (TFR). Anyone of a certain age would have been raised on scenarios that predicted exponential growth until SUDDEN DOOOOoooOOOOooOOOOoooooM! but actually it turns out women, given a choice and education, don’t want to produce an endless stream of babies. As a result, more and more nations have net birthrates falling down past replacement level and while population growth has a certain inertia, there are nations that face population decline due to this and other factors.

    Canada, for example, is dismal at constructing native-born Canadians from locally-produced raw materials and our strategy of importing new Canadians from abroad only works as long as other nations are willing to supply us with immigrants. What happens if we enter a stage where every nation has declining populations?

    In fact, the planet passed Peak Child a while ago:

    My suspicion is that TFR declines that aren’t driven by some calamity are not dramatic enough for most SF authors (although Japanese SF authors, who would have first hand familiarity with this scenario, do use it as a background detail), although some older writers don’t seem to be aware of this development at all.

    Note: trying to mandate a higher birthrate has a dismal track record. See Decree 770. Offering financial incentives enjoys more success but requires significant investment per additional child.

  29. RobertL Says:

    The debate on climate change reminds me of a scene from “Last of the Mohicans”

    > What happened at the farm was as Nathaniel said.

    > But not with enough certainty to out weigh British interests in this fort.

    > And who empowered these colonials to pass judgment…

    No matter how powerful your facts are it is impossible to convince people who have a vested interest in it not being true. For those people, nothing short of New York City under 10′ of water will be convincing enough.

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