A nuclear bomb is hidden in an old warehouse, and time is running out. When activists break into a research lab, a single monkey escapes. The artificial intelligence is spreading, and humankind is in a race to remain dominant. The earth itself is striking out with floods, fires, or intense cold. Or maybe it’s already over, and a group of survivors are making their way in a new, savage world. Maybe we have only a single, walled city left as protection against the zombies, or perhaps we’ve traveled to a post-apocalyptic future from the past. Whether the action takes place before or after the “end of the world,” the most striking thing about the the apocalypse narrative isn’t the many stories it tells, but the single story it doesn’t.
Escaping the Apocalypse
All but one season of Buffy ends with the threat of an apocalypse. The Terminator franchise alternately tells the story of trying to prevent the end of the world, and ensuring our survival after it. Movies like Outbreak and Contagion deal with stopping a virus before it spreads. Countless narratives, from Wargames to The Sum of All Fears to 24, tell the story of a race to prevent a nuclear tragedy that might slip into global armageddon.
At a high level, these stories are about survival and heroism, and stress the ability of individuals (or small groups) to overcome obstacles through intelligence, bravery, and sacrifice. The heroes in these films stand in for the whole of humanity, and their trials represent the hope that we will be able to prevent our own destruction. There may be an implied warning – about the risks of climate change, genetic experimentation, nuclear war, or the singularity, but these warnings are placed alongside a message of human perseverance.
Surviving the Apocalypse
In novels like The Year of the Flood or The Hunger Games, movies like The Road Warrior, or computer games like Fallout 3, the apocalypse has already occurred. The zombies have run rampant, the disease has run its course, vast areas of the world are irradiated wastelands: the story isn’t about trying to prevent armageddon, it’s about what happens after.
The post-apocalypse story is about how people act when their values are tested, and individual or small-group survival is on the line. Often, these stories include strong elements of man versus nature, as life is reduced to a day-to-day struggle for survival. They offer us a chance to consider how much of what we think of as individual morality is a social construct, that falls away when consequences are removed. As in the pre-apocalyptic narrative there may be warnings, but the core story is about human nature, perseverance, and survival.
The Missing Story
The above examples are by necessity very broad: there are many forms that an apocalypse story can take: some are set before the catastrophic event, some after, some both. Sometimes the stakes being played for are at the species level, sometimes the family or individual, but the vast majority all have one, common thread: they reassure as that in some form, humanity will survive. In the missing story, it doesn’t.
Humans tell stories to explain the world around us – to explore ourselves, or to explore The Other. Our most enduring stories touch on the common patterns that run through the human experience, but at its most extreme, the apocalypse narrative lacks conflict and characters. There are no themes, or symbols. It isn’t about rushing to avoid something, or to survive it. It’s not about values, or perseverance – those things are laid to rest at the beginning of the first act. We don’t tell the story of our own non-existence because it goes against our nature to imagine a world without us in it. The missing apocalypse narrative isn’t a story: it’s a very real possibility that we’re hard-wired to ignore.
We don’t tell the story of our final destruction because after it occurs there’s no story to tell, and stories that finish with the end of humanity don’t leave us feeling satisfied. As individuals or as a species, seriously considering the possibility of our annihilation is evolutionary poison. It’s the assumption that we will survive that keeps us going, but it’s hard not to wonder at what point that narrative becomes self-destructive.
Science has allowed us to transcend natural selection, but though we have accumulated a vast store of knowledge, our brains haven’t evolved meaningfully since before the dawn of civilization. The missing apocalypse narrative is simple, abrupt: there’s climate change, famine, and then extinction. There’s nuclear war, radiation, and then extinction. A virus is created or emerges, it spreads, and then extinction. Building a story around it always results in survival, because the alternative is a story you can’t sell – a story that nobody wants to hear. But just because it’s not a human story, doesn’t mean it might not be THE story.
Stepping Outside of the Human Story
This may be the biggest struggle that humankind faces: not the singularity, or climate change, or nuclear war, but our stubborn insistence that we are destined to either avoid or survive any apocalypse that might come our way.
I’ve poked fun at the transhumanists for their optimism, but lately I’ve been wondering if our best hope as a species is to change who we are at the genetic level – not to make us stop telling stories, but to help us understand that the universe exists independent of us, and that anything that facilitates assumption of our survival – whether it takes the form of religion, story, or human nature, itself – lulls us into a false sense of security.
Can you think of an apocalypse story where humanity doesn’t survive? How did it make you feel? Was this article depressing to read? Do you think that I’m overly pessimistic?