With the plethora of books, comics, TV shows, movies and games set in the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic genre it is easy to believe that modern society has an obsession with the end of the world. But it isn’t just a modern invention or obsession. Take a look at the writers of early sci-fi and dystopian genres and you can see that our obsession and possibly even belief that the world will come to a (fireball/frozen/zombie-ridden/cannibalistic/chimpanzee) end is nothing new at all. With this in mind, I’ve been pondering about the end of the world lately, and why I (and so many others like me) at the back of my mind, realistically likely or not, believe that an apocalypse will happen in their life time.
In reality, the idea of the end of the world has been around pretty much since the beginning of early civilization. As soon as humans start building a society, they started to ponder about it’s imminent destruction – most especially brought on by the actions of their own growing modernity. As society evolves and moves further away from the idyllic, rose tinted, and arguably non-existent past, the idea that these very steps forward may inevitably lead to destruction is endemic. One of the earliest examples is the Epic of Gilgamesh (written around 2000–1500 BCE), part of which tells the coming of a great flood – also the apocalyptic theme of the Bible’s story of Noah. Other apocalyptic stories of destruction arise from the Bible in the Book of Revelation. The Christian concept of Judgement Day and Rapture are pretty well known in Western society and pop culture.
Mary Shelley, one of the earliest writers of science-fiction in the modern era, wrote what is considered the first work of modern apocalyptic fiction – The Last Man, written in 1826. As society moves into and out of the Industrial Revolution, ideas turn to the return to a pre-industrialised world, such as in Richard Jefferies’ novel After London, or to destruction caused by technology, such as H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (the Terminator of its time?). With the 20th century onset of world-wide conflicts on a scale never before seen, the propensity of the genre, and especially in relation to nuclear warfare, grows. Fiction at this point has also extended from the medium of books and radio, and into television and movies and later, video games. It is in the last 20 years or so especially, that we can really get a feel for how this genre explores our own fears about the modern world, just as it did for our forefathers. For us this includes the ideas of global warming and advanced technology, the spread of uncontrollable pandemics and for some reason zombies.
Versions of the future
Some futures are more optimistic than others – for example the threat that is bringing about the end of the world might be defeated. Though even where this is the case it has changed the world forever! There are many ways in which the world ends, too many to create an in-exhaustive list here, but just to note some of the more popular –
- Disease (Andromeda Strain, 12 Monkeys, Survivors, Doomsday, Contagion)
- People of Infected Status/Zombies – or as I like to term them “PISZ” (Living Dead franchise, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, Resident Evil, World War Z, The Walking Dead)
- Aliens – from space or another dimension (War of the Worlds, Cloverfield, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Monsters, Pacific Rim)
- Space debris (Deep Impact, Armageddon)
- Machines/Technology, either taking over or failing (Terminator franchise, The Matrix franchise, Robopocalypse)
- Natural Disaster including the failing of natural resources such as oil and water (Mad Max franchise, Tank Girl, Waterworld, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow)
- War and/or Terrorism (Jericho, Tomorrow When the War Began)
- Time Travel – an odd one this where perhaps time travel has caused a catastrophe or it is simply a method for viewing the end of the world (A.P.E.X., The Time Machine)
- Unspecified – usually reserved for Post-Apocalyptic setting (The Postman, The Road, The Hunger Games franchise)
Obviously, these are just a sweeping generalisation and there is much room for crossover – the disease in the Andromeda Strain comes from outerspace, as does the cause of the zombification in Shaun of the Dead, equally many, if not most, in the zombie category crossover into disease very easily. Also, without wanting to spend hours trying to extend this list whilst still keeping it as simple as possible, I find myself wondering where Planet of the Apes would fit – time travel, aliens? Not all in these genres take place in a world of desolation and destruction. In some the world is improved in some regards. For example in The Host where the earth is subject to an alien invasion, life doesn’t change massively, its just that humans who do accept the Hosts technically cease to exist, and those who don’t have to go on the run.
I’m not focusing on zombies (and/or People of Infected Status) because of my already document fear/obsession with them (including my short stories), but rather because they appear to be both outside of the realm of natural human fear, and a personification of it at the same time. All other catastrophes listed have roots in the human pysche and real fears associated with the world in which we live – disease, things or items from that big black void we stare at every evening, crazy weather, technology that advances faster than we can keep up with, war and terrorism. All genuine fears! PIS/Z on the other hand are not real. At least not yet (dun dun duuuuhhh!!). Breaking it down, zombies tend to be the reanimated corpse’s of individuals infected with some sort of virus/disease. People of Infected Status on the other hand are not necessarily dead, but likewise have been infected. The common trait amongst them is that they are driven to kill and, especially in the case of zombies, eat humans – which is also, horrifyingly the usual method of infection. It is pretty much, your worst nightmare! The idea of dead being resurrected goes back to those earlier mythologies mentioned before – Gilgamesh and the Bible for example, though their ideas on the undead might not be exactly the same as ours. However, the popular concept of the zombie (before the movies of Romero) were those of the Voodoo traditions. In this case a zombie is generally considered to be a reanimated corpse enslaved to a magic practitioner who has complete control over their zombie subject. A simplistic but interesting interpretation of this can be found in the 1940 horror-comedy The Ghost Breakers.
In the 20th century this idea of the Voodoo zombie, a factual practice, morphed into the fictional zombies that we know today. Getting arguably scarier as time marches on. The credit for bringing the fictionalised zombies into mainstream pop culture goes to George. A. Romero, through his Living Dead series of movies. With his use of social commentary and satyrisation (poinently highlighting issues such as racial equality and consumerism), Romero created a race of zombies that would continue to inspire writers and film-makers. Really, the scariest thing about zombies is that they used to be people. This doesn’t just mean that they might have been someone you knew, but also that you could be one yourself soon, and the overwhelming numbers of them. Because in a world where a bite creates a zombie, humans will soon be outnumbered. And superior numbers will often win out even if your adversary is a decomposing, lumbering mess.
Introduce to this then, the People of Infected Status. Terrifying! (28 Days Later has a lot to answer for!). Zombies tend to be slow and lumbering because they are decomposing reanimated corpses, they may have even lost a limb or three. People of Infected Status on the other hand are not necessarily dead – and even then not usually long enough to start any serious decomposition, and so they tend to be slightly harder to kill and horrifingly fast! It’s a whole other level of terror! Arguably, PIS/Z continue to get scarier as the world around us continues to. What they actually are is a personification of our real fears – the fear of disease, modern science/technology, overpopulation and of course death. They are the pinnacle of the Apocalyptic genres exactly because they confront us with our own mortality. And if there is something that modern society is obsessed with, its new and interesting ways of exploring the idea of death!
Is the world actually going to end?
This is a question with no real definitive answer. From anyone. We can’t even agree amongst ourselves whether threats such as Global Warming are real, much less if they will eventually cause a catastrophe. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg (pardon the pun) when you consider all the potential scenarios we have dreamed up over the years. Let’s look at a small number of the scenarios –
I’m talking in the Biblical sense rather than in the Skynet-becomes-sentient-and-takes-over-the-world sense. Interestingly, the story of judgement day lends itself better to zombies than terminators. Judgement Day is a day when we can expect to receive judgement from God, after a series of lead up events – the resurrection of the dead (zombies!) and the second coming of Christ (double-zombie?!). And then its game over, and we’ll either be damned or live in the kingdom of heaven. This is pretty much the apocalypse to end them all! Heaven is a concept that even many non-practicing Christians believe in, so the idea that at the end of time you will go to some sort of afterlife (rather than survive into a zombie wasteland, struggle with survival and then, in all likelihood, die horribly) can be something find comfort in (if you’ve earned your place!). It could also be something to fear if you are expecting to not make the cut. Will it happen? Well, we know already what signs to look out for – zombies and Christ (Superzombie?). So far, we’re good on the zombie front, and we’re yet to see the return of the Saviour. We are told time and again that he is on his way and will be here soon, in fact the year 2000 was supposed to be welcome back party time, but as far as we know it never happened. So, for now, we’re probably safe from that one – at least until the year 3000 perhaps? Odds of Survival: 0/5 (God wants us all dead!)
Year upon year technological advances get all the more science fiction. Whilst massive advancements have been made in the fields such as medicine, they have also been made in military fields. The main concern if we are to believe popular fiction though is sentient technology. Can computers become self-aware? And what happens if they do? In terms of imbuing computers/robots with a consciousness that is the same as or mimics that of a human is unlikely. We don’t even know all that much about human self-awareness and the science behind souls, so how do we give one to a machine? However!! We do now have technology that can guess at our thoughts – google autocomplete, Siri, even some general advertising programs – they are designed to adapt themselves to their user. Siri may not have a soul, but you have to admit there is something of the self-aware about it! Let’s just remember to be smart and play nice – enslaving a race of robots that might someday become self aware is something we should probably avoid. Chances are if they do become sentient, for their own survival or just as pay back, they’re likely going to tear us all a new one. Odds of Survival: 3/5 (based on the premise that we’re more likely to be enslaved than outright exterminated).
A fear closest to our reality! Ever since the Wars of the 20th Century and the development and use of the Atomic bomb, this has not seemed like an all too distant possibility. We know that somewhere out there are a bunch of highly paid bureaucrats with their fingers on the red button. But as discussed here it is just as, if not more likely, that nuclear war will come about as the result of a malfunction, hacking or human error. What are the chances of purposeful nuclear war? Its hard to guess at any one individuals motivation, but considering the potential fall out and the destruction of resources, it is difficult to imagine anyone is that stupid (difficult but not impossible). More likely, as the world grows short on natural and renewable resources, is purposeful invasion rather, in fact arguably it already happens (let’s not pretend that the Iraq War had nothing to do with oil!), with our new overlords moving in. See Red Dawn and Tomorrow When The War Began as examples of our fear of being invaded by other Nations, ironic considering the Western appetite for invasion – historical and modern – no wonder we fear it! Odds of Survival: 3/5 (based on non-nuclear invasions where we can look forward to being enslaved by other Nations)
This is another one that hits close to home! We don’t have to look too far back into history to see plagues and viruses wiping out whole swathes of the population, from Buponic Plague to Spanish Influenza. Despite modern medicine having eradicated a lot of potentially deadly illnesses, viruses and diseases, there is always something worthy of scaremongering about – most recently things like Bird Flu, SARS and Swine Flu, both of which amounted to little in the big scheme of things. That said, the movie Doomsday paints a pretty believable picture of what happens when already overcrowded cities are struck with a fast moving virus – living conditions in the first and third world alike would act as an incubator for a pandemic. Add to that the fact that modern modes of transport are also a nice modern infection delivery system and it’s time to get worried! Should we be worried? We’ve beat some real deadly killers before and medicine is even more sophisticated now. And as much as we bang on about SARS and the like, it wasn’t the global catastrophe we were told it would be. But what about the increasing world population? Medicine resistant strains? The fact that our immune systems really could be better but we keep on stuffing them up by over-sanitising every single thing!? The possibility of weaponised diseases or at the least the accidental exposure to a scientific sample? Odds of Survival: 3/5 (almost even money on this one – given the factors above – only slightly edged in our favour by the possibility that some people might have a natural immunity or outrun the spread of the disease!)
Given that we have as yet no conclusive proof of any other life forms out there, whether from another planet or another dimension, this seems unlikely. More likely is one of the other things that lurks in space – there’s all kinds of debris and random rocks floating around without any kind of gravitational tether. Asteroids are the one to look out for here and speculation is we are in for a possible collision in 2032 (NASA rates the chances of us being hit at less than 1% for now). But let’s say there are aliens and they come all the way here with malice in their hearts, what then? What are our chances of survival? I think pretty good. The aliens may plan to reap our natural resources, or use us as some sort of human battery (who knows what goes on in those alien minds!), either way we’d be an asset to keep alive – if in a terrible enslaved, postapocalyptic hell hole where you wish they’d just get on an kill you! Odds of Survival: 4/5 (based on the likelihood that aliens would rather enslave than destroy and most asteroids will miss us… most!)
Global Natural Catastrophe
Excluding asteroids as being extraterrestrial, this really covers everything else – climate change, floods, tsunami, earthquakes, volcanoes, decline of natural resources through overfishing, deforrestation, colony collapse- the list is almost in-exhaustive, but a good few possibilities can be found here (including some covered in above segments). There is no denying that humans aren’t just leaving their mark on the earth, they’re leaving great big open wounds! Natural catastrophes also have the knock on effect of potential war over resources, and an effect on the spread of disease (including from the lack of resources like clean water and the introduction of diseases to new places). There are so many potential categories that come under this heading that it’s pretty much impossible to lay it all our here in any great detail. What are the chances? Despite the nay-sayers global warming appears to be a reality though on what scale remains to be seen. And we have all in our lifetimes seen the effects that non-global tsunamis and the like can have – whether we will ever see them on a global scale is hard to say. And what about a new Ice Age? Something I learned in my first archaeology class at university is that we are in fact currently in an ice age. We are in the warmer part of the ice age, called an Inter-glacial period, with the last glacial period having ended around the stone age – so if they could make it through without the benefits of modern technology, we might just be ok! Though the population was considerably smaller back then… Odds of Survival: 1/5 (if we make it through the catastrophe we then have to try and survive the subsequent wars over resources; disease, famine, potentially loss of technological and medical advancement – it’s not going to be pretty!)
The big question here is will zombies ever become a reality? The reality is, barring the unknown, it is unlikely that the dead with be returning from the grave. I think we all know that. And the reason I know we all know that is because modern era zombies are not the zombies of yesteryear – we now have People of Infected Status. Rather than rising from the dead, we’re looking at people infected with a some kind of virus or deadly disease that take over the role we have created for zombies. Think about 28 Days Later and World War Z, or even the Reavers from Serenity, the results of a pandemic where instead of killing you, the virus turns you into something else. So how likely is it that we will become People of Infected Status? Well, such a thing already exists – rabbies for one thing! And there are a few other thoughts and ideas here which aren’t too off the charts! Interestingly, I have discussed this sort of thing with many friends and most agree that this feels like something that could definitely happen – scientific experiments or natural diseases – something that gets in our heads and make PIS a reality. Terrifying. Odds of Survival: 1/5 (going here with the PIS rather than zombies – if you manage to escape infection you have to spend your life fighting off those who didn’t and may or may not want your brains!)
Will We Survive?
Given the odds above, we’ve got an average of slightly over 2/5 chance depending on the specific scenario. Which doesn’t bode well. Don’t fret too much, there are already all kinds of studies going on out there that could come in handy – extraterrestrial threats, zombies, natural disasters and the like. Perhaps the lesson here then is to be prepared for anything! Hedge your bets – keep reading, watching and playing all those apocalyptic scenarios and hopefully,
if when the time comes you’re obsession will pay off and you’ll know what to do!