Literature and film have both mirrored and helped shape these visions of disaster. In the last 50 years, in fact, writers and movie-makers have produced an entirely new genre: the post-apocalyptic. Their vision of a world in which civilization has crumbled and in which a few survivors battle for their lives has attracted enormous audiences.
William Forstchen’s One Second After provides a fine example of the best of such stories. When a series of electromagnetic pulses, created by the explosion of nuclear weapons in the stratosphere, knocks out most of the electrical power in the United States, the townspeople of Black Mountain, N.C., find themselves dealing with looters, thieves, possible starvation, a lack of medical supplies, and an army of marauding cannibals. Forstchen is realistic in his approach here: he has researched the topic of EMPs, sets the book in his hometown, and creates as his protagonist a college professor named John Matherson, an ordinary man called to leadership in extraordinary circumstances. What Forstchen does best, however, is to show us the side effects of disaster. His grim depiction of early casualties among the most vulnerable — diabetics, nursing home residents, hospital patients — reminds us of the terrible cost exacted when transportation, electricity and refrigeration fail. A 7-year-old boy dies from an asthma attack. A girl eventually succumbs to diabetes when her insulin runs out. (Forstchen, incidentally, has written his book as a cautionary tale, not as a blueprint for the future. As he states in the introduction, “I pray that years from now … critics will say this was nothing more than a work of folly.”)
So what gives? Why have we become so fascinated by such doomsday works that we have created a post-apocalyptic genre? Do we enjoy these books and movies for their entertainment value, or do they touch deeper sources of pleasure and dread? Why are we so enamored of television shows like “Jericho” and “The Walking Dead,” with movies like “I Am Legend” and “Children of Men,” with books like The Hunger Games, The Road, and Patriots?
Certainly the fears of the last seven decades — atomic weapons, environmental disasters, deadly microbes brewed up in laboratories, Big Brother in government — have sparked both our imaginations and those of our artists. These writers are also entertaining; we can enjoy being terrified while safe at home on a sofa, and the man or woman facing great odds is, after all, one of the premier themes of literature.
Lately, however, certain individuals appear to welcome — sometimes giddily — visions of Gotterdammerung. Some radical environmentalists, for example, dream of a humankind — much reduced in number — in a state of nature, foregoing technology and returning to the primitive. On the Left, many in the Occupy Movement, frustrated by the shenanigans of bankers and brokers, happily avow their intention of replacing democracy with anarchism. Some on the far-right, enraged by our government and the disrepair of the Constitution, see the disintegration of our political system as desirable, a falling-apart which will restore to them what they regard as their lost freedoms.
What all of these millenarians fail to grasp are the true circumstances of the change they envision. Like the rest of us, they identify with the heroes in the movies they watch and the books they read. They view The Hunger Games and imagine themselves as Katniss; they read One Second After and become John Matherson. Unlike the rest of us, however, these denizens of doom want to live out their fantasies, seeing themselves as the survivors, heroic souls who by their wit and grit will create a brave new world from the ashes of the old.
The reality would likely be quite different. Relatively few Americans have actually fired a weapon with intent to kill. Few of us trap or hunt or fish. Few of us know what it is to be cold and hungry for days on end, to go unwashed for weeks, to work with our hands, to do without the thousand daily luxuries we take for granted. Most of us enjoy those luxuries and would be appalled — and soon likely dead — if thrust into conditions where we had to provide our own grub, live in unheated homes, or thwart attacks by armed mobs. Furthermore, to believe that people will gentle their condition by a return to nature, to believe that the collapse of our political and economic system, whatever its flaws, will automatically bestow the gift of utopia or greater liberty: these are the conceits of the armchair and the box office. Rip away the fabric of civilization — and we seem at times to be doing just that — and what you uncover is a nightmare of blood, dirt, tears, agony and death.
Should we pay any attention to these writers and directors? Should we prepare for wreck and ruin? You bet we should. My father, age 86, ends many of our telephone conversations with the words: “Keep your powder dry.” Though his repetition of this aphorism has annoyed me at times, he is absolutely correct. If we are wise, we should prepare in a prudent fashion for upheaval, whether from nature’s cataclysms or from murderous human hearts.
My mother preferred another adage: “Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.” Can we dream ourselves to death? What might happen if growing numbers of people keep visualizing destruction, keep wishing for death-dealing bacilli, nuclear attacks, savages in the streets? Who knows? We just might get what we wish for.
I enjoy these books and movies as much as the next person. They get the blood racing and excite the imagination. But I also enjoy hot showers, good coffee, a heated apartment, my car, my cell phone, my computer and the many other amenities of civilization. These possessions are more than just pleasures. They are visible signs of life, liberty and my own pursuit of happiness. They are, in short, things worth fighting for — here and now, in the political and cultural arenas of the real world.
One final note to that young cashier: You are spot on about your return to nature. If the civilization which now coddles you does indeed crumble, I’d give you and millions like you about two weeks before you were food for worms.