Post-Apocalyptic Fiction: Holocaust as Metaphor
Now that some of the characteristics of post-apocalyptic fiction have been described, lets work our way down to some particulars. When it comes to the kinds of places and societies these works depict, they generally draw from a limited set of images and ideas, which they alter and mix in various ways to achieve their effects. Among these, they may show us protected bastions of humanity in a sea of inhospitable waste or wilderness or danger, such as enclosed cities, underground caverns, and bunkers. Or they may depict continuous areas of development, as in open cities, or they may show wastelands and wildernesses that have few or no inhabitants. The characters who are depicted as living in these places may have advanced technology, or they may have little or no technology, or they may be making their way back up the ladder of technology. They may perceive the world correctly or they may be lost in illusions or simulations that they mistake for reality. They may be addicted to simulations that let them lose themselves in fantasies. They may live in varying states of luxury or poverty, and in various stages of order or social breakdown. The society may be a dictatorship or democracy or it may be anarchic, and may have various kinds of social structures and cultures known from history. It may be exploitive and persecutory or benevolent; and the people may be emotionally and practically dependent on, or independent of, various kinds of people and machines.
This set of elements uses up many of the possibilities of life, of course. But in practice, these elements are usually mixed and altered and exaggerated in a limited number of ways, to give us a handful of depictions of the future, which appear over and over. For the rest of this essay, three of these depictions will be described, with a focus on the way they portray technology, the physical setting, simulation and illusion, and protected bastions and prisons.
The three are:
* False utopias in which technology and simulation infantilize and control humanity and keep it from knowing its true nature or circumstances. The basic elements that make up this category are entrapment by technology and simulation, brought on by such factors as dependence, physical barriers, and the misperception of circumstances.
* Decaying high-tech worlds in which society has become a jungle, beset by crime, overpopulation and other sources of social breakdown, with little or nothing to cover it up.
* Post-holocaust worlds that have lost most technology and are replaying the tape of history again in a new way.
These aren't the only depictions of the future found in post-apocalyptic fiction and they aren't the only possible categories one might create, since one can select various elements from the list above as criteria. But grouping these works into these categories reveals some of the most important themes of post-apocalyptic fiction.
The first category, which will receive the most attention, shows humanity lost in false paradises of technology and simulation. In one subcategory, we see enclosed high-tech cities or habitations with apparently well-ordered societies full of people who are trapped by their dependence on automation and computers. They may also live decadent lifestyles that serve to distract them from the truth of their circumstances. Here, we find characters such as those referred to earlier in Logan's Run, who are shut inside the last city on earth and mistake it for the world, and who are doomed to be murdered at 30 by a computer-dictator. Outside is a world of nature that was ruined by human carelessness and violence, but that now, unbeknownst to the inhabitants, has come back to life.
Before Logan's Run there was Arthur C. Clarke's novel, The City and the Stars. And before that there was (among other works) E. M. Forster's story, The Machine Stops, which The City and The Stars is similar to in outline and some details. All tell a variation on the same story.
Post-apocalyptic fiction can also show us a future in which humanity, (or some race of sentient beings like ourselves), is trapped in a realm of high-tech simulations. It may be addicted to the lifelike fantasy world of virtual realities, made possible by technology, drugs, mind control or other sources. Or it may be a victim of a con in which it is tricked into believing that simulations are something genuine. Not infrequently, the story will combine these two elements for maximum effect, showing us characters who are trapped inside a bubble of illusion by addiction and by their own misperception of their surroundings.
An example can be seen in the novel, The Futurological Congress, by Stanislaw Lem, in which the main character wakes up in a future society in which everyone unknowingly shares a collective hallucination induced by drugs. As a result, humanity mistakenly believes it lives in a well-tended society of advanced technology when, in reality, its surroundings are in a state of collapse. At the center of this tinsel paradise is a dictator who creates collective hallucinations, which are a form of propaganda disguised to look like reality, to control the public.
The movie, The Electric Horseman, which is a work of "pre-apocalyptic" fiction, tells a similar story, set in the corrupt world of the present. It depicts America as trapped in a false world of illusions and mass-entertainment spectacles created by manipulative corporations that use images as a tool of deception and marketing.
These two types, depicting people trapped in high-tech cities and habitations, and in realms of simulation, are often blended together. In The City and the Stars, for example, the high-tech city run by a computer does everything for its prisoner-inhabitants and also provides them with immersive television, so they can have synthetic experiences as substitutes for a genuine life outside.
Whatever the particulars of the story, the theme of most of these works is the same: the main characters must try to free themselves from their gilded cages and reconnect with external nature and, in many instances, with their own human nature, as well. To do so, they may have to regain the correct perception of the world, by seeing through illusions or getting beyond walls that stop their view of their larger surroundings. At the same time, they may have to overcome psychological illusions by recognizing that they believed in falsehoods, and by giving up their dependence on, and addiction to, technology and fantasy-based simulations. Similarly, they may have to overcome assaults and threats and fears, to make their escape and discover the world as it is. If they are trapped by simulations that distort their perception, then their escape may or may not involve a change of location; what is essential is that they regain the correct perception of their surroundings.
In the end, they will have gone on a journey between various settings, and simultaneously traveled from illusion to reality, and, in some cases, from regression to maturity. As a result of their journey, they may overthrow these upside down worlds and free the other characters. Or they may escape, which makes for a less happy ending. In some of the more ironic works, they fail altogether; it is the false utopia that wins.
Thus, the hero in Logan's Run escapes from the city and its life of decadence and dependence on the dictator-computer. He travels through a wilderness where he discovers nature, until he ends up in the ruins of Washington D.C., where he learns the truths about marriage and human nature, which leads him to recognize that he has been addicted to a false life of decadence and bachelorhood. As a result of his journey, he also forms the idea of fomenting a democratic revolution in which he will go back and liberate the other inhabitants of the city. At the end, he cracks open the city like an egg and humanity emerges into the world of nature for the first time. His journey through the settings of the movie is a journey through mind and society, as he matures beyond the false beliefs in which he was imprisoned.
In The Futurological Congress, the main character pierces through the various layers of hallucination that entrap humanity, to finally see the true horror of a world in ecological collapse, that is near its end. (At least he does so before the novelist takes the reader through one more layer of illusion and reveals that everything the character believed he experienced was a dream.) In The Electric Horseman, the character, a rodeo champion who has been turned into a celebrity -- a human image in a culture of images -- flees from the corrupting influence of the culture of illusion and exposes some of its evil to the world. He goes from the contrived world of Las Vegas into the nature of the open West, where he can be himself again and not merely a human image.
In each case, these transformations correct the order of things so that appearance once again conforms to reality. The characters may not only see physical reality correctly for the first time; they also see the cultures and places they have escaped for what they are -- false paradises.
In many instances, these works focus on the way characters grow beyond ideologies and psychological rationalizations. Early on, they will depict characters who are taken in by the ideologies of their own societies. To convey this idea, they will often create subtle depictions of the way ideology gets embedded in people's material culture and everyday practices and beliefs, so it ends up masquerading as reality.
As the story progresses, we see the characters break away and discover the truth behind the image. The issue these stories generally don't confront is that they are also expressions of ideology and social philosophies. As the characters go from a false to a true set of beliefs and way of life, these stories are showing us various possibilities that exist in our own world and depicting them as good and bad to encourage us to choose one over the other.
But in place of telling us what is good and bad, they embed their ideology and social philosophy in a depiction of a world of the future and draw us into it to shape our experience. In that, they are something like the societies they depict, which embed their ideologies in people's everyday perception of their world. Like the characters, we have to free ourselves from the false utopia of many of these works, through criticism and critical insight.
Most of these stories offer two primary messages, when it comes to ideology and social philosophy. They tell us that people today are controlled and infantilized by governing classes (corporations, media and politicians), which use technology as a tool of manipulation. And they tell us that technology itself is infantilizing us, with all its comforts and its ability to let us lose ourselves in images.
This message is impossible to miss in The Electric Horseman, which depicts corporations (and to a lesser extent, the news media) as the villains behind our culture of entertainment and spectacle. In contrast, the movie shows us the main character's effort to be honest with the public and rediscover an authentic life in nature. We can see another variation on this message in Logan's Run, which depicts a computer-dictator that infantilizes a future humanity and lures it into decadence, in order to tell us that corporations are luring us into these same self-oriented lifestyles, and that they and politicians are infantilizing us in the present.
Similarly, in The Futurological Congress, the collective hallucination that the dictator surrounds the public with, which covers up the truth about the collapse of almost everything, is another form of manipulation -- it is propaganda masquerading as reality. The book's portrayal of people being offered a consumerist, self-oriented lifestyle, made up entirely of products that are hallucinations, is a richly ironic expression of the ideology and social philosophy of the left, which believes we are sold products based on their fictional qualities. You can read Jean Baudrillard, Guy Debord, Herbert Marcuse and other social critics of the left, and learn about the way capitalism has created a society of illusions and spectacles disguised to look like reality. You can also watch and read works like those described above and experience these same insights through the ability that stories have to create a world.
But all of this constitutes only a few of the realms of meaning that can be found in this category of post-apocalyptic fiction. In addition to offering accounts of society, it includes disguised depictions of personal development. Here, the enclosed cities are families with over-controlling parents who refuse to let their children go out into the world and grow up. They are also minds walled off from truth and life by neurotic defenses; and wombs from which the characters are born into a new adulthood. The story, here, is one in which children escape from, and overthrow, over-controlling parents in order to grow up, and minds throw off neurotic defenses and are opened up to life.
This imagery of parents and children is unmistakable in "The Veldt", a short story by Ray Bradbury about a family, rather than a society. It shows an automated house of the future that does everything for the two children who live in it, and encourages them to lose themselves in the fantasy world of immersive television in which they can always have their way, in place of becoming independent. On the other side, the parents fight the house's regressive pull on their children.
Like all of these works, "The Veldt" is a kind of parable about human development, in the guise of a story about the future. The parents represent the need and desire to grow up and face reality, while the house represents our desire to regress and escape into fantasy. In the end, the house wins.
Similarly, in The Futurological Congress, the dictator who traps society in a collective hallucination represents a controlling father who traps his children in a world of fantasy in which they are lured into misperceiving the world.
In these two works, we see a number of the roles that illusion or simulation has in post-apocalyptic fiction. It can represent the daydreams we regress into when the world is too much for us, as in "The Veldt", where the children escape into immersive television that creates lifelike fantasies. It can similarly represent night dreams we experience when we withdraw from the world into sleep, as it does in The Cage, the pilot episode for the original Star Trek, which will be discussed in another essay. And it can represent the fantasy world full of defenses or paranoia or other states of mind, which interfere with our ability to perceive the world correctly, and which parents draw their children into and the mind creates by itself.
In addition to being depictions of the future that let us transcend the present, and forms of social criticism and accounts of personal development, these works also look like variations on what we read in mythology, and the Old and New Testament, since they draw from these images, as they do from other works of art and fiction. Here, as alluded to earlier, they tell stories about heavens and hells, and monsters and gods, and about saviors who go through trials to lead people to righteousness.
The essay on Logan's Run provides a detailed account of how these various meanings fit in together in one work. In essence, it says that the enclosed city, controlled by the computer, simultaneously represents our society controlled by manipulative governing classes; a neurotic mind controlled by an internalized parent; a dysfunctional family with a controlling parent; a womb; the society of the ancient Hebrews and of Rome, lost to paganism; and an underworld or prison in which human beings are trapped by a malevolent goddess. As the hero (and heroine) make their escape and overthrow this society, we are given a story (among others) of ourselves as revolutionaries overthrowing the oppressions of society; of minds escaping neurosis; of children escaping an over-controlling parent and growing up; of the Hebrews being led back to the path of righteousness and of ancient Rome's conversion to Christianity.
In summary, all of these works are variations on a central idea. They show us a humanity that suffers from a technology and simulation complex, in which it counts on technology and simulation to let it regress into a world of comfort and illusion and what seems like total power, instead of growing into adulthood and seeing the world as it is. They are about one of the pathologies of our age -- authentiphobia -- the fear of the real thing, especially the fear of facing reality and having a genuine life. Of course, works of post-apocalyptic fiction depict this by creating their own simulated "worlds", which makes for a very interesting contradiction. They create illusions that will evoke an aesthetic experience, in which we will see some larger truth. In this, they are no different from many other works of fiction, which seek to have the same effect, and which also show us characters and societies escaping, or giving in to, various kinds of illusion.