2012 WAS A GREAT YEAR for the post-apocalypse. Novels, anthologies, movies, television shows, and computer games detailing the collapse of civilization as we know it and the frantic scramble to survive in the aftermath of global apocalypse seem all the rage. This past year alone, weve seen the release and triumph of the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games, the increasing popularity of The Walking Dead, and the advent of J.J. Abrams’ television epic Revolution. Indeed, the culture industry has been in a kind of apocalyptic frenzy for a few years now, television networks in particular rushing full tilt into our bleak future, both to meet the interest spawned by Mayan prophecies and also capitalize on the sense of gloom that has settled on the nation since the economic crisis began — and doesn’t seem to be ending. The Mayans and their prophecies aside, we seem to have created enough reasons to feel our world is coming to an end, or at least wobbly on its axis. And the various post-apocalyptic media we seem to be clamoring for either (1) play out our culpability explicitly (as in 2011’s television show, Terra Nova, about a group of scientists and misfits escaping human-induced ecological catastrophe by time traveling into the “halcyon” Jurassic period) or (2) externalize the blame for apocalypse, offering us an opportunity to prove ourselves worthy of a second chance (as in the alien invasion saga Falling Skies).
Certainly, part of the dual delight of such shows is both masochistic and narcissistic. We turn our collective guilt about our exploitive relationship to the world (ecologically and economically) into survivalist stories about human ingenuity, bravery, and overcoming. But post-apocalyptic media, which has been around for quite some time, also allows us the opportunity to imagine what life would be like if we could largely wipe the slate clean and start over. The tradition offers a heady mix of both versions, healthy self-loathing on the one hand and our penchant for utopian dreaming on the other. Richard Jeffries’s 1885 After London disturbed Victorians with its grisly depiction of the world’s first truly global city sinking into barbarism and ruin, while H.G. Wells’ 1933 The Shape of Things to Come imagined a near utopia after extensive war and rebuilding. In nearly all cases, though, what gets interesting is what happens after whatever plot device is used to induce the apocalypse. After the zombies have risen, the aliens have landed, the infection has spread, the technology has failed, and the environment has lashed out, post-apocalyptic media are about how people rebuild — or fail to do so. And much of their success (or not) depends on the things they carry with them into the future, what they allow to survive with them — both physically and affectively — after the catastrophe has wiped that slate (nearly) clean.
In this brief essay, I can linger over just a few versions of current post-apocalyptic media, but the three I have chosen — Abrams’ Revolution, Lois Lowry’s Giver quartet, and AMC’s The Walking Dead — prompt us to think about how we might co...read more