The World is a Phoenix: The Post-Post Apocalypse

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I love the Post Apocalypse. I love mutant bears with lasers coming out of their eyes. I love libidinous frog men trying to keep Rowdy Roddy Pipe down. I love spike covered muscle cars and psychic dogs and cross country treks in tricked out APCs and the rockabilly battles of Old Vegas. But as much as I love the post apocalypse, it is really all prelude, because what I really love is the post-post apocalypse: when civilization rises from the ashes like the titular mythical bird of this post.

 

Stories about the end of civilization are fun. Characters are given permission to go native and lose their inhibitions, and in the context of games (both tabletop and electronic) you are too. It’s cathartic, blasting mutants and zombies and cyborgs and mutant-zombie-cyborgs. But it is also ultimately limited: the world is dying and man is fading and no amount of weird super-science or gritty survivalism can change that. But when the spark of renewed hope appears, when it looks like the world might just crawl out of the crater, that is when things get interesting. I would contend that much of the best post apocalyptic fiction is actually post-post apocalyptic, because it is not about the End, but the New Beginning.

 

Let’s take for example a pinnacle of the genre: Fallout. Across many games and some tie-in media, the world of Fallout is celebrated as a perfect post apocalyptic story. Except it isn’t. From the very first Fallout game, it is a story about hope: can you find the water purifier chip and save your people. Along the way, it turns into a story about how new powers are trying to control the new world and usher it into a new age. That doesn’t sound like a whimper or a bang. Fallout 2 is more explicit in its metaphor, casting the player as an uncivilized tribal that enters and embraces the new civilization. By the most recent Fallout 4 you actually create, manage and preserve civilization in the form of settlements.

 

When post apocalyptic stories center around creating a new world order, abolishing the monstrosities of the past, reclaiming lost knowledge or otherwise building something new, they transform into post-post apocalyptic ones. Now, sometimes it is a bit of a bait and switch: The Walking Dead, both on the small screen and on the page, is a post apocalyptic story. it flirts with hope but ultimately smashes it with a baseball bat or devours it with a horde of the cannibal dead. The original Mad Max qualifies as well: there is no real sense that things are going to get better by the end of that film; they gangs will just keep fighting one another until all the gas is gone. Interestingly, The Road Warrior transforms into a post post apocalyptic tale just at the very end when we hear the narration of the feral boy grown into an aged storyteller: there is hope and a world beyond Max’s diesel powered Hell. Both Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road are, like the later Fallout games, more explicit in their embracing of the post-post apocalypse. Each of those films promises a future.

 

Narratives more easily recognizable as post-post apocalyptic are often set much longer after The End. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a recognizable example of this, if a bit less fantastical and weird science than much else in the genre. The tabletop role-playing game Numenera from Monte Cook qualifies, too, along with the upcoming (and awesome looking) Horizon: Zero Dawn Playstation game. In each of these examples, enough time has passed that the world is on its way to healing (although usually things are still much more primitive than they were prior to the apocalypse). Here the events of the apocalypse and subsequent rebirth serve as a stage for whatever drama is to follow, rather than the plot itself. The slate has not only been wiped clean but new social, political, religious and cultural structures have been built and these worlds often have similar features to second world fantasies. My own upcoming novel Elger and the Moon fits into this category.

 

There is an optimism in the post-post apocalyptic genre that makes me happy. I like to think that however badly we screw it up, humans are just smart, tenacious and lucky enough to avoid completely destroying ourselves. The struggle to survive is interesting but it is also exhausting, and with all the things in the real world that seem so hopeless sometimes, a dash of hope in my leisure-time adventures is much appreciated.

Stories That Are Also Stories

First, some apologetic housekeeping: I promised you all a review of The Dreams of Ruin, the apocalyptic high level OSR science-fantasy adventure supplement by my friend Geoff Grabowski, and I’ll have it soon (probably over the weekend). Between finals (yes, this old man is back in school), responsibilities as a youth baseball coach, and actual paying writing, I have been very behind on the blog. I’d have liked to make the review *this* post but truth be told this is one of my meandering thought posts, while the DoR review deserves much more thought. Thanks for your patience.

Mad Max: Fury Road is amazeballs. Go see it, immediately, even if Douchey McDoucherstein tells you not to because it might injure your manhood.  I won’t belabor either of those points — how awesome the film is, or how stupid Mens Rights Activists are — but instead want to touch on something that came up in internet forum discussion regarding the movie:

 

To keep a long story short, some folks were trying to square the precise timeline of the Mad Max films, from the original through The Road Warrior, Thunderdome and Fury Road. Two issues were giving certain forumites the fits: Tom Hardy’s relative youth compared to Mel Gibson in the role of Max, and the apparent deepening the chaos and tribalism of the milieu. In combination, these elements created an issue for some, namely that how can Max, who was a cop before the Fall, be so young in a world that has obviously been tribal long enough for the Warboys and Imperator Furiosa to grow up in Immortan Joe’s clutches? Some theories were tossed around, from Max’s home actually existing after the Fall but in a state of relative order at the time of Mad Max, too Max having been mutated by radiation to be immortal. There is even a fan theory floating around suggesting that max is in fact… well, I’ll let you go check it out if you want. it’s interesting and plausible, but not especially likely, I don’t think. Note: it’s also spoilery.

 

I prefer a different theory, that I consider to be both elegant and have big implications not just for Mad Max but a number of other franchises as well:

 

Max is, in essence, an Arthurian Myth, a composite hero from the “dark ages” immediately following the Fall. The films do not recount events that actually occurred in the setting, but rather they represent myth told around the campfires by the elders of the tribes coming out of that Dark Age into a new era of civilization. The films are narrated by survivors who witnessed the events as children or youths, likely the oldest members of the tribe. Who would be left alive to counter the claim that they were there? Maybe they were, but maybe the “true” events happened generation before even those elders. Like Arthurian myths, the stories told in the Mad Max films follow a distinct pattern: Max stumbles into the plight of the people; he is resistant to help but eventually concedes; he fights and not only helps defeat the bad guys but delivers the tribe to safety; he rides off into the sunset, never to be seen again. Tales like these would serve as the foundational stories of the tribes as they emerged out of the darkness and made the transition to actual civilization. And if the Mad Max films serve as stories for those tribes, it explains Max’s “action movie” endurance and skill, and if these stories spread from tribe to tribe over time, it explains why some of the tales seem to occur very shortly after the fall and others, like Fury Road, deep in the dark age when tyrants like Immortan Joe can have fathered a whole generation of mutant child soldiers.

 

Of course, the above is all fan wankery intended to explain away the very real world impact of creator George Miller’s changing views, the differences in budgets and special effects capabilities, and the fact of recasting Max after so long. Even so, it is suggestive of an aspect of storytelling we do no often see and I think has legs, creatively speaking: some stories — that is, narratives that we produce on paper or on the screen — are themselves stories in the worlds of those stories. Certainly it is an idea that has been used before intentionally, mostly as a way to embrace the unreliable narrator, but I am suggesting that is works as both an intentional narrative tool and as a way for fans and future writers to engage wroks, especially franchises.

 

As an example, consider the Prequel Trilogy for Star Wars. Ignoring whatever flaws one may consider those films to have as actual entertainment, they definitely change the nature the universe of the original Star Wars films. This can be explained as casting the Original Trilogy as a sort of post-apocalyptic setting, where everything gets square and textured (compared to the Prequels’ glossy appearance), but I think there is a better explanation: the Prequel Trilogy is actually the story that Obi Wan tells Luke on Degobah (as a ghost) to keep Luke focused on the mission to kill Vader. After Vader outs himself as Anakin, Luke had a crisis of faith  and Obi Wan knew that he needed to hear a story that both jived with what Vader told him but also maintained the narrative that Obi Wan, Yoda and the Rebellion had already sold. It explains why someone so vile as to murder “younglings” could “still have good in him” — in other words, Anakin never murdered the younglings (the Emperor likely did) and Luke could sense that, which allowed him to draw out the last vestiges of good in Vader. Many of the other aspects of the Prequels were likely fabricated or embellished by Obi Wan as well, because at the time Luke was still a hot headed youth who needed to hear those kinds of stories. By the start of Jedi, Luke had grown beyond the need for those “childish things” and was beginning to doubt what he had been told by both Obi Wan and Yoda. Luke may have never learned the truth, but the reality of the lies dawn on him when he visits Yoda for the last time.

 

Again, more fan wankery, but you see my point. Some stories work very well as stories within stories and actually make the properties better. It is a narrative tool we, as writers, can use intentionally and one that we, as fans, can play with to help us get more out of our favorite franchises.