June 30, 2010

The end of the world as we know it

Let me be perfectly clear on one thing: the world as we know it has already ended!

When? Well, when push comes to shove, it ends every single day. This world we live in now (with the internet, persistent virtual worlds, phones that fit in your pocket, global terrorism, and an America so divided Democrats use "Republican" as a cuss word and Republicans use "Democrat" the same way) is completely different from the world of my childhood. That world ended. By the time young people in high school today are my age, they will find themselves living in a world as alien to them as this one is to me. The world dies and is reborn every single day. The pace of change has become so dramatic that it is completely impossible to predict what our world be like five years from now, let alone a century from now. We just don't know what new technology, serendipitious discovery, or geologic disaster will strike next.

Post-apocalyptic fiction of all kinds puts this uncertainty into a metaphor we can touch, play with, mold, symbolize, and otherwise manipulate to help us understand where we have been, where we are going, and what we can do about it. It does not matter if the story is dystopian or utopian, good post-apocalyptic fiction leaves us better prepared to endure the rapid changes that confront us every single day of our lives. It keeps us sane.

I love a good post-apocalyptic book, a movie is even better. If somebody could come out with a post-apocalyptic game built around some enemy force other than vampires, zombies, or cannibals, I could probably love a good "the shit has hit the fan and we're all gonna die!" game as well. Auto Assault, NetDevil's ill-fated joint venture with NC Soft, came very close to an ideal post-apocalyptic virtual world. Better social tools, a more useful out of the car experience, and a less chaotic craft system, could have made for a genre-defining game. None of that happened and as a result, Auto Assault failed before it had a chance to really get going.

And so it was that when I found "The Book of Eli" had left theaters before I had a chance to see it, I ordered the DVD from Amazon. "The Road" I was totally unfamiliar with until someone mentioned it a few days before I placed my order, so I went ahead and ordered both the movie and the Kindle book. The Kindle book arrived instantly, of course, so I took a day and a half or so to read it.

I have never been a Cormac McCarthy fan and "The Road" is a very good example of why. Long, drawn-out sentences, page after page of minutely detailed descriptions of death and disaster, along with a father-son relationship that bordered way too closely on homo-erotic for my taste, made the book a burdensome chore and my fondest memory of the experience was finishing the last page. I have two sons who are both adults now and never once did I experience the kind of projection, self-identification, and possessiveness that the father in "The Road" feels for his son. I love my sons dearly, but they are not me, I do not live through them, and I'd much rather cuddle up with my wife than either one. In her absence, I sleep alone. Perhaps that makes me a cold, distant father. Perhaps not. I do know I am very proud of both my sons and I am very happy with the men they have become. I think I did a pretty good job raising them, even without the kind of sickly-sweet intimacy typified by the relationship McCarthy spends tens of thousands of words describing in lurid, nauseating, detail.

After setting the book aside, I began to dread the arrival of the DVD. Every once in awhile Hollywood takes a mediocre book and produces a brilliant movie (consider, for example, "Dances with Wolves"), but this is definitely the exception rather than the rule. Both "The Road" and "The Book of Eli" arrived in the same package. I immediately put "The Road" into the player and watched the entire two-hour dissertation on the hopelessness of humanity and the evil we are so very capable of working. When it ended, my one highlight of the evening was that it had not given me acid reflux. If I want to spend two hours contemplating the evils of humanity I'll open Isaiah or Daniel and start reading, thank-you very much. I don't need a homo-erotic, end of the world, elitist nightmare to indulge that particular bit of self-flagellation.

Yesterday other tasks occupied me, so it was late this morning before I was able to put "The Book of Eli" into the player and watch.

Wow... Now that's more like it! Hope! Realistic climate and weather! Real people with real emotions, real needs, and real weaknesses! Men, women, children, isolated homesteads, and small communities, as well as other people on the road.

Consider, for example, the "commune" surrounded by skulls that appears in both book and movie in "The Road". What do we have? Some skulls on spikes, a bloody patch of snow, ten or twenty raving lunatics, a woman and her daughter who wind up in the cook pot. This is the same kind of shallow effort to generate fear and tension as you would find in bands of orcs, zombies, evil aliens, or faceless Nazi soldiers. Meaningless, unrealistic enemies that don't speak, surround our unlucky hero, and devour the innocent, proving exactly how evil they are. Compare that with the five or eight bandits who surround Eli in his first violent encounter. They use a trapped woman for bait, engage him first with an oh-so-innocent demand, then push him physically, and finally attack him en masse. Although they are still shallow bad guys, and only two of them ever show any personality, the two who do interact with Eli feel like they have a realistic motivation for their actions. Also, they are all different body types, they wear different clothes, and they use their bodies in realistic ways, right from the moment when woman flashes her cleavage to when the big guy with the chainsaw swings his heavy tool in wide, barely controlled arcs.

"The Book of Eli" feels far more realistic to me. When societies collapse, this is exactly the kind of scenario that unfolds. Groups and individuals doing their best to survive, protecting their meager resources, and getting their daily needs fulfilled. Some, like those who gather in Carnegie's little city, work at a variety of tasks in an effort to partake in the available resource (in this case, water). Others, like George and Martha in their desert house, mark off their corner of the world, fix it up as best they can, and die defending it. Sex, hunger, jealousy, desire, ambition, preservation, the full range of human emotion and experience is available as the story unfolds. Realistic characters operating from realistic motivations, each doing their best to get their own individual needs met in a world gone insane. The religious undertone that carries the story and holds it together is also realistic. In a post-apocalyptic world there would indeed be people carrying around their Bible, their Qur'an, one of a dozen published sutras, or some other holy book important to their sense of self and well-being.

What many people in the modern world fail to understand is that atheism is the faith of those who live in luxury. In a dystopian world, everyone would believe in something. It might be that the only thing they would believe in is their own two hands and they would spend their every waking hour cursing god, heaven, or fate, but that is a far cry from sitting around denying the existence of the supernatural altogether. In order to deny the working of fate and fortune, you must have the luxury of not depending on them. The godless self-hatred seen in the nameless hero of "The Road" is unrealistic. Fighting for survival does not allow for that level of detached introspection, no matter how intelligent and educated you are.