Most books and movies that paint a picture of the future of mankind give us a dark, empty, scary post-apocalyptic world that posits an argument that we are so bad for our planet and for each other that our only hope is to wait for us to destroy our planet and most of the people on it and start over with almost nothing. I had this conversation with my sister when we were leaving the movies recently and I must give her credit for crystallizing my own observations of the rather gloomy outlook presented by recent fiction. People obviously feel that we are on a path that will inevitably destroy us, and wound our planet, although not necessarily fatally. These stories hold out more hope for the regeneration of nature than for the survival of humans.
We had the Road Warrior series of movies with gangs of people in rags and stylish accessories creating strongholds to hoard fossil fuels and sallying forth to attack each other with vehicles that may have inspired robot wars; lethal vehicles driven by equally lethal skinheads who kill with little or no provocation and with an obvious sense of glee. They have one opponent, Mad Max, who is a vengeful hero who alone exhibits a sanity that seems to have deserted the rest of the bare planet that serves as the backdrop for these future wars. Only the children who Mad Max reluctantly champions hold any hope for a future less savage than the past or the present.
Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road is perhaps the dreariest and emptiest of all the post-apocalyptic books. Is our planet killed by disease, war or pollution? We guess at but are not sure of which of the sins of man has produced this grim future in which a man, growing weaker and sicker, tries to escort his son to some unknown group of people who will offer him a chance to survive and start a new history for mankind. On the road they encounter small groups of survivors who will kill them if they can to help eke out a survival from the scant resources available. In spite of the inability to find any community of survivors who have retained any degree of compassion and unity these two trek on until they reach the Pacific Ocean and just as the father must leave his son, we get the tiniest hope that the human race and the man’s son will go on.
Waterworld is certainly not any world that tempts us to create a similar future and The Postman, although it does inspire with the heroic attempts that are made to preserve a small aspect of the law and order the US government represented, also first shows us a world that has gone terribly wrong, a world where a thug rules by fear and savagery through a gang that accepts despotism as strength (where have we seen this model of human government before – answer – everywhere).
Even Cloud Atlas, that crazy quilt time travelling history of mankind, shows us losing the world as we know it through greed, self-indulgence, laziness and ennui to the amoral application of bad science to fuel our comfort. Starting over, by consensus, in each of these stories seems the only hope for our earth and for mankind.
It is no wonder we long to travel into space. A future that gives us the ability to populate other planets and form an Empire that takes in the whole universe seems to be the only future that promises any positive outcome where humankind with all of our flaws gets to survive for centuries and centuries more. Of course fiction is by definition not true, and this is us, putting our fears on screen and on paper. Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy or just a warning to change our ways? Will we heed the warning? Is the conquest of space the answer, not to changing human nature, but the answer to longevity for mankind? Right now that doesn’t matter because we have not developed the ability to travel in space. What if we never do? What if this little planet is all we have? Can we avoid a future where we turn our dead into food (Soylent Green)? I assume we can, but will we? We have a lot of work to do to avoid the apocalypse and save our planet and ourselves. If we can’t agree on short term policies how can we hope to invent a long term survival?