12.04.2007

Speculative Topics--Celebrating the Apocalypse

So what is it about the end of the world that has all of us dying to read (or watch)?

Stephen King wiped out the population in The Stand and then did it again in Cell (not to mention "The End of the Whole Mess," "The Mist" and "Night Surf"). As I've made abundantly clear in this space, the best book I've read in years is the post-apocalyptic The Road. In two weeks we'll get the film adaptation of Richard Matheson's excellent I Am Legend. And that will precede years of offerings from Justin Cronin (a.k.a. Jordan Ainsley) in the form of a post-apocalyptic vampire trilogy.

So what is it about the end of the world and popular culture? Why are we so fascinated by the prospects of it?

I can't say for sure, but I do remember that in high school I used to lifeguard at the city aquatic center in Pendleton. About ten miles west of town the U.S. military has created a storage facility for all of their unspent (and past expiration, no doubt) munitions from the various wars. As you drive along I-84 you see row after row of hideous bumps rising up from the prairie--they're bunkers, all of them stuffed with mustard and nerve gas.

It's some scary shit.

I used to sit in my lifeguard chair and wonder what I'd do if we had an earthquake (not uncommon in that part of the country) and a cloud of life-altering gas started heading toward Pendleton on a stiff easterly wind. How would I react? Where would I go? Who would I ally with?

I watched the pool also, but an awful lot of my idle time in that chair was spent wondering what if. And I think that's the real draw. Humanity is curious about its mettle. We wonder if we're hearty enough to be the survivors. And it wouldn't be just natural or chemical or nuclear catastrophe we'd have to deal with. It would be social manipulation and group-think and misplaced belief that would foul the machinery as well.

For an excellent view of those principles at work, I recommend the 1964 Twilight Zone episode "The Shelter" to your consideration.

So why do we dig the idea of the apocalypse so much, guys? What is it about the most horrible of horribles that so captivates our culture?

And which of these stories is the best, in your opinion?

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