The Beginning of the End: Groups

The Beginning of the End

originally published at Suvudu—June 30, 2010.

If selfhood is situational, and an apocalypse reveals that civilized society is a luxury, where does that leave the rest of us—the groups of us?

Typically, “groups” play large roles in the apocalyptic arts. Sometimes, they’re merely backdrops—flawed societies out of which arise lone heroes or heroines, determined to live better, apart and alone. Other times, groups represent the loss of self—the switchover from one identity to a new one: an apocalyptic one. These groups are loss, and they conjure old-timey images of families, block parties, and meetings around the water cooler. These groups highlight what our lone heroes/heroines have lost to the apocalypse, by themselves or in their new groups.

In other circumstances, groups make up the new narrative focus. Our apocalypticos, having survived whatever collapse or cataclysm or revolution, have banded together to increase their odds of continued survival. Usually, these groups either try to re-create society as they knew it, or they try to create something new—a Better World.

But, in the interest of plot, that’s not usually enough. Who cares if a bunch of bums get together to farm beans and make armor out of hammered trash cans? That’s boring. “Story” comes from the easy fact that these groups are doomed to screw everything up again. “Paradise,” even when cast as a New World Order, often also contains the seeds of its own destruction. Think about the Biblical heaven, for example. Perfect as it is described to have been, there’s the issue of that damn fruit. And who is responsible for the ruining of paradise? People.

So, our apocalypse narratives usually give us stories of human drama—love, conflict, redemption. Not so different from most other kinds of stories, right? Well, yes and no. See, apocalyptic stories are resetting the social clock, making models of creation and the rise of humanity in ways other narratives can’t.

Imagine this: a long time ago, in the early days, a human find itself faced with some simple, un-civilized problems. Namely, it needs to eat, it needs to sleep, and it needs to not be eaten by something else. So, our intrepid human realizes that it is at its most vulnerable when it’s doing anything other than watching for enemies. Being intrepid, it teams up with another human—now they can couple their efforts.

Things go well until this catches on. Now, two humans is the status quo. If our couple wants to stay alive, it’s going to need an edge.

So, they find a third, a fourth, and so on and so forth. Now, our little “group” is doing very well. They control most of the cave real estate, they control the watering holes, and they’ve taught themselves to cultivate crops in the fields that they can protect. Of course, someone has to oversee all this, so our first human becomes and administrator. He or she now holds power because he or she has control of the resources. (Animal Farm, much?) Under his or her leadership, the group decides who’s one of them and who’s an enemy. It decides who gets to share the water or till the land. As it gets bigger, it makes rules to manage all of this, and these laws take a little bit of freedom away from everybody to make sure that everyone enjoys now-civilized life equally.

Eventually, though, as it gets larger and larger, decisions from the administrator (or from a neighboring administrator who would like to annex this proto-nation) start pissing people off. Not, everything is equal, despite the administrator’s best efforts, so some disgruntled sorts decide that they can do a better job. There’s a revolution, or someone detonates a big bomb, or the crops fail. Chaos. Someone new takes over, and it all starts over again.

And there’s the rub. There was only one “beginning” of humanity. If we want to see how we got “here,” how human artistic interest reveals our racial lineage, then we need to model the beginning, so we can study it. The only way to create a beginning is to first fake an end.

Voilà. Apocalypse.

It’s conflict as human heritage—as a very human enterprise, despite how much it “slows our advancement” or keeps us from a Spandex-wearing, no-money-having, hippie future. We are, every day, in the process of apocalypse. We don’t just blow things up (in art) to watch the pretty colors—we also do it to remember how we got here. To remember what it took to establish families and block parties. What it took to create ice cream, or to fall in love. Baseball, church, or a quiet evening with a book about The End of the World as We Know It.

The Beginning of the End: Selfhood

The Beginning of the End

originally published at Suvudu—June 7, 2010.

So, what else do we need to know in order to understand the artistic impulse toward apocalypse? Well, lots—apocalyptic sentiment is a crossroads for a number of studies: psychology, sociology, history, religion, and information . . . to name a few. Really, one could achieve a full liberal arts education just by following all the interconnected social science threads that have something to do with understanding the apocalyptic impulse.

But seriously. What else do we have to know?


Selfhood, or consciousness, is a huge can of worms—and has been for millennia. Most philosophy has concerned itself primarily with “being.” I could write blog posts about selfhood and cognitive theory until it makes us all barf (it’s one of my academic concentrations), but that would be both boring and gross. Let’s dodge the issue of what a “self” is and look instead at what it does—as represented by an artistic apocalypse.

The Cliff’s Notes version:

You are not yourself*. Not in the way you think you are. See, selfhood is situational—how it’s shaped, how it behaves, is based on context. We’ve all heard versions of the nature vs. nurture argument, regarding the formation of a self. The circumstances of your upbringing play a huge role in how your brain (nature) behaves (nurture). I mean, if you grew up as a feral child in the woods, your “self” would be much different than it would be if you grew up in a stable suburb, in a comfortable house, surrounded by friends, family, and . . . oh, you know—language. Like an infant, you’d be aware, but not self-aware.

But that doesn’t take the idea far enough. Your “self” is still situational after it’s been established—after you grow up. For example, when I’m at home watching my shows (this season it was Glee, Modern Family, Castle, and The Big Bang Theory, mostly), I am not managing my political inclinations, my religious stance, or my position regarding arboreal thermodynamics. I’m just watching TV—a way of suppressing “selfhood” (one of the more benign ways, in fact). I am “less” myself in this context than I am when all of the aspects that comprise “me” are engaged—like when I’m teaching. Further still, I think and behave differently when my wife and I plug in the PS3 than I do when I’m called in to a meeting with the boss. The situation determines who I am.

Groovy. Bring on the apocalypse.

When a character (a representation of “real” human behavior and cognition) finds himself or herself in an apocalyptic situation, the author/creator asks us to consider a great many things. If you think about it, a world that requires you to spend all day hunting for (or cultivating) food and avoiding enemies leaves very little time for you to sit around and ponder things like your favorite contestant on American Idol, your irritation with this or that political party, or even which types of people are “better” than others. These ideas, these conflicts (which shape a great many of today’s social inequalities) are luxuries. Apocalyptic art, at its best, exposes the fictional/situational nature of most of what we, as a race, conflict about. It asks you hard questions: how far would you go to feed yourself? How far would you go to ward off threats? How much of your identity is just the convenience of a largely stable/comfortable social existence?

The answer to the latter is, like it or not, “most”—most of your identity is a convenience. Does this mean you aren’t a special snowflake? No, because “you” are just your brain’s fiction anyway, and it’s very unstable.

When you apply this idea to the formation of survival groups and the subsequent rise of nation-states, things get creepy fast. This is the premise behind Noise, and we’ll get into it next time.

*a line from Noise

Food for Thought:

Stanford Prison Experiment

The Beginning of the End: Conflict

The Beginning of the End

originally published at Suvudu—May 21, 2010.

So, I’m behind by a week with The Beginning of the End. I blame moving cross-country. We left off with anarchy.

Now, let’s talk violence.

Episode 2: Conflict

There are plenty of utopian social philosophies floating around, and they’re all fun—mostly because they don’t work. At various stages in our shared history, random collections of special snowflakes have all “seen the light”—and they promptly set about sharing it with everyone, usually through complicated, Rube Goldberg-esque philosophies and architectures. And, you know, there’s a reason they typically (almost universally) don’t work. Well, not on the scales they’re intended for—anyone with enough power can make his or her own utopia work; it’ll just suck for the rest of us.

See, the idea behind utopianism is to re-direct society in ways that exploit no one, enable everyone, and distribute civic authority among the people—rather than localizing it in a central administration. Marxism and communism were attempts at this—so was the work of a Frenchman named Charles Fourier, an American named Edward Bellamy (who wrote an SF utopian novel called Looking Backward in 1888), and scores of others.

But who cares? That’s history, and what does it have to do with the apocalypse? Well, think in terms of Star Trek. In the Trek future, citizens are all socially and philosophically enabled, poverty has been eliminated, and there’s no “economy” for acquiring goods and wealth (that’s the idea, anyway—TNG was particularly bad about betraying or under-developing this idea). In this future, everything is plated with plexiglass (or “transparent aluminum,” if you’re a Trekkie/Trekker . . . whichever), everyone wears Spandex, and conflict is only the result of the aggressive tendencies of socially baser races. That is, if the Romulans and the Klingons weren’t always picking fights, the Federation wouldn’t have to maintain its massive, planetary-resource-depleting armada.

Many utopian philosophies, and many SF texts/films/games posit a future when we become “more” human. In this future, we’re kinder, smarter, more enlightened. We have eliminated conflict, which was impeding our progress toward “better” humanity.

But apocalyptic narrative takes a different approach. It rejects the idea that conflict gets in the way of being fully human—it embraces the idea that humanity is conflict . . . and always will be. Our ancestors conflicted in the struggle to find and protect resources (food, water, shelter)—which is all that “power” really is anyway: control of resources—we conflict in the competitive market, for academic achievement, and even for sexual partners. There will be no world peace when the very economy we use to make donations to humanitarian efforts is based on a national conflict to acquire more “money” (a resource) at someone else’s expense. The apocalypse knows all this, and even if it means chaos, disorder, pain, and loss, these narratives assert that conflict—and its consequences—is our true inheritance, our true lineage and lasting legacy. There’s no point, these stories tell us, in lamenting humanity and wasting time dreaming about when it will be different (utopianism). Instead, the apocalypse wants you to understand humanity now.

This may be all well and good, but is there any practical reason for following these lines of thought? Sure. Technology (or, at least, a fictionalized understanding of it) is a good example of how conflict-as-humanity reveals itself. In the worlds of research and development (in a world where nations still compete for resources), advances in any kind of technology are also, often, advances in weaponry—or they at least parallel such advances in weaponry in that our scientists reach new levels of discovery, every generation, and these lead to new technological possibilities. When someone develops a jet pack, which would revolutionize personal travel, the military will be the first in line to get some. When medical imaging technology advances and allows doctors (who often represent our most peaceful, most civilized endeavor: medicine) to “see” more, the next place that tech will appear is on strategic defense satellites or other surveillance devices. Our advancement toward the Star Trek ideal of “better” humanity is also our advancement toward more strategic power in the conflict-game of life.

Food for Thought:

•Stephen King, “The End of the Whole Mess,” Wastelands:

The off-handed anecdote on pg. 6 about forward-wing plane designs is a nice, quick example of how innovation improves weaponry. On pg. 16, grown-up Bobby’s revelation about “curing” humanity with something from humans (cutting off your nose to spite your face) is a nice nod to the “incurable” nature of violence. To “fix” humanity, you’d have to get rid of it.

The War of the Worlds (1953), Dir. Byron Haskin:

If you haven’t seen this version, look away . . .
In the end, the victorious humans are left with fully operational but now-unmanned (un-aliened?) spacecraft. These things are invulnerable, highly effective, and efficient. If the scientists were able, earlier, to figure out how to jury-rig an alien eye, where do you think they’ll turn their efforts next? And what will they do after they’ve figured it out? That’s right—boom.

The Beginning of the End: Anarchy

The Beginning of the End

originally published at Suvudu—April 30, 2010

Last week, on The Day After Earth Day, I introduced a series of posts exploring how to experience an artistic apocalypse. That was Episode 0—this is Episode 1: Anarchy. Feel free to brush up . . .

“Anarchy” is a good way to begin exploring the apocalypse because writers, game designers, film makers, and illustrators often fall back on it when trying to establish a recognizably apocalyptic (or pre- or post-) environment. However, even though it’s often associated with tales of the collapse of civilization, “anarchy,” as a term, is regularly misused—or, at least, misunderstood. Most take the term to mean chaos, violence, wanton barbarity—what many think of as the obvious consequence of the collapse of central government. And, rightly so—most of us have seen real-world news coverage of enough disaster-stricken or war-torn areas wherein the rule of law has popped and the citizenry business themselves with looting and rioting.

But that’s really not the same thing as anarchy. That is the immediate consequence of a sudden power vacuum, and the disorder is tied, in a way, to the property-insurance view of society. By way of example, let’s get boring for a minute. In the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau, a famous American anarchist, argued that societies, taxation, and culture are tied to ownership. Taxation was a big issue for Thoreau (he famously went to prison for an evening for refusing to pay a “poll tax”) because he didn’t recognize the validity of a “social contract” that he’d had no say about—like most of us, he was simply born into a system that demanded taxes on penalty of imprisonment. Thoreau believed that no person, officer, or agency had the inherent right, or authority, to force him to do anything. And, you know, he’s right—there’s no law of nature, like gravity, that exerts any force in this way. It’s one thing for a kid who’s bigger and stronger than you to demand your lunch money “or else,” but tax collectors are not superior, stronger co-players in the game of life (scientists like to call them “conspecifics,” but whatever).

So, knowing that we may need help keeping trespassers off of our land, thieves away from our PS3s and Xboxes, and assailants at arm’s-length, we decide, quite unnaturally, to imbue a group of people with the power to make some rules and then enforce them. To do this, we give them tax money (yeah, the idea is that it’s a gift), and then if anyone infringes on our rights (which, unfortunately, are just as unnatural as law itself), we can expect our claim to be acted upon—just like paying into and claiming insurance.

The more you own, the more you have that needs protecting, the more tied into the system you are. This is one reason why the lower classes, those who own less and therefore have less use for social insurance, have historically experienced mistreatment, brutality, profiling, and economic repression. See, in a manner of speaking, in this model, they’re less committed to the social contract they were forced into (that is, less committed than the wealthy, who need legal help keeping the mobs from their manicured lawns), which makes them (the lower classes) a liability from the perspective that all people are inherently immoral, which is a common view—do you lock your doors at night? These people have “less to lose”—they’re wild cards, threatening in that Tyler Durden way: “The things you own end up owning you.”

The more this contract takes hold, the more our cultures, works of art, leisure activities, political and moral inclinations, and even our faiths come to reinforce the model. None of this is natural—the only real definition of ownership is the ability to keep others from acquiring what you don’t wish them to acquire. Using an army, the police, or the repo man is, in a sense, cheating.

Thoreau (and others like him) said, instead, that each person should be responsible for his or her own morality because it’s unnatural to be forced by someone with an army or a police force to accept ideas about “right vs. wrong” that you may not agree with. This is anarchy at its most hopeful—the idea that no one rules. So, in the apocalypse, the chaos you see is not anarchy; the freedom is. The collapse of governments or communities in an apocalyptic story is liberating—there is no longer any validity to the property-insurance system. No one can legally force you against your will to follow any set of rules. You have, in a sense, finally inherited your true, human birthright. Debt becomes meaningless; your past becomes meaningless. You are free. It’s a re-birth—a creation story.
That is, if you survive the day of reckoning—the chaos and the violence and the depravity. And if you do, you’ll need to find a way to protect yourself, which usually means a new, artificial society. The whole process starts over again.

Which is part of the reason why these stories have been around so long. They reflect the desire of the repressed to tear it all down and start over—to do it better this time. Sometimes, it works—but only for a while. The creation of a society contains, from the moment of inception, the seeds of its destruction.

Next up, in Episode 2: “Conflict—The Real Humanity”

Recommended media:

• Henry David Thoreau: “Civil Disobedience,” Walden
• Cory Doctorow: “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” in Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, John Joseph Adams, ed.
• Alan DeNiro: Total Oblivion, More or Less
• Cormac McCarthy: The Road
Fight Club
Fallout 3

The Beginning of the End: Darin Bradley, Noise, and the Beginning of the End

The Beginning of the End

originally published at Suvudu—April 23, 2010

It’s Earth Week, a great time to consider, well, the Earth. Today’s green culture abounds with initiatives for sustainability, organic foods, reduced carbon footprints, free trade, and even environmental sociology. All week long–in the northern hemisphere, at least–the Internet has teemed with blog posts, articles, diatribes, petitions, and Facebook statuses about how best we can care for what’s ours. Before it’s too late.

And, really–this is fantastic. Be a part of it. Learn something.

But here at Suvudu, today is “The Day After Earth Day,” which is to say, the jig is up. We’re too late. You’re left with Afterearth. Why would we want to destroy it? Well, we don’t–not really, which, when you think about it, is odd. Popular culture loves a good apocalypse. We watch them on television, read about them, play them on our consoles and computers–there are even yearly blog-games wherein everybody pretends that it’s really happening. So, do we want to save the Earth, or do we want to destroy it?

Well, both. See, the two are, in many ways, the same thing. Artistically speaking, anyway (I hardly think industrial polluters care much about saving what’s around them, but that’s neither here nor there). An artistic apocalypse is not the End of the World. In fact, it’s often a celebration—an assertion—of our shared existence. And that existence includes not only the ability to gather virtually by the millions across the Internet to save the planet, it also includes the capability of destruction, and that really fascinates us. There’s nothing to destroy if we don’t save it first.

So, around here, The Day After Earth Day is both. We’re green, or, at least, trying to be, but we know that saving the earth is really about saving its people, and an apocalypse explores humanity in ways few other genres can.

So, let’s have a look. First of all, as I was saying, the apocalypse is not the end of the world. At least, not always, in most formats, cultural differences of definition notwithstanding.

And that is where our headache begins: defining “apocalypse.” Most of us know one when we see one, or read one: When Worlds Collide, War of the Worlds, The Road, Fallout 3 . . . That is, of course, if we allow ourselves the convenience of lumping pre-, apocalypse, and post- into one category.
It gets complicated. Do we define apocalyptic or eschatological religious doctrine (like Christianity, Islam, or Judaism) in the same context as explosions, alien invasions, and mega-disasters? After all, the common cultural meaning for “apocalypse” these days means, simply, “destruction,” but we definitely co-opted it from these religious traditions, where it’s a revelation, made possible by epic, Mordor-esque battles, the sundering of the world, and massive death. When is “apocalypse” How the Universe Works, and when is it A Fun Movie on TV?

For most of us, it doesn’t really matter. Like I said, we know an apocalypse when we see one, but that’s primarily because these narratives are packaged that way. All other things being equal, in a neutral environment, could each of us sit down, not primed to see an apocalypse on the tube or screen, and pinpoint when a show, a book, a movie, or a game goes from uncomfortable to unfortunate to disastrous to apocalyptic? It’d be difficult. There are very few definitional rules here, and, really, what’s the point?

Because. Apocalypse and creation stories are the same things. So why do we like them so much? And who am I anyway, typing away about the end of the world like a random crazy person?

First, I’m Darin Bradley, a newcomer to Suvudu and one of Spectra’s new authors for 2010. I’ve taught college courses on apocalyptic media, and my novel, Noise, is about the end of the world, and the beginning, and the difficult spaces between. Spectra sums it up pretty well:

“In the aftermath of the switch from analog to digital TV, an anarchic movement known as Salvage hijacks the unused airwaves. Mixed in with its random noise are dire warnings of the imminent economic, political, and social collapse of civilization—and cold-blooded lessons for how to survive the fall and prosper in the harsh new order that will inevitably arise from the ashes of the old.

“Hiram and Levi are two young men, former Boy Scouts and veterans of countless D&D campaigns. Now, on the blood-drenched battlefields of university campuses, shopping malls, and gated communities, they will find themselves taking on new identities and new moralities, as they lead a rag-tag band of hackers and misfits to an all-but-mythical place called Amaranth, where a fragile future waits to be born.”

Stories of the End of Days are our human inheritance, our lineage, and they tell us all kinds of things about ourselves. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to offer you a series of posts about some of these things. In the end, I think you’ll see that the apocalypse isn’t about destruction and death (well, it is and it isn’t). It’s about affirmation—confirmation. It’s a celebration of humankind in all its contradictory grace and horror.

Elements of the apocalypse underpin our daily lives. So, coming up In Episode 1: anarchy.

This is the beginning of the end, so keep your eyes peeled.

And go plant a tree. Save the Earth before we blow it up.