With the weather going crazy, various economies crashing and burning, and the probability of global foot shortages by 2050 if trends continue as they are, is it any surprise that apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic media (with its sundry false utopias and true dystopias) is doing so well lately? And who doesn’t love a good romp through Zombieland? Or a chance to stand on the front lines of World War Z? There’s a lot of great work out there, but as I watch the real life destruction in the aftermath of natural disasters like Super Typhoon Haiyan, which spent the weekend laying waste to the Philippines, I can’t help but wonder what the face of the end of the world is really going to look like. What stories aren’t we telling, and what are we missing by leaving these worlds untapped?
I was living in Japan on March 11, 2011 when the earthquake and tsunami destroyed a significant area of northern Honshu and began the ongoing nuclear disaster at Fukushima. As I lived an hour outside of Nagoya City, well south of the disaster, I didn’t feel the Earthquake. Worse, my poor Japanese and my poorer knowledge of tsunamis and earthquakes in general meant I didn’t realize the scale of the situation until hours after it happened, and only due to the frantic Facebook messages and emails from family and friends who were terrified I had died. For the people near Fukushima, it was the end of the world. Meanwhile, I was eating knock-off Italian at a Japanese Famuri-resturan, not even aware that people in the States would notice that there had been an earthquake because it had happened at 4am there and who was going to be awake? In short, even a major disaster is going to affect different people in different areas differently, and a whole lot of survival is just pure, random luck.
One serious difference I’ve noticed with real life natural disasters like Super Typhoon Haiyan, the two massive tsunamis that have wrecked significant portions of Asia in the past 15 years, the recent earthquake in Haiti, and Superstorm Sandy in the north-east US (not to mention the countless droughts, floods and tornadoes that seem to be running amok) is how international a problem this truly is. In a world apocalypse scenario, the WHOLE WORLD might actually be involved. But if a movie comes out of Hollywood, you can be certain that aside from the obligatory destruction of Tokyo tower, some buildings in Hong Kong, that statue in Brazil that always gets toppled (it’s called Christ the Redeemer in English in case you were wondering), and a random five seconds of Masai waving spears somewhere in the savannah (and yes, Africa has many different countries, climates and even cities but do we see those?), the movie itself will be centered around somewhere in the US with a racial mix that’s about the same as you’d see on US network TV. But on the bright side, at least these days, the Black guy isn’t obligated to die first.
There are exceptions. I think the movie World War Z actually did a decent job of actually showing worldwide destruction and reactions to it, though of course it was the Western characters (mainly US) who ultimately saved the day.
But what didn’t we see? It’s safe to say, if you’re gay, you can forget even participating in the apocalypse. What about transgendered people? Heroines who doesn’t exist solely to be rescued by the male lead? People of color? People of color from non-Western countries? Or wouldn’t it be great to have genderqueer Somalis duking it out with the undead? Or to flip it even more, how about using a non-Western concept of the undead as a central focus of the story?
While we’re on the subject of defying tropes, let’s face it, if you’re not in top running form, apocalyptic media considers you meat. Now obviously when there is a shambling zombie hoard moving in your direction, fast running helps, but one could argue that also so does quick thinking. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a story which deals with someone who is differently abled fighting to survive? Maybe someone who is blind? Or someone in a wheelchair? Someone on dialysis?
Any of these things could add another level of dramatic tension and take a story to a new level as opposed to simply chugging along the same track. Instead of saying, “That would never work,” ask yourself, “how could this work?” preferably as a fully dimensional, strongly rendered character on the page. By stepping a bit outside of the norms of the tropes we see on the silver screen and between the pages of popular novels, we have a chance to create something new, and rise to fame by having done something truly unique with what seems like a tired trope.
What, where, or who do you think is overlooked in apocalyptic literature as we know it? Who have I overlooked? What would you like to try and how would you approach it? Feel free to put your thoughts in the comments.
Cheers, Naima 🙂
Information to donate for Typhoon Haiyan Relief here: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/11/09/haiyan-how-you-can-help/3484467/
*Note: All Photos purchased Royalty Free from Shutterstock.com