I love a good Apocalypse, not so much because I want to watch the world burn down (though the CNN news that constantly plays at the break room at work is almost enough to engender such misanthropy), but because of the original meaning of the word apocalypse, which meant revelation.
The act of burning something down is an act of revelation. That which is strong and true endures the flames, and that which is unworthy and impure (another word whose very roots go to the idea of fire, puros in the Greek). If you see the supporting frame, steel girders, and chimneys still standing on a solid foundation after a house fire, you have some idea of what I mean.
The start of some of my favorite stories are apocalypses: The fall of Atlantis begins Lawhead’s Taliesin, my favorite take on Arthurian mythology. The destruction of the 12 Colonies meant that the last Battlestar, Gallactica, would lead a rag-tag-fugitive fleet on a quest for the lost colony of Earth, and I wished I had a dagget as a kid. The destruction of Alderaan put the Rebel Alliance on its heels and set the stage for the return of the Jedi Order. The superflu wiped out humanity in King’s The Stand. I particularly enjoyed Stirling’s Dies the Fire and the first trilogy of noves of The Change, where electricity went out across the world. (That’s right, JJ Abrams totally stole that idea. Deal with it.)
I love these settings because stories are about conflict, and conflict reveals character. Meaningful conflict does not just expose character but impacts the hero’s world. In the I Robot series Asimov’s detective sets off a new wave of colonization that will lead to the world of the Foundation books. You find out what someone is really made of when all the polite social reasons to play nicely with others goes out the window. This person and nice guy is actually a predator. This mild-mannered reporter turns out to be Superman full-time now.
Like the Judeo-Christian Apocalypse/Revelation to John, the destruction of the old order is not an end in and of itself. A good apocalypse story is not a global snuff film, but it is the beginning of a new order. This is where the genre truly shines. When the old is destroyed and the heroes step up to establish the new, the possibilities spin a storyteller’s head right round on his shoulders. The character of the heroes does not just define their actions, but they can be the people about whom generations of hypothetical characters will tell tall tales, or look to for an ethical standard. The Song of Roland is the death of an entire small army, but its example served as the definitive reference text for chivalry for centuries. A single old prophet woman calls together the right sort of people to rebuild the world in The Stand. The Postman is one of my favorite Costner movies not because of the apocalypse or the Holnists, but because of the vicarious joy I feel when I watch the return of communication restore hope and start to forge a new world. What starts off as a con game becomes a tale of personal and worldly redemption.
(That reminds me I really need to find out if that was based on a novel and read that novel!)
UN-fortunately, this is where the modern apocalypse stories go wrong. In order to tell a good story, there needs to be a continuing and escalating conflict, but most apocalypse stories these days are TV series. TV series aren’t just written by writers (except the rare times when studios give Joss Whedon enough head room to run!!!) they are approved or not by studio executives who want to make money. Fair enough. Without a profit there would be no TV series in the first place. But businessmen like business models. A writer worth his salt must continually take risks with his characters. Any executive worth his salt wants to stick to a business model that yields a profit with a good product. That latter pressure is necessarily a conservative (in the literal sense) force acting on any story. Battlestar Galactica‘s re-boot had a pretty good first season, but it was decided that the show would only always be about the ship on the run, outnumbered, and outgunned. Only the side plots could change. The original Galactica had an equally cheezy spin-off. They attempted to tell the story about the colonials actually reaching Earth and integrating into our society. There genuinely did turn out to be a higher power that was guiding them, as evidenced in the white-uniform episode or two. Their faith was not in vain. They made effective strikes against the Cylons and won their freedom. Season after season of the reboot dragged on, and every revelation turned out to be hollow. The humans found a new colony, so that had to turn into a prison camp from which they had to flee in a rag-tag fugitive fleet (back to the formula, my imaginary executive demands). Instead of turning the colony into a base, rebuilding, fighting back, maybe retaking the colonies or fighting to a truce with the Cylons, the story dragged on until even the ships couldn’t bear the strain any longer (Galactica‘s ultimate death was due to wear and tear, just like the story’s plotline).
A good apocalypse story tells of the fall, then starts to rebuild. A bad one can do nothing but remain a burned-out hulk because it cannot turn into anything else, it can’t risk trying to tell a new kind of story that the heroes of the last sort of story had earned. But folks, in order to get back to a fresh apocalypse, you have to burn down everything that the characters have built so far. Apocalypse is like adolescence. You can die, or move on, but it is impossible to remain in transition forever.
As bad as the film was, the best ever apocalypse-to-rebuilding story I have ever read is Battlefield Earth by certifiable nut-job L. Ron Hubbard. The film was an abomination, but the book was miraculous. The opening crisis starts off with a young man leaving his village and exploring a deserted city. The exploration story becomes a POW drama. The POW drama becomes a heist story. The heist complete, we return to deduction and techie drama with some internal conflict. As that winds down there is a flat-out war story / siege tale. Hubbard’s novel changes genres again and again, revisiting themes, but growing in genre as the characters grow and change the world around them. Hard-core pseudo-intellectuals slam the book because it is the largest single work of pulp fiction I have ever come across, but if you are looking for a book to lose a weekend in, you could do a lot worse.
(Having read my last copy to pieces a really need to buy a new copy of that book!)
The result of this is that I have frequently wanted to write an apocalypse or two. Events in book three of the Adrian Campbell series are definitely starting to lean that way, and I have done more than a year of pre-writing for the world that will be left behind when the dust clears.
But I am afraid, because season five of The Walking Dead starts again this month. This has been the best story of an apocalypse to come along in an easy decade. The character development has been good, the acting solid, and the plot escalation so far has been well-done as everyone learns how to manage the current threats and deal with new ones.
Season five is going to be a make-or-break moment for the television adaptation of the series. If the producers are willing to take risks with the story, The Walking Dead can surpass the comics just as Game of Thrones is a far better video series than the novels. OR The Walking Dead will pull a Battlestar Galactica and throw away the momentum it has earned with more of the same.
Gain a home at the cost of friends, fight for the home, lose the home, move on…
If they just repeat this formula enough, we will stop caring, because no matter how wonderful the characters or well-crafted the world, if there is no hope and growth in the story then all the producers are asking us to do is to invest more of ourselves into something we know we will lose. It’s an invitation to masochism that I no longer have the time or energy to indulge.
If they make the risks, go for the big leaps forward, then this may be the greatest running series for more than a decade.
Time will tell.