End of the World Predicting is a method of planning for the future with a long, proud tradition, and there’s simply no way I could get it wrong twice, so this time it’s for real. Here, drink this.
My benchmark in this endeavour is the article Three Apocalypses, by Ethan Mitchell, in which he distils some modern approaches to apocalyptic thinking, and also notes how there is a degree of fuzziness at the edges of each that allows the mindsets to mingle. His categories are:
The Escapist Apocalypse, in which “the apocalypse can be a sort of aggrandized version of personal self-destruction”; and/or
The Cozy Apocalypse, a “scenario that provides a justification for the projects and values that its adherents were already interested in”; and/or
The Sweaty Apocalypse, where suspicions of the End Times are used “to generate a massive amount of work that the people involved would not be doing otherwise”
quotes from Three Apocalypses, by Ethan Mitchell
In my last post, I looked at The lines, the trees, the cliffs, the eaves and found none of my fictional cases fell precisely into those categories. The first three characters all maintained some connection to their lives before the apocalypse, either out of duty or habit, but there was no viewpoint on a societal response, no “Sweaty” attempt to deflect what was coming.
There were hints of Coziness, especially in the unleashing of one man’s sinister hobby, but nothing as fully fledged as a survivalist gun-nut laughing “From my cold, dead hands!” in the face of the inevitable. And the last character’s unreliable new lease on life, while a kind of escapism, lacked the deliberate edge of self-destruction to really conform with Mitchell’s notion of it.
Now let’s take the second story in Absences and see how that compares. First, a summary:
The Blade is about a fairly ordinary English woman in her late teens. Several years estranged from her single mother, she lives alone and works in a local supermarket, stacking shelves and running the tills. She has been a strict vegetarian since childhood, by choice and in spite of some intense mockery from her schoolmates, and – most significantly – we learn that she has a history of self-harming which she still struggles to keep in check. One of her few prized possessions is a pocket knife, its totemic presence helping to control her occasional urges, but only in the context of the purpose she could put it to, if she chose.
Her life, along with everyone else’s, is abruptly thrown into uncertainty when the news breaks that an unknown virus is infecting and destroying all the world’s grasses. A cornerstone of the global ecosystem is crumbling, not to mention a vital source of food for humanity and the animals that we consume, and as time passes without a solution tensions begin to rise. Looting, violence and military law further undermine the world we know, and the temptation to put her knife to use becomes harder to suppress as the ramifications escalate – but as things get worse and worse, mere self-harming may prove inadequate…
I would suggest that in Mitchell’s three categories, two are ideological and one is not – is anti-ideological, maybe. The Sweaty Apocalypse is about society motivating itself for a costly fight, whereas the Cozy Apocalypse is about individuals digging in their heels and growling I’ll do it my way. The Escapist Apocalypse is different, it is people abandoning their ideals to embrace base urges with no care for the future (since the future isn’t coming any more).
If I concentrate solely on the people around the protagonist, The Blade has passing reference to societal responses to the building disaster, but this isn’t really a Sweaty Apocalypse. The US President calls for a global aid effort, which would certainly count, but he doesn’t get what he wants – and only a true cynic would suggest that the arrival of military peacekeepers goes to the heart of how all governments would like to maintain control…
We do see brief examples of people sticking to their personal beliefs in the face of adversity, but again not in the way that Mitchell defined. In fact, the few rays of light in the story come from characters who cling to civilised behaviour when all around are losing their heads, rather than (in Mitchell’s Cozy mode) justifying their quirky individualism in the apocalyptic context. That leaves the Escapist Apocalyptic Response, and here I think the connection is a little stronger. The scenes of rioting, theft and other antisocial behaviour that the heroine witnesses are surely symptoms of people saying, To hell with it, I’ll do what I want to.
But what about the protagonist herself? On the one hand, her urge to self-harm is an established behaviour, something which – negative though it is – is one of her core characteristics; from this point of view, turning to and reinforcing this in the face of adversity could be viewed as a Cozy reaction, choosing a “preferred” approach to dealing with the world over all others.
On the other hand, obviously this is inherently self-destructive behaviour, edging into the well why not? philosophy of Escapist response… however, this is more a compulsion, not something she does for nihilistic pseudo-pleasure. So, as with the heroes of the previous story, I don’t think she falls precisely into a single category… but good! Who wants to be one-dimensional?
There you have it: the stories in Absences didn’t precisely embody Mitchell’s Three Apocalypses – but the themes are likely there to some degree in most, if not all, “intrapocalyptic” fiction.
Next week, I’m offering teasers from my next book, which contains post-apocalyptic stories. No more worrying about sweaty cozy escapism for me, just good old-fashioned survival of the fittest!