Why are pre-apocalyptic stories so popular? We get why everyone loves post-apocalyptic worlds: Everybody wants to fantasize about surviving, rebuilding, remaking the world in a new image. But why do people love stories that take place before a horrible disaster?
It seems like the pre-apocalyptic story is an ever-popular theme in science fiction, and some fantasy. People learn that their world is headed for catastrophe, thanks to time-travel, or clairvoyance, or prophecy, or whatnot. And then they have to try and stop it from happening — or just accept the inevitable.
We asked you to list your favorite stories where someone sees an apocalypse or disaster coming, over on io9's Facebook page, and there's a pretty great list there now. It's pretty amazing how many of these stories there are. In particular, some of science fiction's most famous stories are about people who see a catastrophe on the horizon — including Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, Frank Herbert's Dune series and James Cameron's Terminator movies.
This dream sequence from Terminator 2: Judgment Day is like the perfect capsule of what it's like to live with the knowledge that the end is coming soon:
The calamity feels so present, so real, it's like it's already happened. But everyone around you still lives as though the good times will never end, and the world is still as pristine and untouched as ever — it's almost more painful to be surrounded by the perfection of an intact world that's doomed, than to be living in a post-apocalyptic disaster area.
Automatic urgency and drama
Obviously, the biggest reason why we're so fond of stories where an unthinkable disaster is just around the corner is because it's good drama. It's the ticking time bomb — except the bomb is planet sized, and often you don't know exactly when the bomb will go off. The ticks are inaudible.
It's the perfect formula for good television, with people struggling to avert a catastrophe that's always ahead of them — which is one reason why Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was able to take a lot of the themes of the movies and amplify them to such great effect. If there's one thing that's harder than being chased by robots for a couple hours in a pre-apocalyptic world, it's living day to day, holding down a job and brushing your teeth, in a pre-apocalyptic world.
There's nothing to motivate you like visiting the future and seeing that it's not such a happy place — like the horrible bleak future that Connie visits during some of her trips in Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. And the first season of Heroes also does a great job of using the glimpses of an apocalyptic future to pull us in, and make us care about their Petrelli shit.
People who can see the truth are special
Most of the time, whenever you see a particular genre becoming popular and you wonder why, the first question to ask is, why are the protagonist(s) special? What makes them cooler or more awesome than everyone else around them — and thus more suitable for the audience to identify with and project ourselves onto? It's not great escapism unless you're identifying with someone who's unique, and uniquely awesome.
And the "world on the brink" stories offer us a pretty clear-cut example of that — anyone who can see the impending catastrophe is automatically cooler than all the sheep who can't. It's the perfect example of the hero who's smarter and more knowledgeable than everybody else, plus knowing the awful truth is practically a super power.
It's a clever use of existing SF tropes
Everybody loves time travel and other ways of playing around with time. And who doesn't have a soft spot for a good prophecy? And once you're playing around with these things, it's almost too tempting to have a vision of impending disaster.
Some of the coolest Doctor Who stories include the Doctor glimpsing some monstrous outcome, which may already be fixed in the future, but which the Doctor will still try and change. Sometimes it's a personal calamity, like getting trapped as a museum exhibit, in "The Space Museum." Sometimes it's a nuclear war that leads to the ultimate irreversible Dalek conquest of Earth, in "The Day of the Daleks." Or an global volcanic eruption that's already claimed an alternate world, like in "Inferno." Or then there's the doom that awaits the entire universe, like in "The Pandorica Opens." Or the prospect of a future where the Daleks have wiped out all other life forms, which the Time Lords foresee in "Genesis of the Daleks."
My personal favorite dark prophecy of doom comes from Xombi, the fantastic comic by John Rozum, in which David Kim is the man who cannot die, thanks to nanotech and magic. And then he discovers that he's destined to destroy the universe — and he may not be able to do anything to avert this. (Plug: Xombi is coming back, from DC Comics, in February 2011.)
A similar "person visits alternate universe where disaster has already happened" story, much like "Inferno," happens in the three-part finale to Stargate SG-1's first season — Daniel Jackson finds himself on an Earth where the Goa'uld have already killed half a billion people and destroyed most major cities. Then he returns to "our" Earth and has to prevent the same thing happening. In Supernatural's awesome "The End" episode, Dean travels five years into the future and sees what'll happen if Lucifer wins the war.
And then there's Anathema Device, who has her great-great-etc. grandmother's book "The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch," in Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman — a book whose prophecies are mundane and true, and which put her on the path to stop Armageddon, in the form of the Antichrist.
Meeting your future self generally sucks
This is probably a topic for a separate article — but don't ever meet your future self. It's almost never an uplifting experience, although I can think of a few examples of times it's gone pretty well for people. But all too often, when you meet your future self, you're dealing with a broken shell of a you.
And an alarmingly high number of the "meeting your future self" stories have to deal with meeting your future self from a trashed future. There's the "badass Hiro" who turns up in Heroes — I still think if season two had been about Hiro turning into "badass Hiro" for real, that show would still be on the air — and Marty McFly's decidedly underwhelming future self in Back To The Future 2. And then there's Joanna Russ' The Female Man, where a woman meets her alternate selves from three other realities, including a dystopian future.
The Incredible Hulk meets his own future self, in a post-apocalyptic Earth, in the graphic novel Future Imperfect by Peter David and George Perez — which is awesome stuff, except that for some reason, the future Hulk decides to call himself the Maestro. It's never clear why — he doesn't actually have an orchestra anywhere, or a tuxedo for that matter, and at no point does the future Hulk pull out a baton and start conducting any musicians. Otherwise, though, this is the perfect expression of the "dire future self" idea — the Maestro's world is a travesty, and the Maestro is a despot who abuses people. And he tells the horrified present-day Hulk that "They're going to take it all away from you."
Another great version of the "meeting your future self" idea, mixed with the impending apocalypse, happens in Twelve Monkeys, although Bruce Willis barely interacts with his child self in the present.
Prequels and dumb thrillers
Not all stories that take place in a doomed world are automatically great, sad to say. Heroes tried to go back to the well of "future disaster visions" again and again after its first season, and ran into the law of diminishing returns, for example. But also, there are two types of stories about pre-apocalyptic worlds that are often disappointing — prequels and dumb thrillers.
We've already ranted a lot about prequels and why they seldom work that well — and the Star Wars prequels are a perfect example of the pre-apocalyptic storyline drained of drama or excitement. You know that the Republic is doomed and the Jedi are toast, and unfortunately George Lucas' attempts to dramatize this fate consist of having the Jedi Council and the Senate sit around and talk about it. Ugh. And I'd say Caprica works as a drama in spite of the "this world is going to be blown up in 50 years" thing, not because of it. (The less you think of Caprica as a Battlestar Galactica prequel, the better it usually is.)
And then there's dumb thrillers. A dumb thriller will try to do all the things that have made lunk-headed suspense movies and books popular in the past, like having clues and conspiracies and wheels within wheels and shit. The perfect example is Knowing — which does actually feature a beautifully rendered climax, as we showed you the other day. Nic Cage is the world's dumbest physics professor, and he spends the whole movie sorting through numerical codes and understanding the meaning of pebbles, to uncover an apocalypse he can't stop.
The same, of course, goes for 2012, in which a few people like Woody Harrelson know that we're toast, before it actually happens.
The unavoidable zeitgeist thing
So yes, it must be pointed out — to a lot of us, it feels like we're on the verge of worldfail. The icecaps are looking less icy, and the bees are making themselves scarce. The wheels are falling off the global economy. Medium-sized disasters, like the Deepwater oil spill, seem to be happening more often lately. Paranoia is in the air, and in your pants (in the form of a TSA worker's hand.) The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of a passionate intensity. Etc. etc.
So obviously, we seek out post-apocalyptic stories because they give us hope that some of us, or something of our world, could survive a global disaster. And we seek out escapist happy stories because they offer a happy escape. But we also seek out stories about times that we perceive as being like our own — on the verge of disaster. We want to grapple with the idea of living under the shadow of something terrible, so we want to ask, What Would Sarah Connor Do? (Answer: Go crazy.)
Plus there's also the fact that if you've ever studied history at all, you'll know that we are doomed. Both individually, and collectively. It's in the nature of things. Every society that's ever been has collapsed, sometimes multiple times. Everything that's ever been built had fallen down. Every proud culture has been humbled, every technologically superior force has suddenly found its technology inadequate. Those who study history are condemned to know what's coming, if not when or how. So especially if you're surrounded by idiots who think that what goes up can go up forever, or "nothing bad ever happens to me," then it can be sort of comforting to read or watch stories about other people who know the truth.
So what's next for pre-apocalyptic stories?
There will probably be more of them — and they'll probably get dumber. (Especially with 2012 around the corner.) When it comes to entertainment, betting on things getting dumber is our own kind of apocalyptic prophecy. You know it's bound to come true.
Additional reporting by Katharine Trendacosta. Thanks also to Mythica von Griffyn, Jeremy R. Vilmur, Andy Wise, Sam Stewart, Jeremy Flint, Martin Torrez, Michael Lyle, Kasey Papa, Alan Couture, John Fahres, Chadrick Baker, Pawel Nowak, Mike Parker, Brittany Rivera, Don Traverso, Zakk Hack, Pol Gas, Cameron Littlewood, Leih Lo, Ugh Leigh, Matthew Ernst Purnell, Jesus Herrera, Ryan Bliss, James Veber, Chris Warswick, Robert Casipe, Peter Yong J. Choe, Alex Koss, Lizzi Hollanders, Bonnie Mosley, Louis Grelling, Matt Morava, Clifton Coghill, Michael Salazar, David Eff, Erik Brandt, James Billings, Daniel Ching, Don Kinney, Os Davis, Jeremy Todd Corff, Secksy Otoko, Jason Edwards, Garrett LaLone, Andreas Robosch, Amy Rachels, Mats Möller, Jon Albright, Sean Casey, Nicholas Disembrainer, Sam Pearce, Önder Bağcı, Owolabi Sunday, Richie Navaraez, Courtney Miller Rowan, Fritz Musser, Ken Grover, Thom Haneline, Tami Anderson, Howie Modell and Erasmus MusicCentre for the suggestions!