Simone Heller

astray in worlds and words.

Category: Writing

It’s the end of the world and we love it

Bang, lights out, and it’s all over and done with? As if! Post-apocalyptic scenarios represent one of the classic, never-grow-old sub-genres of sf, and while the reasons why everything goes down the drain follow certain trends, as well as the kind of (non-)societies emerging afterwards, the end per se remains a solid narrative trope.

So here’s why I think we can’t resist telling stories about the fall of Man and the destruction of Earth.

Some people just like to see the world burn, a wise old butler once said, and he’s right, I guess. I for sure do. The concept is thrilling. A larger than, well, death memento mori moment. Everything we cared for, everything that mattered could be gone in an instant. Our whole style of living withers away, and with it the thin patina of civilization. That’s how those big American road trips through the end times like The Walking Dead or The Road show it.

But for me, to see the world burn is not enough. I found out that I deeply value the “post” part in my apocalyptic endeavors. That’s maybe why the recent revival of dystopias didn’t appeal to my taste. I think they’re a whole different kind of beast: Where post-apocalyptic tales mostly focus on a world remade by the forces that destroyed it, dystopias dwell on the downfall of society (often only of its lower rungs, while the upper classes thrive). If this is the way the world ends, I think I prefer the bang to the whimper. But curiosity gets the better of me more often than not.

It’s in our guts. It’s our survival instinct – devastating disasters shaped the collective consciousness of mankind, from real earthquakes and volcano eruptions to mythical endless winters and deluges. We are no cockroaches who will crawl out of radioactive zombiefied lava downpour just fine, so we better pay attention when disaster hits. The same instinct is still active today; catastrophes fascinate us: when planes crash or plagues strike, we go click.

We are compelled to ask: Who will survive? Me me me, some tiny inner MacGyver cries, and that’s how I’ll do it! And if the scope of time and destruction gets bigger, at least we want to know what will survive of us: Just silly things like the shopping list in Canticle for Leibowitz? Did we leave something eternal, something helpful for those who come after us, and will they still be human enough to appreciate it?

The resilience of Man provides the much needed positive vibes for a lot of post-apocalyptic scenarios. We want to witness that something survived. That people will hold out, some even without reverting to barbarism. By stripping away everything and looking at the remains, these stories also determine what is human … and what is not anymore. But something will emerge from the ruins, and I love to see that despite all adversities, mankind might be as hard to kill as the cockroaches in the end. The survivors will try to cling to some form of live or the other, even if they have to fight off a whole mutant roach society. Or forge peace with them.

Because maybe, we’ll be able to learn. Post-apocalyptic stories are about hubris. Since we found out that we are truly capable of destroying it all, they have served as a warning, as an exploration of the consequences of bringing about our own downfall. Sure, there are meteors, plagues and other natural disasters, but very often, apocalypse is self-induced.

There are even benefits: Nature will take a breathe. When we also realized that we’re not exactly crucial to Earth’s wellbeing, there has been a lot of interest in imagining how fast our footprints will be gone and forgotten (as in The World Without Us) and what might evolve after we’re gone (as in After Man).

It’s a whole new world! The bleakness of Earth destroyed is often set off by the prospect of a different world, a different society, free from the burden of the past. It’s a relaunch, and the world will be decluttered like your apartment after you get one of those throw-away-everything self-help books. This is a deceptively easy path to post-apocalyptic bliss: live the simple life, back to the basics, fight mutants, mildew, and meningitis …

Anyway, post-apocalyptic scenarios provide us with a fresh slate to experiment with, without dumping us on a new world or in a strange, far-off land. The whole thing is ready to be re-imagined, but relatable at the same time (you now, when the mutant roaches dig out this shiny inexplicable, inedible thing with an engraved apple). And from then on, anything can happen, and the big bang that should have been the end of it all is a starting point for something new, or at least for a compelling story, just as it should be.

Storytelling, catholic edition

I’m from Bavaria, one of the hyper-catholic regions of Europe, and I grew up in a small village with a church at its physical and metaphysical center. When I was young, religion was a big part of my life. Nowadays I find myself wondering about its influence on me and my perception of story. Because church and religion were, as a kid, first and foremost story to me.

The church itself with all its paintings, statues and other representations was full of stories, and during mass, you got to hear at least one more, two if you were lucky. My penchant for epic, mythic storytelling must have been surfacing then already, because I preferred Old Testament stories above all others. Nothing much beats the Exodus, even Hollywood agrees.

The only equally big New Testament thing is the Passion of Christ, storytelling highlight of catholicism and nucleus of faith. And considering the Passion of Christ, you can’t deny the inherent grimdark streak of the catholic church. It’s not just that the story of the crucifixion is told in a very detailed and prolonged way, but there is a real inclination towards gruesome detail and dark, gritty depictions. I remember sitting in church every Sunday, above me a statue of the Mater dolorosa (which is basically Mary with a sword through her chest, as a symbol of her suffering), and from where I sat I could study another statue: Saint Sebastian the martyr, mostly naked and pierced by a significant amount of arrows – a whole lot more than Boromir. Bavarian sculptors and painters did not shy away from showing what wounds looked like; there was a fair amount of trickling blood, gaping flesh and agonizing sores to be seen.

When it came to my Communion, the ceremonial initiation into the catholic fold, I got a book about saints. I gobbled it up like I gobbled up every other book I could get my hands on (even math textbooks for school, but that’s another story), and, wow, there was a whole new range of suffering and dying to be discovered. Some of the stories about female martyrs are highly sexualized; they’re often virgins unwillingly claimed by powerful men, and are subsequently shown to their community naked, then publicly tormented and killed. Eight year old me didn’t feel all that comfortable reading those stories.

But the stories also cover power, wonders and the sublime. Religion, like story, strifes to tackle the big themes of mankind. There is, of course, a difference: In a very simplified way, you could say stories make us ask questions, while religion tries to provide answers. I think it is not a coincidence that some of the early defining voices of the epic fantasy genre were catholic, too. The catholic origin story of suffering and sacrifice, of paying a hefty price if you were to truly achieve something, is a powerful motif.

The concept of faith and believing itself invites story: it’s at a person’s core and can (and must) be challenged, and there is a whole string of cultural implementations attached to it, providing even more fodder for story. I always feel drawn to the decorum and grand gestures of catholicism and its compulsion to dominate people’s lives (both storytellingwise). It was all ingrained in my mind as a child and challenged me to reflect on it, the light and the dark, the sins and the saints.

Well, and then there is another thing the stories from church have taught me: They taught me about bad storytelling. Man, it was frustrating at times how bad the stories told in church were, compared to the stories I read at leisure. Sometimes they made no sense at all, had no proper ending, had a lot of “because I say so” going on, pieces didn’t fit, and, as an inherent fault of the genre, there was deus-ex-machina in abundance. But maybe they didn’t care about suspension of disbelief because it was assumed that you already handled this before you sat down in church.

There is, without doubt, also some good storytelling going on there. Some seriously rad imagery has trickled down into our language, and there are quotable lines galore. In German, even a lot of the words for inner processes and emotions stem from christian scholars trying to make up words for concepts that were never needed before. Part of this significance has to do with christianity dominating western culture for centuries. Its lore and legends even managed if not to kill, then at least to discontinue a lot of other powerful mythological traditions. But at its core, there must have been good storytelling (or at least the right stories at the right time), because at some time in the past, people were moved to flock together and listen. It can’t just boil down to a love of grimdark and “come back next Sunday to hear if the pharaoh really shot Moses”, can it?

I wanna be Roy Batty

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

If you are the slightest bit into sf, the odds are pretty high that you not only know, but fiercely love the Tears in the rain monologue from Blade Runner. For me, it blew my mind when I was about 14 years old and watched the movie one night on my tiny TV. I was not only an sf fangirl back then, but was also very occupied with trying to wrap my mind around the concept of death at that time, so it spoke to me on every level.
I’ve heard and seen it quoted hundreds of times since then, up to the point where I’d actively avoid it in the hopes that it would never become trite to me. As the story goes, it was a genius piece of improvisation by Rutger Hauer.

And indeed, when I look at it now, what I see is a damn good storyteller.

So, if you think the magic is lost as soon as you know how a thing works, maybe now is the time to tiptoe out of the room and come back for the next post, because I’m going to look very closely at this quote.

Tears in the rain is not only a brilliant conclusion to an intense action sequence (and to the whole main story arc), but also a fine piece of micro-fiction. With these few lines, the universe of Blade Runner becomes so much bigger, promising things we could see, things out there, things transcending our bleak existence on Earth. That’s how you do evocative imagery and world-building, folks! C-beams? Sea-beams? What the hell are they even? Doesn’t matter, because we make up our own images. Our imagination does most of the heavy lifting here, but Roy’s words are the catalyst for the magic. No explanation needed. He knows. He has seen things. Good enough for our mind, it will gladly hop on the train to the stars now, thank you very much.

Also, with these lines, Roy’s life becomes narration, becomes a story in and on itself – the scenes we saw in the movie are maybe just a footnote (or more of an endnote) to something much larger. There are only hints, but they transform the character into something else altogether.
And Roy is transformed further by telling us the ending of his story, the ending of every story, ultimately, and giving the narration a metaphysical twist, especially considering his background.

Food for thought and food for imagination – philosophical impulse and evocative allusions – are the magic ingredients, and they are put to highly effective use here. I recommend a look at the two versions of the monologue, the one from the script and the improvised one from the movie (for example here at Wikipedia) to see that less is indeed more, and that the right words that glitter in the vast darkness approaching this scene from all sides are so much better than meticulous descriptions.

So, daring to transcend a concrete scene, and letting a strong narrator pull you in and unfold big spaces in your imagination makes for very convincing storytelling. I wouldn’t mind at all to be able to do it like Roy.

Setting sail

I need a place to share my love of stories (and good storytelling) in all their incarnations and talk about translating and writing speculative fiction, which is what I do because there are never enough good stories. And because I’m allowed to work at home at odd hours wearing jammies.

So stay tuned.

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