When it comes to telling big, epic, awesome, mythopoetic stories, our world is boring. It is boring because it is known. We can google any spot on the planet and get a complete breakdown of that place’s ecology, politics, history, industries, and turn-by-turn directions on how to get there. Not only that, most of us feel like we kind of know where the future is headed. A.I., rockets to space, self-driving cars, and replicators no longer seem a matter of chance, merely a matter of time. Wait around long enough and the future we’ve all imagined will get here. The now cliché “Where’s my jetpack” is said with the foot-tapping frustration of culture that believes technological progress is not merely inevitable but, in a way, owed. Not only is the future known territory, getting there feels more like a commute than a journey.
Yet a huge amount of what we love about story-telling, particularly the big “stand the test of time” style stories is a sense of wonder. So how do we inject wonder into our world?
Three major strains of narrative – sci-fi, fantasy, and mythology – are all about wonder. Whether it’s Star Trek, Game of Thrones, or the Aeneid, we as readers are drawn in to unbelievable locales, spectacular individuals, and encounter unexpected forces. Yet all of these stories also often feel disconnected from our world. The voyages of the starship Enterprise take place almost entirely off Earth. Game of Thrones exists in an alternate, slightly magical version of Europe and the Aeneid from so far in the past we hardly recognize it. Some of the greatest modern stories, such as the Star Wars trilogy (and by greatest I’m speaking to cultural resonance, not just critical quality), are a blend of all three and feel that many steps more removed from our own reality. Whole new worlds must be built to allow for wonder to exist.
George Miller’s Mad Max series, recently reinvigorated with the supremely enjoyable and brilliant Mad Max: Fury Road, gives us some insight into another way to return us to a state of wonder with the world: deny us our expected future. The core premise of Max’s world is that, somewhere along the way, progress fails. It’s hard to know how far along we get beyond today, but that doesn’t matter – the only things that survive the end of progress are analog technologies. Communication technologies in particular take a beating as the world falls to wasteland leaving only disconnected islands of bare humanity left to states of isolated survival. The result is a new world, totally unknown to us, built on top of the world and the technologies we know and recognize every day.
The veil that is lifted in this particular apocalypse is that of progress itself. Humanity backslides into feudal barbarism, disease, and violence. It’s the Middle Ages with monster trucks. Of course, the Middle Ages are packed with wonder. Nearly all of fantasy is set within some modified form of Medieval Europe, and for good reason. The world was unmapped and the parts that were had the qualifiers of “here be dragons.” Even the known was wondrous then.
While there are so many moments within any given Mad Max film that may leave over-analyzing (why, o why do they build gas-guzzling monstrosities in a world wanting for every drop of fuel), the much broader sense of “I understand this world and yet know nothing about it” creates a deeply disturbing experience. Miller is able to tell a tremendous amount of story with very little exposition. We understand why a warlord would have oxygen tanks for his deformed progeny (and why those progeny would be deformed), why his psychotic minions would understand that O-negative donors are valuable in war, and why being a blackthumb is as valuable, perhaps more so, than having one of the green variety. The echoes of current existence are easy to see and understand without explanation because, not-so-secretly, we’re all to aware of how quickly it could all go away.
The joy of post-apocalypse is that it also carries with it the remnants of cultural progress. A huge amount of fantasy also borrows from the cultural trappings of the Medieval Eras the genre relies upon. Post-apocalyptic worlds don’t have to figure out which pieces of cultural history need to be folded in. All that we know already exists and is then challenged to survive along with everything else. If we think of culture as just another technology (as I am inclined to do) that allows for better social organization and shared objectives, then it too must come to terms with which pieces maintain their value in the face of annihilation.
Furiosa and the brides she helps liberate represent this cultural memory luminously. Like Max, Furiosa is driven by a single idea; though hers – redemption – is a bit higher on Maslow’s hierarchy than Max’s basic instinct to survive. Neither the film nor the characters ever question that a woman with a truncated limb could be an imperator (note, not imperatrix, the proper feminine form). Further, despite being captives for what was likely most of their lives, the escaped brides (one of whom, Splendid, is literally barefoot and pregnant) have tremendous agency and drive. It’s revealed that the escape was Splendid’s idea and, at several critical moments, it is Splendid and her fellow brides who take the action necessary to keep themselves alive and on a path to escape. Both Immortan Joe’s (and his army’s) uncommented upon recognition of Furiosa as an Imperator and the brides’ sense of agency and self-worth are reflective of the cultural trappings of our time. It’s not just that we understand and expect that they’d behave this way, it’s that the characters in the world do as well. And therein lies the awesomeness of the post-apocalyptic world.
When we are trying to tell stories of grand scale and with epic stakes, we have to build a world beyond our own. Our options are often to look to the far-flung past or distant future, or perhaps an alternate world, seeking unknown territory into which our heroes can journey. With that distance, however, comes an implicit change in cultural values. The entire world becomes somewhat alien, harder for us to identify with. Post-apocalypse offers us something different. It takes our world and strains it past the breaking point and asks us “what survives of today in the shattered world of tomorrow.” Like technology, culture is forced to survive, cobbling itself together out of scraps and salvage to build something new and, in ways, more impressive than the safe, familiar wholes we experience in our normal lives. The post-apocalypse lets us look wondrously at our own world and remember the future really is an unknown country.