I’ve been kicking this around in my head for a while now. Originally, it started as a comparison of the DC and Marvel superhero universes and why I preferred one over the other. Then I realized that it applied not just to comic books, but to TV and movies and books and, honestly, to my very outlook on the future. It colors why I enjoy some genres and why I hate others. I think that’s worth exploring.
See, I want a future that’s hopeful. I want to see a future that’s bright. It doesn’t have to be rosy and perfect, certainly I’m more realistic than that, but I want to think that tomorrow is going to be better than today, or at the very least, no worse than today. That’s why I reject some futuristic genres out of hand. I detest cyberpunk, for example because I hate the concepts that make up the genre. I don’t want a dystopian future where people are just tools, where society has broken down and where throwing away one’s humanity is not only expected, but glorified.
This is true across pretty much every type of media. In film, I conceptually dislike movies like Blade Runner and Gattaca (although artistically, that may be another matter). In books, I hate the writings of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. In fact, now that I think about it, this is one of the major reason I hate most zombie movies, and in fact, most modern horror films. There’s usually no indication that the humans are going to survive or triumph over the bad guys, at best, they buy themselves another few days before their utter destruction. I really hate films which depict humanity as a rapidly devolving, failing or doomed lifeform, buried beneath an ineffective government, corrupt corporations and abusive technology. I don’t necessarily mind if those things appear as elements of a storyline, so long as we see, through the plot, that humanity is improving in relation to those things.
Take, for example, the movie Aliens. It’s certainly the best of the Alien franchise, but it does give us a lot of the elements I would normally hate. You have the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, which we see through the story uses humans as pawns and has no problem sacrificing them for profit. You have monsters which are portrayed as superior to humans in just about every way, which, very much like zombies now that I think about it, will continue to replicate and grow stronger so long as humans exist, and will go on long after the humans are extinct. Yet, humans in the movie do survive and defeat the enemies. Burke, the representative of W-Y, gets captured after trying to sacrifice Ripley and Newt for the profit of the corporation and ends up getting killed, very satisfyingly, by the very aliens he sought to smuggle back to Earth. The humans struggle and are nearly defeated, but in the end, the alien nest is destroyed by human technology and the survivors get away.
By the same token, I don’t care for post-apocalyptic stories either, for much the same reason. I view the future through the lens of advancement. We get better. We get smarter. We get more advanced. Anything that interferes with that metric doesn’t get much admiration from me. Sure, there may be things that happen that cause a misstep, we can have disasters, we can have problems and wars and the like, but those should be pebbles in the road that trip us up, not massive boulders that smash us down again.
Even if we look at a movie like Mad Max: The Road Warrior, which happens long after the apocalypse, it has a brighter future as the survivors escape the horrors of the desolate future and head for a safe place to rebuild. Sure, along the way you’ve got the crazies in the wasteland, in a future where, strangely, they fight over gas but spend most of their time just driving around, yet nobody knows how to make bullets. It’s not a bad movie, certainly it’s the best of the Mad Max films, but it’s not those elements that make it good.
And hey, since I mentioned zombies, which are my most detested horror movie monsters, let’s touch on them for a moment. I hate zombies. Sure, they can produce some fantastic comedy, such as Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, but if you think about it at all realistically, just about every zombie movie or TV series is a long-term death sentence for humanity. Once the plague starts, you just can’t realistically stop it. To kill a zombie, the human typically has to score a clean head shot and destroy the brain. Shooting it anywhere else just delays the beast. Zombies, on the other hand, just have to land one of their infected teeth into any convenient piece of flesh and the infection takes it from there. You can go human-to-zombie but you can never go zombie-to-human. Zombies “reproduce” much faster than humans can, they have every advantage and eventually will win, unless you catch the plague in it’s infancy. In fact, most modern “serious” zombie movies never show the zombies losing, the “victory” for humans is getting somewhere not currently infected and eking out a primitive life until you die of natural causes. Not exactly an uplifting moment.
In comics, which started this whole thing I’d like to thank Grundy who commented on my article for reminding me of this, but about the same time as Ex Machina, another Brian K. Vaughn vehicle, Y, The Last Man was going on. It was the story of a world where almost all of the men were killed by an unexplained plague, leaving one man and his male monkey pet in a world of women. Sure, that might be the dream of lots of men… immature men, but in reality, that’s a death sentence for the species. Genetic diversity has gone down the drain, no matter how many of him they can clone, or what few other men they manage to make copies of. You need many thousands of different men, at minimum, to guarantee species survival. From issue 1, it was the end of the human race, no matter how they tried to get around it, and it was just delaying the inevitable. Bad future? Absolutely. Why should I want to read about it?
Seriously, let me ask people who like this kind of fiction, what it is that they enjoy about it? The more I look at it, the more I think about it, the more I encounter it in games or TV or movies or books, the less I want anything to do with it. Isn’t the future supposed to give us hope? Isn’t it supposed to show us the way to improve? If I want to know about the problems the world faces, I can just look outside. Entertainment is supposed to make us feel happy, it’s supposed to show us that the future is a place we can look forward to, where they’ve solved the problems of today and, even though it has it’s own problems, it’s not the end of the world around every corner.
So what is it that appeals to people about these dystopian, apocalyptic futures? I honestly don’t get it.