It was an essay about podcasting and Spotify, of all things, that helped me understand something new about apocalyptic fiction. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the insight, given that the essay was written by Roxane Gay, but it still caught me off guard. Gay was writing about her (justifiable) unwillingness to share her work on a platform that gave $100 to $200 million to Joe Rogan while claiming to be a content-agnostic bastion of free expression, but it was an early tangent on the appeal of survivalist reality TV that hit me:
“It’s clear that what these modern-day hermits want is to exist in a vacuum,” she wrote, “where they are not affected by nor do they affect anything beyond the boundaries of their home. That is, certainly, an illusion, but I can see the appeal.”
I’d just finished watching HBO’s Station Eleven when I read that article. The post-apocalyptic drama had been popping up everywhere, and all I knew about it before starting it was that it involved a theatre troupe that had emerged after some kind of global catastrophe. That was enough to sell me. I’ve seen a lot of films and TV shows about the end of the world, but they always tackle the immediate aftermath, and they’re always about survival. As dramatic as that can be, it’s such a limited topic in the scope of the human experience. I wanted something about rebuilding, and a show about art in the face of annihilation sounded like something made just for me.
As it turned out, Station Eleven wasn’t quite the show I thought it was, although it did have elements of what I imagined. Where the vast majority of mainstream fiction set in the aftermath of calamity take every opportunity to show humanity at its Hobbesian worst, taking as a given that we’re only a handful of hardships away from a war of all against all, Station Eleven tried to capture a wider swathe of the human experience. It understood that the compulsive desire for art, expression, and inspiration have been part of our nature for as long as humans have been around, sharing space with and helping to mitigate our more negative impulses. Ultimately it seemed like the show was more interested in exploring what makes a family than making a statement on the fundamental nature of our species, but at least it felt a little more optimistic than the average apocalyptic tale.
What Gay’s essay showed me, though, was that what lies at the heart of so much disaster fiction is the same thing that makes those modern-day hermits so watchable: the simplicity of it all. That may seem like a strange thing to say about fictional worlds where threats hide around every corner and scrounging up a meal is a matter of life and death, but what those stories all share is a wiping away of social complexity in favour of pure survival. It’s horror, but it’s also a fantasy: the fantasy of the hard reset.
Social reality is incredibly complicated. As Gay explores in her essay, none of us exist in a vacuum. The decisions we make all have consequences, and those consequences are often so intricate and multilayered that it’s almost impossible to track their ethical implications. When something as seemingly straightforward as buying a chocolate bar has a better-than-not chance of supporting child slavery, it’s easy to toss up your hands and say morality is just too ambiguous—a theme that was explored surprisingly well in the sitcom The Good Place, for what it’s worth. Cruelty and exploitation aren’t just the long-buried foundations of our political and economic system, they’re still actively necessary for keeping our day-to-day world running. And where our extension cords and supply chains used to be long enough to keep the costs of our lifestyle out of sight, our ever-more-networked world keeps reminding us of consequences we’d rather stay blind to. Every day gives new examples of one inescapable truth: absolutely nothing is simple.
In that world, the appeal of the fantasy of the hard reset is obvious. When the disaster hits, history ceases to be a continuum. The complicated web of causes and effects that we’re currently worried about gets reduced to a single threat: zombies, cannibals, and marauders may be unpleasant, but they’re also unambiguous. We can wrap our heads around the threat and our relationship to it in a way we just can’t with essentially any contemporary issue.
Survival also tends to be an individualist affair in those spec-fic worlds, which plays into the desire for simplicity. Stereotypical post-apocalyptic science fiction idolizes the lone survivor, the jack-of-all-trades and master of most who doesn’t need your help to get by. Never mind that he had to learn those skills from someone, or more likely from a large number of someones. Never mind that those skills were honed over generations by societies of one form or another, passed along by teachers and caregivers, preserved by knowledge-keepers and storytellers. Never mind that the only reason we were able to develop those survivalist skills in the first place was through cooperative communities dividing up tasks to allow for specialization and growth. That communal history was wiped out by The Event, whatever it may be, leaving only the individual.
Once you recognize the Fantasy of the Hard Reset, you can’t stop seeing it. Its most dramatic manifestations may be in ideas like the singularity or the Metaverse (let’s scrap the physical world for a fresh start in a digital wonderland) or the notion of Martian colonies as an ecological escape hatch (as if terraforming a whole world from scratch is somehow simpler than finding a way to exist on the only planet we’re remotely adapted to), but it has been at the root of almost every techno-utopian fantasy. The internet will let us abandon the politics and philosophy of nation-states for a truly borderless world. Disruptive apps can shed the weight of regulations and oversight without any negative repercussions. Time and again, people convince themselves that we can shake off our current reality through cleverness and will. They imagine we can make a clean break from history, and then wonder why things spiral out of control.
I’ve been wondering how much the fantasy version of apocalypse is clouding our ability to act on issues like COVID and climate change and democratic decline. It sometimes feels like we’re so consumed by a need for narrative that we deny the reality of anything that doesn’t operate on the clear logic of beginnings and endings. We ask ourselves when the disaster phase of climate change will start, as if that’s a question of fact and not one of arbitrary definition. We look at emission targets and temperature goals as if they’re on-off switches between safety and chaos, when they’re points along spectrums of probabilities. We want things to be binary. They almost never are.
The hard reset only exists in the narrative realm, not the physical one. It marks the end of an old word and a beginning of a new one, when reality doesn’t have beginnings and endings, just effects and causes, which are in themselves effects of other causes. Beginnings are useful in storytelling, but with the possible exception of the big bang (and even that is debatable), nothing emerges free from initial conditions. As badly as we may want to believe we can start fresh, either now or in the near future with a magical technology, it is ultimately a form of escapism: a way to avoid responsibility for the world we’ve built.
Narratives can be troublesome, but they can also be enlightening, so let’s take it back to Station Eleven. At first I was frustrated with how the show kept flashing back to the days before its world-changing pandemic. I was more interested in the story of rebuilding, and especially in the role of art as a central aspect of our humanity. Because of that disappointment, I almost missed one of the show’s most insightful aspects, which I’ll try to share with as few spoilers as possible.
One of the series’ main conflicts is between a group of people dedicated to remembering the pre-disaster world, and a faction who believe that the only way forward is to erase that past and start anew. The show doesn’t present those stories in a chronological fashion, though; it loops back and forth between the early days of the disease and a world that, 20 or so years later, is still dangerous but at least verging on a kind of functionality. And although it’s hard to imagine a cleaner break from history than a disease wiping out 90% of humanity, those temporal leaps make it clear that even that wasn’t enough to sever the influence of history. The decisions that were made before the disaster, and the people our central characters were before the disaster, were still shaping the “new” world.
In other words, the world changing isn’t enough to provide a fresh start, because there is no version of the future that doesn’t emerge from the past. Imagining a clean break is the same impulse as the modern-day hermit wishing they could live in a vacuum—it’s a wish for simplicity rooted in a refusal to accept the complexity and uncertainty that are fundamental to existing as social creatures in a cumulative culture.
Despite what this apocalyptic fantasy may hope, and despite what some utopian fantasies advocate, the way forward isn’t to sever ourselves from the past. It’s to confront that past, to look at how it shaped the world and how it shaped ourselves. We need to understand the impulses that have led us to the brink of ecological disaster, and what they say about our relationship to the Earth. It isn’t enough for the world to change, because the world is always chaning anyway. We have to change ourselves.