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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
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Sunday, 28 July 2013

Dark World Sci Fi, Part 3: The Long-Awaited Conclusion

Hello hello!
Well, I promised to examine a new theory on why we’re so into the idea of the end being very nigh indeed. I don’t think it’s merely a natural follow-through of the zombie trend, and in spite of the influences from 40s, 80s, and 90s culture, I’m inclined to say that there’s more to the trend than just mining previously successful movements for more juice and marketable extruded pop culture product.

What's in a trend? 

That which we call popular by any other name would seem as ubiquitous. Zombies rose to fame partly because they hadn’t been done to death before their current rise to fame; unlike vampires, which have enjoyed several waves of popularity, it’s arguable that the undead hoardes hadn’t really had a main-culture breakout since their first surge in popularity.  Dark-world sci fi, as I’m going to call the three genres of cyberpunk, apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic, and dystopian fiction, has maintained an ambient level of popularity but hasn’t really been ‘in’ consistently since the 80s. That’s plenty of time for trend necromancy to occur.

 The final movie in the Blood and Cornetto trilogy by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost will also be coming out at the end of the year. As it happens, that will also be about the apocalypse.  Is the trend rising because it’s time for another pop-culture recycle round, or is there a bit more to it?

Let’s start with how ‘it’s gonna be the future soon’ and the many ways that ‘it’s already here’.

A long time ago, I was talking about posting a ‘cool stuff in science’ article once in a while. My interest in activism and various kinds of rights issues ate most of the room for that, but the other issue I ran into was that I had no idea where to start. Science has been on fire, with stunning discoveries emerging every single week, and this is shaping up to be an impressive decade.
Those who follow the news might be aware of a number of amazing advances in medical technology—from artificial veins to 3-d printed ears to an artificial heart (no, not that one, but a real artificial heart), we’re finally hitting the point sci fi has been racing towards. Artificial blood, a new layer of the retina we didn’t know about, the ability to inject genetic therapies right into the eye for treatment…I remember being a kid in the 90s and feeling starry-eyed wonder at the research projects and shiny tech.  Now, the stuff I’ve been reading about is real as real can be. (We even have basic replicators, dammit! What else do you call a 3-D printer that can make pizza? Now I just want earl grey tea, hot.)
n spite of stubborn industrial stalling, electric and hybrid cars are defiantly ploughing onto the market. More and more countries are switching to solar and wind for power needs, with nuclear in a position of both favour and intense scrutiny. At the same time as all this shiny wonderful stuff, we have some resource struggles beginning.  Oil and gas are significant factors in the Middle East’s most recent turf wars. Add in the damage from global climate change and the undeniable surge in extreme weather catastrophes in the last few years, and you have more pressure on our remaining natural resources.  Alternate power from George Orwell spinning in his grave alone could probably replace half of oil and gas’s energy requirements.


But wait! There's a precedent!

Now we get to the fun part—I probably don’t have to mention the recent revelations about privacy that have come out of the states. With America receiving international scrutiny and the president sweating under his collar about the Patriot-Act style policies that have been passed, little things like Microsoft’s Xbox One (a console that had, functionally, the same features as the watching television from 1984) have drawn explosive reactions from online communities. And, of course, the Occupy movement’s influence  increasing distrust of government, revelations of more censorship, and now, heating tensions in the middle east as America and Russia prepare to shadow-box, have all played into the heady atmosphere. Not to mention that Britain's PM recently decided that banning porn and giving it request-only access would be a good way to save the children. Think of the children!

If you've read my work, you know how I feel about this. 

With this kind of background, why wouldn’t dystopias have caught the limelight again? Ancient cultures often viewed time as cyclical, an end in sight somewhere in the distant future—Hindu understanding of the cosmos, Norse concepts of Valhalla, Mayan and Aztec cyclical calendars, and, of course, the Book of Revelations all feature concepts of beginning and ending, fiery death and mass holocausts before rebirth. Since the 20th century, however, we’ve been much closer to and much better at actually achieving this kind of thing. Holocausts aren’t a new invention, but a large population and better technology to coomit them with has made the concept much more relevant. Add media and its power to amplify a message, and you have an interesting possibility.

The really sad thing is how relevant this still is.

 Why so morbid?

Are we fascinated with ‘the end’ because we’re more capable than ever of realizing it? Or is it an attempt to prepare ourselves for ‘it’ just in case ‘it’ happens tomorrow?  It’s important to note the cultural trends in the 80s as well—punk had mutated into New Wave, Japan was extra cool, ‘sci fi’ sound was common as synthesizers were becoming trendy, Goth fashion and music had become an anti-trend, and, of course, the year of ‘1984’ itself flavoured the decade. Throw in the conflict in the middle east, the personal computers that were now readily available, the beginnings of the internet, and the tail end of the Cold War, and you have a perfect recipe for the weirdly dark media that North America and Britain managed to churn out at that point. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that whole ‘AIDS’ thing and the entrance of women into the corporate world, plus the commercialization of starvation and other humanitarian causes:  more factors guaranteed to shake everything up.
When you line up the 2010s and the 1980s, there are a lot of similar patterns. The sense of instability and international conflicts are certainly telling, and hopeless straits definitely inspire more contemplation of ‘the end times’ than an era of peace and prosperity might.  Orwell’s work was based on satire of the Soviet Union. The famous red sash around Julia’s waist, and the even more famous “2 + 2 = 5” were just a couple of the direct references to Soviet organizations and, in the latter case, slogans (referring to Stalin’s famous 4 Year plans).
Really, though, the desire to escape from modern problems, an easy out that sort of involves blurring the difficult and violent parts of the collapse--or casting them in a heroic light--is responsible for our obsession with Dark World fiction. There's also the appeal of a new beginning, the renewal that follows death. 


Does this mean that the end of the world is coming soon?

That implies that we're going to see tomorrow. I suppose that's an answer in and of itself. I'm not going to deluge you with environmental or activist-related information, but I will say that in order to keep on reaching tomorrow, we need to keep the biosphere and our society in a state where it can run long enough to reach another sunrise--preferably a bit longer. 

The short answer is 'probably not'. We've done reasonably well at muddling things up to a medium extent so far. I'm not going to commit to a firm 'no', but I certainly won't say that total annihilation seems likely. Ask me tomorrow. 

Whatever the reason for our obsession, it's not going away any time soon...and I am very all right with that. 

Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find me on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr. More interviews and witty commentaries are coming. Keep checking back to see those surprise posts, too. This is your darling SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

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