Alissa Wilkinson, co-author of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith and Politics at the End of the World, talks how tales of apocalypse and dystopia reflect cultures through history and how entertainment factors into both cautioning us about and contributing to the end times.
Q: What inspired you to write this book on apocalypses and dystopias?
A: My co-writer and I have for a long time had a friendship that included watching films like this. When it came down to thinking about a book project, we got really interested in thinking about how these stories of apocalypses and dystopias are seeded around our culture today, and thinking about how that linked to stories from the past, and if there was an observable shift that you could see in the way these stories are told and the sort of subject matter — which is actually what we found when we dug into it. And we dug into how that told us a story about ourselves. So that’s what we got interested in and found there were a lot of really fascinating things to discover there.
Q: Did anything in your research surprise you, or were some tidbits particularly memorable or meaningful to you?
A: The thing I keep coming back to is the change in the way we thought the apocalypse would happen. We have this part early in the book where we talk about how apocalypse stories have been around basically since the dawn of time. In the past, people really tended to think that the apocalypse was going to come from on high — from God or some cosmic being getting really annoyed with us and wiping us out. And that started to change, as far as we can tell, around the turn of the 20th century, maybe slightly earlier, which is in tandem with the rise of technologies in science, in medicine and advances in industrialization. I think at that point it starts to become clear about how humans imagine the end will come, from it being visited upon us from someone else to us doing it to ourselves. You see a rise in stories about robots or illnesses we create, or dystopias that become too powerful, and we create our own end. It’s a pretty remarkable shift, and once you see that, you see it everywhere. Every different kind of apocalypse that we write stories about today is very much in keeping with that, whether it’s because we’re playing God and in a sense “being punished for it” for it, or whether it’s just the natural progression of human evolution that we would cause our own extinction.
Q: In your book, you describe how the original Greek word apokalypsis actually means, “to uncover” or “reveal.” What would you say our modern apocalypse stories reveal about the current cultural anxieties?
A: Our biggest anxiety seems to be all technological at this point, which makes perfect sense. Even something like Black Mirror, which is super popular, also freaks people out because it feels like it could happen. This could very well be us in 20 years. There are often these near-future depictions of technology that we created, usually for something that is supposed to help us, but that often hinders us. Sometimes it ends up destroying us, and sometimes it ends up as life being destroyed as we know it: how our relationships operate, how our memories operate, how we handle criminal justice. Technology has a lot of bearing on that, and I think we’re only really becoming aware of some of the way our technologies that we created can turn on us, whether or not they become sentient. [Laughs]
Q: In the episode, you address how The Hunger Games presents these ideas of how entertainment, and particularly reality TV, can sometimes be more cruel than entertaining. How much of a role do you think entertainment has in both cautioning us from dystopian scenario and also creating dystopian scenarios?
A: Sci-fi has always sort of served as a warning. You can look back to The Twilight Zone and a lot of those episodes are kind of trying to warn people what will happen if you engage in certain behaviors… and help them reconsider themselves. I think rarely is didactic entertainment very good [Laughs] but sci-fi is probably one of the only, if not the only genre that can really work, if the story if good enough, to be really enrapturing. The goal is to shake us out of a familiar context and put us in a different one, and make us contemplate things. I think Battlestar Galactica’s obsession with ethics is really interesting to think about in that context. On the other hand, plenty of dystopia stories in context have to do with entertainment run amok, and if we think about The Hunger Games, which is a great example of entertainment that’s been created to keep the population in check, and they’ve totally gone along with it. There are people literally dying for entertainment’s sake. … Things like that seem to have self-correction based into them over history. Things start out with good intentions, and then they go bad, and then there’s a self-correction cycle where it’s sort of run its course. So who knows what that means for entertainment. It’s kind of scary but it’s kind of exciting.
Q: Why do you think zombie stories like The Walking Dead have such an enduring aspect of our apocalypse narratives?
A: Zombies pop up in mythology originally and have always kind of have existed in sci-fi. One of the most important works of apocalyptic horror is Night of the Living Dead and that’s from the ’60s. That one was really about anxieties about the Cold War and communism, and it keeps working in different contexts. I think there are all kinds of reasons for this. There’s no cohesive zombie mythology, which makes it easy to create new stories with new rules in a way that maybe you can’t do with vampires or something like that. … The zombie is a mindless ball of violence, and I think that is scary. Then on the flip side, there’s the idea that this used to be a human, and maybe even a human that we loved, and it relates to this idea of being taken over by an ideology or a set of ideas or something like that and discovering that someone you knew isn’t that person anymore, and in fact is out to get you. That’s something terrifying, but also feels viscerally real to a lot of people. I think another reason zombie stories keep getting told is because zombies are a little bit funny, too, but there’s also a lot of things wrapped up in there that people are worried about.
Q: Your book is titled How to Survive the Apocalypse. While you mention a bunch of different scenarios based on science fiction examples, would you say there is actually a way to survive among them?
A: Near the end of the book, we talk quite a bit about how in quite a few apocalypse stories there’s this idea that you can only survive if you strike out on your own, and you forge your own path and find your own way. That’s a very individualistic framework that we find ourselves in, as Americans and as people who live in a world in this way. And we would propose that the way that people seem to tell these stories is that the reason we deserve to survive is because we have families and we have friends and we have communities that we build, and that’s as a result of things that humans are uniquely able to do, which is love one another and build institutions and communities out of that. And you see that pop up over and over in these stories. The Hunger Games has a very bleak ending, but it does propose at the end that the only thing that will keep us human is love.
Q: What are some of your favorite science fiction films and how have they influenced your life?
A: One is A Canticle for Leibowitz. It’s fascinating, because it sets up history as almost cyclical. It starts and you think you’re reading about the past, but slowly you realize it’s the future in a post-nuclear landscape, and the book’s proposal is that civilization will cycle back on itself over and over again. That’s a seminal work of science fiction, but it’s also just a really good read, and it’s been influential on many people. It’s sort of a secret handshake among sci-fi people. Battlestar Galactica is also very close to my heart. I hadn’t actually watched a lot of TV before I got hooked on that, and I think it showed me what the form could do. It’s really good storytelling and it deals with a lot of issues in a really interesting way that would be hard to deal with in a show set in our present context. More recently, two of the films I’ve loved the most are Arrival and Annihilation, and I think both of those were great examples that sci-fi doesn’t need to be a loud, “shoot ‘em up” kind of genre. High concept science fiction can be deeply moving and meaningful and human.
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