Sweet Dystopia, or: the rise of the downer.

Oh, apocalyptica, how I love you so. I really do. The end of the world is a particularly versatile storytelling device. It could be anything – cosmic disaster, war, plague, robots, zombies, politicians. We don’t know what’s going to take us out, but we do enjoy turning speculation into art. Or bad movies. Both, really, although the media often confuses the two.

It seems as to me like there’s been a big uptick in post-apocalyptic stuff in the past few years. I’m tempted to say that it’s because of The Hunger Games overtaking Twilight in book sales. Which is as it should be – had that not happened I would’ve thought the end was surely upon us because “sparkly emo vampires outselling Charles Dickens” is the fifth horseman. That gives us an important point on a timeline, but I don’t think it’s the actual cause. This might be Oprah’s fault. She put her sticker and, by extension, automatic bestseller status on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. All hail the golden touch of The Oprah! Blessed be the chubby finger that turns the page of the paperback!

I’m not making fun of you, Oprah. Please don’t have me assassinated.

But seriously, that bitch sells some books. It’s unreal. I wonder if the minion who does her book shopping is difficult to bribe.

Anyway, The Road was a crazy hit that kind of came out of left field, and while books about the end of days have been around since Gutenberg (obviously), the subgenre exploded after McCarthy won the Pulitzer. Add to this Oprah-fueled frenzy the fact that every moron on the planet thought the end of the Mayan calendar was relevant and lo! The perfect storm. Suzanne Collins just hit the right market in the right year. And good for her. I enjoyed The Hunger Games books, even if (spoiler alert) the second and third weren’t as good as the first. They’re great.

Like I said, this is in fact a subgenre. There’s post-apocalyptic stuff in every genre and always has been. I want to drill that point only because I’ve heard lots of folks refer to this type of work, or even things that are just similarly dystopian, as scifi and that’s inaccurate in a lot of cases (putting aside the fact that the Bible, the OG apocalyptica, is one of the greatest science fiction books ever written). Look at Stephen King’s The Stand, which most would probably categorize as horror. Or something like Matheson’s I Am Legend, which is pure horror in a monster movie kind of way (and then they turned the movie into absolute shit – what happened there?). I think the reason all this stuff gets lumped into scifi is because at some point there’s always some asshole with a line about how science could have saved us but didn’t. Interesting, that, but irrelevant at the moment.

I think it’s important to note that this trend getting huge had a lot to do with teenagers. Teens are the most important market for most things. This is Retail 101. They have the most disposable income, the most free time, and are the most susceptible to advertising. They also tend to babble incessantly about the things they love. Or hate, for that matter. Thus, marketing to them gets any given item two kinds of advertising for the price of one. They disseminate things with a quickness, and social media becoming as easy as breathing has only made this process faster. What I’m saying is that if The Hunger Games had been written for or about adults, it wouldn’t have been the sensation that it was (or is, I guess – we’re not done with the movies yet). It would have been like Mad Max or The Long Walk, awesome but cultish. And while The Road had the hypnotoad-like powers of The Oprah’s magic sticker, it was still considered “literary fiction” (a term I deplore), which cut out a pretty big demographic of fluff-only readers. The fluff readers were onboard with The Hunger Games, though, because teens and tweens were reading it: “My kid’s read it, how complex can it be?” I heard this more than once from moms at the Giant Evil Bookstore and it made me cringe every time. If that’s how you think or talk about your children and books, you’re probably an idiot, but you’re most definitely an asshole. Meanwhile, manymanymany more titles that were in a similar, bleak vein were making their way onto the teen shelves. In my last couple of years there, the trend spread quickly from the teen section to scifi/fantasy, then into regular fiction and, weirdly, Christian fiction. Well, maybe not so weirdly, actually. Keep in mind that this is just me talking about books. You’ll recall that these were my media-free years, so I’m not sure what was going on in movies or on tv at the time. I do know that since the first Hunger Games movie was added to Netflix there have been tons of obvious, cheesy-looking ripoffs popping up in my “because you watched” menu. So there’s that.

I once had a conversation with a drunken asshat who said that the end of any trend is evident when comedians get their hands on it. I mean, what? If I recall correctly, he was talking specifically about Shaun of the Dead. Clearly, Drunk Asshat was dead wrong about the downfall of the zombie genre, if you’ll pardon the pun. And while I completely disagree that comedy marks the end of a trend, I will concede that it marks a kind of cultural saturation point. For example, The World’s End and This is the End came out in the same year. Obviously, there’s been (dark) comedy about the apocalypse before, but it’s not really subject matter that lends itself easily to giggles, is it? How could it? So I wonder if we’re lightening up about everything we know and love being destroyed. Could it really be a boy-who-cried-wolf situation? Things like Y2K and 2012 being bullshit, along with our growing desensitization to media coverage (or lack thereof) of global war and environmental destruction – this seems like a pretty good recipe for people not taking the end of all things seriously. On the other hand, maybe our sense of humor is just getting darker because our tastes in entertainment are getting darker overall. I guess the effect is basically the same, but I wonder at the cause.

To counter my first gross overgeneralization with another one, though: perhaps it’s our obsession with shiny fluffy things that’s causing this preoccupation with our own destruction. Reality tv, celebrity worship, really horrible pop music – these are all distractions from very real social and cultural problems that bring us down. And I know no one wants to think about war and disease and injustice all the time, we all need a break. But it feels like this rise in apocalyptic direness is possibly, just possibly, a sideslant way for the media machine to scream at us to fucking pay attention. It’s a remote chance, but I like to think it’s there. Like when you sneak your kids vegetables by making brownies with zucchini in them, you know? If you show people an idea in a more palatable format, maybe they’ll think about it in their normal day-to-day lives. Or I could be being overly optimistic again about our culture’s motivations. It happens.

But let’s be serious, the world has ended a thousand times already. Societies crumble. Superpowers shift. Someone’s life is utterly destroyed every second of every day. A marriage falls apart. A mother watches her child die of leukemia. A house burns down with everyone inside. Another village is bombed. The church refuses to distribute condoms and a whole country ends up with AIDS. Bieber makes another billion while poor people starve to death eating McDoubles every day. Gay kids commit suicide because their families hate them. This is the world. It’s sick and it’s sad and one day we’ll all be dead. To look that reality in the eye is difficult and noble and necessary. It’s when we start deluding ourselves into thinking that this can go on forever that we’re in real trouble. Even Nero’s fiddle burned.