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OP-ED: After the end of the world

  • Published at 04:38 am September 5th, 2020
zombie apocalypse
Photo: BIGSTOCK

Fortunately, the pandemic has not been apocalyptic (like in the movies)

It was the leap year day that the pandemic first hit me personally. I was about to travel overseas for work. I dropped the kid to a play date. She called to say bye while I was at the pharmacy to buy malaria tablets, mosquito repellent, and hand sanitizers -- standard fare for a visit to the tropics -- when I received the text asking me to get in touch with my team leader immediately. Before I could get to it, the team leader called -- mission aborted, they are pulling everyone out from field, stay tuned for next steps.

Like most white collar workers in the Western world, I have been working from home for the last six months. My little town hasn’t had that bad an outbreak. Schools opened back in July, and local desi communities have already restarted dawats. But the malls are still hauntingly empty even during weekends, and people are still nervous. No one expects anything remotely like normal anytime soon.

Still, the end of the world quite ain’t here. But there are evenings when it’s hard to ignore the fact that the world is not what it was, and may well never be. And what better way to survive those evenings than to immerse yourself into a book or a movie about life after the end of the world?

Richard Matheson’s I am Legend is about living in a world of the undead -- a post-pandemic world where most of humanity is dead, except the survivors who appear to have become vampires. 

Will Smith played Robert Neville, the protagonist, in the most recent movie adaptation, Charlton Heston having played the role decades earlier. The Smith version has been rightly criticized for mangling the ending (spoiler alert for everything that follows).

In both the book and the movie, our hero seeks to learn more about the vampires, scientifically. For this purpose, as well as for survival, he has to prey upon the undead. The book-hero is a MacGyveresque 20th century American man who is handy with tools and has an understanding of basic sciences. Through library research and experiments, he deduces the nature of the pandemic that ended his world.  

In the process, however, he became a ghastly spectre to the mutant survivors, causing further death and suffering among those who were trying to create a new society.

This inversion of roles was too cerebral for Hollywood, who preferred the hero to die in the hands of a zombie horde (who inexplicably developed a Spiderman-like ability to crawl buildings) while saving a vial of blood that might help find a cure. The third act collapse denied Smith a chance to cement his place among the acting legends, but his portrayal of a lonely man going through his daily routines in the first parts of the movie is sublime.  

Sublime and poignant too are Matheson’s paragraphs about Neville’s journey through depression and alcoholism when the world had ended.

Journey through a depressed post-apocalyptic land is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. A slim and sparse novel, reasonably faithfully depicted on screen in a 2009 movie, this is a story of a father and son who are walking through a barren, ash-covered land where not even a flower seems to grow.  

They have a gun, with one bullet left, and the father has taught the boy to use it on himself lest he be taken by the “bad guys.” And the bad guys here aren’t mutant survivors of a pandemic -- they are hordes of cannibals. A harrowing read and watch, with an achingly and beautifully depressing ending where the father has made sure that the son has survived and will carry the fire.

What kind of society can be created after the end of the world? That is the central question of The 100. And the answer in this TV show is provided by the actions of a hundred juvenile delinquents who are sent back to a post-apocalyptic earth after growing up in a space station. The series has run a few seasons too many, and even at its best the production value was questionable and the acting mediocre.  

But thorny, vexing questions of moral and political philosophy were raised repeatedly in the earlier seasons, and the answers presented were hardly predictable Hollywood tropes. 

In fact, the show has to be commended for resisting the oldest of tropes -- "shipping" between the male and female protagonists.

The dystopias conjured in The 100 echo those of the Mad Max series and David Brin’s Postman. The last one is also a Kevin Costner turkey -- that is, along with Waterworld, there are two Costner movies that should be rebooted by HBO or Disney. But are these dystopias of fire and fury, where might is right and order is maintained through ritualistic violence that often ends in death, the only way the world might be recreated after it ends?

Maybe initially after the apocalypse it might be so. But after a few centuries, the world would be more stable, ordered around faith and institutional religion, just as Europe was after the fall of Rome -- that was the cyclical interpretation of history in Walter M Miller Jr’s science fiction classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is a clear inspiration for Robert Harris’s The Second Sleep.  

The story is set 800 years after the end of the world of the ancients. The Church teaches that ancients were struck down by God for their hubris, the ultimate sign of which is an apple with a side eaten. The study of the ancients is forbidden. A priest dies in questionable circumstances. There are pale echoes of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in the description of this medieval society. And the discovery that the church is very much aware of the truth, and is suppressing it for the greater good, almost makes one echo Heston’s howl at the end of the original The Planet of the Apes and cry out: God damn you all to hell!

Fortunately, the pandemic hasn’t been apocalyptic, not just in my little town but even in the worst affected parts of America, Brazil, and Bangladesh. But the pandemic or not, the world ends every day for someone somewhere who loses a job, or when a relationship ends, or a parent passes, or perhaps even worse, when a child dies.  

When the world ends, we often lapse into bouts of depression and alcoholism, suppressing memories, fighting the demons and zombies of our minds.  

And yet, we need to kick the darkness till it bleeds daylight. We must continue, carrying the light. 

Jyoti Rahman reads and watches stuff and writes about them at jrahman.wordpress.com.

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