The Problem of the Globe in Postapocalyptic Lit
Ever since Fear the Walking Dead completed its first season, I’ve been trying to come up with a satisfying answer to one of the questions frequently posed by critics of the show: why didn’t social media matter more in the zombie apocalypse portrayed on FWD? The teenagers on the show seemed to be sporting smart phones, but only two of the characters seemed very clued in about the internet as a news source — Travis’s son, who seemed like a hactavist in training, and Madison’s geeky high school student, who is the only character to realize the gravity of the spreading sickness before all hell breaks loose. In the contemporary media environment, it’s just not believable to think that we wouldn’t be obsessively spreading knowledge (and misinformation) over social media. So why does FWD have this blindspot?
The most persuasive answer I’ve been able to come up with is that to fully include social media would be to expand the boundaries of the show’s fictional universe too far. It would be to let in the globe.
Our postapocalyptic narratives tend to generate geographically limited fictional worlds — not that surprising considering that the end of electricity would certainly contract our social networks. But such fictions have also tended to focus on the family as the primary unit for exposition, whether that family is natural or constructed after the fact. Thus the struggle for survival is never about the “last man on earth” but about him (usually him) struggling to help others and to preserve the social contract in some kid of small way. Indeed, one of the lessons of The Walking Dead has been that civic responsibility must fall to the survival of the family. To survive in the fictional end of the world, you can’t care about strangers. It’s like you have to undo your apprehension of the nation as a unit. Benedict Anderson argued long ago that print capitalism, especially the newspaper, was integral to the formation of the nation because it gave people the sense of a bond with strangers who were doing similar things at the same time — that they were living in Benjamin’s empty, homogeneous time with people they didn’t know and couldn’t see. There might be other people out there living life at the same time — but it’s too dangerous to think about that.
The break down of the military base at the end of the first season of FWD shows the impossibility of thinking of the state or city as a meaningful unit. Individuals can think about the welfare of others with whom they share a particular emotional bond, but the abstract bonds of citizenship go out the window.
Max Brooks’s novel World War Z is a powerful exception to what has become a rule for our thinking about the end of the world in fiction. World War Z is an intensively global novel that uses the nation, not the family, as its central category. The result is a series of highly disjointed vignettes about different parts of the world. To make a blockbuster movie about this novel, Hollywood felt it necessary to rewrite the narrative in terms of the family unit. Otherwise the movie would have no Brad Pitt— and the apocalypse would unfold in terms that have simply not structured our fictional thinking to date.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons that postapocalyptic fiction has become so significant, so popular, at the moment that global warming has become an undeniable reality, at least in some parts of the world: we have structured our fictional thinking about the end of the world to omit the globe. We get to stay at the level of the family, and are not forced to think about how our behaviors affect those we don’t already care about. We get a pass on contemplating the global implications of what Paul Saint-Amour has called “the futurelessness of the way we live.”