How I Came to George Friedman’s The Next Hundred Years

* repost from 1/21/2012 *

Margaret Atwood, The Year of the FloodMad MaxBook of EliBladerunner; TerminatorFifth ElementTerra Nova; Joss Whedon’s “World That Was”; the American Torchwood; even The Hot Zone, that 90s Ebola non-fiction thriller; and mostly, the book that makes Stephen King’s The Stand look like a Corona beach commercial for all its safety and allure, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which should come with a federal safety warning on the dust jacket. And a mason jar of Prozac.

I’m fascinated with the persistence of this genre. Ours and the entertainment industry’s insistence on perpetuating it. Is it predictive? Or will it be self-fulfilling? Is it in response to box office success alone that these scripts are commissioned or do they arise from the collective consciousness?

The Cold War might be over (or That Cold War, as Friedman might put it) but, whereas my classmates and I were taught in the 80s to stop, drop, and roll; safety check Halloween candy; and Stranger Danger; my parents in the 50s were taught to hide under their desks in the event of imminent and assured mutual mass destruction.

“Mm-kay kids, we’re gonna do the drill again this morning after the pledge. We’re gonna do it until you can get it right. It’s bend over FIRST, then grab your ankles.”

That’s got to leave psychological wounds.

Is it possible to introduce into this genre a view of “the end of the world as we know it” that isn’t Mad Max wasteland, that has green shoots, new beginnings, and I feel fine? It need be a Snow White affair with kindly woodland creatures but is there a transition that epic that’s without the wanton barbarism?

Armageddon and Independence Day both posit world-ending alien threats which, at this point in human development supersede terrestrial politics, as far as we know. The humans rallied, thwarting the alien advance, averting apocalypse, against all odds, because of the brave derring-do of handsome over-muscled men.

The same plot line is true of so many Dr. Who episodes. Except that he’s perfectly muscled, be he Christopher, David, or Matt.

So, you see, there’s a spectrum of destruction. From thwarted, near misses to Shawn of the Dead which is just good clean fun next to Viggo Mortensen and his kid on The Road.

a light-hearted moment

It is in this context, I have asked Mom and Dad because they’re smart people and this keeps us away from family gossip:

How would you write an “end of the world as we know it” novel that flips the script and writes a new story?

You’ve got to stick with the standby givens of the genre:

  • Cities will turn themselves inside out fleeing to familial farmland, land has long since been vacated of its fertility and, anyway, sold to Monsanto.
  • The traffic grid will stall, motor vehicles will clog roadways, panic and chaos, etc.
  • Those city dwellers who see the folly in trying to flee (because maybe they’ve seen these movies, too) will find big box stores and strip malls held like forts by the Joneses who held the biggest weapons caches.
  • There will be roving bands of neo-land-pirates. We like to think these will be hedge fund managers, bad bosses, dirty politicians, and used car salesman. But we know better because, in this new world order, people of middle and upper middle class upbringing will be such creampuffs they won’t see a page beyond Chapter Two.
  • There will be epidemics of third world diseases, of diseases that strike when sanitation goes to hell, like after an earthquake or tsunami.

{Sidebar: Isn’t it just a little precious for Hollywood to trot out these end of world scenarios as if there aren’t people right this very moment living in conditions not at all disimilar? If we really wanted to know what it’s like to draw water from a well and cook over an open flame, we’d send Anderson Cooper back to interview them.}

Nay, if the aspiring author sets said story in a city, he’d have mayhem, murder, epidemics, mass starvation, and not enough growing space or season or skill to set aside any crop towards the future. So, he puts his two remaining characters on a path towards the ocean that feels like its straight into the heart of Mordor. And, he’s not flipped the script, not crafted a new story of hope and possibility.

Therefore, the aspiring do-gooder, ever optimist author, sets said story in one of those middle-sized cities, like Amarillo, big enough to have infrastructure to play with. Don’t we all daydream about a steam punk Robinson Crusoe? It’s far enough away from big city populations that it won’t be overrun for at least three hours. Buys some time. Some time to what? Well, time to set up defenses.

This is where I always quail at the story line. This is where my question comes from.

Is there a way to write this “end of the world as we know it” story without people defending their resources (food) militarily?

We’ve used a handy and precedented plot device, idiopathic end-of-the-world syndrome, to resolve issues of overpopulation, crowding, and resource shortages. We’ve dealt an incapacitating blow to the hydrocarbon economy. As is the wont of the genre, we’re conveniently left with a Noah’s Ark of professionals. The electrician, the carpenter, the code hacker, and how splendid that we’ve crossed paths with an outdoorsman who knows from mushrooms. It’s not like you can Google it. (Or can you?)

Look, I’m not saying utopia, but a continuation of the human condition in an immediately and radically and permanently altered environment.

Remember when all our petty bullshit dropped away on that sunny day in September so many years ago? It was so clarifying. What’s real. Most not.

Maybe the urge for these “end stories” isn’t so noble as to give hope to the people of a Dark Age rather it’s a nostalgia for simpler times?

But, if you wanted to write a NEW-AND-IMPROVED end of the world as we know it story, how do you protect the food stocks of the good guys? How do you not establish good guys and bad guys? Okay, so you know the neo-land-pirates will come raping and pillaging and stealing food. So you have to protect it with weapons and violence or the convincing threat of violence. And, now you have to protect your weapons stores. And, now you have to train your ragtag band of shellshocked citizens. And, now you’re entrenched in the old stories and the sort of escalating tensions that got is in this mess in the first place. Now you’ve got something that looks like Book of Eli.

I could go on, but even I grow bored with my own exposition.

In talking this through with Mom and Dad, Dad always suggests that I read George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. Dad sent me a copy of this book. Twice. I finally read it.

Here are my thoughts.