I’ve discovered bi-weekly bus rides into DC are a great time for listening to audio books, so having recently finished Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, over the last couple weeks I’ve been listening to the City of Ember books by Jeanne Duprau, continuing with the theme of young-adult fantasy/adventure stories. I watched the movie of City of Ember the same week I watched Golden Compass for the first time, which put both high on my reading list (the movie adaptation of Ember was far better than Golden Compass though, since they didn’t butcher the plot near as much). While the Ember books didn’t have anywhere near the literary quality or philosophical depth of Dark Materials, they did combine two things which have always fascinated me–an underground city and a post-apocalyptic setting.
I’ve always loved caves and being underground (as evidenced by my penchant for exploring storm drains), and the idea of an underground city intrigues me. The scenes involving Zion were my favorite parts of the Matrix trillogy, and I absolutely can’t wait until they make the movie of The Silver Chair in the Narnia series so I can see how they visualize they underground city in that book. For the last few years I’ve also had a growing fascination with post-apocalyptic survival and dystopia stories. I love disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow and the TV show Jericho, and books like 1984, Brave New World, the Giver, etc.
These types of stories are especially vivid for me, and I often wonder what it would be like to survive some kind of great disaster that causes a significant disruption to society, and wonder what life in such a world would be like. Literature provides different answers, from the rise of monolithic totalitarian states like in 1984 to a new dark age as in the Ember books.
This last idea I find particularly intriguing. The Ember books take place approximately in the 2340’s, after a combination of nuclear war, disease, and famine decimated Earth’s population around the year 2100. Needless to say, it’s a very different take on the 24th century than Star Trek! Humanity never really recovered from the disaster, and society is reduced to a number of small settlements and villages with no more than a few hundred people, which have reverted to a largely pre-industrial civilization–albeit with remnants of the old civilization scattered about and re-purposed for new uses. There’s no electricity, no plumbing, and no gasoline or motorized vehicles (they rip the engines out of pickup trucks and tow them with oxen). People live in thatched earth huts, use candles for light, and survive on subsistence level farming. Virtually all knowledge of how to make or use present-day technology has been lost, and current society has been mythologized as a lost golden age.
This idea intrigues me, and I often wonder if such a thing is possible. Could all our knowledge and technology really be lost? Is it possible for a civilization as advanced as ours to completely disappear? From history I know that all nations and civilizations have ultimately ended, and yet today humanity seems to have advanced so far technologically and become so globalized socially that it would be impossible for that civilization to collapse. And can a nation as powerful and advanced as the United States really fall? What would such a fall look like? What would it take for America to actually cease to exist? And what kind of world would follow if it did?
Yet as impossible as it seems, there are other things about our modern world that just seem untenable in the long-term. Can technology really continue advancing at the incredible pace it has for the last 200 years? What are the limits of science and technology? For thousands of years, mankind lived essentially the same, and it’s only during the last few centuries that the kind of technological progress has taken place that created the modern world as we know it. Will that progress continue indefinitely or will we one day take it too far and bring about a calamity that erases all the progress we’ve made?
Then I read articles talking predictions for future biotechnology–where neural interfaces will merge man and machine and where regenerative medicine will make man essentially immortal. And I wonder, how much longer will God allow this to continue? If God smacked man down when he got too arrogant at the tower of Babel, how much more are we setting ourselves up for a divine smackdown today, with skyscrapers reaching thousands of feet taller than Babel ever did and with people claiming they can make man into gods by merging our minds with computers? Even if that doesn’t happen, it seems sooner or later man must pay a price for all his technology. Even if not through environmental disasters like global warming (which I still doubt is even real), can we continue using energy resources at the rate we have for the last century and expect to still be able to power our advanced technology 500 years from now? Perhaps Christ will come back before then and we won’t need to worry about it, but what if he waits thousands of years? Can humans continue living the way we do and with all the potential for self-destruction that exists today?
I think one reason apocalyptic fiction appeals to me is that it expresses a nagging feeling I often have that perhaps this world will end during my lifetime–that maybe I will experience a catastrophe of such magnitude that it will bring an end to America, or even modern civilization itself. There are so many things wrong with the world–economic collapses, terrorism, the possibility of nuclear war–that I wonder if it’s not inevitable that something will happen that brings it all to an end. Oh I know the human race isn’t going die out–God would never let that happen–but He never promised to preserve this particular civilization or this specific country.
I remember a few months ago reading an article where a Russian intelligence expert predicted the United States will collapse and break up in the next few years. While the guy obviously had a vested interest (he seemed a bit too happy at the idea of Russia conquering Alaska), and however much we may mock his idea as preposterous, I must say I sometimes wonder if he might be right. I think the current recession (depression?) has demonstrated that capitalist economies are inherently unstable and subject to total collapse at any time. And government controlled economies are even worse–which is why Obama’s so-called stimulus plan will do absolutely nothing and will probably make things even worse. America is weaker now that it has been in a long time, and if a rogue nation like Iran decided to take advantage of America’s weakness and light off a few nukes in major American cities, I wonder if our country could really hold together or if it would collapse into anarchy as portrayed in the TV show Jericho.
These thoughts are especially vivid on my weekly bus rides into Washington DC. As I sit staring at the magnificent buildings all around me–with their gleaming white facades of neoclassical columns and Romanesque engravings that practically scream of permanence, majesty, and power–I wonder how much longer it will all really last. What if I woke up tomorrow and Washington was gone? What if I was one of the last people to see that beautiful city, and all that remains for future generations is a distant memory of a time when America was great and people lived in comfort and luxury, surrounded by machines with almost magical powers? What would I tell my children in those days? How would I describe these things to them, which would be as foreign as the idea of non-passengers being allowed on airport concourses is to the child born after 9-11? What if I, in the words of The Day After Tomorrow, have spent my entire life preparing for a future that no longer exists?
In the end, I am reminded how everything in this world is only transient and temporary. Nothing is fixed, nothing is permanent. And nothing should be taken for granted. For Christians, we may take comfort in the knowledge that this world is not our true home, and that our true citizenship belongs to the Kingdom of Heaven not earthly nations which rise and fall like the tide. No matter what the future holds, we may live secure in the knowledge of His sovereignty, knowing that all things work together for His glory. For me, I also resolve never to take my world for granted–to live the life I have been given to the fullest and treasure it as much as possible. I wish to see as much and learn as much as I can, so if this world ever does come to an end, it will still exist in my mind, and to me at least, can never truly be lost.