The many ends of the world in culture

Novels, movies, TV series or video games: Cultural productions depicting post-apocalyptic worlds concentrate a highly pessimistic era in which catastrophic prophecies dominate.

Culture is a fungus that absorbs the spirit of the times. So when the Zeitgeist turns black – as it is now with the combination of the pandemic, economic inequality, the climate crisis, the new war in Europe and the possibility of a nuclear weapon Armageddon – when the present paints gray on gray and the future becomes darker, cultural productions darken or plays on the contrary on tragic irony, this mockery of despair.

We have just seen this in concentrate with the production Do not look up (Netflix) tells of two astronomers’ media and political hardships announcing that the end of the world is very near. The film, reminiscent of a tragicomic pamphlet, stops in the last moments of Earth by humans, hit by a new destructive comet. This is Dr. Strangelove version 2.0.

After the disaster

The most lively creative service instead goes to the post-apocalyptic (or post-apocalyptic) genre that depicts post-disaster societies. So when Diana Maude Couture had to choose a subject for her master’s degree in literary studies at Laval University (2019), it imposed itself, and in particular through stories intended for teenagers.

“There was a turning point in the literature between the early 2000s and the following decade, where we went from a very dominant fantastic genre to something much more post-apo,” explains the one, who is now doing another master’s degree, in librarianship. the. “My little sister, who is seven years younger than me, only read science fiction about the world after I did not read any as a teenager a few years earlier. »

The mutation can be summarized at the passage, at the top of the lists above bestsellers, of low fantasy dominated by the row of Harry Potter (1997-2007) for the trilogy The Hunger Games (2008-2010). And in this science fiction, the menacing aliens from XXand century has disappeared to make room for people responsible for their own accidents. In his memoirs, Couture focused the analysis on Silo by Hugh Howey Divergent by Veronica Roth and the series The 100 by Morgan Kass. These fictions take place in societies that have already been rebuilt, whose new political structures they dissect and classify.

“In each of the novels analyzed, the cause of the apocalypse is human and unfortunately voluntary, caused by biological weapons or nuclear war,” Ms Sewing. These worlds are hopeless: If anyone eventually has the opportunity to trigger the apocalypse, the worst will happen. We can clearly think about what is happening in Ukraine at the moment … ”


The possibility of major nuclear destruction is not fictitious. Ulrich Kühn, an expert on the subject at the University of Hamburg, told New York Times that Russia may well detonate a nuclear bomb in Ukraine. A possible response from NATO would trigger massive attacks in the northern hemisphere. A 2019 Princeton University simulation counts 85.3 million immediate victims (dead and wounded) in 45 minutes of self-destruction of the atom.

“The first meaning of the apocalypse is, of course, religious, but the very principle of civilization includes a fear of its annihilation,” explains literature professor Patrick Bergeron of the University of New Brunswick, a specialist in the genre of post-apo in culture. . He explains that World War I introduced a different relationship to the death of individuals and society. Four empires sank with the great massacre of 1914-1918.

The originally very biblical references to cultural creations shifted to secular tragic consciousness with the nuclear age, which reached its apotheosis between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1980s, says exploded and became climatic, ecological, bacteriological or cybernetic. The genre has consistently attracted top writers, from William Golding to JG Ballard, from Margaret Atwood to Cormac McCarthy. Jean-Paul Engélibert, a great specialist in the very great subject, summed up the dark contemporary literary creative influence by speaking of “apocalypse without a kingdom” (this is the title of his book from 2013): in our stories the great annihilation occurs, but no paradise arises.

“The 2001 attacks caused us to enter a hyperapocalyptic phase,” adds Professor Bergeron. We are spoiled for choice and you can choose your end of the world. We have never been thrown into so many threatening situations for humanity. Add the deep erosion of living together, between “wokism” and libertarians or posthumanist currents, and we understand why we sink into the hyperapocalypse. »

The screens are saturated with it, often through transpositions of novels. Yellowjackets (with Quebecer Sophie Nélisse) resumes His Majesty of the Flies with only female cast. Diana Maude Couture says the adaptation of The 100 is even better than the book, a rarity. Professor Bergeron talks about zombie mania everywhere in movies, TV series, novels. He points out that in superhero movies, “a new trope” involves the destruction of gigantic proportions of neighborhoods or entire cities. He even quotes a 2012 LG TV commercial that highlights the ability to repeat the doomsday of the world live.

Play in the ruins of the world

Can we have fun with the end of the world? In any case, we can dive into it and have fun with a wealth of video games in the post-apo vein. This my war (2014) is inspired by the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s. The player must manage resources to help the survivors of a destructive war.

“Unfortunately, it seems to me very close to the situation in Ukraine,” says Bruno Dion, giving this example himself. He chose to make post-apo play his subject of mastery. “There are many of them, and the production comes and goes, a bit like in the cinema. The imagined universes make it possible to explore rich themes, such as the causes of the destruction of the ancient world by the evils of mankind. At the same time, there is hope, as there is something after the end of the world. »

Series fall out (a reference to nuclear fallout) is set after the nuclear holocaust of 2077. The version Fallout 4 from Bethesda Game Studios launched in November 2015, except in Japan, which had to wait another month to receive edited versions of nuclear war footage and references. Sim Settlements, a novelty introduced in Fallout 4, can rebuild a society.

In this world after, the few survivors develop in the middle of a land in ruins. Bruno Dion’s memoir from 2015 has a great title The exploration of post-apocalyptic ruin video games that create memory and emotions. The analysis shows that the “ruin-shaped landscapes” that bear traces of the lost world and the cause of its destruction affect the players’ freedom of action.

“The game allows you to decide what everyone wants to do in their world after the end of the world,” says Mr. Dion, who now works in video games in Montreal. “The player has to make moral choices. He can explore possibilities, ways of being and behave. He can be a nice guy. He can be a villain …”

Like many companies around the world, the Japanese video game giants Nintendo and Sony have suspended their day-to-day business with Russia, Ukraine’s aggressor. The two groups have stopped sending games and consoles there.

Nintendo has also announced the postponement of the release to an indefinite date of a new version of its franchise. Advance Wars 1 + 2: Re-Boot Camp, scheduled for April 8 “due to international events”. The strategy game with drawn and childish images uses tanks and planes to take over cities. One of the warring factions seems to be inspired by Russian military image …

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