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Saturday, December 14, 2019

Fantasies of unmaking

This season’s summer blockbusters tap into our addiction to apocalypse

Written by Jaideep Unudurti | Published: April 29, 2013 12:20:48 am

This season’s summer blockbusters tap into our addiction to apocalypse

The season of summer blockbusters is upon us. After Earth has Will Smith battling it out in a post-apocalyptic earth overgrown with lethal fauna,followed by Matt Damon trying to escape to Elysium from a dystopic earth. First out of the gate is Oblivion,starring Tom Cruise as drone repairman Jack Harper in the long tradition of jut-jawed heroes.

Oblivion lacks the propulsive power of a big idea that is the heart of good science fiction. But what is arresting is director Joseph Kosinski’s vision of a desolate earth,in the ruined aftermath of a failed alien invasion. Kosinski shot Oblivion in Iceland,for its black seas of lava sutured with soot-stained mountains. All too appropriate,for Iceland is the survivor of an earlier cataclysm — Ragnarok,the final destiny of the Norse gods. “The sun will go black,earth sink in the sea,heaven be stripped of its bright stars,” says the Prose Edda. Kosinski’s elegiac visuals are suffused with loss. The ruins are already eroding into the ground,humanity’s footprint is vanishing,the reign of our species a mere tick of the cosmic clock.

Apart from the superhero movies,the summer blockbusters this year feature earth in ruins. What is this attraction to look through the scanner darkly? Studios know our collective addiction to the apocalypse,our craving for dystopia,for which science fiction gladly supplies the fix. Movies and books have often tapped into this feature of our modern age. For example,the otherwise unremarkable Soldier,starring Kurt Russell,scores with its vision of a planet used as a galactic rubbish dump. In a delicious scene,Russell wanders through a junkyard filled with towering hulks of spacecraft from other science fiction universes. Contrast this to Clifford Simak’s novel,Cemetery World. It is set in a future where humanity has left for the stars. Earth is a vast cemetery where the rich prefer to be interred,as a terminal status symbol. Simak conjures up a colossal manicured garden of death,all tended by robots.

I read Cemetery World in the high-ceilinged library of my school. You could say that my education had a proper eschatological foundation. Amidst the Jane Austens and George Eliots was a rich vein of science fiction,a strata of luridly covered paperbacks. The library was a veritable encyclopaedia of the unmaking,from Earth Abides (global pandemic) by George R. Stewart to Alfred Coppel’s Dark December (nuclear winter). Every Saturday afternoon you could choose,in the manner of Robert Frost,whether fire or ice would end the world this weekend.

The cacotopic star in this irradiated firmament was undoubtedly J.G. Ballard. In a few years in the 1960s,Ballard blew the world away with The Wind from Nowhere,then flooded the planet with Drowned World and followed it up with The Drought. Some preferred the “cozy catastrophes” of Ballard’s contemporary,John Wyndham. The world may be going to hell in a hand basket,but as long as there was Earl Grey,lawn tennis and tiffin for the survivors,Englishmen would never be slaves.

What is the wellspring of this symphony of destruction? Every day we die a little death. What greater comfort than a world made anew? “With Fate conspire,” as Khayyam said. Every mushroom cloud has a silver lining,a promise of rebirth,of finding love amidst the ruins,the ultimate hard reset.

As nuclear arsenals grew,what had been a science fiction idea in the 1930s became a reality of the 1960s. Human civilisation could end in one afternoon. The monsters in their silos slept restlessly. The poetry of orbital arcs,the cadence of ballistic re-entry,the dance of mutually assured destruction all fuelled dreams of the apocalypse. Science fiction was a way out,an escape hatch from this world,a promise that there would be a future,however dark.

But post-apocalypse fiction with an Indian twist will never sell. Probably because we are already living in it. Whether you hark back to the golden age of the Guptas or the reign of Akbar,all of whom dug canals,built sarais and forbade the eating of peacocks,the present is not an improvement of the past. This was brought home when I visited the Harappan city of Dholavira. The mathematical perfection of the city was counterpointed by the nearby villages. Their scrounging for water amidst the parched sands was a sad epitaph to a time when fountains sang and gardens bloomed.

Unudurti is a Hyderabad-based writer

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