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Concerning the End of the World: Richard Matheson's I am Legend, the film of the same name, some background and comparison texts and teaching ideas for the Apocalypse

 

Podcast script 22

 

mySF Project podcast, number 22
Direct download: mysf_022_2009_01_15.mp3
length=”30886434″ type=”audio/mpeg” /

 

Index:

Introduction
Novel, I am Legend by Richard Matheson
Mary Shelley’s The Last Man
Ragona's The Last Man on Earth
Sagal's The Omega Man
Lawrence's I am Legend
MacDougall's The World, the Flesh and the Devil
Murphy's The Quiet Earth
Dale Bailey's 'The End of the World as we Know It'
Bradbury's 'The Smile'
Conclusion
Resource list

 

Introduction

 

Podcast 22 looks at a few, linked texts including the film, I am Legend, released in late 2007 and starring Will Smith.

 

 Podcast 20 discussed the film and novel Children of Men and was recommended for use in the theme area of ‘The Shape of Things to Come’. Podcast 22 also fits within this theme area and is more clearly identified with Science Fiction catastrophe films, set in deserted cities post-Apocalypse, with or without vampires, zombies and pale mutants with religious zeal.

Image of 'When Worlds Collide' poster from Wikipedia

In 1932 authors of When Worlds Collide Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie wrote "It is a new intoxication - annihilation. It multiplies every emotion." Perhaps the compounding of emotions accounts for the large sum of catastrophe texts in Science Fiction. This podcast only glances at a handful of these, in this case looking at a post-Apocalyptic setting where humans have been all but dispossessed of the Earth.

The recent DVD version of I am Legend with its cover design of Will Smith in army gear toting a rifle and accompanied by a sleek German Shepherd dog amidst a ruined New York may well be known to many secondary students but it is only one part of the discussion. This podcast covers some antecedents to this memorable film together with short stories for comparison and contrast to ask students to respond to major themes in these vast, Apocalyptic scenarios.

Novel, I am Legend by Richard Matheson

 

Also boasting a memorable cover is the short novel I am Legend by Richard Matheson, reprinted as number 2 in the SF Masterworks series. The original copyright was for 1954 but this latest reprint is from Gollancz in 2001 and its cover depicts ghostly faces and a foreground skull with pearly-white vampire teeth reaching out of the image to grab the reader in its talons. The quote on the cover says I am Legend is a major vampire novel, but it is in the SF Masterworks series.

 

Many claim that the scientific explanation for vampires found in I am Legend was a successful melding of the horror and SF genres and perhaps this also explains why there have been so many imitators. But before pointing at imitators it might be worth looking at some influences on the novel I am Legend.

The novel begins with the protagonist Robert Neville in a fortified house at dusk and he is more than worried about the creatures that surround his house in the dark, baying for his blood. More importantly, Robert Neville has good reason to believe he is the last human alive, the Last Man on Earth.

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Mary Shelley’s The Last Man

Image of Mary Shelley from Wikipedia

Many academics point to the influence of the little-known three volume text of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, published in 1832, as the progenitor for I am Legend. This large and unwieldy tale does indeed depict the ‘Elect’, a small group of extraordinary individuals as the survivors of a global plague. Various academics believe Shelley’s Elect are no other than her husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Mary Shelley herself as a couple of main characters. Shelley’s The Last Man is available as a free e-text online but it is not recommended for use with secondary students. For this reader the text was long, dense and dull but Shelley certainly set up the tropes associated with the future catastrophe, Science Fiction disaster story.

For instance, the Last Man realises the whole, empty world is available to him. The narrator muses, “If I turned my steps from the near barren scene, and entered any of the earth's million cities, I should find their wealth stored up for my accommodation - clothes, food, books, and a choice of dwelling beyond the command of the princes of former times”.

Also familiar are the wild animals that now roam the cities. Shelley’s Last Man sees sheep grazing on the Palatine in Rome and buffalo wander around the Capitol.

The only companion for the Last Man is a shepherd’s dog and all humanity’s culture towers over a tiny boat used on a fruitless quest to find another living soul while “around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme” watch and wait.

Critic Hugh Luke noted that the ending of Shelley’s The Last Man with a single, solitary human walking all of the Earth stressed the idea that the individual is by nature both isolated and tragic, as also seen in the poetry of other Elect members such as Lord Byron and William Wordsworth.

Believe it or not, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man in three large volumes has been compressed down to one movie story made in 2008 and set in Arizona. Notably, the Plague of Shelley’s text has become a customised version of smallpox designed to be used as a weapon.

Shelley’s The Last Man is said to borrow from a French text of 1805 of the same name.

There is no end to precursors of the disaster that leaves just a few humans alive, perhaps known most famously in Western culture through the story of Noah and his family’s survival after the God-given flood to cleanse the Earth.

Now let’s jump back to Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend, written in 1954. We left the protagonist as the last man alive in Los Angeles. Like Shelley’s text, it is set in the future and a terrible pandemic has wiped out humanity. Unlike Shelley’s Apocalyptic vision, Matheson’s novel isolates the cause of the disaster as a disease most probably caused by mutation of germ cells after nuclear weapons have been exchanged.

The novel falls within the Science Fiction genre as a good deal of focus is given to the spread of the disease and its mutation. The sole survivor, Robert Neville, teaches himself chemistry and biology to make sense of his ruined world, even accounting for the terrible effects of the pandemic that are manifested as vampirism. The novel strives to make it plausible that the dead can be reanimated by the germ and the living can adapt to it.

Matheson has added the vampirism to Shelley’s tale and taken out the long speeches of her Elect survivors. Matheson almost makes this end of the world believable, reducing the stage to one house and one neurotic man’s perceptions.

Matheson’s I am Legend novel does share with Shelley some colossal Gothic verbosity and a good deal of repetition where the protagonist insists on spilling whiskey or smashing a whiskey glass at times of great emotional turmoil. Overall, it is a useful short novel that may be of interest to secondary students also interested in the current run of teenage vampire romance films and novels. By the end of the novel Matheson has introduced some living vampires rather than reanimated corpses that are slow and dumb and mere animals. The reader even starts to like and respect the living vampires.

So what are abiding ideas from Matheson’s I am Legend? Firstly, the protagonist is a white male with considerable technological savvy. He arms himself with a powerful rifle and various handguns and builds a fortress home. The fortress home becomes the last bastion of human culture where frescoes adorn the walls and Classical music is played nightly, while the protagonist drinks good whiskey. The Last Man rejoices in free consumerism, simply taking what he needs from supermarkets and driving a Willy’s station wagon with a back large enough to accommodate plenty of vampire corpses.

As in so many later post-Apocalyptic stories where deranged or deformed survivors attack the remnants of humanity and their artifacts, Matheson’s I am Legend records the bestial attack on human’s most cherished goods, as at page forty-one, "He ran to the peephole and looked out. His teeth grated together and a burst of rage filled him as he saw the station wagon lying on its side and saw them smashing in the windshield with bricks and stones, tearing open the hood and smashing at the engine with insane club strokes”.

Shelley’s shepherd dog from The Last Man survives into Matheson’s I am Legend, used perhaps to show the best of human nature amidst the ruins, at page forty-one, "It was incredible, the feeling of warmth and normality it gave him to see the dog slurping up the milk and eating the hamburger, its jaws snapping and popping with relish. He sat there with a gentle smile on his face, a smile he wasn't conscious of. It was such a nice dog."

Then at page eighty-nine and one hundred and three,  "He sat down on the bed and held the blanket-covered dog in his lap. He sat there for hours holding the dog, patting and stroking and talking. The dog lay immobile in his lap, breathing easier.…” The protagonist can stake a score of vampires a day without compunction but feels true empathy for a fellow mammal.

 

As in Shelley’s story there are religious zealots under the control of an unnamed, false Messiah in the Last Days and the disease is seen as a punishment. In a torrid flash-back Noah’s Flood is acknowledged as a primal catastrophe, now with the addition of demons stalking the Earth, as seen at page one hundred and six, "God has punished us for our great transgressions! God has unleashed the terrible force of His almighty wrath! God has let loose the second deluge upon us - a deluge, a flood, a world consuming torrent of creatures from hell! He has opened the grave, He has unsealed the crypt, He has turned the dead back from their black tombs - and set them upon us!"

Matheson’s I am Legend deserves to be in the SF Masterworks series not for using Shelley’s ideas and images in a new fashion or for fusing vampires into SciFi but because he introduces complications that shift the reader’s allegiance from the lonely, neurotic protagonist to the vampires inheriting the new, unpeopled world.

The Last Man does eventually meet a young woman and of course she is beautiful and seems to both need his support and to be immune to the dreadful disease. However, she is a living vampire seeking to avenge the staking of her husband. She needs no help at all. In fact she clubs the Last Man into delirium and then decides to attempt to save his life by warning him that the other living vampires will come to take him, try him and execute him for crimes against their new race. In the end, the Last Man is seen as a dangerous pariah by the new vampire nation. They treat him with some compassion and justice. The Last Man looks out from his prison window and sees a multitude of pale vampires staring back. They fear him. He is the last of the Old Ones.

"They all stood looking up at him with their white faces. He stared back. And suddenly he thought, I'm the abnormal one now. Normalcy was a majority concept …" The last line of the novel on page one hundred and sixty is the ironic title for a powerful novel flawed by some patchy writing.

The novel I am Legend of  has been seen as a critique of 1950s America with a powerful message against racism. Secondary students may enjoy comparing the extraordinary conclusion of the novel with later Last Man films that have simply concluded with finding a woman and starting over in a brave new world. The reprint of the novel sells in Australia for under twenty dollars so this text may be useful for schools, but is not strongly recommended except for a specialist study.

Matheson’s novel has been the basis of three direct film treatments but none of these has attempted the shift of allegiance from human to vampire.

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Ragona's The Last Man on Earth

Image of poster for 'The Last Man on Earth' from Wikipedia

The first film treatment was called The Last Man on Earth and filmed around Rome by Italian director Ubaldo Ragona, released in 1964. This film, starring Vincent Price, was closest to the novel and partly written by Matheson but he is not credited as he was unhappy with the movie. He may well have been unhappy because the conclusion is changed and the woman found by the Last Man can be cured and there is hope for humanity, after all.

The 1964 film version is available online and is out of copyright so can be shown or given as a digital file to students. It is a black-and-white, grainy movie with much to commend it. For students reading the novel a comparison of the texts would be worthwhile. It is a very mild horror SciFi where the cause of the pandemic is not discussed. The dog, the woman, the big car, the guns and the fortress home are kept and a tiring narration in Price’s doleful voice is included. The Art on the walls of the fortress home is lost and the music has become jazz, but largely the first parts of the novel are kept with a happier conclusion tacked on.

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Sagal's The Omega Man

The second adaptation of the novel was made in 1971 by Boris Sagal and called The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston. Unfortunately, the silliest elements of the narrative from I am Legend were kept without any of the social commentary and there is a great deal more gunplay. In this version the Last Man is an Army Colonel and he knows that the global pandemic was caused by biological warfare between China and Russia. He is immune to the plague as he has worked out a sort of limited antidote.

In The Omega Man the vampires have become tribal albinos who hate technology. They are called ‘The Family’ and the plague has made them psychotic, at times, but still able to use weapons, even though they aspire to a technology-free world.

The Last Man here has a machine gun and many weapons in his fortress home and he likes to use these on ‘The Family’ but there is no sense here that he is doing anything immoral. After all, the Family burns books, wear Medieval robes and smash up priceless artworks.

As in the novel the Last Man is eventually captured but just as he is about to be tortured to death in a baseball stadium he is saved by a woman. It turns out there are a few survivors of the plague including a young woman who the Last Man thinks suitable to restart the world. The Last Man creates a working antidote but through complications the Family tracks down the survivors. The Last Man battles heroically but ends up speared and crucified just after he was able to give the antidote to the other survivors, who escape and start a new, human world, presumably, leaving Charlton Heston as a Legend because he has saved humanity, paying with his life in Christian fashion.

The Omega Man is not recommended for secondary students as a part of a serious study in SciFi. There are major problems with the story and the best elements of the novel are lost. There is no sense of any theme other than the eventual triumph of the white male and technology, perhaps most obviously relating to a silly song of praise for guns, true love and a martyr’s death against sub-humans who may be Communists, Luddites or poorly dressed crazies … or all three.

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Lawrence's I am Legend

Wikipedia image of poster for the film 'I am Legend'

The most recent version of I am Legend is recommended for use by secondary students. In Australia the film’s rating of MA would require a parental permission to show the DVD, or the showing of only sections of the film. Another way forward would be the use of stills captured from the film to illustrate points within a web page or PowerPoint on the text. Of course, the film’s popularity guarantees that most secondary students have already watched the film, at home.

I am Legend was directed by Francis Lawrence with Will Smith as the Last Man. As with the The Omega Man, the protagonist is a military officer with talents in many areas. The cause of the pandemic is science as the virus was developed to cure cancer but then mutations caused the catastrophe that left the world unpeopled.

The vampires of this film have become unsightly Nightseekers and there are no walking dead. Instead the changed humans have extraordinary speed and strength and can organise to a limited extent, even using a guttural language to bark orders.

As with the earlier interpretations the Last Man is very well armed, lives in a smart fortress-house, steals powerful cars and witnesses wild animals stalking deserted streets, including an overgrown Times Square where a pride of lions pull down a deer.

The Last Man has a show-stealing German Shepherd called Samantha and the man and his dog live a regimented life of attempting to find a cure, watching videos, hunting fresh food, checking for any other survivors and avoiding the Nightseekers. We join the story with the Last Man believing he is the sole survivor of the catastrophe. He uses the daylight hours in spectacular style dwarfed by the scale of man-made technologies of Manhattan such as a Brooklyn Bridge crammed with cars. The narrative is assisted by flash-backs and video tapes.

Unlike the other film treatments the production values of the latest I am Legend are very high and the narrative is internally consistent, even if the semi-organised Nightseekers in all their animalistic glory are a bit too nightmarish at times. The film has kept the blend of horror and Science Fiction of Matheson’s novel whilst keeping the audience ambivalent about the Last Man’s testing of antidotes on living Nightseekers.

Unfortunately, the conclusion of the film avoids Matheson’s reversal and instead the young woman and attendant child who rescue the Last Man at the last moment survive the final clash with the Nightseekers and carry with them the antidote in a phial to a fortified town of remnant humans in Vermont. The title of the film is used because the self-sacrifice of the Last Man in his Manhattan basement makes him a legend to humans rebuilding their world. Religious themes are used explicitly

Of note in the recent I am Legend was the use of a black male as the protagonist. What’s more, the Last Man of this film has flaws, he is tender to his dog (as in the novel) and his loneliness is both sensitive and dignified. Again his fortress house is laden with masterpieces and music plays a major part of his life, even though it is changed again to Bob Marley’s Reggae to suit the near future setting.

It would be easy for teachers to make useful worksheets for older secondary students based on the film I am Legend. The film is successful, engaging and suspenseful. Many discussion points arise naturally from the film but these may not expose more than the superficial themes of the movie. To engage more fully with the film it is proposed to use a short story that opposes itself to the whole Last Man sub-genre, to display the presumptions and the cultural context of the film rather than just the memorable events. For this purpose this podcast will return to Lawrence’s I am Legend after a brief look at two other films that take on the theme of race and racism in this familiar SciFi scenario.

For teachers interested in the depiction of identity and race in the SF genre the recent film version of I am Legend is not of much use. There is no reference to race for the Last Man and Woman of the film and it does not seem to play any role in the flash-backs establishing the narrative. There is a side-note about Bob Marley but this does not seem important. The Darkseekers do not seem to refer to the black underclass of New York, even though they are found in beaten up apartment blocks in the less salubrious areas. Like the lions roaming the city they seem only to represent themselves as exotic, almost intelligent and sometimes well organised to hunt in packs.

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MacDougall's The World, the Flesh and the Devil

Wikipedia image of poster for 'The World, the Flesh and the Devil'

Of much more use to teachers interested in race and identity is the film The World, the Flesh and the Devil, another SF doomsday film, directed by Ranald MacDougall and released in 1959. The film is not well known but is available cheaply online, also running late at nights in off season.

With a link to Bob Marley in the film I am Legend, the main star and Last Man of The World, the Flesh and the Devil is Calypso singer Harry Belafonte.

The Last Man in The World, the Flesh and the Devil is working deep in a mine when it collapses and he is trapped. He clambers out eventually to find a deserted world and he learns from newspaper headlines blowing about as scrap and from taped radio broadcasts that poisonous radioactive dust is responsible, used as a weapon. The poison only lasts for five days so the protagonist is safe. He learns that the authorities tried to save people by telling them to leave the cities and consequently the Last Man has inherited an empty New York with no bodies. The Last Man in this film is also quite handy and he rigs a power generator and finds an apartment to live in though in this interpretation the Last Man sees no need for weapons.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil is a text without vampires, mutant monsters or wild animals. Instead, the real problem comes from human nature, or perhaps from the nature of the male human.

Just when the Last Man seems to give up all hope a young woman turns up. She is a fragile platinum blonde while he is a strong black man prone to wear overalls and carry a spanner.

The Last Man and Woman do very well but the Last Man refers constantly to the difference in their social positions. When a third human turns up, a world-weary and sophisticated white male, the drama of the film escalates steadily to culminate in a shoot-out scene between the two men in the deserted streets of New York.

Completely against the trend of the Last Man SF film The World, the Flesh and the Devil ends peacefully. What’s more, the final scene shows the platinum blonde walking hand in hand down an empty Manhattan boulevard with both Harry Belafonte and the white businessman type. This final scene leaves the repopulation of the world in considerable doubt but does point out that a future world can be a better world, without racism and even without male battles for conquest of the fertile female.

While The World, the Flesh and the Devil would be very useful for a discussion of race and identity it will not please many secondary students for the very reasons it is valuable: it is about pacifism, compromise and equality. Even more damaging for the enjoyment of the film for young adults is Harry Belafonte’s propensity to break into song now and then. The cheery songs with guitar are again opposed to the gritty despair and violence seen in most Last Man SF dramas.

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Murphy's The Quiet Earth

Wikipedia image of poster for 	The Quiet Earth

For several years this speaker has used another unusual SF doomsday film with students to look at both racism and gender wars and this is the New Zealand film The Quiet Earth, directed by Geoff Murphy and released in 1985. This film has more depth than The World, the Flesh and the Devil and it has proven popular with later secondary students. It is available as a DVD from several sources for a small cost.

As with The World, the Flesh and the Devil, the Last Man finds himself alone in a deserted world. In this case the Last Man has been complicit in the catastrophe as the film explains an experiment with solar radiation that has gone awry and nearly all people suddenly vanish from the planet.

The Last Man in The Quiet Earth explores his pleasant surroundings and then in the true style of the genre heads to a capital city, in this case Auckland. Also following the tropes of this sub-genre the Last Man finds a wonderful house, populates it with cut-out cardboard figures as also seen with Will Smith in I am Legend. He takes the best cars, the best clothes and generally becomes deranged on his own, finally using a shotgun to attack a statue of Christ in a church, again introducing this important theme of lonely despair that echoes Christ’s despair on the Cross at being forsaken.

The Last Man in The Quiet Earth is an obsessive and seemingly depressed white scientist and when he finds another male he is easily trapped. The other Last Man is a burly Maori with a military background and while there is immediate tension between the men they are much happier together, stressing the social needs of humans.

When the attractive, blond Last Woman turns up the same triangle of tension and building suspense as in The World, the Flesh and the Devil occurs. This film certainly explores race and identity as well as the role of women in modern culture but this is not the only concern. The Quiet Earth is also distinguished by the repeat of the effect that has depopulated the world as well as a willingness to worry the audience about the exact nature of the effect. The film breaks the rules of the sub-genre by finally reducing the Last Man down to a single, mystified individual with his two companions vanished, but now he is alone in what may be a different universe.

The Quiet Earth is satisfying for students both through its more challenging narrative where not all questions are answered as well as the suspense found in the relationships of the protagonists. Extending the usual themes, the film focuses on race, gender and even the nature of human consciousness all within the framework of a catastrophic scientific mishap beginning in rural New Zealand. Weird and quite cool.

Jumping back to the film I am Legend, it is recommended that this text is used with two short stories, both available online. Both relate to the Post-Apocalyptic scenario and the first, ‘The End of the World as we Know It’ by Dale Bailey, will be most useful when discussing I am Legend and many other catastrophe texts, with or without vampires.

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Dale Bailey's 'The End of the World as we Know It'

Dale Bailey’s story is an award winner and is the first in the annual collection of Hugo and Nebula recommendations published from 2007. The story is also available online through the Wastelands website at www.johnjosephadams.com

The story is as much a critique of the ‘cosy catastrophe’ stories of SciFi as another offering in the sub-genre. There are no vampires or Darkseekers in the short story, just a sudden virulent destruction that kills all but the Last Man.

‘The End of the World as we Know It’ is a sardonic response to “Those stories in which some mysterious outside force kills off the vast majority of human beings, leaving a handful of hardy survivors to rebuild civilization”, as Dale Bailey notes. Bailey tells his own story but also comments on how end-of-the-world stories work.  Bailey points out that the real dilemma for the Last Man is how to find meaning in a universe that is utterly indifferent to humanity’s survival. With others, Bailey sees the attraction of the Last Man scenario as a “wiping clean of human failure” and the reader’s assumption they would be amongst the survivors, one of May Shelley’s ‘Elect’. Bailey’s story ‘The End of the World as we Know It’ challenges this notion.

The Last Woman is found by the Last Man in Bailey’s story. She is younger and pretty and apparently wants to continue humanity right there and then but the conclusion of the story makes it clear that this can not happen. A discussion of this story compared with the film I am Legend or any other of the countless Last Man stories is most productive with secondary students and may lead to a rethinking of not only the film itself but the whole sub-genre. This could even lead to a research task that compares different uses of the Last Man story and Bailey himself offers examples to start with, including Damon Knight’s ‘Not with a Bang’.

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Bradbury's 'The Smile'

 

The second story recommended for use with I am Legend is the very well known ‘The Smile’ written by Ray Bradbury and published in 1963. This is a Post-Apocalyptic story where small remnants of society live amidst the future ruins, after a nuclear war.

The survivors hate technology and hate the old ways of thinking that brought about the world’s destruction. They take turns to defile art works, in this case Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’, expressing their hatred of the past world. One of the spectators, a young boy, manages to save just the smile of the woman in the painting and he takes it home after the whole canvas is torn to shreds. The story is very simple and appeals to students less able in English. It does not comment on the sub-genre of the Post-Apocalypse in SciFi but instead tells a touching story.

The saving of the painted smile can be linked back to what should be saved from our culture, asking students what should be preserved and what should be abandoned. If they were the Last Man or Woman, what would they put in their house, and why?

In the recent film of I am Legend with Will Smith his walls show a collection of modern art works including a Rousseau and a Van Gogh. Apparently, the Last Man has taken these from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Are these the art works that the students would save and live with? This conversation and even perhaps a research assignment can link to the true value of things in our modern world and what artefacts represent humanity.

Of course, the anti-technology stance of the survivors post-Apocalypse is understandable and one major element of most of these stories is the danger of science and its manifest technologies, from biological weapons to the nuclear arsenals. If Humanity meddles with Nature and takes on God-like powers, is the result annihilation of humanity?

This approach to I am Legend can be a natural segue into direct commentaries on contemporary society from the future survivors of our follies. Some of the best examples of this writing are Walter M Miller Jnr's A Canticle for Leibowitz and Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker, let alone Octavia Butler’s bleak Earthseed visions, that will be discussed in a later podcast and in the The Shape of Things to Come’ theme area of the mySF Project.

Image of cover of 1st ed. of 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' from Wikipedia

In A Canticle for Leibowitz the abbot of a future monastery post-Apocalypse comments to the survivor monks on our current culture, "Or perhaps they did know. But could not quite believe it until they tried it - like a child who knows what a loaded pistol will do, but who never pulled a trigger before. They had not yet seen a billion corpses. They had not seen the still-born, the monstrous, the dehumanized, the blind. They had not yet seen the madness and the murder and the blotting out of reason."

While the threat of a nuclear holocaust is not as palpable for current secondary students, they will understand completely the degradation of the environment and the sort of post-Apocalypse scenarios seen in films like The Day After Tomorrow directed by Roland Emmerich or Costner’s The Postman and Waterworld. Are these bleak visions of catastrophes simple moral tales, telling the reader and viewer to change his ways, or else? Do they serve this purpose, or just titillate through an amplification of emotions after global annihilation?

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Conclusion

In an article from SciFi in the Mind’s Eye Andrew Pavelich writes about critiques of technology in post-Apocalypse literature and points out these narratives “involve people living in a world that has lost scientific and technological knowledge” as a result, “it offers a unique vantage point from which to question the nature and value of technology”. Pavelich also notes that Isaac Asimov claimed that this sub-genre of SF assisted in preventing the Cold War from escalating into a world war.

In other words, the post-Apocalypse text teaches the dangers of technology. This seems valid and true for the recommended texts studied here such as I am Legend, The World, the Flesh and the Devil as well as The Quiet Earth, so it is ironic to see that most film texts based on this sub-genre see eventual human survival linked directly to the use of weapons.

Other SciFi critics see the use of post-Apocalyptic texts to test human nature, asking in these situations of amplified emotion and utter destruction whether humanity is basically good or evil. Mike Alsford in What If?: religious themes in science fiction says that the different texts show that, “human beings are clearly capable of monstrous evil as well as petty selfishness, nevertheless the human capacity for magnanimity and self-sacrifice is equally arresting”.

In The Philosopher at the End of the Universe written by Mark Rowlands in 2003 the background setting of complete devastation and species death is “the ultimate horizon against which the things in our life that make us what we are stand out”. Post-Apocalypse and Last Man texts show all facets of human nature, as if for final judgment - not just for the Last Survivors, but standing for the whole, long human experiment.

For secondary students, a task relating to the recommended texts might then be to look at the traits of the protagonists and make a list of the best and worst seen in their very human characters. What are the devices of the narratives designed to persuade the viewer or reader that humanity deserves to continue? Of course, this discussion and question can not be used for the short story by Bailey, ‘The End of the World as we Know It’ as the Last Man seems to have decided the matter for himself, in favour of a quiet sunset and another drink on the verandah.

For schools with a strong focus on religion this discussion about the last things for humanity and final judgement is eschatology, concerning life after death and the final stage of the world. Eschatology is not reserved for Last Man stories as it is also found in other examinations of the post-human condition as, for instance, when the mind can be preserved in computer storage systems beyond physical death and the inevitable engulfing of the Earth by the Sun, according to current science.

If religious themes are pursued, students might be given the task of charting SciFi texts that use scriptural catastrophes brought about by human agency or divine intervention, such as Noah’s flood, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

As has been pointed out in an interview with Susan Napier and others found in Science Fiction Studies in 2002, the apocalyptic SciFi story that is found so frequently in Japanese texts including anime might have a definite socio-cultural basis. It is argued that “it is easy to imagine why ideas and imagery related to the apocalypse would circulate in an artistic genre produced in Japan in the latter half of the twentieth century: they represent a collective exploration of various ways to think about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to understand its meanings for contemporary Japanese”. In this way the reduction of Last Man narratives involving nuclear annihilation in the last twenty years (with the exception of the Terminator texts and its TV serial version) might measure the relaxation of worries about this cause for Apocalypse while the environmental and viral catastrophe has flourished as a device to create the amplified disaster backdrop against which current human nature is seen most clearly.

In a 1977 essay ‘Cataclysms and Dooms’ Science Fiction author and commentator JG Ballard applauds the catastrophe story. He sees the creation of the story as a “constructive and positive act by the imagination rather than a negative one, an attempt to confront the terrifying void of a patently meaningless universe by challenging it at its own game …. Each one of these fantasies represents an arraignment of the finite, an attempt to dismantle the formal structure of time and space which the universe imposes around us at the moment we first achieve consciousness. "

Leaving the final comment to a well known disaster movie, 28 Days Later, where a man-made virus creates hateful zombies quite similar to the Darkseekers in the recent I am Legend film, the end of humanity might not be a big deal, "If you look at the whole life of the planet, we - you know, Man - has only been around for a few blinks of an eye. So if the infection wipes us all out, that is a return to normality."

 

Human extinction might even be a blessing to the Earth, it is implied. This might then be a final question to students completing their studies of the post-Apocalypse and Last Man texts in SciFi – would this planet be better off without people?

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Resource list

Alsford, M. (2000). What If?: religious themes in Science Fiction. Dartman, Longman and Todd: London.

Napier, S., Takayuki, T., Mari, K. & Junko, O. (2002). 'An Interview with Komatsu Sakyo'. Science Fiction Studies. Number 88, Volume 29, Part 3. November 2002.

Pavelich, A. (2007). 'After the end of the world: critiques of technology in post-apocalypse literature'. In SciFi in the Mind's Eye:reading science through Science Fiction. Edited by Margret Grebowicz, Open Source: Chicago, USA.

Rowlands, M. (2003). The Philosopher at the End of the Universe: philosophy explained through Science Fiction films. Ebury Press: London.

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Michael Sisley

 

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