Reflections on Apocalyptic Science Fiction

In my spare time I occasionally think about human culture, art, and entertainment and how the stories we tell ourselves reflect how society feels as a whole. There’s a particular trend I wanted to point out, since it’s relevant to FAZA. I don’t think I’m the only one to notice this, there’s a trend in the past few decades where stories have become distinctly apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian. In this post, I want to think about apocalyptic science fiction, explore what it means, and scratch below the surface of the same-old future hostile environment, society, and economic condition forcing groups of humans to barely survive.

I don’t believe apocalyptic sci-fi stories will play out as portrayed in the movies, video games, and novels because real life is far more complex; at the same time, I do think science fiction is a kind of history of the future. Science fiction creators are able to tell compelling stories about human nature in future (and alternate reality) settings because they borrow from history. A great example of this in a written medium is the Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov. Asimov borrows from the collapse of the Roman Empire as a framework for the fall of the galactic empire in his trilogy. Since the Roman Empire regressed technologically and forgot how to make concrete, so too did the galactic empire with their use of advanced nuclear power. They were still able to service and maintain their infrastructure, but could no longer develop anything new. Asimov even borrows from the rise of Christianity and the resurrection of Christ (and how he reappears to his followers), which is paralleled in the cult that forms around the science of Psychohistory and the character of Hari Seldon (who also reappears to his followers).

When sci-fi creators borrow from history, it allows them to form compelling stories because human nature usually stays the same, with the caveat that external factors can influence them. These external factors can be environmental and socio-economic changes.

Now, to avoid writing a philosophical treatise on human nature (there are plenty of other philosophers you may refer to), let’s do a quick thought experiment. If all human needs are met, then humans will tend to live peacefully with each other (excluding psycho/sociopaths). While the constituents of human needs seems to be up for debate these days, if any human need isn’t met, there will be suffering and humans will try to remedy the situation cooperatively and competitively. To connect this to the context of science fiction creators, when they borrow from history, they already have a template for human nature in a specific environment, society, and economy.

Science fiction is a history of the future.

Since Asimov already knows how the collapsing Roman Empire has behaved and how some individuals within that empire have also behaved, he can then use that as a skeleton for the stories and ideas he wants to explore. Ironically, in his trilogy, he also invents an idea called Psychohistory, which is the science of predicting future behaviors of large human groups. The larger the group of individuals, the more predictable the future behavior of the group. While this definition of Psychohistory is very similar to the Ideal Gas Law replacing individual particles with individual humans, it also seems that Asimov is drawing attention to the fact that science fiction is a kind of history of the future.

This statement, science fiction is a history of the future becomes more poignant when considered from the perspective that history repeats itself. Since human nature changes based on external factors, history repeats itself because those external factors also repeat themselves. This doesn’t mean the same event will happen twice, instead on historical time scales, history rhymes and behaviors of large human groups (civilizations, empires, nation-states, corporations) begin to look very similar.

History repeats itself apocalyptically.

My favorite example of historical repetition is the systemic collapse of almost all civilizations in the Late Bronze Age around the time period of 1177 BC. If you have the time, I highly recommend checking out Eric Cline’s lecture below about his book, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed.

This is particularly relevant to all 7+ billion of us because there are several similarities between the external factors and civilization stressors from the Late Bronze Age and today’s globalized 21st century. The Late Bronze Age around the geographic area of the Eastern Mediterranean included the Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites, Cypriots, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Assyrians and Babylonians. They were interconnected and had complex trade networks with economic and military partnerships. They had embassies, embargoes, had to deal with border security, economic inequality, internal rebellions, a sudden drier climate resulting in drought and famine leading to refugee migration and political unrest, earthquakes from fault lines that run through the area, and war. It was the perfect storm of the external factors, many of which are paralleled in the 21st century. The only thing we don’t have in today’s world is the mysterious invading force known as the Sea Peoples (I wonder if I’ve unconsciously created the FAZA as a stand-in for the Sea Peoples, the final stressor that will collapse civilization). One by one, all of the Eastern Mediterranean civilizations collapsed, except for Egypt. Eric Cline presents his book as a warning, the complex global society humans have built is not invincible. External factors such as famine, rebellion, war, and death lead humans to desperation. It’s historically repetitive; it’s apocalyptic; it’s consuming the sci-fi stories we’re telling ourselves.

Apocalyptic science fiction is a history of how humans will suffer together.

Given that history repeats itself apocalyptically and science fiction is a history of the future, it seems to follow that apocalyptic science fiction is a history of how humans will suffer together in the future. The portrayal of human suffering through the creation of apocalyptic science fiction stories becomes a socio-economic, environmental, and technological thought experiment. If done well, it captures our dreams and fears for the future. Sometimes these stories will also give a glimpse of how to overcome the challenges ahead since something similar to it was already faced in the past.

Now let’s apply this to FAZA: What external factors are historically repetitive in this sci-fi story? How will the players suffer together? And is there a glimpse of how to overcome the challenges ahead?

While I don’t believe hostile extraterrestrials will actually invade and destroy Human life (more thoughts on this in future posts ;] ), FAZA’s apocalyptic science fiction story gives people a format to work together to overcome a challenge in a non-zero sum game. A zero sum game refers to games like Chess, your win will be my loss. Your +1 is my -1 and together they add to 0. While human society is a blend of competition and cooperation, I intentionally set aside competition between players and instead placed them in competition with the technologically advanced FAZA. Over the course of the game, the FAZA are taking land away from the players, placing them in a weaker position the longer the game continues. Their invasion also comes with enemy troop placement across the board overwhelming the players. And as the game progresses, they’re eliminating player outposts, which are the bases for recruiting friendly forces and a space for respite to heal. Does this story sound familiar?

Historically, an invading force with advanced technology taking away land, resources, and killing natives has repeated over and over in every story of colonialism. The longer it continues, the worse it gets for the natives. I can’t recall any native force successfully repelling their colonizers, but for the context of this game, FAZA is not an impossible game to win, it’s just really, really hard. These are the external factors I’ve drawn from, repeated in FAZA’s apocalyptic sci-fi story. It sets the stage for how the players will suffer together, but is there a glimpse of how to overcome these challenges throughout this sci-fi story?

While the FAZA can be a stand-in for any challenge a group needs to face together, the glimpse of overcoming the challenge present in this game is about how well the team cooperates, reaches a decision to move forward, and how the team deals with failure even if they make all the right moves. I think the process of making group decisions, experiencing personal anxiety through group conflict and debate, reflecting on group dynamics, and becoming comfortable with failure are vital skills to hone in order to function in a healthy team (if you’re into psychology and want to learn more about this, I’ll refer you to Paradoxes of Group Life: Understanding Conflict, Paralysis, and Movement in Group Life by Smith and Berg).

I hope FAZA becomes a game and story people can use to reflect on and explore the roles they naturally fill. I hope it gives players the opportunity to debate, discuss, make decisions, fail, win, survive the apocalypse, and most importantly, have fun. 🙂