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Hungry Cannibals and Soft Apocalypses

Robin Hanson recently posted about The Road and cannibals, which is great, because I think about this stuff all the time, and it's good not to be alone.

The Road is a movie/book about a man and his son traveling south to reach the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in a post-apocalyptic world where the Sun is blocked out by huge dust clouds, and there are no plants or other life except for a few refugees and murderous cannibals. I thought the book was OK because it gave a sneak preview at what daily life could be like when or if the United States gets hit by a massive EMP attack. (The human conflict and desperate lack of food part, not the blocking out the Sun part.)

Prof. Hanson remarks how some reviewers called the movie "realistic", when it absolutely is not. The story takes place more than seven years after apocalypse, but there are a couple occasions where the characters stumble on stored food supplies, which doesn't make sense to Hanson. Second, he points out that traveling in such a world would be totally suicidal. Third, the pair doesn't try to ally with others to boost their strength. They run across neutral people throughout the story, but never team up with them. Fourth, if the apocalypse really destroyed the biosphere and most food sources, Hanson considers it unrealistic that people living primarily on cannibalism could last more than the seven years it takes for the child character to grow up. According to his calculations, you'd have to eat about a person every 47 days to get adequate nutrition.

Shockingly, many of Hanson's commenters don't agree with his points.

A particular comment concerned me a bit, about another post-apocalyptic book that is popular right now, One Second After:

I recently finished the book One Second After which took place in a small town after a nuclear bomb releasing electromagnetism is set off in the United States. They somewhat resorted to cannibalism in the book, at one point choosing to use all stray dogs as the next food source, and moving on to humans who had died. In this case, I found the book to be pretty realistic and very well thought out.

I find this comment problematic because the book isn't realistic. As far as I can tell, the only contemporary author that gets the basics of a post-apocalypse or economic disaster scenario right is James Wesley Rawles. For all I know, he may be the only storyteller that ever even tries to get it right, because the other popular ones -- On the Beach, Mad Max, Terminator IV, Lucifer's Hammer, The Matrix, and all your other post-apocalyptic favorites -- are just terribly unrealistic. The common thread in all of them is that life after the so-called apocalypse is unrealistically easy. This even includes the non-Hollywood tales that are ostensibly trying to be grittier and more realistic, like The Road. (The movie is mostly a faithful rendition of the book.)

If you're looking for post-apocalyptic fiction, the only book that made any sense to me was Patriots by James Wesley Rawles. Perhaps because Rawles is actually a genuine survivalist, he cares to put the thought towards what a post-collapse society would really be like, while many other authors address it from more of a detached position. Thankfully, Patriots is extremely popular, and is doing a great deal to sew the seeds of resilience so that at least 50% of the population might survive an EMP attack. To quote John Robb, "Localize production. Virtualize everything else."

I'd like to write a full review of One Second After, but it will take me a second.

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  1. Having seen the vast majority of post-apocalypse movies, I nominate the 1983 film Testament as the one to most realistically portray ‘normal life’ after such an event. Warning: it tends to have a large emotional impact on people with normal empathy.

  2. Rain:

    I was 10 years old when I saw Testament. I still remember how moving it was. Through the 80’s, I had an existential fear that Humanity would not survive. 1989 was a happy year to live to see.


    Patriots was very well thought out, but the writing was terrible. There was no real characterization and plotting and he was so blatant with his politics. Rawls should go to a writer’s workshop or team up with a professional author and serve as technical consultant.

  3. I’m a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, and one of the most believable and well-written is still the classic “Earth Abides”, by George Stewart. Written in 1949, this novel really stands the test of time. It describes in detail how man-made systems would slowly break down and wild nature would return after most humans are gone. Some of the images are unforgettable, like a billy goat browsing on shrubbery in an upscale neighborhood and walking down the sidewalk like he owns the place, or a gang of formerly domestic dogs forming a pack and hunting small game in the suburbs.

    Post-apocalypse life wouldn’t be too difficult if everyone dies quickly of disease, for example, because there would be so many supplies laying around for the taking. The hardest part would probably be the pychological adaptation, which Stewart describes brilliantly. Anyway, I just wanted to recommend this great book to all survivalists and P-A fans.

  4. How big is an apocalypse? The world is post-apocalyptic many times over, in the sense that devastation has been visited upon it, on varying scales, many times.

  5. Survivors? The works of J. G. Ballard?

  6. Honestly, the Matrix had human beings powering the robots (since there was no solar power, for some reason). Why didn’t the super intelligent machines just invent fusion? Or Space Solar energy? Instead, they use humans (which they feed, btw) as a power source, in blatant disregard for thermodynamics.

    Who comes up with this crap?

  7. of course the apocalypse is portrayed as somewhat uncharacteristically easy. those who didn’t luck into uncharacteristically easy scenarios died off, that’s what makes it an apocalypse. by definition the stories are about the luckiest .000001% or so.

  8. kevin says:
    > Who comes up with this crap?

    Original script for Matrix said that human brains were being used as a computing resource, but that was changed after it was (probably correctly) thought to be too difficult for movie-goers to understand.

  9. The Road was a terrible movie on so many levels. How could anyone think traveling on foot in the open was safer than leaving a fully-stacked bomb shelter? The motivations and choices most of the characters display in the story are irrational and unrealistic. And the theme was all over the place and without a clear point.

    Fans of the shows about a potential apocalypse would probably enjoy The Colony, a reality/educational series on Discovery Channel. History channel has quite a few shows about how to survive global disasters as well. Robin Hanson, who is mentioned in the post, even appears in one of these shows.

  10. “How could anyone think traveling on foot in the open was safer than leaving a fully-stacked bomb shelter?”
    Maybe because the door couldn’t close and the electricity (aeration?) wasn’t working, that’s why they put the old mattress to hide the door, and since they used dog to hunt other human, with the food smell it looked more like a deadly trap.

  11. For my own enjoyment, I’m currently writing a post-apocalyptic novel. It goes like this:

    In the near future, exponential manufacturing technology (RepRap, 3D printing, inkjet & fullerene nano, synthetic biology)becomes widespread; but not full blown MNT or AI (so it doesn’t convert into Singularity fiction).

    A disaster causes government collapse and anarchy. Local groups with desktop manufacturing make weapons and other goods and take power. These groups include street gangs, local police, transhumanists who are good at programming manufacturing systems, and the like. Exponential manufacturing lets the world return to high standards of living but to a chaotic political system where independent local autarkies are at war with competing autarkies; like a giant South Central LA or Mogadishu.

    The science and worldbuilding is fun but the plot, characterization and dialog are hard. I know that I’ll probably never finish this, much less publish it; so any one is free to use these ideas.

  12. Another “contemporary author that gets the basics of a post-apocalypse or economic disaster scenario right” is James Howard Kunstler. His book World Made By Hand describes a future which has as good a chance as any of happening. Here is the website for the book:

  13. I’ve never seen the movie, but the book was never intended to be realistic, it was more about the mood; about hope and desperation and fatherhood. The actual events of the apocalypse where only hinted at in the book; though I heard the movie expands on this. I didn’t see the movie because of the generally bad reviews (and I wasn’t that big of a fan of the book.)

    Oh, and commenter Kevin:

    The Matrix was darn silly at times, but I think the human power grid thing was explained in the Animatrix. The AI kept us around more because it (they?) didn’t want to kill us rather then any genuine need for the power generated by our bodies.

  14. something really nice happened to me today..i found this intel smart challenge thingy and i am at the top position..makes me feel good abt myself..

  15. the Ridley scott – Russel crowe combo is rocking…loved Robin hood 2010..

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