The turn of the millennium has seen the emergence of a sort of speculative narrative which I call, for lack of a better word, the subtractive apocalypse. The most familiar example of this is the film/novel Children of Men, in which the world is upended by the onset of universal infertility. The film presents a far bleaker situation than does the novel, as governments all over the world collapse except that of the UK, which is accordingly flooded by refugees from the Continent and beyond. The refugees, or “fugees,” as they are called, are forced into detention centers, lawless zones filled with black markets and run by armed insurgents. The novel, on the other hand, shows a world in which almost everyone is obsessed with comfort, of preparing to meet the annihilation of humanity after having received a massage or eaten a gourmet dessert.
Blindness, the novel by Jose Saramago, belongs in this category – in it, an epidemic of blindness sweeps over an unnamed city and then over the world. As in the film Children of Men, the authorities are confronted with a mysterious problem which they decide is simply too overwhelming to solve, so they deal with it by pushing the affected to the margins and erecting a barbed wire fence around them. The victims of the blindness plague are placed in a mental hospital which they are not allowed to leave, on pain of death. One of them is promptly shot for attempting to leave the grounds of the asylum, and after more patients are brought in, more of them are killed when panicked guards fire on them as they try to collect their rations. Aside from leaving these food packages, the state does nothing to help maintain a minimum of order and dignity in their lives. The novel goes into detail about the filth from the overflowing toilets which the blind inmates have to deal with on an everyday level. The overcrowded asylum evokes a medieval vision of hell: unable to wash, the inmates sleep in beds in which they have defecated. The dead are buried in the yard beneath the excrement of those who could not reach the lavatories.
Similarly, the state does nothing to protect the inmates from each other, as when the criminal element in the hospital takes over and demands first money and jewelry, and then sex, as the condition for releasing to the others their share of the food. Both Blindness (the novel) and Children of Men (the film) show the terrifying descent of society into the war of all against all brought about largely because of the state’s impotence (whether malign or helpless), its willed abandonment of people to their fate once it recognizes a certain problem to be insoluble. This motif appears in 28 Weeks Later, in which US troops guarding the protected area (a sort of green zone) are given the order to fire on the infected and uninfected alike when the rage virus breaks out once again. But 28 Weeks Later lacks the fantastic premise whereby social reality becomes deprived of a certain vital element (sight, fertility). But are narratives of “subtractive apocalypse” necessarily fantastic in nature? I suppose that James Howard Kunstler’s “peak oil” novel A World Made By Hand would fit the category, although the reason for the reversion of the United States to a pre-industrial way of life without fuel or electricity is entirely rational: the loss of access to oil supplies from the Middle East and elsewhere.
Indeed, not only might a speculative fiction that portrays a realistic world be included in this grouping, but comedies as well – the film Idiocracy, directed by Mike Judge, after all portrays a world in which the missing element is intelligence. In it, the uneducated (or rather, the ineducable) breed with multiple partners, while the mentally gifted die off without offspring. The scientists are too busy looking for cures for baldness or for ways of prolonging erections to notice that the population is slipping into dangerous levels of inanity. The president is a porn star, people water crops with a sports drink, and Costco hands out law degrees. People wear t-shirts with corporate logos on them, and, as Dana Stevens helpfully reminds me in her Slate article which makes the case for the thematic similarities between it and Children of Men, the slogan for Nike is “Don’t Do a Thing” and Carl’s Jr.’s is “F**k You, I’m Eating.”
Also, I would add that the condition of the “missing element” can be discussed in formalistic terms as well – in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, what gets subtracted, thanks to its penny-dreadful lyricism, is the content. But to return to the twist of the light-hearted apocalyptic achieved by Idiocracy, I would love to see a film in which governments collapse and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world because nobody can get drunk, in which all alcohol mysteriously turns into water or something. It would be Animal House as imagined by Luis Bunuel, whose Exterminating Angel and That Obscure Object of Desire deal with not being able, for some mysterious reason, to commit an ordinary enough action. Now that would be an apocalypse to keep the otherwise shockproof viewers awake at night!