An apocalyptic story set in the furthest reaches of our planet, in a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, and almost everyone is crazed fighting for the necessities of life. Within this world exist two rebels on the run who just might be able to restore order. There’s Max, a man of action and a man of few words, who seeks peace of mind following the loss of his wife and child in the aftermath of the chaos. And Furiosa, a woman of action and a woman who believes her path to survival may be achieved if she can make it across the desert back to her childhood homeland.
A couple of little things first. This story is set on “the furthest reaches of our planet”… far away from what? A place where life goes on as it was before, where the Empire never died? Is it like the post-Collapse world of Cloud Atlas? Is there another instance of humanity across the ocean, that has kept the high tech life of those that came before intact, but are dealing with their own set of uniquely horrifying problems? What is the geography of the end of the world? To further abuse a much abused phrase, a future planet where “the Apocalypse is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” No one single Dark Age for all people, but local variants with different extremes.
Obviously we don’t know, can’t know and that’s not the point of the George Miller’s movie. And this is, of course, just a trailer. But the topic of ‘post-apocalyptic’ futures is fascinating to explore, and the Mad Max world provides a good jumping-off point. What is the meaning of this film? Another apocalyptic tale for a dying world? Can it mean something more? What can we read into it? What if we look at it through the lens of the new novel by one of the founding fathers of cyberpunk, who’s been imagining the bleak dystopia to come for us since the early 1980s.
SPOILER WARNING:plot details of The Peripheral by William Gibson are discussed from here on in, in far more detail than my original review.
If, like me, you’ve recently had your brain re-wired by the latest William Gibson book, The Peripheral, then you are already thinking about the world we’re occupying now as being set within “the pre Jackpot Years”. That though darker times lie ahead, rays of light are already leaking through for those that might survive what amounts to an extinction event. A whole new world awaits, completely unimaginable from our vantage point, equal parts horrible and wonderful. An idea of the course we’re on that reframes the current techno-utopic future of the Singularity, by emphasising the pain and cost involved of such a societal transition. Pointing out that it doesn’t just magically get all post-scarcity and mind upload cities, especially if that’s all that’s focused on.
Though none of these creatures might be flesh-and-blood humans, they might be the closest things in the new environment to what we call human now.
I. J. Good had something to say about this, though at this late date the advice may be moot: Good proposed a “Meta-Golden Rule”, which might be paraphrased as “Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors.”
Gibson doesn’t elaborate upon “the Jackpot Years” until over halfway through the novel. But by then he’s made it clear that the events that separate the two time lines in his story have been very, very dark indeed. When Wilf, the future posthuman, finally explains it all to Flynne, the near future human, and thus to us reading it too, it’s basically everything bad we ever imagined might happen, short of total annihilation, in a big climate chaos wrapped bundle:
No comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves. And all of it around people: how people were, how many of them there were, how they’d changed things just by being there.”
The future most can see coming that aren’t too distracted to be paying attention. The road we could still be on in the decades to come before things get bad as in: feral cities and people dying by the billions. As the survivors run out of room to stack the corpses.
So now, in her day, he said, they were headed into androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad shit, like she sort of already knew, figured everybody did, except for people who still said it wasn’t happening, and those people were mostly expecting the Second Coming anyway.”
Do we want to talk about why the Singularity is known to its critics as the “Rapture of the Nerds”? Vinge continued in his dire revelation:
I have argued above that we cannot prevent the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of the humans’ natural competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology. And yet … we are the initiators. Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things. We have the freedom to establish initial conditions, make things happen in ways that are less inimical than others. Of course (as with starting avalanches), it may not be clear what the right guiding nudge really is”
As another movie once said, “no fate but what we make”. Mad Max: Fury Road will show us a glimpse into the full Collapse future. (Let’s be honest, we know exactly how this movie will play out, it’s highly unlikely that it will have a twist ending with it all occurring in a VR simulator as a generation of posthumans kill time in some fan-fic recreation of the past, on their way to seeding a new galaxy.) Again.
We are a worldwide civilisation coasting with the fuel gauge nearing empty, thinking there must be another service station just over the horizon. So crank up the radio, let’s sing along to some tunes, it’ll be just fiiiiiiiine.
Many peak oil bloggers contend that the real moment to do something to prevent the Collapse so graphically rendered above was after the preview first given in the 1970s. That Mad Max should’ve been a guardian of a road not taken. Instead, here we are. Celebrating him again. And the doomed world he’s a patron saint of leaks out all over the place. Like the entire plot of the excellent UK series Utopia. Like the grim prophecy of this scene in Newsroom on the reality of Climate Change.
Hopefully, unlike previously ignored attempts by the Hollywood machine at eco-catastrophe fiction – I’m looking at you, Waterworld – this very grindhouse film will focus attention and serve as more than a distraction. An over-the-top, cathartic outlet against a background of equally disturbing events – from the crackdown on Occupy Hong Kong to the CIA Torture Report, and every protest turned police action across North America in between. Whatever this all mutates into in the coming months. We don’t need that.
Thinking about this as “the pre Jackpot Years” helps us reframe the narrative. Something better can come out of all this. This doesn’t have to be the prelude to a future high-speed, nightmarish post-apocalypse, worse than the slow motion one we’re in now. We don’t have to wait for it to accelerate into an unavoidable crash and collapse. There is no techomagical Singularity that will save us. We must wake up behind the wheel and plot a new path on the map of the possible. Our civilisation survived the twentieth century and everyday Fear of the Bomb. We can make it through this too, and build something better. All the pieces are here already, waiting to be recombined. From advances in automated factories and 3D Printing to basic science and amazing speculations on the origins of life.
What comes next is up to us. In many ways we’re limited only by our imagination. Why books from In The Dust Of This Planet to The Blood Of The Earth argue strongly for a change in consciousness in how we view both the world now and to come. What we make out of the building blocks we already have is for us to choose. Buckminster Fuller once said: “whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment.” We just have to decide how to build a future worth living for all of us, correct our direction away from Oblivion and towards whatever version of Utopia we can agree upon. Or plan for life amidst the chaos and barbarity of Bartertown.