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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

November 5, 2006

Ruling After the Apocalypse...
...who should be on top when it all goes south?

I've been toying with an idea for a story called something like "Mister 'Shop-Smart', Master of the Universe", it would be a (probably) satirical story about a department store that some how finds itself surviving an apocalypse (kind of like in the Stephen King story, "The Mist") and the store manager would decide that, since he was in charge of the store, that made him, ipso facto, the highest authority there and, therefore, in charge of the remnants of the human race...a conclusion that some of the other characters would, naturally, take issue with.

I haven't written it yet, but I might, so hands off. But the impetus for the story was my reflecting on how storytellers tend to view concepts of authority in a crisis.

One of the examples that first got me thinking about this was the TV series Star Trek spin-off, Voyager. The premise there was that a space ship finds itself marooned in a distant galaxy, cut off from their Federation, and facing a return trip that would take decades -- so that most of the characters could never hope to see earth again (don't worry, they somehow made it home in time for the series' finale). But they had their plucky captain to see them through and issue orders.

And I had some problems with that.

See, if you know anything about Star Trek, you know the basic premises tend to be about ships...which are part of a vast hierarchy involving Starfleet Command and the Federation of Planets. Although the captains are in charge of their ships, they are still answerable to higher authorities. In fact, in the original Star Trek series (back when a little dissent was seen as healthy) there were more than a few episodes where characters would threaten the captain by announcing they might make a critical report to the higher ups.

So the point is, when you think about it, no starship captain was ever meant to wield the absolute, no-appeals-allowed, dictatorial authority wielded by Voyager's Captain Janeway -- they just weren't. Add to that characters who disagreed with Janeway didn't even have the option of resigning from service...because then they'd just be marooned on an alien world, with no hope of ever seeing home again.

Having grown up reading team comic books like The Avengers and the Legion of Super-Heroes, which would often change the team leaders (I don't mean by adding characters, but by simply switching who was in charge among the existing characters) I thought Voyager could've dealt with this moral question and come up with an off-beat (for TV) story arc. They could've had Janeway realize that she didn't have the moral or legal authority to command without a mandate, so she voluntarily calls an election which she loses. Of course, since Voyager was breaking ground with a female captain, you wouldn't want her to stay demoted for long, but you could've stretched it out for a couple of episodes, before she reclaims her captaincy (maybe the winner is discovered to have cheated or something). You would then have Janeway able to command with a certain degree of moral authority...because she was elected by the crew itself.

But they never did that story, because the filmmakers I don't believe ever considered the notion that Janeway didn't have the automatic right to continue as captain, this despite the fact that the circumstances of her captaincy had radically altered from the circumstances in which she had been first granted her position. And as far as I know, no fan of the series ever questioned it either.

Which is one of the reasons I've never written my story, "Mister 'Shop-Smart'" -- because there's nothing more pointless than trying to sell a story satirizing/criticizing a concept...that most editors wouldn't even agree needed to be satirized/criticized.

Consider TV's current post-apocalyptic drama, Jericho, in which the inhabitants of a small town find themselves cut off from civilization. And where the mayor and his staff remain the de facto rulers of the town. Now, sure, in order to avoid chaos, certain lines of authority have to be maintained. Otherwise: anarchy. And, yeah, the mayor hopefully has a few dusty memos and federal guidelines he's accrued over the years telling him what to do in a crisis. But, really, I somehow doubt he has a file that says: "In case of the end of civilization, do this..." Let's face it, we just don't plan for those things.

(I'm reminded of the classic sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati when the staff of the radio station decided to broadcast a report on what to do in case of tornado, but their right wing news reporter only had a report on what to do in case of communist invasion, so he read that report, only substituting the word "tornado" for "communist" -- warning about the "godless tornado hordes").

In one scene of Jericho, the characters needed information from an unconscious, badly burned man, though waking him up would subject him to excruciating pain and probably kill him. It was a legitimate issue, a "good of the many vs the good of the one" situation, and the information they wanted might help save the man's own daughter, so you can see the argument for waking him. But...who has the legal right to make that decision? When the local doctor tries to stop them from waking her patient, the deputy mayor and some sheriff's deputies physically stop her -- yeah, not even the mayor and the sheriff, but the deputy mayor and some junior police officers. (And the deputy mayor was the mayor's son -- can you spell nepotism?)

So basically, faced with the end of civilization, the deputy mayor is making life and death decisions, backed up by a couple of gun totting deputies -- and these are the good guys!

And, again, I doubt too many people watching Jericho questioned that. After all, the authority figures are portrayed as relatively sensible and level headed and they are, after all, authority figures. But now think about your own community, and your own mayor and city council. Did you vote for them? Do you even know who they are? Given that the big issues they usually deal with are whether or not to re-zone a piece of property, would you trust them to assume absolute authority in case of the apocalypse?

And, in a way, it doesn't just stop there. During the cold war in particular, it was known that world leaders usually had contingency plans to safeguard them in case of nuclear war -- the theory being it was important to maintain some semblance of government, even if the citizenry were being barbecued. But even as a kid I thought it was a bit awkward. After all, surely those leaders would be the one's responsible for the end of the world -- it didn't make much sense for them to be the one's who got to survive to rebuild it, did it?

In truth, centuries of civilization have taught us that it's dangerous to give anyone too much power -- no matter who, whether they be president, mayor, starship captain, or department store manager. That's why most countries gradually built up safeguards and parallel branches of authority, and hierarchies within hierarchies, so someone is always accountable to someone else. Governments make and pass legislation...but they still are answerable to the courts, because it is felt even kings, presidents and prime ministers can't be above the law.

Obviously, it's a difficult, nigh impossible dilemma trying to figure out who should or shouldn't be in charge in case of some civilization altering event, and how do you maintain safeguards in situations where hard decisions have to be made spontaneously. But, as I said, that's why no one seriously plans for the end of the world (well, I'm sure they do, but I can't help thinking their plans would resemble the crazed rantings of Peter Sellers' mad scientist in Dr. Strangelove).

But what's interesting, and a bit depressing, is how so few people even seem to think these are things worth thinking about in fictional stories detailing such scenarios. Books, movies and TV shows generally just assume that whoever was the highest level of authority (among the characters) before the disaster automatically becomes the supreme authority after a disaster -- even though no one in their wildest dreams intended them to wield that kind of total power.

In TV's current re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, the reins of authority rests in the hands of the military commander and the president -- in fact, in the pilot mini-series, the commander laid out the rules under which the president could operate. Strangely, despite receiving enormous critical acclaim, and being embraced as a "thinking man's" series, I'm not sure anyone ever pointed out that if the military is dictating the terms under which the civilian government can operate, it's no longer a democracy. Nor that, in the reality of a western democracy (after which the Battlestar Galactica civilization is surely modelled) the military has no authority of that kind. True authority would rest with the elected government...and with the courts. Yet in Battlestar Galactica (in which the characters routinely violate human rights with less thought than I give to what socks I'm going to wear) and, indeed, in most such SF series, lawyers and judges are rarely in evidence, and often the government is rarely elected democratically.

(Now, before people think I'm tarring shows unfairly, let me acknowledge that in Battlestar Galactica there is a nominally elected government, and in Jericho, the characters generally try and deport themselves within established rules of conduct).

Often what you notice in such "apocalyptic" scenarios is an underlying message that democracy is all very quaint, but when the chips are down, you want a fascist dictatorship in charge in a crisis. This despite history often showing us that dictatorships tend to be anything but well run and efficient (the whole truism about them getting trains to run on time I've read is, in fact, pretty much a myth).

Sure, if you're just doing a fun, Mad Max type adventure, bring on the barbarians and lone wolf heroes and let the mayhem ensue. But if you're trying for a more "high brow", provocative drama, as the new Battlestar Galactica and others claim to be attempting, personally I think the real, fascinating drama would be in seeing the characters try and grapple with a complex, multilayered reality of accountability and compromise...rather than someone saying: "I'm in charge, and if you don't like it...take it up with firing squad." (or words to that effect).

Maybe that's why I've yet to write my satirical story about a department store manager assuming dictatorial authority...'cause when you think about it seriously, it just ain't that damn funny.

D.K. Latta, editor

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