I came across this brief post as I was scrolling through Tumblr entitled “I still wonder what happened to the rest of the world in The Hunger Games”:
Do they still have meetings and stuff?
France: Anyone heard from America lately?
Mexico: Same old, same old. They’re still sending out children to fight to the death in a reality show.
UK: Shouldn’t we do something about that?
China: Just leave them, at least they’re not annoying us.
We have a rather extensive set of post-apocalyptic or dystopian speculative fiction set within the boundaries of the United States or North America, but not much looking at such an America from the outside. Speculative fiction, by offering a view of a possible future, is often the best vehicle for commenting on or criticizing today’s political, economic, or social realities. Think of how much social commentary the original Star Trek was able to accomplish by setting its stories in a quasi-utopian future humanity. I too wonder what a post-disaster U.S. would look like from a non-U.S. perspective, particularly one from the “developing world.”
In terms of post-apocalyptic or dystopian future Americas, aside from The Hunger Games, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road comes to mind, along with alternate history works like Harry Turtledove’s “Timeline-191″ series and about half the episodes of the TV show Sliders. Then there are TV shows like Jericho, which portrayed a modern-day nuclear attack, and Terra Nova, which was set 85 million years ago but centered around a dangerously polluted 22nd-century America. The new ABC show Last Resort, about which I will probably write more later, depicts a potentially dystopian contemporary or near-future United States. These all focus on America itself, though.
Robert Silverberg’s Time of the Great Freeze takes place during a future Ice Age, where ice sheets have covered much of North America. The protagonists leave their underground city in North America after picking up a radio signal from the London area, intending to cross the ice sheet over the Atlantic. The book mentions that, with much of Europe, North America, and East Asia covered in ice, the equatorial nations of South America, Africa, and Asia have become dominant world powers. It still doesn’t tell us anything about life in those places.
The Brits Seem to Have No Problem Blowing Us Up in Fiction
The best examples I can think of, that deal with the rest of the world, should the United States go all post-apocalyptic or dystopian, come from Great Britain or other English-speaking countries. The films V for Vendetta and Children of Men both came out around the same time in 2005 or 2006. Both are set in the relatively-near future: V for Vendatta mentions the year 2015 as the not-too-distant past, and Clive Owen’s character in Children of Men wears an extremely ratty London 2012 Olympics sweatshirt for much of the film. Both films reference events in “the former United States,” and both depict a UK turned to dictatorship in one form or another. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, set in Australia, shows a U.S. devastated by nuclear war.
Turning to the Google
A quick Google search turned up some interesting hits about post-apocalyptic or dystopian literature, but still not much about a view from other parts of the world.
- An article from the University of Nebraska outlines recent works of “futurist fiction and fantasy,” which it calls “FFF,” from Black authors. Several deal with a post-apocalyptic America.
- An article at the Onion A.V. Club discusses recent post-apocalyptic fiction of the economic variety, noting that “America has been getting the shit kicked out of it in print lately.”
- The Internet Review of Science Fiction addressed the relative lack of post-Cold War issues in speculative fiction and elsewhere, after an avalanche of writing about Cold War culture, back in 2009. Admittedly, post-apocalyptic fiction had an easier time developing stories when the speculated apocalypse had an obvious source, i.e. the Soviet Union. Now it has to get a little more creative, which may partly explain why we have fewer nuclear explosion stories and more zombie attack stories nowadays.
All that I’m left with then, are a few tropes common to speculative fiction. Via TVTropes.com (WARNING: for geeks and nerds, this site is very addictive), we have the following:
- Divided States of America. This mentions the His Dark Materials series, which takes place mostly in England and the Arctic (except when it’s set in other dimensions) in a world where the United States never existed. Not the same, obviously, as a non-U.S.-based speculative work.
- Fallen States of America. This gets at what I’m trying to address: “A common way to create a Crapsack World setting is to have the United States fall so much that it becomes much like a third world nation, with a collapsed economy, decaying infrastructure, fallen or incredibly corrupt government, and so on.” What happens to the rest of the world in that instance?
- Mexico Called; They Want Texas Back. This trope posits a United States so weakened that other nations can pick off its territory. Again, not entirely the same thing, but close.
Alternate U.S. or World History
Wikipedia has a good article on the alternate history genre. I can think of two alternate history novels that I have read that deal with worlds where the U.S. either never came to be or didn’t last long, which present a perspective from somewhere else in the world.
- S.M. Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers takes place in an alternate world where a succession of meteor strikes in 1878 wiped out western Europe, Great Britain, and North America. The story is set in the early 21st century in what would be Pakistan, ruled by remnants of the British Raj. Because the meteor strikes halted the Industrial Revolution in its tracks, the setting is sort of steampunk, with modern technology still mixed with 19th century tech. The main point of view is still European in origin, and I’m troubled by the idea that without Europe, no technological development would have happened in the 100+ years after the meteor strike.
- Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt posits a world where the Black Death in 14th-century Europe was much more devastating, preventing Europe from having any significant impact on world culture. The world therefore never had a Renaissance or an Age of Exploration, and therefore no European colonization. The world’s cultural center is in China, the Americas are ruled by coalitions of Native Americans (who have a completely different name for themselves, obviously), and, if I recall correctly, what we call the Middle East is known as the Midwest.
- I haven’t actually read Steven Barnes’ Lion’s Blood, but I own a copy and will read it any day now, really. It is set in a world where Africa dominated world exploration and colonization, beginning with the victory of Carthage over Rome in 200 B.C. Christianity and Islam still exist, but Islam is the dominant world power. Obviously, the United States never existed in this timeline, and much of the story is set in a region of southeastern North America (around Louisiana) called Bilalistan.
So What’s the Deal?
That still leaves speculative fiction in which other parts of the world continue on after something either apocalyptic or dystopian befalls the United States. There may be a vast body of work on this topic, but I just don’t know where to look. If I am right, and few such works exist, I can think of two possible reasons, from an American point of view. First, from a practical standpoint, American writers may prefer to write about the impact at home, because it’s what they know and it’s what publishers think audiences might want. The second, more cynical view might be that a world set in our own timeline, within the recognizable future, that is devoid of American influence might be too controversial to tackle. There’s also an obvious racial component to this: science fiction is a predominately white, North American and European genre, except for Japan. That’s probably not entirely fair to some writers, but those are the explanations that spring to mind. From the standpoint of the rest of the world’s writers, with the exception of the Brits and the Australians, maybe they don’t want to tell us where they really think we are headed.