Monday, February 22, 2010

Writing: Researching the Setting and Beyond

Tara and I watched one of our Netflix selections last night. It was a History Channel documentary entitled: Life After People. I added it to our queue because I thought the science of how structures would decay and how the landscapes would change seemed interesting -- at the least it would be a good information source to refer to if (more like 'when' for me) the urge to write post-apocalyptic subject-matter ever popped up.

While I did have some problems with the way the documentary was put together, and didn't fully agree with everything that was proposed, I must say that I did gain some insight that could prove a valuable asset in my future writing endeavors if my characters ever find themselves in such a changed world. My first complaint with the movie was the way civilization, or lack thereof, was depicted from the very start. The premise of "this could someday happen" is greatly tainted by the lack of human remains. There are very few possible futures that would include the complete removal of the human species from the face of the Earth. It is, therefore, highly unlikely that we would all just vanish.

A more suitable explanation of our disappearance from the food chain might include germ warfare going wrong, deforestation and climate change that renders food sources incapable of supporting vast human populations with disease and illness picking off the those who survive the resulting famine, and any number of other man-made catastrophes. Other plausible scenarios might include meteor impacts or super-radiation from solar flares that create unlivable conditions on planet Earth. All of these explanations for our disappearance would leave the planet in a state that would be significantly altered from the portrayal of the first few years depicted in the documentary.

If illness were to kill off the population, is it not reasonable to believe that while most major metropolitan areas would be leveled, certain remote parts of the world would be safe from the spread of contaminates? There are still a few indigenous peoples of the third worlds who refuse to interact with others, staying to the deepest of rain forest jungles. And what about the emergency survival plans that many major governments have in place? Surely some humans somewhere would survive. A good fictitious example of this is in the movie 12 Monkeys - it's an excellent movie that I highly recommend.

If man's fate is sealed by his propensity for war, the largest known threat of which is of course nuclear, then the landscape would be forever scarred by nuclear detonations, major cities would be leveled, and the radiation levels it would take worldwide to completely kill off our entire species would wipe out most of the plants and animals we haven't already driven to extinction.

I enjoyed the documentary for its sound scientific principles of oxidization, decay, and the workings of large cities and the little known services that would fail without proper care -- thus altering the way the cityscape exists and speeding up building and infrastructure failures. But when it comes to the story side of why the world would be in such a condition, without man to govern his creations, I found it lacking. As a writer I can envision a plethora of specific scenarios that would cause man to vanish from the face of the planet, but to make a better documentary I believe it would have been better to show some of these scenarios while maintaining the scientific breakdown of how the world would recover in each one.  Would it be a lush world overgrown with trees and shrubs? Would it be a barren, red planet devoid of water, a twin to her sister Mars?

As a writer, I can imagine a handful of people waking from some sort of time-release resurrection chamber, the result of a last ditch effort to save mankind. The world has changed around these people and though their memories are fragmented shadows of past lives, they can sense that this world, hundreds or thousands of years after the fall of man, is a very dangerous place. I can see them vividly in my mind wandering through the wastelands of dilapidated skyscrapers and sunken roadways, with wolves constantly on the edge of view; waiting patiently for the right moment to strike. Or maybe they awake to a blistering sandstorm and immediately find themselves at the brink of death as they desperately search out a source of water.


Jim Murdoch said...

I heartily recommend the BBC series Survivors. It's an updating of a series I watched in the 1970s which had a powerful effect on me at the time. I bought DVDs of the original series a few years back and although a little dated they were still well worth watching. The premise is a simple enough one: what would life be like for the survivors of a biological outbreak that kills off almost everyone?

Unknown said...

That sounds pretty interesting, Jim, I think I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!