I used to get sincerely worked up when people talked about prepping for disaster. By “worked up,” to be clear, I don’t mean to imply that I ever bought even the smallest can of beans about it. That was the problem: no matter how carefully someone broke down the steps I should take to be ready for the worst, I knew I was never going to do a single one of them. I didn’t discount the likelihood of disaster—disaster of some kind always seemed more or less assured—but I recognized the vast unlikelihood of me buying non-perishable food and a foil blanket and water purification tablets and a fire kit. (Where would I even keep those things? My apartment doesn’t have closets.) And so every article about feeling secure in the face of likely threat, every quick checklist and easy budget go-bag solution, made me a small amount more anxious about impending catastrophe and a huge amount more anxious about my own inevitable failures.
In recent years, though, I’ve found a way to avoid these worries. In fact, I now feel completely serene about my blanket-less, tablet-less, fire-less, can-deficient state. The secret is this: in the event of apocalypse, I will simply die.
How did I not realize this before? I don’t have to prepare for survival because I can just not survive. In fact, probably I can’t prepare for survival because I would not survive: I’m simply not the kind of person who would stockpile the necessary supplies, which is why I’m not the kind of person who would make it but also precisely because I’m not that kind of person. I’m a bad planner! I’m also a coward, and I don’t like discomfort, and given the options available to me in a post-apocalypse, I’m sorry, I’m just going to lie down. This isn’t something I would have to do consciously; it’s just what would naturally happen, sooner or later, in any situation fraught with scarcity and peril. If I didn’t just quietly starve/freeze to death, I’d be killed anyway a week later over half a jar of queso in a New Jersey Safeway after laboriously fighting my way out of the city. At least in the first scenario I don’t have to walk to Hoboken.
I say this in the spirit of relief, to be clear, not despair. Surviving a cataclysmic disaster sounds awful. Even the books and movies that dramatize and borderline glamorize post-apocalypse survivalism don’t exactly beat around the bush on this front. I’m supposed to run and fight, while I’m hungry? Friend, I am a fat 40-year-old whose shoes are bad. Also, imagine getting your period in the post-apocalypse! You think there are any tampons left in that burned-out Duane Reade? Yeah maybe but there definitely isn’t any Advil. So now you’re running and fighting and hungry and maybe getting murdered every 20 seconds and you’re free-bleeding and you have cramps. Also, realistically, you are going to die soon anyway, or anyway I am going to die soon anyway in this scenario because again I am not fast, and in the interim you will not have enjoyed yourself at all. Why try to squeeze out another few miserable months by buying some jerky and a Leatherman? Just make peace with the idea of giving up.
The truth is, though I admire (in a baffled way) the people with a drive to live through anything, I’ve never seen the romance in survival narratives. Part of the reason I never really pictured myself navigating the immediate aftermath of an apocalypse is that I have a sense of my limits, but part of it is that those weren’t the stories I sought out. My most cherished science fiction books happen on the other side of the end of the world, but like way on the other side. My favorite favorite novel is a post-collapse road trip story, but it happens millennia after the Fall—the hero has not sought survival, but been unwittingly born into a killed and recovered world. (It’s Riddley Walker and I will definitely write more about it in a future newsletter.) I didn’t read that until my 20s, though. In my truly formative sci-fi texts, the ones that shaped my adolescent mind, the complete destruction of the human race is merely a psychological problem. The characters may occasionally rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still know where their towels are—and they may wrestle, existentially, with being the last humans alive—but they’re not in any way physically threatened by the end of the world. On 1980s (and ‘90s, and ‘00s) British sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf, Lister is in stasis for three million years; he is presumed to be the last human left, but he doesn’t even witness the disaster that destroys the crew of his ship, let alone the Earth’s population. And meanwhile, left largely to himself on a ship meant for thousands, he has all the resources he needs. (Unless it’s funnier or more plot-driving for him to run out of something, anyway. The real vengeful gods, as always, are the writers.) In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur is present on Earth just before it’s destroyed, but is immediately whisked away to (relative) safety, and goes on to face a great deal of peril but also many interludes of peace. In the stories I love, in other words, when the world ends, it does so offscreen.
Of course, it’s possible to live out any number of scenarios you haven’t seen represented on page or screen. (I actually don’t especially like being represented, which is also something I’ll write about another time, probably.) But it is sometimes harder to imagine them, and on the flip side, maybe you’re less drawn to stories that don’t speak to some real or imagined version of you. Anyway, with a few exceptions (everyone loved Station Eleven; everyone loved Severance; everyone really really loved Fury Road), the period immediately after the end of the world has always been a bit of a blank spot in my fantasy life. It didn’t occur to me to wonder where I fit into that story. Now I know: I’m the corpse in the corner. Which also means that of everyone in the picture, I’m the one who’s having the easiest time.
Still, in a practical sense, it might be hard to know when to throw in the towel. When you set up a living will, or just an informal document which is all I have, you’re encouraged to think about the circumstances under which you would not want to be kept alive. My grandmother, for instance, always said to take every possible human measure to save her unless we were sure she’d completely lose her consciousness—she didn’t want her body kept alive without a brain, but short of that, she wanted every heroic measure modern medicine had to offer. Other people have lists more like the ones you consult when deciding whether to put a pet down: if I can’t enjoy food, if I am not made happy by seeing my people. I suppose I should have this kind of checklist for doomsday scenarios. I’ve learned in the last year that I am clearly willing to live without friends, travel, or cocktail bars, previously some of my favorite things—it’s a relief, frankly, to find that I’m not quite so spoiled that not being able to go to Raine’s Law Room twice a year would ruin my life. But what about losing access to food, or a place to sleep? Your safety and the safety of your loved ones? Drinkable water, breathable air? Medicine? Dry land? Ever being warm again, or ever being less than warm? What if there’s not a single cataclysm—what if you lose them all so slowly that you don’t even notice they’re going until they’re gone?
And even as I type that out I know: millions of people get by without these things every day. The apocalypse was never a single event. It’s happening all the time, all around us. I say I wouldn’t want to live through it, but I’m living through it right now—it just hasn’t touched me yet. Some of us are Nero, and some are the fiddle, and a whole fucking lot of us are burning with the buildings of Rome. It’s happening already. It’s happening right now.
All of which is to say: Welcome to Dead Channel. I won’t usually be this literal about it, but my overarching concept for this newsletter is “making sense of culture at the end of the world”—by which I don’t actually mean some singular Armageddon, but the slow-motion breakdown we’re all living through. I’m interested in how we tell stories in the dark—that’s ”stories” writ large, which is to say books but also TV, comics, the internet, games, art, theater, folklore and mythology and urban legend, and also community and identity: the stories we tell each other and ourselves about who we are.
That’s the general plan, the blueprint. In specific, this may at various times be about topics like science fiction, immersive theater, installation art, roadside attractions, adventure games, anatomy museums, industrial music, the old internet, dogs, Shakespeare’s histories, puzzle books, Twin Peaks, and British panel shows, because those are things I like. It will also probably be about death a lot, so get used to that part, I’m Jewish. But also, who knows! I’ve written like two things and then we’re all in uncharted water together. Maybe we’ll be eaten by sharks, but at least we won’t have to walk to Hoboken.
For the time being, I won’t have any paid-subscriber-only posts. Get comfortable, find out if you even like hearing from me this often. (“This often” is probably once a week or so.) That said, if you want to support writing to the tune of approximately $0.001 per word, please feel enormously free to do so! I had to get out a calculator to do that math and I had to check it SEVERAL times so I really cannot overstate how much I’m not qualified for any other way of earning a living. I will warn you that one time I tried to start a Patreon and then got so freaked out when people actually gave me money that I panicked and canceled it, but I have a robust charity donation schedule set up these days so I think I can handle the guilt. Did I mention I’m Jewish. Eventually if all goes well subscribers will get more stuff and community features (discussion, commenting) but I’ll give you some warning before that happens so no pressure.
Thanks for joining me, folks. Let’s make sense of this stupid world together, or at minimum lie down and die.