Societal collapse stories

An abandoned road overrun by vegetation

Post apocalyptic settings seem to always be in some corner of the science-fiction continuum. This genre was never really my cup of tea, mostly because it felt very artificial. Science-fiction generally is about talking about ideas, but I found that post-apocalyptic settings typically tend to be heavy on ideas and poor on setting, with a few exceptions, like La Compagnie des Glaces, I found it to be not only US centric, but also centred on US political issues, but maybe I was traumatised Kevin Costner’s Postman…

I read way less science-fiction than I used to, I try to follow what is going in the hacker world. Recently, I started writing my own story (in French), I’m not really sure (yet?) what it is, but it certainly has some dystopia/post-apocalyptic elements. As a technician, I find the idea of starting from scratch fascinating: factorio remains my favorite game, and I loved the toaster project book.

While I find this idea interesting, a good mental exercice, I think it is a toxic idea to get wrapped up into. Why? The mental model that comes with it. When people in the US think society will collapse, what they actually think is:

  1. US society will collapse
  2. No new social structure can take hold in the US, which basically means that:
  3. No society outside of the US survived the collapse

I’m not going to argue about the first point, I’m perfectly willing to accept that possibility. The problem is in the two following points, which basically assume that the US is the standard in societal resiliency and an irreplaceable component for modern technology. Pretty arrogant, and probably very wrong: the underlying model is that the US collapses, yet its cultural dominance magically stays intact.

If society collapsed to the point where you have to smelt your own iron, you should probably prepare for your Canadian overlords, and if you have to rely on stashed animal-use antibiotics, you should probably welcome them…

As a Swiss, I get dragged way too often into US gun debates, which share the general theme (society/government failing) which the same underlying mental glitch. Superficially, you have a very similar situation (lots of weapons), but the societal forces underneath are very different, so the outcomes don’t match. When confronted with the idea that US society might be the problem, I typically witness a brain crash-loop and the same bizarre story where the people with guns protect society (from whom?) and at the same time society is failing so you need guns, so guns will fix society…

The techniques to actually handle catastrophic events are well known: resiliency, redundancy and diversity. The reason Japan can recover quickly from very strong earth-quakes is not because people stashed the basic material for making concrete in secret caches, but because the building are designed to withstand the shock-waves and there are social structures to manage the people. Each time in history when one center of human activity fell, things restarted somewhere else, typically with some new cultural elements.

2 thoughts on “Societal collapse stories”

  1. The dark ages was the effectively 500 years of societal collapse (~1000 years without concrete). In the 20th century the world wars and rise and fall of communism didn’t lead to a complete collapse arguably, because of the intervention of the US. There is the phrase “when America sneezes, the whole of Europe catches a cold” (which original referred to France) so it is hard to imagine a US collapse that is rescued by external forces. Maybe,

    • The whole idea of dark ages is largely a myth created afterwards. The republic of Venice existed during 7 centuries of dark ages… Some things regressed (concrete), some things progressed (metallurgy, horse-riding, gunpowder, water and windmills, agriculture).

      Remember that Constantinople fell nearly 1000 years after Rome. And of course, by this token, there was no non-dark age north of Hadrian’s Wall…

      The Austro-Hungarian empire, the British Empire were the center of civilisation, until they were not.

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