Monday, November 17, 2014

Pondering the Laopocalypse

Last month I did an article on the Laopocalypse for the Twin Cities Daily Planet. In it, I discussed a proposal I'd put forward for a new collection of poetry. It will take some time, but I'm excited to take it on because I consider it uncharted territory.

When we look at Lao classical art and literature, we don't have an extant apocalyptic tradition. We have tales where humanity and existence gets pushed to the brink. See  the story of the Toad Prince, for example, but we survive in the end.

One could be cynical and argue humanity's punishment isn't the End of the World, but the lack of one. You'll see rise and fall, rise and fall, but your ultimate punishment is simply: You get to remain who you are.

In the 1990s there was a scene from the film Mindwalk that crystallized the malleability of our sense of "The End" for me. The protagonists were discussing the concept of Judgement Day: To the modern human, we might perceive the end of the world as the ultimate "off day" but to medieval peasants, it meant a release from life as serfs and other miseries they endured. To them, it was the ultimate day off, and something to look forward to.

I would hope our Lao writers tackling the subject don't automatically go for the traditional tropes, just recast through a Lao lens, but instead try to present a vision that challenges our view of the final days. Must it be bleak and dark? Might it instead be similar to the tradition of Shambhala? In that scenario, many believe that when all truth has left the Earth and the Buddha's lessons are forgotten, a Buddhist army will come forth from a secret city to restore order. It's still the end of the world, but it might not be as bleak and post-apocalyptic as the current fashion holds.

We see a hint of how Lao might address the apocalyptic in Saymoukda Vongsay's Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals. But it's also not the last word on the concept.

What are interesting ways Lao can discuss “The End” and what are some of the deeper questions that emerge from it? We might also do well to ask: Where can such questions come from?

There are several nations in the world where you're not allowed to discuss the apocalypse or major emergencies because it suggests the government could possibly not be there, or that it wouldn't be capable helping its people. The notion that the State might one day not exist in the future is dangerous, disruptive thinking to them.

In such a climate, a story like the recent film Interstellar can not even be proposed. These sorts of restrictions ultimately create a dangerous scenario for such nations, however. Cultures who discourage imagination rarely thrive in any meaningful way. We often hear discussions of cultures being overwhelmed by superior technologies. One of the greatest and most difficult technologies to defeat is the imagination. A sense of possibility.

Lao might turn to the Laopocalypse as a means of discussing prudent environmental, economic and social policies and stewardship. These are ideas that are badly needed. We can already see this as many species face extinction and villagers in certain nations will lose their livelihoods as governments recklessly pursue turning the country into a treasure of natural resources for foreigners to ransack.

To do it well, one doesn't just casually write about the Laopocalypse. A well-written story that explores the final days of Earth from a Lao perspective requires us to study our past and present to extrapolate plausible theoretical ends and what ways we would respond to it.

Laos has over 160 ethnicities in its modern borders and there are countless factions with different stakes and motivations, different skills and levels of access to the various resources that would be needed to survive or hasten the Laopocalypse. To do a story well, you need to build at least a marginal understanding of how all of these factors might interact.

As I noted in the Twin Cities Daily planet, Alexander Demandt, a German historian, once set out to catalog every theory on the fall of Rome, emerging with 210 distinct theories. Slate Magazine devised over 144 possible scenarios for the fall of America.

What are some of the interesting ideas for a Laopocalypse that we've yet to tap into? Based on the theories other nations consider, some of the candidates might include the implausible, such as an alien invasion or a malevolent artificial intelligence seizes control of computer-guided Lao utilities and its communications infrastructure.

Others might be more realistic.  A supervolcano eruption, or a massive superstorm combined with a sudden outbreak of antibiotic-resistant virus, could do the trick. Mercenary armies paid by rampaging drug lords could cause havoc similar to the Black Flag bandits of the late 1800s who razed much of Laos. Perhaps a fungus destroys the sticky rice and hot pepper crops.

There are some interesting possibilities, but what are the interesting countermeasures Lao could prepare for? We'd be powerless to counter a meteor the size of Minnesota right now unless we invested heavily in STEM classes. A massive brain drain/emigration could be addressed through policy but what would be the constructive way to prevent this, rather than a restrictive model? If a form of Mad Avian Swine Ebola swept through, how might Laos develop an effective quarantine procedure without creating panic or disrupting too many of its social systems?

As it stands right now, there's very little in the world that has even attempted to address this. But as writers and artists, we have an obligation to write to the limits of our imagination and to create work that gets interesting conversations started.

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