Prototyping The Anapnoic, Part 2: Beyond Books

Part Three of Four

The judge was a fair man, but his words were harsh as they resonated across the empty halls of a dead regime. What use has man for media? In the face of a world that abandoned our needs and wants, iconoclasm has become a virtue, and we should do our utmost to erase the memory of that which came before. Storytelling, if there is any appeal to it, should be confined to oral transmission. Only when one can question the living narrative, can we protect this new society from the propagandistic lies carried in the written word. Break your disks, wipe your drives, tear your books to shreds. The sublime is to be found echoing in the open air, not caught up in something convenient or portable. Go forth, my comrades, and renew the telling of the days before scripts.

In the last part of this essay series, we confined our exploration of anapnoic fiction to the realm of genre literature. It is probably because of the size and history of the literary medium that anapnoic influences first became apparent in this field. Nevertheless, this emerging genre is not confined to books alone, and so I would like to use this third part of my essay series to point out the anapnoic archetypes of other art forms, starting with the motion picture.

In film, there have been two famous franchises with implicitly anapnoic themes. Coincidence or not, both were first established in the seventies, but attained the height of their cultural influence in the eighties. The first of these franchises is Star Wars. Inspired by Dune, it should be no surprise that this science fantasy behemoth has anapnoic leanings. Right from the point where the first film descends to the desert planet of Tatooine, we see hints of both otherworldly ecology and engagement with the uncivilized. Even if the portrayal is unflattering, it’s clearly implied that a complex web of societal interactions is taking place between the Jawas, ‘Sand People’ and moisture farmers of that desert realm. In fact, almost every planet in the original trilogy, from icy Hoth to forested Endor, is established through the interaction between protagonist, environment, and native life.

Another hint of the anapnoic in Star Wars is found in its political environment. Almost any galaxy-wide government in this setting seems to be inherently broken or corrupt. For example, the liberal representatives of the Galactic Republic find themselves caught up in separatism, civil war, and an eventual descent into fascism. Their successor state is the Galactic Empire, which consists of inefficient fascists who seems more concerned with building super-weapons than maintaining a decent society. These plot points show at least a certain skepticism towards rulership, and it may be no coincidence that the galactic regime of decay and brutality is ultimately brought down with the help of the ‘primitive’ Ewok people. Though even this doesn’t make Star Wars an anapnoic setting, it does represent the sort of environment that would immediately precede an anapnoic plot. With a galactic society in decline comes the challenge of creating a new world in its wake. While the new Disney-produced films have shown a tendency towards cyclicality, with the First Order being a neo-fascist rehash of the old Galactic Empire, the themes of decay and corruption is more alive than ever. Perhaps it would take an anapnoic awareness to finally break this cycle.

The next movie franchise on the list is more quintessentially anapnoic. I am speaking here of George Miller’s Mad Max, the tale of a mythical ‘road warrior’ set in the Australian outback. While it is assumed to be part of the greater 20th century post-apocalyptic canon, the setting de-emphasizes the precise moment of man’s fall from grace. Whether it’s through climate change, resource shortages, or nuclear war, the world has now turned to a lifeless waste, mostly populated with bands of marauding automobile fetishists. Despite such dire circumstances, Mad Max still has an anapnoic core in the exploits of its eponymous protagonist, who throughout his journey attempts to return some life and community to this barren environment. Its latest installment in particular featured a theme of hope: in the telling it was almost like a fairytale, with a reluctant hero aiding some ‘princesses’ in the subversion of their subservience. If this trend continues, Mad Max might grow ever more anapnoic with every iteration.

Beyond live-action films, the medium of animation has also been stellar in providing key examples of anapnoic themes. In fact, one of the greatest archetypes of anapnoic fiction is the 1984 film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, directed by renowned Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and based on his 1982 manga of the same name. The film tells of a far future where most of the earth has been swallowed up by toxic forests, inhabited by mysterious insect-like giants known as Ohmu. The protagonist is a girl named Nausicaä, friend of the Ohmu and daughter of a valley chieftain. She is thrown into a war between a great empire and its border regions, a conflict that threatens to poison man’s relation to nature once more. Only through her commitment to love and understanding between man and nature does she manage to bring peace to a troubled world. By focusing so clearly on the tension between human society and its ecological limits, Miyazaki calls upon us to re-evaluate our destructive tendencies towards our environment.

Moving on from the motion picture, let us now discuss more interactive mediums, starting with those anapnoic games that exist in the traditional tabletop medium. The primary example of these we already discussed with Tékumel, the imaginative setting by M.A.R. Barker which several game systems made use of. Taking this as our archetype, it would appear that most anapnoic fiction combines elements of science fiction and fantasy. Science fantasy is indeed a natural fit to this new genre, but its parent genres also contain plenty of inspirational works. Such is the case with my other examples, two role-playing games I will outline below.

One anapnoic-adjacent game is in the science fiction genre and is called Eclipse Phase. Its setting is a brilliant amalgam of transhumanism, hard sci-fi and cosmic horror. The inciting incident of its story is a devastating war between a technologically ascendant humanity and a group of unimaginably complex artificial intelligences. Extinction is only narrowly averted due to the AIs disappearing overnight, leaving the earth uninhabitable and filled with war machines on standby. With their vanishing comes the discovery of mysterious warp gates leading to far-off exoplanets. The mystery only grows when an alien race arrives from beyond the stars to contact humanity and discourage them from using these gates. Meanwhile, the continued acceleration of technology is radically changing both the human individual and their social collective, leading to great internal struggle among the war’s survivors. Taken together, Eclipse Phase builds a world that has clearly fallen from great heights, but which finds radical opportunities for social change in the wreckage. It may not resemble the previously developed idea of anapnoic fiction as ‘primitive’, yet its setting is certainly a liminal space in which a more conventional futurism is about to be subverted for the good of social and individual liberation. For this reason and others, I would certainly dub it anapnoic.

To contrast the dazzling technologies of Eclipse Phase, my other example is squarely within the high fantasy genre. It is called Dark Sun, and by the title alone one can tell that its setting is hardly more pleasant than my earlier examples. If anything, this is ‘Mad Max with elves’, set in a world where powerful magics have drained the land of life. The only traces of civilization are found in despotic city-states, ruled by the very wizards who defiled nature to begin with. Just as with Mad Max however, there is some hope to be found here, for the tyranny of these wizards can still be overcome through the power of the downtrodden masses. Communal resistance in the face of apocalyptic odds should certainly strike one as anapnoic, and as this setting was developed further it appeared to grow less harsh and unforgiving. This shows once again that post-apocalyptic stories need not exist as mere vehicles of misanthropy; they can wrest themes of hope and community from places where we least expect it. In this way, it inspires great resilience and solidarity, just one more reason why I believe anapnoic stories are worth telling.

The interactive and anapnoic does not confine itself to the tabletop, and so it is time to discuss some relevant videogames. Unfortunately, while the medium does not seem to be lacking in post-apocalyptic narratives, these mostly serve to excuse barbaric bloodshed, which do not exactly promote the thoughtful consideration of a post-civilizational society. To get at the anapnoic, one must thus either read between the lines of these popular products or turn towards niche games. An example of the former would be the Fallout franchise, which consists of several role-playing games in the cRPG and open world subgenres. Within the spectrum of anapnoic fiction, Fallout leans more towards the sci-fi end, even if its brand of science is pulpy rather than realistic. More recent installments have leaned into more generic post-apocalyptic tropes and themes, but its original setting was at least ambiguously anapnoic. In those earlier games, all kinds of new societies were flourishing on the west coast of the former United States, centuries after nuclear war had destroyed a 50s-retrofuturist society. Fallout’s thematic relation to this pre-apocalyptic world was disdainful, almost considering the post-nuclear wasteland to be a societal improvement on the cruelty of the fallen superpowers. It is a real shame that the newer games have leaned into themes of nostalgia about the old world instead, for the critique of traditional futurism is a prelude to the anapnoic. In promoting the annihilation of the civilizational behemoth that Cold War powers aspired to, Fallout was more radical than it may have realized.

Another popular game franchise hints at the anapnoic, though it’s a near-opposite to Fallout in terms of themes and genre. This is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the most recent entry into the fantasy action-adventure series developed by Nintendo. In a way, this game’s backstory meets the prerequisite of ‘societal decline’ twice over. The wilderness which gives the game its name is the result of both the slow decline of an advanced technological society, and the more immediate disaster that came with the arrival of a corrupting presence, which at the start of the game is only partially being contained by the princess Zelda. Since this corruption is presented as something to be overcome, we cannot call the main plot wholly anapnoic, especially because the evil powers manifest as primitive and beastly. Nevertheless, there’s a certain charm to the wilderness that even the game itself cannot deny, and it is unfortunate for the ultimate goal to be regressive; there may be nasty monsters and tragic ruins, yet to seek the eternal restoration of Zelda’s kingdom would just renew the thematic cyclicality that is implied throughout the game. Growth and decline play a game of back-and-forth throughout the deeper mythology of this franchise, one that I believe deserves to be broken by embracing the breath of the wild.

Of course, not all videogames are part of high-budget established franchises. Heading into the realm of indie development, I’d like to point towards one last game called Caves of Qud. This is a science fantasy roguelike with an ASCII-esque aesthetic, interested in deep simulation, procedural generation, and near-mythical histories of ancient sultans. All this comes together in a mechanically complex role-playing adventure game, which utilizes player imagination and designer detail to allow for great immersion despite a lack of realistic visuals. What results are impressions of dangerous wilds and scattered settlements, with hints of forgotten technologies and fallen civilizations. This is solid inspiration for any post-civilizational setting, and I’ll be sure to make use of this well of imagination in my own anapnoic pursuits.

With these last two parts complete, we now have a small multi-media archive of those fictions that collectively feed into the foundation of the anapnoic. In the fourth and final part, I will resume my advocacy for this newborn genre, refining its themes and giving some general advice on how to write anapnoically.

The judge was not a fair man. Could the cruelty of man really be explained through something as simple as the written and pictured, even when all could consume and create them? His perspective was too conservative, claiming that ignorance was bliss and that the new world should limit itself to the means of the prehistoric. We listened to this for too long, though luckily the lack of any texts meant that his words did not outlive him. If anything, history was written by the survivors, those few alphabetics who had hidden their skill during the purges. If the judge had been correct, they could have easily taken power at this point, reigning from their position of supreme textual intelligence. Yet their sense of community outweighed the supposed barbarism of recorded speech, and so the survivors set out to spread their gift once more. They were careful, spreading the means of both literal and critical understanding. The book, film, or game would neither be burned nor taken as dogma. Free people needed free stories, and free stories needed free people.

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