There was a mixed reaction this week to the news that UK health secretary Matt Hancock had looked towards a movie starring his namesake Matt Damon for inspiration when planning his country's Covid-19 vaccination programme. Apparently, during the early stages of the pandemic, Hancock repeatedly urged senior health officials to watch the final stages of Steven Soderbergh's 2011 film Contagion.
“He was constantly referring to the end of the film,” a former department of health and social care adviser told Sky. “He was always really aware from the very start, first that the vaccine was really important, second that when a vaccine was developed we would see an almighty global scramble for this thing.”
Twitter, predictably, was unimpressed. "Matt Hancock confirming that his response to the pandemic was helped by watching Contagion while Boris Johnson got a similar benefit from watching Mr Bean, " was a typical response. But the volume of catcalls was tempered by the indisputable fact that the British vaccine programme so far has been one of the fastest in the world.
It's not unusual for pop culture to prefigure historical events – or conversely for those events to be shaped by the culture which preceded them. Sometimes it can be hard to tell which of these is which. Descriptions of space travel in the books of Jules Verne and HG Wells in the 19th century influenced the scientists responsible for the technological breakthroughs that made space travel possible in the 20th. The way we think about subjects such as the internet, artificial intelligence and robotics is largely due to writers such as Isaac Asimov and William Gibson. Less consequentially, the hand-held communicators used by the crew of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek directly influenced Motorola's early prototypes for the mobile phone. And in 1976, US president Gerald Ford bowed to pressure from "trekkies" by announcing that the first space shuttle would be named Enterprise.
It's not all about space and robots. In the Edwardian era, there was a spate of novels (including one from the ever-prolific HG Wells) about an impending "world war" (the phrase didn't exist before the 1890s) in which aircraft, high-explosive artillery and machine guns would transform the nature of combat. Did the potboilers published around the same time by the Daily Mail about an inevitable conflict between Britain and Germany make that conflict more likely, or were they just an expression of already existing fears? Either way, it's often easy in retrospect to see the shape of things to come in the art and literature of the time.
So what might a future historian looking back at the early 21st century discern from the pop culture of our own era? Possibly a society fixated on visions of its own mortality. Post-apocalyptic fiction and drama has risen in popularity to become a genre in its own right, from the many flavours of zombiedom to the varying depictions of the consequences of environmental disaster and social collapse. Whatever the purported cause of the initial catastrophe, the aesthetic remains the same: ruined cities, wrecked shopping malls, deserted motorways, roaming bands of desperate, starving, brutalised survivors.
The trend is most pronounced in young adult fiction and drama aimed at teenagers. The latest of these, hot on the heels of dystopian time-travel German series Dark and Scandinavian eco-horror The Rain, is Tribes of Europa, which lands on Netflix on February 19th. Set in 2074, in a splintered Europe riven by wars among microstates, it follows three teenaged siblings who, the publicity bumpf tells us, are "forced to forge their own paths in an action-packed fight for the future of this new Europa".
Judging by the trailer, the series, shot in the Czech Republic with dialogue in German and English, aspires more towards a Tolkienesque hero-quest yarn (with a bit of Mad Max thrown in for good measure) than to the hyper-bleakness of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. That would be a relief and also a possible corrective to the notion that post-apocalyptic fiction is merely a harbinger of our impending doom. Yes, the genre is underpinned by real fears of ecological collapse, but it also allows for mythic stories which transcend the banalities of contemporary life. And in its young adult form, it helpfully kills off the older generation, giving full agency to its teenaged protagonists (who mysteriously manage to maintain pre-apocalyptic standards of hygiene and haircare in the most trying circumstances).
If Europe does revert to the Dark Ages, then Tribes of Europa may be as useful a guide as any for survival. However, I’ve seen that future too many times and I won’t be sticking around for it. Best of luck with the cannibals and the zombies.