They say good fences make good neighbors. They also say you should avoid building a rust-hued shantytown around an unexploded thermonuclear weapon, and—if at all possible—not wander around in the bad parts of Washington, D.C. after dark. These are things they say, usually in that order.
Fallout 3 puts each of these time-honored adages to the test. Owing to a little dustup between the United States and China, the world has become fairly inhospitable to organic life. To survive, various societies have sprung up all over the country—the Washington, D.C. wastelands get explored in this case—each with a different approach to making lemonade out of a horror too gruesome to contemplate.
One community’s solution is to wall itself off from the irradiated killing fields inside a secure underground vault. These vault dwellers have learned to function as a self-contained entity, with almost no one coming or going. They don’t know what’s going on outside, and they don’t want to know what’s going on outside. If life in the vault proves a mildly fascistic and sterile existence, at least it’s not an altogether unpleasant one—all things considered. They have some measure of safety, but at what cost? The citizens of Vault 101 essentially traded their freedom for security, hunkering down in a facility designed to keep them safe and sustainable for nearly a thousand years. But the vault has rules, and its governing elite doesn’t look kindly on those prone to asking uncomfortable questions. Depending on your point of view, the vault dwellers can look less like neighbors and more like cellmates.
But what’s the alternative, really? Those insisting on the necessity of a totally closed society do have a point: Why should the vault engage with the outside world when most of what once was Capitol Hill is now full of chain-gun-wielding super mutants only slightly less repulsive than the slimeball politicians they replaced on the evolutionary ladder? What force is stronger than the bonds of human fellowship, if not a 3-foot-thick, hermetically sealed door designed to withstand a direct nuclear strike?
It’s not in Vault 101, but instead in nearby Megaton where we look for answers to these big questions.
In popular fiction, when zombies, plagues, or GMOs lay waste to the planet, humanity tends to huddle around barrels of burning trash and sometimes band together to fend off the feral coyote-wolf hybrids hounding them at every turn. Well, Megaton is like an enormous flaming trash barrel, and it has more than a few unshaven hobos shivering around its central, yet to be ignited, atomic flame. Yet while they lack many of the obvious protections enjoyed by those living inside the vault, as well as any semblance of personal hygiene, the citizens of Megaton have learned to depend on the person next to them to get along. In many ways, it’s the ideal post-apocalyptic neighborhood.
There’s Lucas Simms, the town’s 10 gallon hat-wearing sheriff/jack-of-all-jurisprudence. There’s one-eyed, semi-reformed highwayman Billy Creel, and there’s Confessor Cromwell of the town’s resident religious sect, The Church Of The Children Of Atom, spouting his amusingly insane prophecies. This community has all the charm of Mayberry, without white picket fences, Little League fields, or trappings of civil society.
Sure, Megaton might not be an ideal place to build a summer home, but it’s downright quaint when considered alongside other end-times groups. In John Wyndham’s 1955 novel The Chrysalids, for instance, the future is a place where any genetic abnormality is treated as blasphemy. Individuals who deviate from the norm are banished from the community. A young girl’s six toes, for instance, could easily incur God’s mighty wrath, so she has to get the five-toed boot. (Everyone knows that supreme beings hate extra digits.) Doomsday religions tend to flourish in these situations, as preachers shout “I told you so! You didn’t repent hard enough! You have six toes!” from their pulpits. Megaton’s Church Of The Children Of Atom is tame in comparison. As long as they can worship their bomb god, they’re pretty much good with everyone else doing what they want. The Children believe nuclear war was a good and necessary thing, and every day for them is like being plutonium-raptured anew.
A similar sentiment pervades J.G. Ballard’s 1962 novel, The Drowned World. The year is 2145. Solar radiation has melted the ice caps and flooded much of North America and Europe, turning the former first world into a string of pre-historic tropical lagoons. Dr. Kerans and his fellow scientists have been sent to study the rapidly evolving (devolving?) flora and fauna but find themselves gradually losing their grip on rational thought. Kerans eventually abandons science in favor of a return to primal normalcy for a species too long alienated by science and technology. Humans are no longer at the top of the food chain, and that suits Kerans just fine.
Outside of Megaton’s walls, it’s much the same. Bloatflies, radscorpions, and rampaging mutant behemoths have effectively pushed mankind from its perch at the top of nature’s hierarchy. The citizens of Megaton have accepted this state of affairs, and therein lies their salvation. Mankind must not seek to dominate or supplant the bloatfly. Mankind must themselves become the bloatfly.
This is all to say, despite its obvious drawbacks, Megaton isn’t all that bad. It’s certainly better than a place like The Republic Of Dave, with its ever-shifting systems of governance, or Rivet City, with its class antagonisms. Megaton and the vault represent two competing visions of society. If the parallels in our own pre-apocalyptic world are obvious, they’re still worth pointing out. Amid revelations of rampant data collection by the NSA, men held indefinitely without trial at black sites run by the CIA, and general Orwellian grotesqueries perpetrated in the name of security, are we not essentially vault dwellers ourselves? What actions can’t be justified in the name of illusory safety?
I’ll leave that question to better minds. What I do know is this: I’d rather be hoisting a lukewarm mug of Nuka-Cola and eating bloatfly steaks with the weirdos in Megaton than hiding from the world inside the vault, choking down plastery Soylent paste, and pretending the world outside is a bad dream. I imagine there’s something empowering about waking up every day to see a warhead parked on Main Street. If you’re okay with that, what else is there to be afraid of?