“There is an expression in the Wasteland: “Old World Blues”. It refers to those so obsessed with the past they can’t see the present, even less the future, for what it is. ” – Dr. Mobius and Dr. Klein, Old World Blues
The beautiful thing about New Vegas is that it serves as a snow globe of 21st Century America. When the bombs fell, America stopped. All that we are is on display and played out for us to examine. The political climate of the Mojave represents a microcosm of American ideas and its many fractured ideals; the various factions that war in the various strata of conflict represent different struggles between different American ideologies.
I could explore at length the manifold metaphors and analogs within the Mojave to today’s America, how the New California Republic represents Manifest Destiny’s notion of taming and civilizing the Wasteland that belongs to them, how the Brotherhood of Steel signifies the stalwart Religious Right, how the Bright Followers walk the same path down which Joseph Smith led his flock, and how all of them and every other major faction in the Wasteland represent a different shard of the America that once was whole, but today I wish to explore something different.
Roughly halfway through the game, after the Courier has established a considerable reputation as a sort of Count of Monte Cristo, the key players in the Mojave ‑the NCR, Legion, and Mr. House- each want hir to deliver messages and diplomacy to expand their respective spheres of influence. The first place the Courier is sent is to Nellis Air Force Base to talk with the Boomers.
The Boomers, a tribe of former Vault-dwellers, are gun-happy, self-sufficient, and isolationist to a fault. Given the motif of Mojave-as-America, the Boomers are meant to symbolize the American spirit, with their fascination with Guns and Freedom. As BioShock’s Rapture represents a Randian Disneyland, Nellis represents the myth of what America could be, “ought to” be: an embodiment of the ideal of Freedom, an example of Washingtonian America in miniature.
Shortly before leaving the presidency, Washington wrote a letter to the American people giving his professional opinion on the direction the country ought to go as it grew. His philosophy was fairly straightforward: Free trade, limited but united governance, and resistance to foreign entanglements. Though America (both during and after his tenure) ignored his advice, Washington’s counsel remains a cherished ideal for many Americans. The Boomers revere these principles and endeavor to come as close as they can to Washington’s ideal.
Within the walls of Nellis, the Boomers have constructed a peaceful society where every person is armed from birth and taught how to use all the explosives and weapons hir little heart could ever desire. No conflict exists in the society because destruction of all feuding parties is of the mutually-assured flavor1, and frowns never stick around because grenades and howitzers make for marvelous stress-relievers. The Boomers never have any problems with outsiders (whom they call “Savages”), because anyone who wanders close enough to their gates gets a highly explosive greeting fired from the Boomer’s massive, friendly guns. It is the sound these guns make, as it would happen, that has inspired savages the Mojave over to call them Boomers.
I think I can demonstrate why the Boomers would so zealously adopt such a lifestyle. To do so, let us return to immediately post‑9/11 America. I was eleven at the time, and I couldn’t comprehend what was happening to my country. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a resurgence of American militarism and nationalism across the country, but especially among the Religious Right (to which I belonged). Within two years, we waged two wars, all with the hope of making our nation safer by seeking out and bombing the hell out of Terror wherever we perceived it.
At the core of the last decade’s violent behavior is the fundamental fear of the Other. It explains two distinct phenomena which I until very recently conflated, namely our rush to two unnecessary wars, as those dragged on (as Washington warned they would) the desire to be rid of entanglements with everyone, especially Mexico. Before 9/11, I had no concept of Islam, or what it meant to be Muslim. Afterward, I still couldn’t really get straight answers; they were from Outside our borders, and some of them attacked us, thus they were the enemy. We ran into war in Iraq when the United Nations wasn’t moving fast enough or giving them enough of a spanking.
However, the wars did not make us feel better. Our soldiers kept dying, and we didn’t feel much safer (As evidence, I submit that the TSA has grown steadily more obnoxious within the last five to seven years, not less). So, seeing a tremendous vulnerability to the south, Americans began clamoring for a wall all along our southern border so that no foreigners could come here and take all the jobs that nobody actually wants to do.
In retrospect, it is easy to wonder how we went so crazy so fast; why we were so quick to go to war against an ill-defined enemy (we weren’t fighting a nation, mind. We were fighting Terrorism, an enemy as widespread and faceless as Communism or Drugs or Evil). I knew many who became a very specific form of Libertarian (a movement which would later become the Tea Party), suspicious of the rest of the world and hungry for enough guns to wage private war against any Outsider. The biggest War Hawks, however, were the ones in power, the old school neocons that held the reins of this fearsome war horse we call America. Much of this transformation had to do with the fact that the invulnerable juggernaut of America had been sucker-punched. What we used to be, strong, courageous, and independent, was threatened. Far from being Exceptional, we were just as vulnerable to attack as anyone else. So we went to war to feel better about ourselves.
Alright, enough history lessons. Back to the game.
The Boomers were born of a similar, though more global, change to their worldview. Naturally no Boomer the Courier encounters was alive when the bombs fell, but the history of how they came to be entombed in Vault 34 was common knowledge. In fact, of all the factions in the Mojave2, none revere history and the Old World as much as the Boomers.
The Boomers revere their traditions and hold the story of the Past on high as an ideal to be pursued and jealously guarded. Pete, the Keeper of the Story, is a young boy who has memorized the history of the Boomers and their trials, and as a result holds a position of honor (A not-insignificant one, too, given that his society reveres history so much that it usually defers to its eldest member as leader). In the early part of the Courier’s acquaintance with the tribe, having a brief story-time session with Pete can go a long way toward winning their respect.
The Boomers began their life as a tribe underground, in the bowels of Vault 34, one of many bunkers designed to preserve humanity in the face of impending apocalypse. Vault 34 was designed with an abundance of luxury amenities (including a gigantic swimming pool) at the expense of living quarters. Moreover, the vault’s armory was purposefully overstocked and its doors had no locks. Given a lot of guns to play with and no privacy, the vault dwellers began to get stir-crazy. Eventually, a large portion of the population rebelled and struck out for greener pastures, so to speak. Free of the vault’s cramped conditions and blissfully isolated from the rest of the world, the Boomers live a life that would make Glenn Beck salivate. They live pretty much as they please, with a very loose social structure that allows for plenty of good ol’ fashioned Freedom. They have a supply of clean water, and are thus able to grow crops to sustain themselves, which means that they need not bother themselves with the affairs of the savages outside their walls. Should anything that looks vaguely human approach Nellis, the Boomers shell it into memory. Consequently, they have never dealt with outsiders in anything other than a militant capacity. The Boomers seemingly have hit upon the perfect solution for idyllic living in Post-Apocalyptia.
Listening to Pete’s story, it is striking how similar the Boomers’ story is to that of America’s birth. A group of disaffected citizens of a larger population body are denied certain perks that come with belonging to that body, a violent revolt ensues during which time shit gets wrecked, and the group sets off on its own. A fertile new home is found, “savages” are executed to secure the homeland, and the group now defends its borders/interests with ferocious firepower, perfectly content to pay no never mind to foreign entanglements.
But Fallout, with its bias toward adaptation and progressivism, suggests that it is a doomed life the Boomers live, that they are already stagnating and fated to destruction. A recurring theme of the series is that those who cling to the past, or those who tunnel, are doomed to fall. The Brotherhood of Steel and the Enclave fight over the rightful claim to a throne (that of the American presidency) that no longer exists. Caesar’s Legion is a joke that only one man gets, built in the image of an empire now doubly lost, and will thus collapse when he dies. The series has us take control of two Vault Dwellers, and each one gets exiled from a home that rolls the door shut behind hir. Can the Boomers, whose dedication to their grand illusion of America rivals that of the Brotherhood (who treat technology and the future like Ted Haggard treats drugs and homosexuality), really last forever? Are they even an institution worth saving?
Mother Pearl, the Boomer’s Elder and leader, sees the wisdom in meeting with Outsiders. Pearl is one of the last remaining Boomers to have actually been at Vault 34, which gives her a unique perspective on their way of life. Pearl is also one of the very few Boomers who are interested in the outside world. When the Courier survives their greeting and makes it to the front gates, the Boomers, flummoxed by a situation they never anticipated, take hir to speak with Pearl, who extends a cautious welcome and charges the Courier to take advantage of this unique opportunity to influence the tribe’s opinion of savages. The Courier, being the first Outsider dumb enough to run through a rain of Howitzer shells just to say “Hi”, becomes a sort of ambassador for the outside world, and can either confirm the Boomer’s suspicions of the savages outside Nellis’ gates or show that the rest of the Mojave might not be so bad after all.
An alliance with Nellis, with their respectable arsenal and aforementioned Howitzers, is a very tempting prospect for both Caesar’s Legion and the New California Republic in their struggle to rule the Mojave. In service to the quest-giver du jour, the Courier must win the compliance of the Boomers, which can be accomplished by doing a number of small tasks. The Boomers, however, are not interested in long-term binding alliances, an outlook which would make Father Washington weep with joy. Provided the Courier does not just kill them and take their land, the Boomers will for the most part remain solitary; endings vary from them staying inside Nellis, slowly drifting away, establishing trade relations, or to getting devoured by the Legion, but in no case does it seem as though the Boomers will gladly throw open their gates and fully integrate, which would make Washington weep.
Prior to the Second World War, America had been very effective at introducing the concept of Spheres of Influence and zealously defending them with the same grit and determination that obliterated and consolidated several Native American tribes and thumbed its nose at the chance to be a part of the Greatest. Empire. Ever.3
As with America’s dream of being a great, impenetrable juggernaut of a nation, the Boomers have a dream as well, that of soaring through the skies on a bit of American history. When the Courier has curried enough favor, the Boomers will ask hir to help resurrect a crashed B‑29 bomber from beneath Lake Mead so that they can rebuild it and realize their dream. A noble goal, to be sure, but their desire for the B‑29 is emblematic of the problems with America’s infatuation with the Way Things Were.
The problem with the bomber is that it crashed; the plane sucked at being a plane, and consequently went down. This is not to say that the B‑29 was a poor piece of machinery, far from it. I merely mean that this specific B‑29 crashed before it could ever do its country proud. Second, the B‑29 in question crashed three hundred thirty-three years before the Courier ever romped through the Mojave. Though the Boomers manage to restore the plane, one still must question the wisdom of flying an ancient plane that failed its attempts at plane-hood and holding it aloft as the solemn goal of one’s civilization. Sure, it might work for a while, but eventually it’s going to crash again and kill its pilots. This obsession with old and out-of-date equipment (and ideals) may provide short-term gain, but won’t hold up to long-term scrutiny.
It also occurs to me that the name “Boomers” itself might reference another generation born of war. The next generation to arise after WWII was called the “Baby Boomers” because, like the previous Oil and Land Booms, there became a glut of new babies which forced, among other things, the development of American suburbia. The Boomers themselves are a society in relative infancy, and it is heavily implied by Mother Pearl that it would probably be best for the tribe if it learned to play with its neighbors to the south (Nellis being located at the northeastern extremity of the Mojave).
In the Fallout games, there is no longer an America. America died when the bombs fell, and though there are many groups scurrying around attempting to rebuild and reestablish it, they are chasing a myth. There are at least six factions in New Vegas that are trying to reclaim the glory of the Past in one way or another, but none of them will ever succeed, because though America, the Old World, hasn’t changed, the world of Fallout has. The B‑29 that is the Old World can never fly from sea to shining sea. The NCR, by far the series’ most legitimate successor to the American spirit, is seen as weak and bloated for its philosophy of expansion beyond what it can sustain. The NCR’s vision is grand, but it cannot realize its ambitions of being the second coming of America. Any attempts to resurrect the Past can only succeed in small, isolated pockets, like the Boomers, the Enclave, or the Brotherhood of Steel, but even these run the risk of atrophying in their cult-like fanaticism for the Old World4.
The Mojave has changed. Though Mr. House glories in the fact that he preserved Las Vegas much as it was, one needs merely walk across the Mojave to see how hollow that preservation actually is. The tribes that once ruled the Wasteland were given roles and scripts they did not understand and told to act or else. Even the Kings, who of their own accord adopted the legacy of Elvis, don’t know what Elvis actually means. Though the look of Vegas is preserved on the Strip, it is merely a veneer. The soul of Vegas, as exemplified by countless dissidents across the Mojave, wants to be free, to change with a changed world.
Much as the Mojave is a different place two hundred years from now, America is not what it was two hundred years ago. We are no longer a confederation of sovereign states, but a nation, albeit a nation that has a bad case of growing pains and chokes on progress. This hesitance aside, we do work together, usually. And we are moving forward, becoming a country where slavery is finally illegal and being a gay person married to another gay person isn’t (in an increasing number of places). Things are a lot better now than they used to be, because we’re forced to work together for the good of that whole, and have even been known to cooperate with the other nations5. It does no good to speculate on the visions of long-dead men who couldn’t have, I don’t think, possibly imagined what we’d become in a little over two centuries. The fact is, the game has changed, and we have changed with it.
Well how about that. Something has changed. Happy Birthday, America, you magnificent bastard.
- The very flavor that made Fallout a post-nuclear role-playing game instead of just a role-playing game. [↩]
- Which include Mr. House, who SPOILERS is a living relic of the pre-war era, and the Legion, whose plagiarism of Rome’s history is so blatant and widespread that the real Caesar would have strong grounds to sue for copyright infringement. [↩]
- Yes, I mean Britain. [↩]
- This phenomenon is referred to as the Old World Blues, a name which is applied to a group of scientists who sealed themselves away in a Science-Dome before the bombs fell and were very literally dehumanized in their efforts to preserve the old ways. [↩]
- To borrow from Dr. Seuss, “Except when we don’t. Because sometimes we won’t.” [↩]