We’re Obsessed With Stories About The End Of The World. But Then We Always Have Been


The end of the world is in the air. Should we be surprised? The climate emergency claws at every aspect of our lives, from holidays to the cost of food. We’ve just lived through a global pandemic. War in Europe continues, while the UN describes a genocide emerging in Gaza. The news is not good.

Culture responds. Dorian Lynskey highlights some recent touchstones at the start of his capacious survey of apocalyptic narratives. Bo Burnham’s 2021 Netflix special Inside ironised the distress of inhabiting – surviving, just about – a world in which we are all locked indoors. Lynskey quotes lines from the song ‘That Funny Feeling’: ‘Hey, what can you say? We were overdue/But it’ll be over soon, you wait.’ In cinema, there’s been the 2021 ‘doomsday satire’ Don’t Look Up, as well as last year’s Leave the World Behind (which appeared too late for inclusion here). And then there are the zombies. ‘The early twenty-first century has seen a global pandemic of zombie movies, from the US and UK to South Korea, India, Argentina and Japan. Metaphors pile up like bodies,’ Lynskey writes. 

The books have also piled up, particularly in the young-adult space. Young adults can’t get enough of apocalypse or its aftermath, it would seem. Lynskey quotes some eye-popping stats: ‘A peer-reviewed 2021 survey of people aged between sixteen and twenty-five around the world found that 56 per cent agreed with the statement, “Humanity is doomed”.’

Evidently, the time is ripe for a survey of the branch of cultural production concerned with the end of the world. And yet, as Lynskey points out, tales have been told about it for as long as we’ve been doing story. J G Ballard, whose work is given rich and perceptive attention in the chapter ‘Catastrophe’, wrote in 1977: ‘I would guess that from man’s first inkling of this planet as a single entity existing independently of himself came the determination to bring about its destruction.’

Lynskey’s previous book, The Ministry of Truth (2019), was an astute and well-received history of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, considering both its genesis and its impact. In that work, he brought to bear the knowledge and insight he has acquired as a music critic and a commentator on politics. The influence of Orwell’s book was tracked through its many manifestations in popular culture – TV’s Big Brother and Room 101, to give just two examples.

Everything Must Go is a very different proposition from its tightly focused predecessor. More than two hundred years’ worth of narratives concerning the end of the world have been chewed through. Lynskey’s definition of what constitutes such a story is roomy. It can involve ‘the total demolition of the planet itself, the extinction of the human race, and the collapse of civilization, which is to say the end of the world as we know it’. That last allows a lot of space for interpretation.

The book is organised into seven parts – ‘The Last Man’, ‘Impact’, ‘The Bomb’, ‘Machines’, ‘Collapse’, ‘Pandemic’, ‘Climate’. These themselves comprise multiple chapters. ‘Climate’, for example, contains chapters entitled ‘Too Hot’, ‘Too Many People’, ‘Too Cold’ and ‘Too Late’. With the prologue, the epilogue, notes and index, it’s a whopping five hundred pages of end-times. Lynskey maintains his good humour throughout.

Lynskey’s method is to describe the real-world events and scientific discoveries that have animated different waves of doomsday narratives, then detail the narratives themselves. The roots of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) and Byron’s poem ‘Darkness’ (1816), for example, are located in the three years of climate change that followed the eruption, the largest in recorded history, of Mount Tambora in 1816. The concurrent fervour for the vast ruinscapes of John Martin and the more general Romantic enthusiasm for ruins are placed in the context of the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii in 1738 and 1748 respectively, and Georges Cuvier’s development – thanks to the discovery of fossils – of the theory of extinction.

Lynskey has a journalist’s eye for a great story and a killer quotation. The epigraphs alone are worth the price of entry. ‘We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark,’ said President Harry S Truman in 1945. Details leap off the page: ‘NASA places all potentially dangerous bodies within 200 million kilometres of Earth under the umbrella of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs).’ Lynskey’s writing is particularly animated when it alights on figures like Philip Wylie, who wrote the all-but-forgotten popular novels Gladiator (1930), ‘about a professor who experiments on his son in the womb and raises “a super-child, an invulnerable man”’, and When Worlds Collide (1933), ‘a milestone in the history of impact fiction’. Just occasionally, hip phrasing – ‘Isaac Newton was also a fiend for Revelation’ – comes close to undermining solid research.

Lynskey is ridiculously well informed. The sheer volume of material processed is daunting. In places, it can be a double-edged sword, leading to passages such as this, on postwar pandemic fiction: 

The killer bug in Michael Crichton’s 1969 techno-thriller The Andromeda Strain, the title of which became shorthand for a sudden and virulent pandemic, is an extraterrestrial organism, harvested by a military satellite for bioweapons research. Such research produces a potentially annihilating strain of poliovirus in Alistair MacLean’s 1962 potboiler The Satan Bug, threatens to garland the earth with a ‘necklace of death’ in the James Bond film Moonraker, makes the world a graveyard in Kinji Fukasaku’s remorselessly depressing 1980 movie Fukkatsu no Hi (Day of Rebirth) and unleashes vampirism in The Omega Man.

Phew. Two books and three films in two sentences. Even allowing for lockdown downtime, that’s a lot of reading and watching.

The mammoth scope of the project and the tendency towards completism mean that there is not a lot of space for textual analysis. When the works under review are subjected to scrutiny, Lynskey’s crits are lively and useful, but they rarely run to more than a paragraph or two. The book as a whole becomes an extended literature survey. There is a value to this: Darko Suvin’s monograph on science fiction was essentially a canon-making survey, so cataloguing everything on the field of play can be a worthwhile activity.

The structure here, though, with accounts of historical developments preceding discussion of the fictional responses, is constraining. Even when works are tagged as metaphorical, allegorical or parodic, they’re lined up alongside the bluntly literal. Lynskey acknowledges that not every meteor is actually a meteor, but I’ve often wondered if it’s even accurate to think of surrealist cataclysm stories as end-of-the-world stories. They’re about what’s inside the head, not outside it.

Throughout, I couldn’t help but want Lynskey’s thoughts on the ways in which the kinds of texts, films and artworks he discusses have formally changed in response to apocalypse-anxiety-inducing events. How their shape and tone have altered seems every bit as significant as the ways in which their content has evolved. Take, for example, satirical apocalyptic narratives, which have a long and eminent history, as Lynskey demonstrates, invoking both well-known and brilliantly obscure examples. These aren’t really the same as end-of-the-world stories. They’re often about the kinds of people who write or consume end-of-the-world stories, and are frequently ambiguous or ironic. The introduction, with its quotation of Bo Burnham and Lauren Oyler’s 2021 novel Fake Accounts offers the promise that such fascinating cultural moods might be explained. The argument does not reach beyond a critique of presentism that takes its lead from Frank Kermode, with Lynskey noting that ‘we like to think that our own time is a unique and crucial turning point.’

The epilogue delivers the kind of resolution common in non-fiction quest narratives. What has the writer learned? How has he been changed by his immersion in these stories? We’re informed that those who literally believe in the end of the world are the people we should be concerned about and that often love carries the day. The neutral judgement that ‘invoking the end is entirely legitimate for writers of speculative fiction’ made me think that such people didn’t seem to have been waiting for permission. 

The Ballard line Lynskey quotes in the introduction is chopped halfway. In the original, Ballard went on to suggest that cataclysmic stories are ‘part of the same impulse we see in a placid infant who wakes alone in his cot and sets about wrecking his entire nursery’ and ‘an attempt to dismantle the formal structure of time and space which the universe wraps around us at the moment we first achieve consciousness’. Lynskey’s impressive and encyclopedic book is a rich guide to an important subset of science fiction, but the subject warrants further exploration.





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