Ways the World Ends

Various American authors, both in-genre and out of it, have depicted the end of the world as we know it. Some are more interested in the how and why, while in others the end of the world is in the background rather than the fore. Some stories climax in the apocalypse, while others use it as a piece of background setting. Writing depicting the end of the world goes back centuries, and has frequently had a religious cast, but apocalyptic fiction has especially flourished in the past seventy years with the advent of science fiction as a definable genre and with the accelerated development of potentially world-ending technologies, all manner of which have been deployed by different authors to different effects.

As one might expect, much fiction about the world’s end was written in the 1950s and 1960s, when an all-consuming nuclear holocaust seemed terrifyingly possible.  The tense Cold War atmosphere provided fuel for many genres, from science fiction to spy thrillers, but it effectively pushed apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, a science fiction theme since H.G. Wells, into a full-fledged sub-genre of its own.

Alas, Babylon, (1959) by Pat Frank, is one of the earliest examples of this Cold War fiction. It depicts a conflict in Syria overflowing into a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union that ravages both countries, and is portrayed from the viewpoint of a small town on the Gulf coast. In A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), Walter Miller starts the story about half a millennium after a Cold War Armageddon. It begins in an American desert where the world’s knowledge is preserved only in monasteries and young monks share tales of mysterious demons called ‘Fallout.’  The story skips centuries several times to depict the rebirth of science and civilization and reaches a grim climax with reborn humanity destroying itself in a second nuclear apocalypse.  The specter of nuclear Armageddon continued to haunt post-Cold War fiction, including Joseph Heller’s last novel Closing Time (1994) which ends just as the bombs start going off.

American authors have found other ways to end the world. In his famous doorstopper The Stand (1978), Steven King destroys most of humanity with a ‘superflu’ virus that escapes from a US Army testing facility. Being over a thousand pages long, The Stand finds plenty of space to describe both the end of the world and its aftermath in detail.  The ‘science gone mad’ trope can be found it other apocalyptic fiction, such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963), a satire on the arms race where life on earth is destroyed by the accidental release of an engineered molecule called Ice-9.

In Mary Engh’s Arslan (1976), another virus destroys civilization, this time by rendering women infertile. Unlike King’s superflu, this disease is spread intentionally by the titular Central Asian warlord who, in a story that puts new play on Cold War paranoia, conquers the United States and oversees his reign of terror from a small town in central Illinois.  Rather than ending humanity in a manner of weeks, Arslan’s virus results in the slow withering of civilization and the resurgence of untamed nature.

In his debut novel The Genocides (1965), Thomas Disch finds a new way to destroy humanity by having unseen aliens seed the earth’s surface with massive plants that effectively destroy the planet’s ecosystem. In Disch’s novel, humankind is driven to extinction by an extraterrestrial farming project. This sort of Darwinian parable recalls the novels of English author John Wyndham (Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos) more than the nuclear doomsday of most American fiction in that era.

There is also a variety of fiction that is set after the apocalypse and provides little specification on how that apocalypse started, preferring instead to follow a handful of characters closely through the ruin. Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (1954) follows what is possibly the last human on earth as he navigates a barren wasteland filled with vampires. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) focuses on a father and son in a spare and lyrical novel. Samuel Delany’s surreal, labyrinthine Dhalgren (1975) depicts a collection of characters who arrive in the ravaged city of Bellona.

Other fiction goes beyond the world’s end. Aside from the aforementioned Canticle for Leibowitz, another classic of this subgenre comes from Gene Wolfe, whose Book of the New Sun  (1980) depicts a world in the far future where the sun is dying and the world has reverted to a medieval state filled with the mysterious hi-tech remnants of previous civilizations.  This ‘dying earth’ sub-genre was given its name and style by American author Jack Vance, and has been continued by others such as Englishman M. John Harrison in his Viriconium series.

Stories depicting the world’s end have come in a variety of forms with a variety of purposes. Many stories, especially those made during the Cold War, are cautionary tales about technology run amok and contain heavy doses of social commentary. Others are more focused on individual characters trying to survive in extremely bleak circumstances. Others still use the end of our current world as a springboard to build an entirely new one on its ashes. The moods of these stories varies as well, from Vonnegut’s satire to McCarthy’s grim poetry to King’s good-versus-evil epic. Perhaps the one thing the end of the world lends to all these stories is a sense of gravity. The weight of things lost adds a constant somber undertone to all these stories, whether they are take place on Pat Frank’s Florida coast or under Gene Wolfe’s red old sun.

 -Scott Ondercin

Want to learn about a real-life (almost) apocalypse averted by an American hero? Join Daniel Ellsberg, the man behind The Pentagon Papers, at the American Writers Museum tonight, December 7, 2017 at 7:30 p.m. to discuss and sign his new book, The Doomsday Machine. $5 suggested donation, books will be sold before and after the event. RSVP here.

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