I’m taking part in several panels at the World SF Convention in London this August (details here). Below are a few thoughts for the panel ‘Not with a Bang, but with a Metaphor’ (Thursday, 14th August, 12:00 – 13:30 Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)). The other panellists will be Jacob Weisman, David Hebblethwaite, Paul Weimer and Noa Menhaim.
From Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, apocalyptic and dystopian futures are a perennial favourite with writers who might be labelled ‘mainstream’ or ‘literary’. Why do such scenarios have an appeal that goes beyond a genre readership? What does a non-genre apocalypse have to offer that a science fictional one might not, and vice versa? Do we all share broadly similar nightmares, regardless of what ratio of science to sensibility we prefer?
Apocalypse is indeed a perennial theme, and to say that its appeal extends beyond an SF readership, is a fairly massive understatement. Look at the story of Noah’s Ark. The whole of civilisation is wiped out except for one man and his family, who have to start all over again, alongside the few animals they’ve saved from the flood. What is that if not a classic apocalyptic story? And the familiar Biblical story, old in itself, is based on a much older story which can be found in written form on a Sumerian tablet some 3600 years old. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is equally apocalyptic : two cities completely consumed by fire .
In fact the use of word ‘apocalypse’ to describe such scenarios is itself Biblical in origin. The word means ‘revelation’ in Greek, and has come to mean global destruction because of its association with the Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, which prophesies the end of the world. Not that the concept is unique to Judeo-Christian tradition and its Middle Eastern forebears. Flood stories are found in divese cultures all around the planet, including Native American cultures isolated from the rest of humanity for tens for thousands of years. Norse mythology imagined the destruction of the world in a cosmic battle called Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods.
So, yes, apocalypse is hardly a specialist SF interest, though SF certainly provides some excellent tools to tell apocalyptic stories in the context of the modern world.
As to their appeal. Well, we humans are aware not only of our own vulnerability and mortality but of the vulnerability and mortality of our civilisation, our species, the universe itself. It’s quite a thing to know about. And for tens of thousands at least, we have made pictures of things that are important to us, things that we long for, things that we dread, perhaps in the hope that by containing things in this way, reducing them to something we can shape and control, we will be better able to get hold of the things we want and stave off the things that threaten us. I guess those two things go some way to explaining why we keep coming back to apocalyptic scenarios?
An interesting question, though, is which category the apocalypse story really belongs in, the things we dread or the things we long for? Millions of years of evolution have ensured that all our basic drives make us struggle against death, fiercely defend the fantastic complexity that makes us alive against the forces of disintegration. Yet at the same time we know, because a capacity for reason also part of our evolutionary inheritance, that death is the end of all longing and fear. The story of the Flood, the Book of Revelation, and the myth of Ragnarok all envisage a purified new world arising from the ruins of the old one, and it seems to me that apocalyptic fiction, while ostensibly about disaster is often rather appealing, to its readers at least and sometimes (as in Ballard’s Drowned and Crystal worlds, for instance), even to its characters. Perhaps the sweetest state of all is to be alive in the world, but freed by a time limit from the burden entailed in living?