Contributor Fleetwood Robbins is an editor, writer, and speculative fiction enthusiast.
In approaching the End of the World, one
should always come bearing a light heart. R.E.M. had that much right, at least.
Aside from knowing that the end is really just another beginning, we often look
to apocalyptic scenarios, hoping that some of the tender nature of humanity remains
in whatever is left of the world. I am reminded of The Road Warrior’s Lord Humungus—the Warrior of the Wasteland, the
Ayatolla of Rock and Rolla—and his offer of solace to his soldier
Wez, whose companion has just been killed with a razor-sharp boomerang. “Be
still my dog of war. I understand your pain. We’ve all lost someone we loved.”
In a movie known for its bleak
presentation of the world after the world, this is arguably the most
compassionate moment shared between the characters. Hope does exist, however.
The belief in a better world beyond the wasteland drives the movie and the
characters toward its conclusion. The end is never truly the end.
A Canticle for Liebowicz is a prime
example. In the wake of a global nuclear war, the survivors rebel against the
knowledge and science that allowed human society to nearly sew its own
destruction, but the Albertian Order of Liebowicz is formed in order to
preserve knowledge for a future renaissance. The Flame Deluge, as the nuclear war
is referred to in the book, serves much the same function as does the myth of
the great flood, an event that is visited upon humanity as a method to cleanse
it of vice and impurity. The flood is necessary to prepare humanity for a new
Less as a method of cleansing the world
of human corruption, the flood is used to great affect again in The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard,
who imagines a distant future in which solar radiation has melted the polar ice
caps and created a world of lush tropical flora and fauna. A fact-finding
mission to the more balmy southern climes leads a team of scientists into a
confrontation with the more regressive elements of human nature in Stangman, an
id-driven reaver of sorts, who has come to the flooded ruins of London to loot
what treasure lies beneath the water. Ever present in the narrative is
Ballard’s interest with Freudian psychoanalysis. How might living in an
environment similar to the Triassic period affect the thought and consciousness
of humanity? Ballard speculates we might regress. Who am I to argue?
Regression is an assumed state in a post-apocalyptic
world. It is often assumed the humanity will forget or lose its advanced
knowledge. The root of apocalypse, however, is revelation. The etymology of the
word comes from the Greek and Latin, where its meaning is closer to “disclosure.”
That which is occluded becomes revealed.
A common theme in end-of-the-world
scenarios is that even though we live our everyday lives in accordance with the
laws of civilization and society, those laws cannot prevent the inevitable
collapse of our values when faced with disaster. Venality, greed, and other
corruptions spill out of a shattered civilization like mercury from a broken
thermometer, always seeking the lowest point. But in revealing humanity’s vice
we are also shown its great virtue.
In Stephen King’s monumental novel, The Stand, the story’s heroes, in the wake of a
worldwide pandemic, strive for a free society based on the pillars of American democracy,
while the villainous Randall Flagg, working out of Las Vegas of all places,
stands as a brutal and tyrannical demagogue. They cling to that which is good,
hoping against hope to outstretch the darker shadows of human nature.
But as we are hoping to go into the end
of the world with a light heart, I suggest finally Cat’s
Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut, as always, delivers a very sad and darkly
funny novel in which a human scientific advancement turns out to have grave
consequences. If there is one thing present in almost all novels about the end
of the world, it is that humans are too smart for our own good.
Still, we merrily march along. The refrain as
always, “It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).”