You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Thursday, December 9, 2010


The world, or at the very least life as we know it, ended nine times for me this past year.

In January I went on a J.G. Ballard reading binge, starting from his first published novels, The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World. The one early Ballard I didn't read was The Wind From Nowhere, but Ballard has disowned that novel and it is both hard to come by and pricey. The fate of planet Earth in the three I did read is more or less self-evident from their titles. In The Drowned World water, set loose by solar flares that change the planet's atmosphere, floods the continents, leaving them to reptiles, fish, a few research scientists, and bands of outlaws. Pollution places a kind of impermeable skin over the ocean, prevents evaporation, and produces The Drought.It does start to rain again after a decade or so, but the first daffodils of spring remain a long way off and there will be only a handful of people, many of whom are not very nice, to enjoy them. The Crystal World is at heart a Graham Greene novel. The setting is Central Africa, the odor of gin and adultery are in the air, and everyone and everything is undergoing a sea change that leaves them encrusted in gorgeous crystals. The crystalized creatures, whether humans or crocodiles, possibly remain sentient in their new, paralyzed state. By the end of the novel we learn the process has begun in Miami Beach. As I said before, I did not read The Wind from Nowhere, but I assume that in Ballard's freshman effort a wind -- from nowhere -- causes a great deal of damage.

My January 2010 involved three apocalypses in as many weeks, and as I continued to read sf I found myself witnessing the end of the world about once a month. (Most sf takes place in distant futures where life is very changed but remains a continuation of the times in which the authors wrote and shows not proclivity towards immediate annihilation.) Here is a list of what does us in.

1) Environmental catastrophe (no fault of our own.) I would put The Drowned World in this group. In the distant future of Brian Aldiss' Hot House, a cooling sun and some other cosmic occurrences leave the earth covered by an enormous baobab tree, all manner of fantastic and fantastically dangerous plants, and bands of plucky, three-foot-tall humanoids. I read some one grousing that the science in Hot House is all hogwash, but its a fun story.

2) Environmental catastrophe (our bad.) The Drought obviously fits this category, but as a plot device, Ballard's thin membrane of pollutants over the surface of the ocean places a poor second to the strain of mutant Bermuda grass that conquers the planet in Ward Miller's Greener Than You Think.

3) Nuclear disaster. There are countless books with this theme, I just happened not to read more than one of them. Brian Aldiss' Greybeard takes place in a world where the unfortunate timing of secret nuclear tests releases radiation that leaves the world sterile. There are lots of old people. Towards the end there are some new young people. But they are very strange and hid out in the bushes or behind rocks.

4) Disease. The hero of George R. Stewart's The Earth Abides, lies in his mountain cabin feverish from a snakebite, and awakens to find that most everybody else has up and died. But there are others who proved immune to the disease, and we become involved in the lives of a community that makes it way into an unknown future. For the children born into this ruined world, it is all a kind of playground, so long as the canned goods hold out. The hero has carefully preserved the UC Berkeley library, so civilization can start again. But he realizes by the end he is witnessing a new society of hunter gatherers, illiterate kids already adept a developing better ways of catching fish and killing mountain lions. This book has really stayed with me, and I have forgiven it for inspiring Stephen King's The Stand.

5) Transfiguration. This is the most hopeful scenario. In Arthur C. Clarke's classic Childhood's End, the children of the earth take the next evolutionary step that propels humankind, if it still is humankind, into the greater consciousness of the cosmos. The Crystal World also fits this category, but putting a positive spin on its climax is only for the glass-half-full crowd.

6) It's bound to happen sooner or later. In Poul Anderson's Tau Zero, colonists headed for a new, earthlike planet find themselves on a ship gone out of control, its speed approaching the speed of light. They have aged only a few years by the time they realize that the Earth is dead. Eventually they are propelled so far into the future that the universes collapses and they ride out the edge of a second big bang. All that's left for them to do is hang around a few weeks until they can find a new planet about 6000 years old and makes themselves at home.

Which of these apocalyptic options still hold serious sway with the 21st century imagination? I don't think transfiguration is really in the running, except among web 2.0 types who await the singularity when our machines think for themselves and we become more or less useless. Maybe I'm naive, but even with North Korea and Iran currently lead by certifiably insane regimes, I don't spend my time worrying about nuclear disaster. The ongoing craze for zombies speaks to the continuing potency of disease metaphors, but the threat of an new superbug is not very high on my list of eschatological fantasies. That leaves environmental catastrophe, but only unpatriotic, lame-assed intellectuals still believe in that crap.

What's left out of this list of books, all published between 1950 and 1970, is the one event that now dominates our thinking about human extinction. Asteroids. Those deadly chunks of nickel and ice hurtling around space, just looking for a place to land. Didn't people know about asteroids back then? Not in the books I've been reading.

Personally, I put my extinction event money on an asteroid, meteor, comet, or some other not-so-heavenly body. It's going to happen sooner or later, maybe in 200 years or 2,ooo,oo0. But I really believe one of them out there has our name on it. And if a meteor was good enough for the dinosaurs, why shouldn't we be the next in line.

1 comment:

  1. Asteroids have done it before. Diseases have nearly done it before. The next ice age may be a big challenge; human civilization happens, very neatly, to have arisen after the end of the last one. And as Jared Diamond pointed out in Collapse, many societies (though not yet mankind as a whole) have managed to do themselves in. I'm still kind of fond of nuclear disaster too; what happens in America with crazies and guns could happen globally if/when nukes become widespread and your neighborhood hothead starts popping them off.

    So many possibilities.