Literature, science fiction

Apocalypse in Fiction: Then and Now

Christopher Palmer, author of Apocalypse in Crisis, explores the rise of apocalyptic fiction since the end of the Second World War, shining a light on the relevance of current crises to the genre.

            One thing that the experience of the last few years has forced on us is that we are not allowed one crisis or emergency at a time. The Covid virus seems all-encompassing, truly global, but so is the climate crisis, pressing its importance on us in fierce fits and starts. The rise of Trump-Johnson populism bedevils attempts to deal with the other prevailing emergencies and stimulates idiocy. The prospect of the dominance of AI looms. Contemporary society seems at times like a neurotic with so many symptoms that diagnosis is impossible.

            The current situation casts an interesting light on apocalyptic fiction, which has flourished since 1945. This blog presents some quick notes and reflections on the trajectory of apocalyptic fiction in Britain and America from the end of the Second World War to now. This genre of fiction has now arrived at somewhat the same place as we have, after many expansions and reactions.  The apocalyptic is an unstable and even at times a dangerous category, after all: simplifying and liberating, releasing dark desires and the enjoyment of destruction, tempting the imagination to go further into all-embracing chaos but also inciting resistance to the notion that catastrophe binds the globe and everyone on it into one story, a kind of total narrative. 

Approaches to Terminal Mortality

            We are all going to die: a fact of mortality. Apocalypse involves global catastrophe. Everyone or almost everyone dies. Apocalyptic fictions, thence, must face our collective mortality. Yet in various ways they do not, or cannot.  For instance, they seldom bring themselves to look at the piles of corpses that must have accompanied catastrophe. Instead they feature ruins, absence, abandonment. Again, there have to be survivors for there to be a story at all, though the story may consist in waiting for the absolute end. Children are the signs of coming generations that mitigate our collective mortality and apocalyptic fictions often pay particular attention to children.

            Individual, single death can substitute for and sometimes, in effect, refuse mass death, and apocalyptic fictions often focus on the deaths of individuals, having elided mass death, or banished it to before the story begins.  So it is with the death of the child Joey in Earth Abides (George R. Stewart) and the death of the baby in On the Beach (John Wyndham). Or children can miraculously reappear in a world in which humans have become sterile, waiting through old age for extinction (the end of Brian Aldiss, Greybeard; and the miraculous birth that is like that of Jesus in P. D. James, The Children of Men). The spectre of oblivion haunts J. G. Ballard’s apocalyptic novels: their protagonists fall into self-assertion by negation, the choice of submission to the catastrophe rather than resistance to it. Relations between men and women are always failed or tepid in these novels by Ballard: not the slightest chance of offspring.

The Children of Men, P.D. James.
Copyright – Faber & Faber

Apocalypse as Release

            Catastrophe sweeps away society, civilization, government, cities. One consequence of this is an enormous clarification and simplification. The survivors now know what to do; the simple daily task of survival can broaden into a refoundation of civilization. The writer knows what to do too: a direct, plain narration, the recounting of a witness. This release is the keynote in many of the British disaster novels of the 1940s and 1950s – there is even a reassertion of the immediate and domestic (gardening, fishing) in On the Beach, where everyone eventually dies, even the baby and the family pet.

            In the history of the apocalyptic novel since 1945, it is a while before darker feelings are released among the survivors – and with the imagination of this, a much richer, connotative, image-laden style of narration than had prevailed. In the 1960s and later, apocalyptic fiction overflows the boundaries and conventions of science fiction, which are themselves mutating and expanding. If the catastrophe was the work of nature or was brought about by human actors out of the ken and the control of the rest of humanity, then ordinary individuals are merely victims and witnesses, and the effect of catastrophe can even be a liberating one. Such is the situation in many novels of the 1940s and 1950s. But disaster may be attractive, darkly desirable, and the survivors may embody this darkness, and act on it. For worse and better (usually worse) the source of catastrophe is us, our energies and desires. This is explored in many apocalyptic fictions of the 1960s and later, for instance in Ballard’s gloomy images of nature ruined or fetid and humans following bizarre or closed-in impulses, or in Angela Carter’s lyrical embrace of pleasure, fecundity and mess in Heroes and Villains; in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis destruction is embodied in and precipitated by the central character; in Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma it stems from the emptiness of the lives of the central characters, trapped in ennui and consumption, and redoubles that emptiness, because the apparent end of the world is a fake. In earlier apocalyptic fiction, the reader knows what the catastrophe is, or the text is dedicated to revealing it (as in Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End). In later, more recent apocalyptic fiction catastrophe is redefined and also diffused, though it is also true that many features even of traditional apocalypse reappear in more recent apocalyptic fiction – the figure of Anti-Christ, for instance (Cosmopolis), or that of the false prophet (in Heroes and Villains, Anthony Burgess, The End of the World News, Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers).

Event and Process

            These darker, uncomfortable developments are shaped by a change that comes over the depiction of catastrophe after the 1950s. It is no longer an event, it is a condition; individuals are less its victims and witnesses than its vectors or, at least, they are immersed in its on-going spread.  It is no longer clarifying or simplifying. Those involved struggle to understand its dimensions and symptoms, and to distinguish the signs of apocalyptic disintegration from those of postapocalyptic recovery, as is the plight of the survivor who is at the centre of the text in Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor.

            The Second World War could be felt as a single global event, involving everyone in the same vast narrative, pulling everyone together, and also, in its unfolding, creating the means for another single, global catastrophe, the atom bomb and nuclear war. Awareness of this inspires and shapes post-war narratives of apocalypse as single and all-embracing. As time passes other factors shape apocalyptic fiction: Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains, for instance, uses the simplification brought about by catastrophe to explore and celebrate new relations of power and pleasure. The sheer number and weight of apocalyptic fictions prompts scepticism and new narrative departures. An appetite for doom and excess can prompt reaction – the complexities and chance collisions of comedy (The End of the World News), or a struggle against a flat refusal of the way apocalypse shuts everyone and everything into one story (Arno Schmidt’s protagonist in Nobodaddy’s Children). The habit of thinking in terms of crises, a habit that has proliferated from the Cold War to our own days (Covid, Climate Change, Populism, and much more – overlapping crises in whose midst we find ourselves) – prompts a turn away from the event to the condition, the process, to multiplicity. The scope and variety of apocalyptic fiction is hugely broadened, and in the course of this the nature of the catastrophe is put into question as its symptoms proliferate. The wrecked, fragmented world of Jeff VanderMeer’s recent novel Dead Astronauts is scarified by ecological disaster, child abuse, cruelty to animals, biogenetics run mad. Continuity of self and of story is intermittent, no more than glimpsed; repetition threatens, and indeed takes over for pages at a stretch.

            It would be unwise to assert that Dead Astronauts takes the imagination of apocalypse to an end point of extremity, but it certainly reaches a provisional benchmark as regards that aspect. The long series of grim imaginations of apocalypse also, on the other hand, prompts a reaction, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth is a good example of this. It is a pre-apocalyptic novel. In Green Earth climate catastrophe hasn’t yet happened and is not inevitable; in fact, it is averted, and the novel delineates all the scientific, social and (even) political resources available for this task. Green Earth is centred on the United States; Robinson’s later novel The Ministry for the Future, tells of a possible global management of the climate crisis. Is Robinson too optimistic, given the failure of governments to face the facts and then act?  Has VanderMeer run the grim imagination of catastrophe into a dark cul de sac?

Green Earth by Kim Stanley Robinson
Green Earth, Kim Stanley Robinson.
Copyright – Penguin Books

Fiction of Catastrophe, Non-fiction of Disaster

            Catastrophe in apocalyptic fictions is universal, or almost so. In contrast, when we have more localised disaster, the changed setting can introduce possibilities that fiction of catastrophe tends to downplay. So it is in Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, which discusses how communities have reacted to localised but still massive disasters with co-operative help; and the best extended non-fictional accounts of a single disaster, such as Richard Lloyd Parry’s Ghosts of the Tsunami or Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, open up perspectives that are harder to find in fictions of catastrophe.             

For more information on Apocalypse in Crisis, please visit our website.


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