Saturday, December 18, 2010

This is the way the world ends

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

"Fire and Ice"
Robert Frost

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

"The Hollow Men"
T. S. Eliot

I have a certain fascination with the end of the world. It's not an uncommon interest; in my youth, the specter of nuclear annihilation was very much with us. Then it was the end of the millenium, which was certain to either bring about the collapse of civilization (via the Y2K bug), or the end of the world (because God likes big, round numbers). Over the course of my life, the ideas of the Rapture of the faithful and the Tribulation of those who remain has crept from fringe lunacy to almost-mainstream Christianity, and made its way into alternative media. The Swine Flu[1] and the West Nile virus offered plausibly apocalyptic consequences, though in the event neither has proved especially deadly. Peak Oil and its attendant collapse offer another, equally credible threat - but again, so far we've managed to stave it off. Much the same can be said of Global Warming, though that may not tell us as much about the nature of the threat as it does about our inability (or unwillingness, it comes to much the same thing) to see it coming.

Literary considerations of the End of the World are even more varied and strange. Stephen King offers at least two: Captain Tripps, the superflu that wipes out civilization in The Stand, and the curious spectacle of world that has simply "moved on" in his Dark Tower series. Ayn Rand presents us with an economic apocalypse in Atlas Shrugged... and in the process, helps explain some of the appeal of the genre: the possibility of just burning everything down and starting over. The Zombie Apocalypse is now so much a part of the zombie genre that it's hard to cite specific examples; consider the Resident Evil movies, Romero's Land of the Dead, or Max Brooks' World War Z. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child presented a mutagenic retrovirus in their novel The relic, which was made into a decent horror movie. The sequel, Reliquary, has its heroes racing to prevent a refined version of that same virus from escaping into the ecosystem.

I have at least two apocalyptic stories going in my head at the moment. Apocalypse River owes its existence to that vision from Reliquary, which made its way into a particularly memorable dream. As a story, it is post(?) apocalyptic, set in a world where civilization has been torn apart by a widespread retrovirus that has radically increased the rate of mutation in the world. It is meant to be at least passably feasible in terms of modern biology, though I don't pretend to high-level scientific understanding.

The other project is more surreal, more nightmarish. It owes more to the Dark Tower stories than to anything in the real world. It was born, in part, from a consideration of the movie Cloverfield as a case study in emergency preparedness over at Making Light. It was also part of a discussion in the comments on Slacktivist of how it was very nearly impossible to write a story in which magic suddenly started working - or, more to the point, science and technology suddenly stopped working - without creating the reasonable expectation that all life on earth would suddenly drop dead.[2] More than anything else, though, it owed itself to a peculiar vision - a sort of waking dream - that followed a particularly long night with a particularly sick child. The vision was, more or less, this: What if the Zombie Apocalypse was averted because the first zombie ran into a parent on the way to get medicine for a sick child? I loved it, this idea of a parent who was so perfectly exhausted that even the appearance of a zombie and the possibility of imminent apocalypse were reduced to another set of minor obstacles on the way to get meds. Since then, the idea has received a kick in the pants from two sources: primarily, Chris The Cynic's excellent A World Without God fiction, in which he explores what the removal of Divine Grace might do the the world around us; and Edges of Darkness (which was apparently adapted from a stage play). Though Edges of Darkness presents itself as a Zombie Apocalypse movie (and not a particularly good one, at that), it does have some interesting elements: two of the characters in this post-zombie-apocalypse world drink blood as a way of increasing their vitality.

So this second story centers around a group of people (certainly not your usual fantasy heroes) trying to preserve their families in a world that seems to be coming apart on a metaphysical level. I've alluded to the scenario now and again on this blog - most notably here - but perhaps the most prominent feature of it is that everything has gone strange.

This particular story, and this particular setting, has room for an awful lot of apocalyptic influences. The electricity-dependent ghosts of Pulse, the invisible-but-deadly ghosts of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (which caused a man's wife and child to drop dead beside him, while leaving him whole and intact), the poorly realized post-gasoline anarchy of The Road Warrior or Tooth and Nail, the pseudo-zombie plague of 28 Days Later...

What's your favorite apocalyptic scenario, and why does it appeal to you?

1. I'm told this is called something like "The American Disease" in the middle east.

2. The core of the problem is that even minor changes to physics-as-we-currently-understand-it have huge consequences not only throughout the world, but in essential human biochemistry as well. I wish I could find the thread again, as it was a fascinating bit of reading... but my reaction was immediate and perverse: of course you could write a story in which the nature of the world changed completely and still deal with those issues.


  1. I'm a huge fan of the Zombie Apocalypse, though I'm not sure why. I've been slowly stocking up and preparing for self sufficiency, jokingly calling it getting ready for that Apocalypse [though many don't get the joke].

    In reality, I fear a multitude of events that could cause the collapse of order. I'm a sheepdog, not a sheep, so i will try and be ready should that occur. And in the meantime, if I can save heating costs and have food at the ready, it's not as if that's a bad thing.

  2. I don't know why, exactly, I find it so entertaining, but I like those post-apocalyptic/return of magic/dying earth/alien technology mishmashes that make little or no sense and aren't well explained along the way. It seems more like the real world to me than "Zombies came and killed everyone and we all agree that's what happened."

    Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is unquestionably the best example (okay, maybe you could question it... Jack Vance could fight for it). I think my first example as a kid must have been "Thundarr the barbarian" though. Ha ha ha.


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