Skip to content

The Final Countdown

frangelico-last-judgmentIf the book clubs are anything to go by, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is the surprise hit of the literary season. Following a dying man and his son as they make one last, desperate journey across the ruined landscape of a devastated America, it has been justly lauded around the world, not just for the austerity and precision of its language, but for its uncompromising vision and almost painful tenderness.

But while McCarthy’s slim tour de force is the most successful of the science fiction-inflected post-apocalyptic narratives populating the new release shelves it is hardly alone. The last year has seen the release of Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army, Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse and Will Self’s The Book of Dave, books which come on the back of a rash of novels across recent years by authors as diverse as Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell.

Nor is it a phenomenon confined to the literary world. On television Jericho imagines a United States devastated by nuclear war, while Battlestar Galactica follows the survivors of an apocalyptic attack on their search for a new home on a semi-mythical Earth, and Heroes moves back and forth between a present caught in a war between super-powered beings and a devastated near-future.

And on the big screen, films like 28 Days Later and Children of Men offer very different pictures of worlds altered almost beyond recognition, in one by the release of an experimental pathogen, in the other a future rendered childless by a catastrophic collapse in human fertility. More so than at any time since the early 1980s, when the threat of nuclear war hung over the world, the end of the world is once again reverberating through the cultural imagination of the western world.

Of course a cynic might argue it never went away. Post-apocalyptic and dystopic worlds have been one of the perennials of science fiction for almost as long as the form has existed, producing no small share of classics. Indeed, as Ursula Le Guin acidly observed recently, for those relegated to the wilderness of genre by the literary tastemakers there’s something more than a little galling about those same tastemakers’ selective blindness when it comes to the plundering of the tropes and imagery of science fiction by “literary” writers (“Could he not see that Cormac McCarthy – although everything in his book . . .  was remarkably similar to a great many earlier works of science fiction about men crossing the country after a holocaust – could never under any circumstances be said to be a sci-fi writer, because Cormac McCarthy was a serious writer and so by definition incapable of lowering himself to commit genre?”).

But Le Guin’s irritation also points up something more interesting, which is the fact that these drawbridges are being lowered now, just as they were in the 1980s, when writers like Russell Hoban and Margaret Atwood were publishing books such as Riddley Walker and The Handmaid’s Tale, and the searing horror of The Day After and Threads flickered across our television screens (or indeed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which saw a rash of books such as John Wyndham’s classics The Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids and Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz). In other words, the question is less why does the world of serious literature fail to recognize the tropes of science fiction for what they are, and more what is it in the zeitgeist which has impelled erstwhile “serious” writers like McCarthy, Hall and Crace to chance their reputations by venturing forth into the wilds of the apocalypse?

At least part of an answer lies in the works themselves. Unlike the books and films of 1980s (and indeed the 1950s and 1960s), in the first decade of the new century the apocalypse is as likely to be environmental as nuclear. In The Carhullan Army rising sea levels have flooded much of England, while ongoing international conflict over dwindling resources has swept away the last vestiges of civil government. Likewise in Children of Men, human fertility has collapsed, while in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake genetic engineering run wild has rid the world of human life.

With few now left who dispute the environment is close to some sort of tipping point, these visions of what may yet come to pass are at once admonition and parable, offering us a glimpse of one possible future while simultaneously pointing to the human vanity and cupidity which may yet keep us from averting it. To this extent at least, they express a sense of impotence, of a culture unsettlingly aware of its vulnerability to forces that seem beyond the power of individuals to control.

But if one was looking for a single event from which these many, very different portraits of ruined worlds have sprung, it would, not surprisingly, be the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and more particularly, the destruction of the World Trade Centre. Its imprint is stamped as plainly across works as outwardly dissimilar as The Road and Battlestar Galactica as it is on works such as Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, which explore that day and its aftermath explicitly. All make manifest the sense the sudden sense of vulnerability the destruction of the twin towers inspired in Americans, the dislocation in their sense of security.

At one level, it’s hardly surprising the events of September 11 unsettled not just Americans, but societies throughout the western world; after all, that’s precisely what they were meant to do. But they also tapped something written deep into our cultural makeup, and by so doing, gave breath not just to the sudden outpouring of post-apocalyptic and dystopic narratives, but also much of the fairly crazed ranting about conflicts of civilizations and World War III which has so distorted our policy responses to them.

Since its very beginnings, western culture has been haunted by fantasies of its own destruction. Played out again and again in a line running back through our contemporary anxieties about terrorism and global warming, to the nuclear terrors of the 1980s, Malthus’ predictions of demographic annihilation and the Black Death, these fantasies, despite their many differences, are all expressions of a tendency towards apocalyptic thinking which has its roots in the Christian origins of western culture.

In contrast to most other religions Christianity does not assume time or history to be open-ended processes. Instead it regards both as mere preludes to an inevitable end time, in which Christ will return, and the Kingdom of Heaven be built here on earth.

Christianity is, in this sense, both eschatological and utopian. History is a process with an end, and that end will not merely see the world we know pass away, but also the creation of a new one, where God and man will live together, and death and pain and suffering shall be no more.

In the early days of Christianity this end time was believed to be imminent. Christ declared it to be “at hand”, while both Matthew and Luke used words which suggested it would arrive within a generation, and though all were wrong, early Christians, whether because it signaled an end to their persecutions or because of the nature of the teachings themselves, waited eagerly for its arrival, glimpsing harbingers of the end time in war and plague or signs from above.

The historian Norman Cohn, who died earlier this year, was one of may who have explored the way this sense of the end time’s closeness lingered through the first generation and into the second, feeding ecstatic and millenarian movements across Europe. Conflicts were cast in the language of good and evil, of salvation and damnation. And, perhaps most significantly, events or circumstances which threatened society were rapidly transformed into the beginning of the end, provoking purges and pogroms and the use of violence and torture in the service of good.

But it also married together two otherwise seemingly divergent tendencies, creating a culture which, for all its fantasies of its own perfectibility, was simultaneously haunted by fantasies of its own vulnerability.

These tendencies did not vanish with the Enlightenment. Indeed many – Cohn among them – have discerned them wound into the utopian projects which rent the twentieth century and their fantasies of new societies born of revolution and cleansing destruction, whether Communism’s predictions of socialist revolution and universal brotherhood, Nazism’s delusions of the Thousand Year Reich and its repellent “scientific” racism. Inasmuch as each was a reaction against Christian thought, they were also products of it, incorporating not just its utopian tendencies, but also its apocalyptic eschatology.

In a way of course it should come as little surprise that it is the lingering remnants of Christian thought that give breath to the apocalyptic and dystopic narratives triggered by September 11. After all, whether in the images of civil collapse, pestilence and war, or the presence of explicitly Christian motifs like the Black Madonna of Children of Men or Battlestar Galactica’s avenging angels and hallucinatory echoes of the Exodus, or even in the incantatory and revelatory language of The Road, the echoes of Christian parable and its fever dreams of world’s end are never far away. And, like it or not, it is them we are responding to as McCarthy’s prose crackles across the page or Galactica’s Rilkean Cylons whisper their promises of transcendent union into the ears of the show’s increasingly deranged villain, Gaius Baltar.

But simultaneously, these narratives express a peculiarly modern unease as well. For one does not have to look as far as Communism or Nazism to find evidence of the lingering presence of utopian beliefs. Even without the Panglossian millenarianism of the Francis Fukuyamas of the world, the essentially utopian nature of our uncritical belief in human progress, both material and social underpins articles of faith from all points of the political spectrum, from the Right’s essentially religious belief in the rationality and transformative power of markets to the Left’s commitment to human betterment through charters of human rights and international tribunals.

“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” wrote Adorno fifty years ago. And though his argument was deeper, and more problematic than this sweeping statement might suggest, his words reveal a deeper truth. For in the charnel houses of Belsen and Rwanda and Srebrenica we see humanity and history stripped naked, and how fragile the myths of human progress we cling to really are.

It’s a commonplace to say September 11 changed the world forever. It didn’t, indeed the idea that is did is simply another manifestation of this same cycle of apocalyptic and utopian belief. But what it did do was give us a glance into the abyss, a chilling reminder of the gulf between the lessons of history and our own illusions of human progress.

Seen like this, the post-September 11 dystopic and post-apocalyptic narratives become more than just late entries to the history of apocalyptic literature and art that stretches back through The Road to Bosch and The Book of Revelations. Instead their dystopias are something closer to utopia’s mirror image, a product of Christianity’s utopian fantasies and simultaneously an expression of their ruin.

First published in The Age, 29/12/07.
© James Bradley, 2007.