It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of?
Elliott & Thompson
Review by Ken MacLeod
No one would have believed in the first nine years of the second decade of the twenty-first century that so many of us would soon be slain by the humblest things that evolution in its stupidity has placed upon the earth. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. Pitching a survey of our imaginings of the end of the world, to be published in 2020, can’t have seemed as timely at the time as it does now.
Adam Roberts’ new book looks at various ways in which people have imagined the world could end. It asks why they did and do, and why these imaginings fascinate and often appeal to us. Along the way, Roberts gives us many sharp insights into religion, history, philosophy, and popular culture – in particular, of course, our own patch of popular culture: science fiction, which has more or less taken over from religion and even from science the burden of prophesying the End of Days.
The book opens with a summary of the Doomsday Argument: the very fact that we are alive now makes it more probable that no one will be alive in a few hundred years – because if humanity has a long future, it’s much more likely that we would be alive then than now! Statistically the reasoning may be flawless, but I suspect a flaw. (‘If humanity has a long future,’ our descendants may say, ‘we will fill the entire Galaxy, vastly outnumbering our present meagre population! How unlikely, then, to find ourselves alive now, when a mere quadrillion of us inhabit the Sagittarius Arm!’)
Moving briskly on, Roberts surveys in successive chapters the ways the world might be ended, by: God or gods; zombies; plagues; machines; and aliens. He draws out the cultural and psychological meanings that each such imagined agency of destruction has conveyed. He then considers the cosmic dooms predicted by sober cosmology, and the possibility of new cosmic cycles beyond these apparent inevitabilities – the eternally springing lure of the survivalist escape pod, the hope of renewal or salvation beyond destruction. His final chapter takes us down to Earth and close to home, with the potentially world-ending catastrophe of our own making: climate change. The unexpected hopeful note here is no get-out, but a challenge: what is of our making can (if we act in time) be of our unmaking. An epilogue concludes that the root of our fascination with the end of the world is the will to make meaningful our own mortality.
This may be true at an individual level, though I find myself in my sixties less fascinated by catastrophe than I was in my teens. If there is a multiverse, my complacency is survivorship bias: I’m one of the perhaps few versions of me that didn’t end in the Cuban Missile Crisis or one of several nuclear close calls in decades since. Psychological and existential issues may be the hooks by which socially available narratives latch onto our particular minds, but the existence and propagation of these narratives have to be socially explained.
Worlds have ended before: as has often been pointed out, what we think of as ‘the ancient world’ of Greece and Rome stood on the ruins of a world more ancient still, whose every city was burned to the ground by invaders that the Egyptians – sole survivors from that deeper antiquity, and a marvel to the Greeks – called ‘the sea peoples’. For millennia it was quite forgotten. The later fates of Babylon, of Jerusalem, and of Rome still echo in the cultural memory of the West. Roberts links the original Apocalypse very clearly with its context, the catastrophic defeat of the Jewish Revolt, and its recurrent salience to other crises, from the grim year 1000 AD to Cold War II in the 1980s. The precise circumstances in which other dooms loom large and then fade from view – who now is haunted, as many seem to have been in the 1920s and 1930s, by the heat death of the universe? – seem worthy of further exploration.
These are large topics for a book of 193 pages, plus index. Within its confines Roberts has done far more than take the four horsemen out for a canter: he spurs them to a gallop and makes them break sweat. The show is well worth the price of admission, and sends us away deep in thought.