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Thinking rationally about apocalypses

Albrecht Dürer

Apocalyptic thinking is in fashion. The apocalyptic threads in contemporary culture are everywhere to be found in books (both fiction and nonfiction), movies, television series, and the news media. We are riding a long wave of pessimism, with polls showing that something like 80 percent of the population think that life is getting worse.

When writing Fugue in Ursa Major, a novel, I had to think carefully about apocalypses. Science fiction, after all, though a work of imagination, must be internally consistent with itself and externally consistent with what we know from science and other fields. In thinking about how civilization might crash, we don’t want our imagination to just run wild. Rather, we want to discipline our imagination with a historical awareness of previous crashes and an awareness of all the unstable conditions of modern life that could take us down.

So, what could take us down? Lots of things, and in each area of instability you’ll find a rich literature, much of it scholarly and well documented. Pick your apocalypse. Would you like an economic collapse? A political crisis such as war? Environmental? A pandemic? You’ll find dozens of recent books. You’ll find books such as Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which examines the roots of several cultural collapses. There are many books on the lessons to be learned from Rome. My favorite in that group is Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. I think that anyone doing a survey of this literature will want to read an important paper by Joseph A. Tainter, “Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies.” Tainter approaches the subject from the economics of energy.

I need to make it clear that I am not talking about fringe elements, who are deep into all sorts of delusions. It’s the serious material from serious sources that is of interest. University presses have done good business in this area. Unless our interest is in the psychology of mass delusion, we don’t need to dirty up our imaginations with what some fringy doomers in northern Idaho might think, or religious End Times types. I am baffled by the current fascination with zombies in pop culture (though I thought “World War Z” was a pretty entertaining movie, and I can sort of see how zombies are an interesting metaphor for the empty lives of consumption that so many people live).

Having dug into some of the history, and into the all-too-plausible scenarios for economic, political, or environmental collapse, then it’s interesting to do a survey of the fiction. There is a wave of excellent apocalyptic fiction that started decades ago. Lucifer’s Hammer (1977), by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, stands out. There is A Canticle for Liebowitz, by Walter Miller, from 1960. The thread continues to the present, with good, bestselling fiction such as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. You’ll find excellent lists of apocalyptic fiction all over the Internet.

The next apocalypse may well have much in common with apocalypses of the past, but obviously much will be brand new. So it’s important to consider how smart writers have imagined it. How and where will it start? How will it get out of control? Who will be wiped out? Who will survive, and why? What conditions will the survivors find themselves in? How long will the dark age last? Will some people in some places be able to keep some lights on? If so, where, and how? What factors will permit an eventual recovery? How will things be different on the other side? Beautiful stories can be told in these settings.

There are dissenters, of course — people who are more optimistic. A good example is David Brin, a writer and futurist, who believes that we are obsessed with Doomsday. People like Brin believe that a bold application of the human spirit, plus advances in technology, would be able to deal with our future problems. Pessimists refer disparagingly to those types as “techno utopians.”

Obviously no one knows what the future holds. So really I am making only two modest claims. The first is that is that the study of unsustainability, in all fields, deserves to be taken seriously. The second is that apocalypses make awesome settings for storytelling.

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