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The End of the World

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Maria Manuel Lisboa

2. The World Gone M.A.D.

Texte intégral

 

In order to improve your [chess] game you must study the endgame before anything else; for, whereas the endings can be studied and mastered by themselves, the middlegame and the opening must be studied in relation to the endgame.
José Raúl Capablanca
 

It’s time it ended…[a]nd yet I hesitate, I hesitate to… to end.
Samuel Beckett
 

[The] problem is this: the next holocaust will leave this planet uninhabitable, and the moon is no Switzerland.
Kurt Vonnegut
 

mother the wardrobe is full of infantrymen
i did i asked them
but they snarled saying it was a man’s life
mother there’s a centurion tank in the parlour
i did i asked the officer
but he laughed saying Queen’s regulations
(piano was out of tune anyway)
mother polish your identity bracelet
there is a mushroom cloud in the back garden
i did i tried to bring in the cat
but it simply came to pieces in my hand
i did i tried to whitewash the windows
but there weren’t any
i did i tried to hide under the stairs
but I couldn’t get in for the civil defence leaders
i did i tried ringing candid camera
but they crossed their hearts
i went for a policeman but they were looting the town
i went out for a fire engine but they were all upside down
i went out for a priest but they were all on their knees
mother don’t just lie there, say something please
mother don’t just lie there, say something please
Roger McGough
 

Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the land, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man in the land, and He was grieved in His heart. And the Lord said, I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them. (Genesis 6: 5-7)

1Even before it was actually practicable to destroy the entire planet, indeed since the dawn of earliest human consciousness, the fear of global catastrophe has informed the human psyche, resulting in persistent returns to cultural renditions of apocalypse. And while clearly the best way to calm fears is not to suggest soothingly that one should not worry too much about the axe murderer just spotted sneaking under the bed, in The Imagination of Disaster Susan Sontag (1979) argues that disaster films and narratives both reflect and deflect their epoch’s anxieties regarding the possibility that what at any given moment is fiction may become (post-nuclearly or otherwise) reality.

2In Ancient Greece the ruling deities, for all their capriciousness, confined their destructive rampages to individuals, or at most to selected groups (of which the Trojans are an example). In the Western consciousness, narratives of apocalypse began with the Flood in Genesis, or arguably as early as the Fall. When Adam and Eve were driven out of Eden in the opening chapters of Genesis, that particular world, albeit at that point admittedly restricted to a population of two, came to an abrupt end.

Figure 9. John Martin, The Last Man

Figure 10. Gustave Doré, Adam and Eve Driven Out of Eden

3But there was of course a follow up, leading to where we find ourselves now.

For the last blossom is the first blossom
And the first blossom is the last blossom
And when from Eden we take our
way The morning after is the first day. (MacNeice, 1982: 36)

4Which is nice to know, and while the trauma and consequences of the Fall have haunted the Western imagination ever since, up to contemporary literature and film, the resulting narratives almost never hypothesize total destruction. In the common parlance usage of the term (widespread or global destruction), of course, relative apocalypse, apocalypse but only up to a point, appears to be a contradiction, since the term suggests a trajectory from all to nothing, from plenty to absence, from being to nothingness. Apocalypse is like God: if you really believe in it, there can only ever be one of it. We can understand apocalypse now, apocalypse whenever, but we may find it difficult to envisage apocalypse now and then, apocalypse now and again. Nonetheless, possibly because absolute nothingness, given the horror vacui we inherited from the Greeks, is an even more difficult concept to grasp than infinity, in our contemplation of the possibility, nihilo interruptus is usually as bad as it gets. Instead of zero, then, both in theological and cultural discourse, apocalypse may in fact mean a widespread wipe-out but, with rare exceptions, it is usually followed by a new beginning, something which (and this may not be a coincidence) dovetails nicely with our biological and cultural inbuilt reluctance to say goodbye forever and disappear. Within the spectrum of Western speculation in both high and popular culture, apocalypse now and again (and again and again and again), is in effect mostly (and at most) what you get, and, with remarkably few exceptions, in the end life on Earth never really ends. Instead, apocalypse invariably appears to imply also the certainty of a new beginning. There are many versions of being born again, although, as will be discussed in chapter 3, they do not necessarily involve a really thorough cleansing, a wholly holy re-birth.

Universal Death

5In the Garden of Earthly Delights, the temptation offered by the serpent was twofold: gnosis, attainable from eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and immortality, attainable from eating the fruit of the Tree of Life. The two combined would result in humanity becoming like God, something not to be countenanced because it would probably be followed by the end of the world. But why so? Admittedly, when Oppenheimer famously uttered his fear that he (a man) had ‘become God, the destroyer of worlds,’ global nuclear apocalypse became possible. The possibility of Adam and Eve becoming God, it now appeared, had been merely postponed, and its dangers were crystallized by the achievement of the Manhattan Project.

6Even before that, however, the end of the world, if you believe in God, or even if you only believe in random bad luck in the form of natural disasters, as hypothesized by environmentalists and astrophysicists, has always been possible, even outside the sphere of human irresponsibility. If the steady-state world (the normal order of things, civilization as we know it) is a status quo in equilibrium, a scorched-Earth apocalypse (the end of the world), would be the epitome of extreme iconoclasm, for which Eve’s actions and the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs would have been merely a dress rehearsal (unless, of course you happened to be a dinosaur). The real thing would be not merely change or revolution but fully-achieved destruction, at the end of which process whatever had been there before became absolutely corroded and nothing else was possible.

7In the matter of apocalypse, the possibility of life (or the end of it) imitating art has found its clearer manifestation in events surrounding the unfolding of the Cold War in the second half of the twentieth century, a period which saw a dangerous synchronicity of instability in international relations combined (in the new nuclear age) with the previously unprecedented know-how for planetary destruction. Writing about Hiroshima at the height of the Cold War, Susan Sontag wrote: ‘It became clear that, from now on till the end of human history, every person would spend his individual life under the threat not only of individual death, which is certain, but of something almost insupportable psychologically – collective incineration and extinction which could come at any time, virtually without warning’ (Sontag, 1979: 224).

8In contemplating the possibility of large-scale or even global destruction, even some of the world’s finest minds (as well as some not so fine) seem to have found the challenge too much. Let us consider William Poundstone’s account:

By 1950, a number of people in the United States and Western Europe had decided that the United States should contemplate an immediate, unprovoked nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. This idea, which went by the euphemistic name of ’preventive war,’ held that America should seize the moment and establish a world government through nuclear blackmail or surprise attack. […] The preventive war movement found support among many of undeniable intelligence, including two of the most brilliant mathematicians of the time: Bertrand Russell and John von Neumann. […] Life magazine quoted von Neumann as saying, ’If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at 5 o’clock, I say why not one o’clock?’ […] US Secretary of Navy Francis P. Matthews […] in 1950 urged the nation to become ’aggressors for peace.’ (Poundstone, 1993: 4-5)

9In one of the many U-turns he underwent on the subject of nuclear war, in the early 1950s Russell reneged on the pacifism he had endorsed in both world wars and became known for numerous hawkish pronouncements in public lectures and letters to the military establishments in the US and UK:

One must expect a war between USA and USSR which will begin with the total destruction of London. I think the war will last 30 years and leave a world without civilized people, from which everything will have to be built afresh – a process taking (say) 500 years. (Poundstone, 1993: 70)

As I go about the street and see St. Paul’s, the British Museum, the Houses of Parliament and the other monuments of our civilization, in my mind’s eye I see a nightmare vision of those buildings as heaps of rubble with corpses all round them. (Poundstone, 1993: 71)

10His extremism in this respect, a match for today’s wildest Jihadist commands, is confirmed in a letter written in 1948 to Walter Marseille

The Russians, even without atomic bombs, will be able to destroy all big towns in England […]. I have no doubt that America would win in the end, but unless W. Europe can be preserved from invasion, it would be lost to civilization for centuries. Even at such a price, I think war would be worthwhile. Communism must be wiped out, and world government must be established. (Poundstone, 1993: 79, italics added)

11With reference to the unleashing of planetary cataclysm, it is essential to consider, more recently, figures as influential as Ronald Reagan, president of what was soon to be the world’s only superpower, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reagan, as will be discussed in detail in chapter 5, saw the Cold War as a cosmic struggle between good and evil and believed in the immanency and desirability of Armageddon as the preparation for the Kingdom of God on Earth (Berger, 1999: 135-37). More recently, following the epoch-changing events of 9/11, the Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani addressed a population in a state of shock and warned that as the initial incomprehension gave way to a view of the raw facts, ‘the number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear ultimately.’ Sontag and Giuliani were dealing with both the real horror that already is with us, and with the unimaginable horror which might be: neither can be really understood because each is ‘more than we can bear.’ But if so, the inability or unwillingness either to confront or imagine what is unbearable may increase its likelihood, by undermining, apart from anything else, the safety net hoisted under the ideological infrastructure of nuclear power as the prime suspect in the potential unleashing of Armageddon. In order to be so afraid of it that we ensure it never happens, we first need to imagine it, to believe it really is possible. Nuclear deterrence, promoted as the best guarantee of peace, depends on a rationale that gambles on the preventive effects of actually envisaging the possibility of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) and of truly grasping the likelihood that in a global thermonuclear conflict, everybody loses. The reasoning that informs the hypothesis of mutually assured destruction, therefore, rather than seeing nuclear weapons as a threat to peace, makes them its guarantor. Something, however, regarded by many, including Oppenheimer himself, as a flawed argument and an unacceptable risk.

12The Russell-Einstein Manifesto was issued in London on 9 July 1955, at the height of the Cold War. It highlighted the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and called for world leaders to seek peaceful resolutions to international conflict. The signatories, eleven preeminent intellectuals and scientists, included Max Born, Linus Pauling, Joseph Rotblat, Bertrand Russell, and most notably, Albert Einstein, days before his death on 18 April 1955 (two days before Hitler’s birthday):

In the tragic situation which confronts humanity, we feel that scientists should assemble in conference to appraise the perils that have arisen as a result of the development of weapons of mass destruction, and to discuss a resolution. […]
We are speaking on this occasion, not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man, whose continued existence is in doubt. […]
We have to learn to think in a new way. We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there no longer are such steps; the question we have to ask ourselves is: what steps can be taken to prevent a military contest of which the issue must be disastrous to all parties?
The general public, and even many men in positions of authority, have not realized what would be involved in a war with nuclear bombs. The general public still thinks in terms of the obliteration of cities. […]
But this is one of the minor disasters that would have to be faced. If everybody in London, New York, and Moscow were exterminated, the world might, in the course of a few centuries, recover from the blow. But we now know […] that nuclear bombs can gradually spread destruction over a very much wider area than had been supposed. […]
The best authorities are unanimous in saying that a war with H-bombs might possibly put an end to the human race. […]
Here, then, is the problem which we present to you, stark and dreadful and inescapable: Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war? […]
We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death. (Einstein and Russell, 1955)

13Or, as Marilynne Robinson put it more succinctly: ’This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it’ (Robinson, 2006: 32).

14At the opposite end of the tactical spectrum from the deterrent effect of M.A.D., the options are either forgetting the knowledge we already possess for achieving global destruction, which is not possible, or voluntary nonparticipation (unilateral, leading to universal, disarmament). To date, the voices of the signatories of the above manifesto remain untranslated into foreign policy, although their reasoning figures prominently in the cultural imagination.

Just a Terrible Accident: The Big Oops!

15The Bulletin of Atomic Studies was founded after World War II by, among others, several of the physicists involved in the construction of the first atom bomb. Its cover always features a clock whose hands move closer to or further from midnight depending on the estimated likelihood of nuclear war starting somewhere in the world at the time of each issue going to press. They came closest to midnight in 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, when President John F. Kennedy estimated the likelihood of nuclear war as being ’somewhere between one out of three and even’ (Lebow and Stein, 1994, 5). War, however, was only ever one of several possible routes towards the end of life on the planet. ’The superpowers could have stumbled towards Armageddon through muddle and miscalculation’ (Rees, 2003, 26). These words, from none other than Professor Sir Martin Rees, that most establishmentarian of figures (Astronomer Royal and sometime Master of Trinity College, Cambridge) introduce a long catalogue of possible pathways to global destruction, including a number not involving nuclear conflict (biohazards, unforeseen outcomes in robotics or nanotechnology, ’extreme risk’ experimentation in the field of Physics or even accident) any of which could have and still might bring about the almost unimaginable. There are many ways to skin a cat. Or, as Robert Frost would have, albeit possibly with a somewhat different intent,

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour 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. (Frost, 1920)

16Either way, then, by fire or ice, intentionally or not, all too many roads lead to Nothing. What the notion of end of the world brought about by human error lacks in heroism (since it is not a case of honourable defeat by a mighty enemy) it makes up for in the scale of its uncontrollability (if we are our own worst enemies it is likely that we will not be able to keep ourselves in check or avoid making a mistake we cannot put right because we do not fully understand it). In John Badham’s WarGames (1983) David Lightman is an intelligent, underachieving teenager (psycho-typically, although not in this film, the forerunner of the archetypal malcontent youth ripe for radicalization and for grooming in terrorism) who spends most of his free time playing arcade video games or surfing on his computer. During an automated modem search, he finds a program seemingly affiliated to a game company offering a list of games, the most exciting of which carries the title Global Thermonuclear War. Lightman begins to play, targeting his hometown of Seattle for missile strikes. In reality, Global Thermonuclear War is not a game but the War Operations Plan Response (W.O.P.R.) of the Pentagon, the computerized military system that selects and instigates the right response strategy in the event of a Soviet attack. The system had been previously set up to replace human initiative, which ironically, in a previous test situation, was seen to be fallible (due to hesitation on the part of commanding officers to press the button that would unleash war). As Lightman begins to play the supposed game, in the situation room deep below Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, the military believe a Soviet strike is underway. The source of the false command is traced, and Lightman is arrested and taken away for debriefing on the assumption that he is a Soviet agent. While under arrest, he realizes that the W.O.P.R. is still playing Global Thermonuclear War and unless stopped will unleash a full-scale counterattack. After much additional action involving Dr. Stephen Falken, the original creator of the program, and in a cliff-hanger ending, Lightman makes one last desperate attempt to stop the computer: he programs it to play an unwinnable game of noughts and crosses followed by successive permutations of all the possible nuclear scenarios, looking for a situation in which it can triumph. None being available, the computer decides on no action as the best option, and its voice system, addressing its creator, sums it up: ’A curious game, Professor Falken… The only winning move is not to play.’ (Badham, 1983)

17Not playing can mean not taking part in the game at all. An alternative scenario, however, might involve ending the game by check-mating the opponent. Within the framework of nuclear war, however, check-mate would mean that endgame really would be the last game. Or, in historical terms, the end of the world. In a real-world scenario not only are all the players – rather than just a single one – defeated but the game board itself is destroyed. Faced with this possibility, the only avoidance strategy (the lesson learnt after near-miss destruction) is that of nonparticipation, achievable either through the bilateral acceptance of the possibility of mutually assured destruction or by the logic that underlies the advocacy of nuclear disarmament.

18Nonparticipation, however, just like the alternative, involves all sides knowingly not playing. In WarGames the missiles had originally been placed under computer control because an earlier blind trial had shown the likelihood that, in the event of a nuclear attack, a number of the officers in charge of launching them would in the end not do so. A similar scenario is presented in Russell Mulcahy’s 2000 version of On the Beach, where Dwight Towers, the American nuclear submarine commander, disobeys (but in this case too late to avoid global catastrophe), the order to fire his missiles.

19Even ultimate human unwillingness for destruction, therefore is not risk-free, but in any case, as discussed, even outside the sphere of terror, while the wherewithal of destruction exists, either unilaterally or bilaterally, the potential remains for human or machine error, as depicted not only in WarGames, but also in many other films, of which well-known examples are Fail-Safe (Lumet, 1964; Frears, 2000) and By Dawns Early Light (Scholder, 1980).

Morality Is not Enough

20In Fail-Safe, Stephen Frears’s in many ways remarkable film of 2000 (a re-make of Sidney Lumet’s earlier version released in 1964, shortly after the Cuban missile crisis), as in WarGames, error, not terror, sets in motion a chain of events which quickly go beyond the point of no return. Due to a computer failure, American nuclear bombers under the command of Colonel Jack Grady (George Clooney) are deployed against Moscow. Standard procedure means that in such a situation, once a predetermined fail-safe point has been passed, Grady, like all fighter bombers, is trained to ignore any order to abort the mission, even if the order appears to be issued by the voice of the President (which Soviet technology is known to be able to simulate). Interestingly, in this film the powers-that-be (the presidents of the USA and USSR) are both intelligent men, capable of reasoned persuasion and genuinely determined to work for the greater good, including, in a worst-case scenario, damage limitation in events that can no longer be controlled. Although the American President gives to his Soviet counterpart all the data necessary to destroy the US nuclear bombers before they reach Moscow, one plane, commandeered by Grady, gets through and will inevitably reach target. Faced with the inevitable, the two leaders come to a pragmatic, but even so (or perhaps because so) ghastly solution for avoiding the escalation of the conflict. An American nuclear bomber is ordered to assume attack position over the New York sky space and both the American Ambassador in Moscow and the American UN representative are asked to stand on the roofs of Ground Zero locations in each city with their mobile phones switched on. If the bomber heading for Moscow succeeds in getting through and dropping its bomb, the American President, as a demonstration of good faith will issue the order to his own chief bomber pilot (whose wife happens to be on a day-trip to Manhattan with the children) to drop his on New York. Ironically, in this film, there is no clear distinction between the good (Grady, charismatic widower, father of a young boy and ace bomber commander) and the bad/ugly (the militaristic dogs of war on both sides). The script sets up all the hallmarks of the in-the-nick-of-time, saved-by-the-seat-of-your-pants happy ending of standard Hollywood fare: the boy is orphaned of his mother and it is inconceivable he should also lose his heroic father; other charismatic characters stand to lose their nearest and dearest but only if sod’s law prevails; valiant heroes (the American ambassador, the United Nations representative) are laid out as potential burnt offerings (in this case literally); the forces of good committed to a peaceful conclusion are actually the ones with their respective fingers on the nuclear buttons; and George Clooney is in charge. We also know that in the past, the widowed Grady and his son had shared a private code: to the question: ‘Are you positive?’ the answer: ‘Only fools are positive’ had been the means by which paradoxically, in situations of doubt, they assured one another that they really meant what they were saying. Now, as Grady is about to drop the bomb on Moscow, his hysterical son is put on the phone to his father, and assures him that the order he received was a mistake. They exchange their private code, but even so (and the reason for this is left unclear) Grady, unlike the bomber personnel in WarGames, follows established procedure and the bombs are dropped. The foreseen happy ending is not delivered, or at least not without a terrible price being paid.

21By Dawns Early Light (Scholder, released in 1990 and set in 1991) follows a very similar plot to Fail-Safe, and was the last film to depict the events of a fictional World War III, before the real-life collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. In this film, set in a Soviet Union undergoing turmoil and radical political change, a group of renegade Soviet military officers steal a nuclear missile and launch it towards Russia from Turkey. The Soviet city of Donetsk is destroyed by the stolen missile. When it hits, Soviet defense systems see that the weapon was launched from Turkey, and conclude that a NATO attack is in progress. In the aftermath of Soviet retaliation against the United States, and as required by a prior treaty between the US and China, the latter launches an attack against the Soviet border. Moments after the Soviet attack is launched, the Americans receive a teletype from their counterparts in the Soviet Union stating that they have now determined that the first missile was not launched by NATO. The Soviet Premier tells the US President that the Soviet Union will accept (without retaliating) a limited US counterstrike that will kill between six and nine million people. However, should the US counterstrike be any larger, the Soviets will have no choice but to retaliate in kind — meaning that an all-out nuclear exchange would almost certainly ensue. A convoluted plot develops, involving the mistaken belief in the death of the US President. Command of the Armed Forces is assumed by the Secretary of the Interior who orders a massive strike against the Soviet Union. In a nail-biting climax, the former President, discovered to be alive, orders the destruction of Air Force One, the Secretary of the Interior’s command plane, with seconds to spare before the order is issued to escalate the nuclear conflict.

Figure 11. Albrecht Dürer, Four Riders of the Apocalypse

22The disturbing scenarios of these two films, both featuring as their central protagonists the men with their fingers on the nuclear button, are the manifestation in popular culture of widely prevailing fears in an era which began with the detonation of the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fail-Safe (Frears, 2000) concludes idealistically, or at least with the safeguarding of a least-bad resolution: in a short dialogue between the two leaders, to the question of what to say to the survivors in their respective nations, the reply is ’We will tell them that it will never happen again.’ An assurance which, however, is immediately belied by the scrolling on screen of a long list of countries which, at the time of the film’s release, controlled nuclear weapons. The balance of the equation is not reassuring, relying, as it does, on the willingness of two conflicting nuclear powers to agree to acts of large-scale national self-sacrifice (one city each, in the case of Fail-Safe, millions of dead in the case of By Dawns Early Light, in either case with the short-term result of almost certain political suicide for each leader). There are many ways of shooting oneself in the foot, and the likelihood that the foot would be sacrificed in order to save the leg is not necessarily the most likely choice. One would not wish to hedge one’s bets on the possibility of the wicked stepmother suddenly coming to see Snow White’s good points. Or vice-versa.

23The trope of a global problem is maintained in many recent and not so recent narratives and films on the theme of the end of the world, an extreme example being Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1999) which deals with the emergence and extinction of eighteen different human species over a period of two billion years, or his Star Maker (Stapledon, 1999), in which the eponymous demiurge serially creates and obliterates worlds in different cosmoses throughout infinite time, in the pursuit of aesthetic perfection. Stapledon’s philosophical take on the hidden cause of random cataclysms is not, however, the standard fare of apocalyptic science fiction which overall tends to stay closer to home both intellectually and as regards cosmic geography. A very early text by Simon Newcomb, The End of the World [1903] (1976) sees a professor and a small group of his companions emerge from a subterranean chamber to discover that the surface of the Earth has been destroyed by a collision with another planet, a catastrophe they attribute to the agency of a higher power that directs the cyclical creation and annihilation of successive orders of Being.

24Often, in narratives of apocalypse, from Genesis to the most recent science fiction, only hypothetical explanations are offered for the original disaster, broadly encompassed within what the entertainingly shared vocabulary of theology and insurance companies calls Acts of God (with no accepted liability in either case). As is also often the case with these narratives, an initial raindrop quickly builds up to a flood (a widespread catastrophe). In José Saramago’s Blindness (1997), to be discussed, the affliction in question begins with one isolated case, subsequently spreads to a few people and rapidly becomes generalized. In John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids ([1951], 1984), on the other hand, near-universal blindness is instantaneous, leading to the gradual revelation that a small minority has been spared. The significance of that minority will be the subject of chapter 3.

They’re Behind You!

25Science fiction, particularly but not only in its apocalyptic sub-genre, is almost always allegorical and political. 1950s American communist paranoia ghoulishly translated real life episodes (the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the McCarthy witch hunts), into large-audience books and films. The urgency of political purging endured well beyond the 1950s, and in fiction and film it was only moderately exaggerated, then as now. The spirit as well as the intent remain the same, and urge action against the danger of the alien, the other. Any other. But in fact we all know whom we mean, of course, then and now. Or do we?

26In science fiction, just like in standard blockbuster horror movies, the depiction of the unknown alien has benefitted from the scariest achievements of special effects. Paradoxically, however, the more alien (ie. unbelievable) the alien, the less likely it is to achieve a lasting effect of fear. Thus, archetypal invaders from outer space (in Alien, Scott, 1979; Armageddon, Bay, 1998; Independence Day, Emmerich, 1996; War of the Worlds, Spielberg , 2005) in general cannot match the potential horror of a threat rendered in the vocabulary and within the realm of the familiar (Rosemarys Baby, Polanski, 1968; To the Devil a Daughter, Sykes, 1976; The Omen, Donner, 1976). And in any case sometimes, of course, though not often, the alien is amiable (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg, 1977) or downright lovable (E.T., Spielberg, 1982). The latter two cases, however, are uncommon. At best the alien, as will be discussed presently, is cruel in order to be kind (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Wise, 1951) but, more commonly, it is cruel because it wishes or needs to be, usually in order to make a political point.

27The first version of the now cult film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, made in 1956 at the height of the McCarthy era, did not trouble to conceal (what, indeed, would have been its point otherwise?) an unsubtle gesture towards a perceived enemy close to home, namely the Red under the bed. Based on the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney (originally serialized in Colliers Magazine in 1954 and published as a novel in 1955) the film has had three re-makes. It was selected for preservation in the United States National Registry by the Library of Congress as being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant and in an American Film Institute poll of 1,500 people from the creative community in 2008, it was ranked among the top ten best films in the science fiction genre. In the first version, set in the fictional town of Santa Mira, California, the locals are gradually being replaced by perfect simulacra grown from plant-like pods that kill and dispose of their human victims. The Pod People, who are indistinguishable from normal people except by their lack of emotion, work together to spread more pods — grown originally from seeds that drifted into the Earth’s atmosphere from outer space — with the aim of eventually replacing the entire human race. The film climaxes with a seemingly crazed hero, the local doctor, running onto the highway frantically screaming to the passing motorists about the alien force. In a moment that breaks the ’fourth wall’ rule in film (a character revealing consciousness of the audience, abolishing its protective separateness and thus dragging it into the ’reality’ of the film) he looks into the camera and shouts ’They’re here already! You’re next!’

28In a subsequent version favoured by the studio because it left greater grounds for optimism, the story is told in flashback and begins with the hero about to be sent to a psychiatric hospital. He tells a doctor his story and, in the closing scene, pods are discovered at a highway accident, thus confirming his warning. The FBI is notified, but at the end of the film doubt remains as to whether they intervene in time to save the Earth.

29In the more famous 1978 version starring Donald Sutherland, the central character watches a gathering which suggests that the aliens have succeeded in taking over. Matthew, the central character, watches dozens of children being led into a dark theatre to be transformed. Later he is spotted by Nancy, the sole other survivor of the take-over. Supposing, as indeed the audience still does, that he is human, she walks towards him. Matthew responds by pointing to her and emitting the piercing pod scream that will alert the other Pod people. Nancy is left alone and helpless. It is unclear whether she will survive or indeed whether that has any relevance in a world in which, even if she did, she might be the last human being left.

30Invasion of the Body Snatchers is representative of a number of literary and film renditions of similar themes, two obvious examples being first, and already embedded in literary and cinematic tradition, the genre of possession or transformation of individual human beings by alien entities, whether demonic, vampiric, werewolfish or other; and second, the theme of alien usurpation of the dominance until that point claimed by humanity as a species. Given the vast bibliography already accumulated on the first category, what follows will concentrate on the second, of which Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a canonic example. It is worth pausing briefly, however, to consider three versions of the traditional vampire genre which, like plots of alien-invasion, puts forward the politicizing motif of the insurrection of erstwhile minorities against preexisting statuses quo.

Sickness and Health

31First, the box office sensation I Am Legend of 2007, directed by Francis Lawrence from Richard Matheson’s novel of 1954, in which, an epidemic of bacteria brought into existence in the aftermath of nuclear war turns everyone on Earth into vampires. The last remaining man, Robert Neville, like Nancy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, lives life under a state of siege, which concludes with his realization at the end of the film, just prior to his barricades being overrun by invading hordes of vampires, that normality is always a relative concept, and, at any given moment definable merely as that which the majority (in this case vampires) agree it is. In this radically changed world, therefore, vampirism becomes the norm and Neville himself, the eponymous singularity, is destined for legend.

32A similar logic operates in Walter M. Miller’s short story, ’Dark Benediction’ (2007) and in the series of young adult novels by Stephenie Meyer, the Twilight books, which have also been adapted for the cinema. ‘Dark Benediction’ is not strictly speaking a vampire story, but the concept that structures it is similar to that underpinning tales of vampirism. A mysterious condition which produces dark blemishes in the skin (epidermis) of its sufferers (’dermies’) also induces in them urges of physical affection and a desire to caress the uncontaminated, thus transmitting the condition. In Twilight, a Romeo and Juliet plot with minor modifications, two teenagers from groups which habitually are mortal enemies (humans and vampires), fall in love. In these last examples (and possibly even in I Am Legend, Matheson, 1954) however, unlike in standard vampire plots, instead of the usual moral demarcations (vampires and the diseased are bad and best avoided for fear of contamination), ambiguity is allowed to prevail. In ‘Dark Benediction’ (Miller, 2007) Paul falls in love with the contagious Willie and after some internal struggle touches her so as to become like her. In Twilight (Meyer, 2007) non-vampire Bella wishes to become a vampire for the love of Edward who is one, while Edward wishes to prevent this happening, for love of her. And although no such suggestion is clearly made in I Am Legend (Matheson, 1954), it might reasonably be argued that ultimately, for the hero, being caught and bitten by the vampires would be a happier option than life behind barricades as the last non-vampire left on Earth.

33Definitions of good and evil, right and wrong, desirable and undesirable (and by implication the validity of customary social definitions of self and other) are therefore left in question in these three narratives. And, by implication, although at the end it is clear that vampires and ’dermies’ are still at best a persecuted oddity and at worst a danger to the commonweal as it had previously understood itself, neither of those definitions will necessarily or even probably endure. At any given point we may think we know what is right and wrong and we may even accept collateral damage as an inevitable price worth paying in order to preserve one and exclude the other. Persecution, following this principle, may lead to the elimination of some innocents but is seen to be ethical because it guarantees the good of the commonweal, even if it carries a dimension of silent disquiet: namely, that what we would normally consider unquestionable may not actually be so).

34That disquiet, nonetheless, once articulated, persists: is it really better to shun (quarantine) or (if they resist it) cull the other? What about plague victims or lepers? Or sufferers of tuberculosis or AIDS? The logic that once underpinned assumptions we now regard as morally dubious also underpins much of what we still believe. If vampires or werewolves existed, we might hesitate to grant them equal rights, but who’s to say we would be right?

Different Normalities

35Returning to the genre of science fiction as the central concern here, similar ethical irresolutions (from all ends of the ideological spectrum) as well as a revisionist logic regarding what is both normal and good operate in some of the best works of science fiction/horror, including texts such as Brazilian writer ’Lygia Fagundes Telles’s ’Rat Seminar’ and ’The Ants’ (1986), Michael Crichton’s ferocious anti-Green movement diatribe, State of Fear (2005) and John Wyndham’s masterpieces, The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes ([1953] 1980), The Chrysalids ([1955] 1984), The Midwich Cuckoos ([1957] 1984) and, less well known, Web ([1979] 1983), many of which were subsequently made into films. All share a common thread: the possibility that in the future, as the logic of evolution makes likely, the supremacy of the human species might be lost either to another species or to a variant, more advanced form of homo sapiens.

36In Fagundes Telles’s two short stories, following orthodox Darwinian reasoning, the outcome of varying conditions results in the possibility of two species previously treated by humans as vermin (rats and ants) taking over the world. ’Rat Seminar,’ first published in Portuguese in Brazil in 1977 tells of a conference (the seventh to date) convened by the Brazilian government (but including representatives of the USA and other nations) to discuss the problem of rats which are rapidly taking over the country, and possibly the planet. In a nation under a state of emergency in which rats number one hundred per capita of the population, the political profile is revealed as that of a right-wing regime which, as had been the case in real life in the past in a Latin American context, welcomes American intervention in its affairs. As the population struggles against a rodent take-over which is already threatening food and utilities supplies, the representatives of the various governments meet in an isolated luxury mansion, refurbished at vast expense for that purpose. Criticism from the press is dismissed as a conspiracy between left-wing interests and the rats. The story opens with a young Public Relations officer reporting to his boss, the Secretary of State for Public and Private Well Being (revealed, as a by-the-way, as having been involved in two real-life right-wing coups in the past) on details pertaining to the luxurious arrangements available to the delegates (choice foods and wines, including an expensive Pinochet vintage, a heated swimming pool filled with coconut milk, private jets for use of the participants). The Secretary of State, who fittingly suffers from gout (an affliction culturally associated with life-long self-indulgence) is installed in accommodation whose expensive décor includes a statue representing Justice, blind-folded and holding the conventional sword and scales. In the course of the conversation a number of facts transpire: first, that the rat problem is not confined to Brazil and is now prevalent the world over, even in environments as inhospitable as the North Pole, where rats have mutated and now have long fur; second, that information is released to the Press and the public on a strictly censored and revised basis, presenting the situation as fully under governmental and military control; and third, that in reality, rats are now in control of large parts of the country, where hunger has led people (somewhat counter-productively) to eat the cat population. As the conversation continues, an unidentified rumbling noise increases in volume. Further investigation reveals that the rats have infiltrated the mansion, chewed up the telephone wires, devoured all the food and are now beginning to threaten the residents. As the situation reaches cataclysmic proportions, all the lights go out and those who can, escape. The young PR officer, in an attempt to avoid becoming rat fodder, seeks refuge, ironically, in a fridge. After sometime he succeeds in escaping. A subsequent de-briefing discloses the situation he left behind:

He walked through the empty house, hollowed out, no furniture, no curtains, no carpets. Just the walls. And the darkness. Then a mysterious noise began, scratchy, seemingly from the Conference Room and he realized that [the rats] were there, meeting behind closed doors. He couldn’t even remember how he got outside, he would never fully recall how he ran, he ran for miles. When he looked back, the mansion was all lit up. (Telles, 1986: 86)

37’The Ants’ (Telles, 1986) involves two young women – a medical student and a lawyer – who are driven out of their accommodation by fear of ants which, in the dark of night, emerge from their nest and are gradually reassembling the skeleton of a dwarf whose bones had been left by a previous occupant in a box under one of their beds. As in ’Rat Seminar,’ the suggestion of a power take-over carries similar ideological implications: the representatives-in-the-making of the status quo (in this case not of political power but of medicine and the law) are displaced by those previously deemed to be lesser beings, literally as regards size (in the case of both ants and dwarves) and status (vermin, medical anomalies). The implications are not necessarily lacking in ambiguity. As the disempowered replace the powerful, the ethos, nevertheless, remains unchanged: power is claimed by force and is exercised through violence by those previously ostracized by the outgoing status quo. In the new world coming into shape following the ousting of the powers-that-were, and in line with most narratives of apocalypse, as discussed in chapter 3, the cast may change but the script does not.

The Winning Gene

38The thread that links Fagundes Telles’s onslaught on representations of the political and decision-making strata (the educated, professional middle classes) to some of John Wyndham’s most successful works is the concept not just or not principally of strength in size and/or numbers but also intellect (the capacity for reasoned methodology) as the weapon of choice in the battle for the survival of the fittest. If what granted supremacy to humans as a species was intelligence, it stands to reason that that, too, will be the factor that in due course will most likely lead to its overthrow. In The Midwich Cuckoos, The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes and The Chrysalids, the battle lines are drawn according to the criterion not of physical but of intellectual supremacy (and may include the concept of collective intelligence). In all these novels, the power of organized groups to overcome unusual odds invites any number of interpretations. Central to them all, however, lies the presupposition that the weak chain in humanity’s dominance is individualism, an inbuilt trait which may in the long term limit communication and the transfer of knowledge, thus obstructing collective species interests. Whether articulated through the discourse of politics, science or ethics, the message, in much science fiction, appears to be that divided we cannot rule. Or at least not for long.

39The Midwich Cuckoos is set within the eponymous Midwich, a typical small English rural village. Some months after an unexplained forty-eight hour period during which the entire village falls into a deep sleep and remains isolated from outside contact, a follow-up study reveals that every woman of child-bearing age in the village is pregnant, with all indications that the pregnancies were initiated during the ’Dayout.’

40When the children, half of each sex, are born they are all identical, and, although somewhat unusual in appearance, seemingly normal. As they grow, however (at more than twice the normal rate of human children), it becomes apparent that they are in some respects not normal. They possess telepathic capacities which include the ability to force their will on others and to control their actions and body functions. They share two distinct composite or group minds, male and female. When one child of either sex learns something, all the others of the same sex share that knowledge without needing to acquire it individually. As a group, therefore, their learning capacity far exceeds even exceptional human capability. A number of small incidents show that if threatened or even if mistakenly perceiving a threat, the children (now generally referred to as the Children, with a capital ’C’) will defend themselves, usually with disproportionate strength. In any conflict situation their unusual control over the minds and actions of others means they always win. In due course it transpires that the ’Midwich Dayout’ was not an isolated incident, others having occurred elsewhere in the world. It quickly becomes apparent that the survival of humanity as the dominant species can only be maintained by means of the extermination of the Children (something carried out without qualms in other places, including one group in an Inuit settlement north of Canada and two behind the Iron Curtain, but deemed unacceptable in civilized England). The problem is articulated by the Children themselves in simple Darwinian terms:

Sooner or later you will try to kill us. However we behave you will want to wipe us out. […] It is a biological obligation. You cannot afford not to kill us, for if you don’t, you are finished. […] If we exist, we shall dominate you – that is clear and inevitable. Will you agree to be superseded and start on the way to extinction without a struggle? (Wyndham, [1957] 1984: 196-99)

41In The Day of the Triffids a similar confrontation with group force threatens the wipeout of humanity. A meteorological phenomenon never fully explained, and therefore conceivably originating either in human error or in natural cataclysm, results in widespread blindness, not only in London, where the novel is initially set, but, as it will transpire, worldwide. One of Wyndham’s great strengths as a writer of science fiction is that he resists the urge to explain the bizarre, thus avoiding the silly or cockeyed endings that characterize much of the genre. In The Day of the Triffids the possibility is vented, although never offered as more than that, that the shower of ’comets’ whose light emissions led to blindness was not a meteorological phenomenon but the result of scientific enterprise gone wrong (radiation accidentally released by one of the many satellites of various nationalities known to be circling the Earth for military, scientific and commercial purposes). Whatever the reason, near-universal blindness in humans offers the opportunity for the triffids – a recently recorded species of largely harmless plants of unknown origin and farmed worldwide for their valuable oils – to embark upon a global take-over of the planet. The fact that their preferred mode of attack is to blind by striking out at the eyes of its victims with poison-laden tentacles suggests at the very least an affinity between a seemingly natural phenomenon (the shower of comets) and a natural phenomenon put to unnatural use (the mass cultivation of a plant species of unknown – possibly extra-terrestrial – origin for commercial gain). The fact that the ’comet’ might have had human origin but triffids may be aliens with some anthropomorphic qualities (they walk, they seemingly talk or at least communicate with one another) but not others (unlike humans, in the pursuit of vital resources they operate as a group rather than in competition with one another) offers a comment on the long-term viability of humanity as a species. As a group the triffids force an understanding of human characteristics such as the gift for scientific endeavour (the use of satellites) and the urge towards commercial endeavour (the cultivation of profitable species) which, unless harnessed, will ultimately act against humanity, effectively propelling it along a reverse trajectory down a path from advanced civilization to Stone Age barbarity.

Up there […] there were – and maybe there still are – unknown numbers of satellite weapons circling round and round the Earth. […] Now suppose that one type happened to have been constructed to emit radiations [..] that would […] damage the optic nerve […] Then suppose there were a mistake, or perhaps an accident […]. But – that somehow or other one thing I’m quite certain of – that somehow or other we brought this lot down on ourselves. (Wyndham, [1951] 1984: 247)

42Whatever the case may be, the contest between humans and triffids is played out according to the script of atavistic jungle warfare in which the outcome will be the subjection of either to the other. In the course of this, even victory for humankind will come at the price of a backslide in prior evolutionary achievement (’the first generation labourers; the next, savages,’ Wyndham, 1984: 260), back to an earlier stage of existence defined by the struggle for survival:

Where everybody has to work hard just to get a living and there is no leisure to think, knowledge stagnates, and people with it.[…] A [small] community cannot hope to do more than exist and decline. […] If there are children we shall be able to spare only enough time from our labour to give them just a rudimentary education; one generation further, and we shall have savages or clods. (Wyndham, [1951] 1984: 204)

43Wyndham’s gloomy prophecy for life post-apocalypse has been echoed repeatedly in survival literature in film and fiction (for example the cult BBC series Survivors, Nation, 1975-77; Hodges, 2008-10) and nonfiction writing, an example of the latter being James Lovelock’s (of ’Gaia theory’ fame) urgent support for ’the compilation of a ’start up manual for civilization,’ copies of which should be dispersed widely enough to ensure that some would survive almost any eventuality’ (Rees, 2003: 24). In The Day of the Triffids the point is driven home succinctly:

[…] we’ll have to plough, still later we’ll have to learn how to make plough-shares, later than that we’ll have to learn how to smelt iron to make the shares. What we are on now is a road that will take us back and back and back until we can – if we can – make good all that we wear out. Not until then shall we be able to stop ourselves on the trail that’s leading down to savagery. But once we can do that, then maybe we’ll begin to crawl slowly up again. (Wyndham, [1951] 1984: 203-04)

44The same rationale determines the final outcome in The Kraken Wakes and The Chrysalids. The former describes escalating phases of what appears to be an alien invasion. In the first phase, objects from outer space land in the ocean. Journalists Mike and Phyllis Watson, while on honeymoon, happen to witness the event. For a while the phenomenon is not recognized as an alien arrival, and even when it is, conflict initially does not appear inevitable. The alien visitors appear to require conditions of extreme pressure to be found only in the deepest parts of the ocean, an area of the planet of no interest to human beings, which indicates that the two species might coexist indefinitely. An early investigation of the phenomenon by means of a bathysphere, however, results in the latter’s destruction by the deep-sea visitors, using unknown technology. Escalating hostilities provoked by the sinking of several ships and the retaliatory explosion of nuclear devices in the oceanic deeps initiate Phase Two, with massive attacks on ships, blockades on world shipping routes, and invasions of coastal communities by unknown sea tanks, followed by Phase Three which sees the aliens melting the ice caps, causing sea levels to rise and worldwide flooding, ultimately leading to social and political collapse. By the time an ultrasonic device capable of destroying the enemy is developed, most of the Earth’s surface is under water and the world population has been reduced to less than a fifth of its previous size. Although in the end victorious, humanity is forced to the conclusion that it had been forced to engage in a primeval struggle in which only one side could triumph.

[…] the situation I had hoped we could avoid now exists – and is in the process of being resolved. Two intelligent life forms are finding one another’s existence intolerable. […] any intelligent form dominates by, and therefore survives by, its intelligence: a rival form of intelligence must, by its very existence, threaten to dominate, and therefore threaten extinction. […] The same urge drives them as drives us – the necessity to exterminate or be exterminated. (Wyndham, [1953] 1980: 180-81)

45The Chrysalids echoes the problem outlined in The Midwich Cuckoos. A new form of intelligence, this time originating not in alien invasion but in mutation, can only survive in clandestinity. In a world in which, centuries after what appears to have been a large-scale nuclear war (something which, in the absence of surviving historical records, is remembered only as the myth of tribulation, a possible reference to Biblical annihilation in Daniel 9: 27) human society struggles to suppress deviancy (mutation) or even difference. Any human, animal or plant life deemed not to conform to purity standards is destroyed. The central characters, a group of children in possession of telepathic gifts which in some ways resemble the composite mind of the Midwich children, understand the danger they would face should their deviancy be uncovered.

Still our whole consideration if we were to survive must be to keep our true selves hidden. To walk, talk and live indistinguishably from other people. (Wyndham, [1955] 1984: 86)

46In both these novels, as in The Day of the Triffids, the perceived danger to the status quo lies in the superior power of group effort in the face of a habitually fragmented, divided, individualistic status quo. What is recognized as the adversary’s strength (superior abilities in group communication) in fact defines the nature of the wider social group’s weaknesses: a tendency for competition rather than collaboration, divisiveness rather than cooperation, and, paradoxically, the determination to survive as a rigidly defined group rather than a willingness to permit the dissolution of the barriers that divide self from other. The implications, when translated into the pragmatic interactions between nation-states, political groups and definitions of social ethics, need no further elaboration. It has been evidenced, most recently, in the Middle East (Egypt, Syria, Iran), by the power of mobile phones, e-mail and twitter for the purposes of enabling resistance and revolution.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel…

47… as per Robert Lowell’s cynical suggestion, may be that of an on-coming train. In Kurt Vonnegut’s classic, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (Vonnegut, 1992), the end of the galaxy is envisaged in a novel-within-a-novel authored by Kilgore Trout, a failed science fiction writer encountered by the central protagonist, Eliot Rosewater. In Trout’s novel, the Earthling protagonist who has travelled to the end of the universe is offered short-leave to go back to Earth because there has been a death at home. The chilling answer to the enquiry as to who has died is ’It isn’t who has died. It’s what has died. What’s died, my boy, is the Milky Way’ (Vonnegut, 1992: 173-74). But not really, of course. Not even in Vonnegut is the ultimate fear of galactic destruction seriously entertained, other than within safe limits, namely in a fictional work at twice-remove, by a fictional failed writer destined never to be taken seriously.

48Instead, in science fiction, the end of the world, or its near-miss, as a rule are either dealt with ironically or not at all. Within the genre of lampoon, Douglas Adams’s novels in the series The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (Adams, 1979) also satirize the prospect of apocalypse without even the vestige of unease that prevails at the end of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Kubrick, 1964). In So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (Adams, 1984), Ford Prefect claims to have saved the universe from destruction just in time. Accompanied by him, Arthur Dent, the Earthling anti-hero, takes a friend to the planet where God’s Final Message to His Creation is written. With the help of Marvin, the paranoid android, he finally deciphers it and reads the following: ’We apologize for the inconvenience’ (Adams, 1984: 201-02). In this eccentric scenario of the end of the world, the pity of it all is that, faced with global extinction, the prevailing emotion on the part of a polite computer is mild embarrassment. Things could not get much worse.

49The end of the world as spectacle, and again as a tale within a tale, removes all possibility of fear from other plots whose intention, like Adams’s, is ostentatiously to provoke laughter: in Catherine L. Moore’s ’Vintage Season’ (Moore, 1989) and Robert Silverberg’s ’When We Went to See the End of the World’ (Silverberg, 1989), for example, time-travelers take holidays to the past to witness the Earth’s final moments and the aftermath of nuclear war.

Panic Laughter

50Resorting to irony, satire and lampoon does not of course exclude (and may indeed reinforce) the possibility that these satirical examples, like other more deadpan fictions of apocalypse, maybe be direct responses to the anxieties of a given epoch. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale (Atwood, 1991) the postscript to the novel is set at an academic conference of historians whose area of expertise is the historical period described in the diegetic occurrences of the novel. Academic discourse regarding the events documented in the Handmaid’s account of life in the Republic of Gilead is both caricatured and caricatures or at least distances itself from the emotional intensity of the narrative’s events, through a combination of documentary objectivity academic pedantry and paternalistic humour regarding a chronologically-remote historical period now regarded with professional detachment. Scholarly superciliousness reduces the Handmaid’s harrowing account to an archeological tableau documenting the aftermath of a seismic shift in human society following an unspecified nuclear conflict in the distant past. And even in novels of apocalypse on a grand scale, such as James Blish’s A Clash of Cymbals (Blish, 1974) or Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero (Anderson, 2006), which envisage not just the destruction of the planet but of the entire universe, a get-out clause opens the doors to new cosmoses. In all these authors, as will be discussed in more detail in chapter 3, the implication of the aftermath of large-scale cataclysm is that of an eventual new beginning. The notion that perhaps in the gap between each cycle of being and nothingness ’all that will be left is two worlds, one dead and the other powerless to be born’ (Seed, 2000, 5) almost always appears remote, a philosophical hypothesis rather than anything with conceivable empirical manifestations.

Really Meaning It

51Rare exceptions to this rule of vestigial hope are Mordecai Roshwald’s 1959 novel, Level 7, adapted for television by J.B. Priestley in 1966, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach of 1957, twice made into a film, and Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead (2006). In Level 7 the unnamed protagonist lives underground, on level 7 (the deepest) of a bunker-style military complex, where he is expected to reside permanently, fulfilling the role of commanding his nation’s nuclear weapons. During his forced residence, a technical error results in the order to deliver the bomb that unleashes World War III. All surviving civilian life moves from the surface of a now radioactive Earth to a collection of underground shelter complexes (levels 1-5). Military personnel occupy levels 6 and 7. At the end of the novel, due to another mechanical malfunction, all remaining life, including that at level 7 is destroyed, the result being an absolute wipe-out.

52Similarly, in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (Shute, 1974), set in Australia in the aftermath of a radioactive (cobalt as well as nuclear) conflict which has already destroyed the entire northern hemisphere, the remnants of animal (including human) and plant life live out the time that is left while they wait for the inevitable end, as radiation works its way down to the southern hemisphere on the planet’s wind systems. In Shute’s uncompromising scenario (made the crueller because conveyed through the point of view of characters almost uniformly characterized by painfully limited imaginations) a new beginning is not conceivable. The constraints of radioactivity with a half-life of thousands of years, together with the improbability that the necessary environmental and biological contingencies might ever again coincide, means that ultimately the possibility of new life on Earth is nonexistent.

53And in Brockmeier’s elegiac universe, the dead move into a state of limbo (‛the City’) which in all respects resembles everyday life: people live in houses, shop, work, make friends. They remain there while there is anyone left on Earth who remembers them. When the last person that does so dies, the dead finally move on to a not very clearly defined final destination. The plot focuses both on life in ’the City’ and on Laura Byrd, a wildlife specialist employed by Coca Cola in a near future, at a time when the polar ice caps have begun to melt and many species have already become extinct. Following a global viral epidemic which rapidly kills all human life on Earth, Laura survives because she is the last of an expedition to the Antarctic, where, due to the low temperatures, the virus is ineffective. Laura’s struggle against the elements and her eventual death will consign all the remaining inhabitants of ‘the City’ (whose varying links to her had ensured their enduring presence in the afterlife) to final oblivion. It is unclear whether, in a planet previously threatened by ecological disaster and terrorism (including environmental attacks), life in any form will be preserved on the planet.

The Magnitude of the Imagined End

54In depicting the end of the world in film, marked cultural differences are to be found between Great Britain and the United States, partly driven, in the case of the former, by budgetary constraints on large-scale cinematic special effects. Thus, while the vast resources of the Hollywood film industry can afford to meet the demands of grand-récit production, in the former, the actual unfolding of apocalypse often remains a backdrop to individual tragedy. As Charles E. Gannon observes, in global disaster narratives made in the UK, unlike those made in the US,

there is an unwillingness to step back to acquire a macroscopic view of the calamity. Accordingly, in Threads – and also in The War Game (1965) and in The Bed-Sitting Room (1969) – the audience is never provided with a bird’s eye look at the end of the world. The scale on which we witness the effects of the bomb never exceeds the devastation of individual buildings; the scope never expands to show a larger landscape. […] Each view is intimate. (Gannon, 2000: 104)

55In On the Beach (Shute, 1954), set in Australia but penned by an author with cultural roots still firmly planted in England’s green and pleasant land, the wait for unavoidable annihilation is a simulacrum of normality (giving and attending dinner parties, home decoration, the planting of gardens that will never grow in a future that will never come). The last American nuclear submarine left on Earth, on a mission to Australia at the time of the conflict’s outbreak, is left stranded in the southern hemisphere. In due course the exiled sailors make an exploratory journey back north to confirm what is already known: the death of the planet, through radioactive contamination. Back in Australia, the submarine commander, representative of a humanity soon to be entirely obliterated, buys presents to ‛take back’ to a wife and children whom he knows, but in thought and deed does not acknowledge to be dead. As the radiation drift approaches, he enacts the definitive representation of silent denial: he takes his submarine off shore, sinks it and goes down with it, refusing all non-Navy company (including his close friend Moira) because ‛Uncle Sam wouldn’t like it’ (Shute, 1974: 276).

56Although some American renditions of the end of the world (The Day After, Meyer, 1983, The Day After Tomorrow, Emmerich, 2004, Armageddon, Bay, 1998, Independence Day, Emmerich, 1996), just like smaller-scale disaster movies, preserve an initial attempt at audience identification by providing subplots that present certain characters as individuals (’people like us’) going about their daily lives, the scale is quickly broadened to a panoptic view of mass destruction. In Level 7 (Roshwald, 1959), for example, while global destruction is narrated from the intimate perspective (the diary) of the last man on Earth, his deindividuation (he is a soldier who, while being the first person narrator is known only as X-127) makes him also an archetype in a wide-span narrative.

Would You Believe It?

57This section addresses the question of incredulity in the face of the unimaginable. In José Saramago’s fiction of apocalypse, Blindness, also made into a film (Meirelles, 2008), and discussed at greater length in chapter 3, disbelief is the ruling emotion in the face of the moral consequences of disaster. Incredulity, and failed attempts at explaining the origins of the event are also central to The Stone Raft, an earlier novel by the same author (Saramago, 1996), in which the Iberian Peninsula breaks away from the rest of Europe and floats away into the Atlantic. Ensuing events are conveyed from a multiplicity of viewpoints: those of the characters experiencing them, a narrator reporting upon them to an unidentified audience and a third voice, possibly that of the author, which addresses itself directly to the reader but sometimes appears sceptical about the truth of its own narrative. The discovery of something which under moonlight looks like a stone ship but in the light of day is just a pile of stones is given a variety of explanations by different people, ranging from the geological to the fantastic, the effect being the ultimate dismissal of the possibility of ascertaining reality or truth in a world which in the past had taken both for granted. They, however, like the erstwhile peninsula’s geographical status (it is now an island of sorts) and location (it is not fixed to the seabed but floats) have now become uncertain. The world, at the most comically literal of levels, has become a moveable feast and what in the past was reality no longer makes sense.

58Uncertainty, regarding not necessarily specific events or their immediate causes but, to some extent, their remote origins and longer-term consequences are also central issues in Mimi Leder’s film of 1998, Deep Impact. The world is threatened by an extinction-level event (E.L.E.): a seven-mile wide comet, named ‛Wolf-Biederman’ after the two people who discovered it, is on a collision course with Earth and is large enough for the impact to destroy all life on the planet. A joint American and Russian endeavour (the political message is unsubtle) dispatches a crew of astronauts on a spaceship portentously named Messiah to destroy the comet, using nuclear weapons. After some mishaps and loss of life among the crew of the Messiah, the bombs are detonated but the comet, albeit split into two chunks, is not destroyed. President Beck, a black man whose race, at the time of the film’s release (exactly ten years before the election of Barack Obama) was by no means the least outlandish aspect of the film, acknowledges Messiah’s failure and announces that the government will conduct a lottery to select 800,000 ordinary Americans to join 200,000 preselected doctors, nurses, scientists, engineers, teachers, lawyers, writers, artists, soldiers, officials and representatives of key occupations. Together, they will be conveyed to underground shelters previously built in limestone caves in Missouri (back then with a possible nuclear attack in mind). These people will be part of a worldwide effort to save life on Earth from extinction. As the smaller of the two comet chunks (‛Biederman’) hits the Atlantic Ocean near Virginia Beach, creating a giant global tsunami, the world braces itself for the impact of the remaining portion of the comet, predicted to strike western Canada and create a cloud of dust that will block out the sun for two years, killing all remaining plant, animal, and human life forms other than those evacuated to the caves. The crew members of Messiah decide to destroy the larger fragment by flying into a fissure that has formed on its surface and exploding the remaining bombs on board. They die in the process, but succeed in breaking up the comet into small pieces thus preventing planetary extinction. In the face of the devastation, which however spares enough of the planet to guarantee continuity, the President makes an inspirational speech to the effect that the world will be rebuilt but in a different mould, with old errors put right and greater justice prevailing: ‛Now we begin again’ (Leder, 1998).

59The film’s political and religious symbolism is not nuanced and echoes that of Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004), in which another rudderless President leads a chastened community driven by a wrathful God into a revised pursuit of happiness, in a world in which the distribution of power has been radically altered: an exodus of US citizens seeks not just a better life but survival across the Rio Grande in Mexico, and is taught a lesson in true charity, receiving a welcome in the past not granted to Mexican emigrants in search of the ‛Land of Opportunity’.

60Moving from fictional speculation to documented reality, in terms of death rates the greatest cataclysm to date in human history was the Black Death that swept across the world in the 1340s and is estimated to have killed at least 75 million people between 1345 and 1348.1

61In England the death rate was estimated at between 45-60 % (Hatcher, 2008: 180). This extraordinary global wipe out is estimated to have produced social, economic and political effects discernible for at least one hundred and fifty years thereafter, and to have produced changes that radically altered established communities on a large scale, including in many cases for the better. In England, for example, according to Hatcher, in the aftermath of the catastrophe, the position of rural tenants and landless labourers was vastly improved, resulting in new definitions of social class in the long term:

Such momentous mortality naturally had the potential to create confusion and disorder, but equally striking is the speed and power with which forces within society and economy moved to restore stability. […] Whereas the historian is struck by the continuities, contemporaries would have been overwhelmed by the scale of the changes. […] The sheer scale of deaths had resulted in a surplus of land and a shortage of labour, and set in train powerful forces that threatened to alter permanently the balance of social and economic power between lords and peasants. [… O]rdinary people were […] enjoying their new freedom to make choices about whether to take possession of a relatively unattractive piece of land or when and for what wages they would work. (Hatcher, 2008: 224-25)

After the End

62Whether the outcome is overall positive (survival, social democratization) or only partially so (old problems might rear their heads again, as will be discussed in chapter 3), in narratives of apocalypse the question always remains as to whether lessons have been learned which will safeguard against repetition in the future eventually leading to irremediable wipe-out. In the end, however, and as proposed in films such as Solaris (Tarkovsky, 1972; Soderbergh, 2002), to be discussed, we can only imagine what we already know. Whether in foundation texts such as Genesis or Revelation, in genre-defining narratives of science fiction such as H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (Wells, [1898] 2005), The War in the Air (Wells, [1907] 2005) and The World Set Free (Wells, [1914] 2007), or in the most extreme recent speculations on this theme, such as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (Atwood, 2003) and The Year of the Flood (Atwood, 2009), the world may undergo narrow escapes, but, echoing Ecclesiastes (and the title drawn from it of one of the central contemporary novels of apocalypse), even if we make the same mistakes again and our second chance only confirms our unavoidable species propensity to self-destruction, ultimately, Earth abides.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 9. John Martin, The Last Man
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/300/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 768k
Légende Figure 10. Gustave Doré, Adam and Eve Driven Out of Eden
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/300/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,0M
Légende Figure 11. Albrecht Dürer, Four Riders of the Apocalypse
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/300/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,4M

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