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The End of the World

Maria Manuel Lisboa

3. And Then There Was Nothing: Is the End Ever Really the End?

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Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. […] The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after. […] That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. […] And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. (Ecclesiastes 1: 2-18)

1The term palingenesis, also known as recapitulation theory or embryological parallelism, refers to that phase in the development of an individual plant or animal which theoretically repeats the evolutionary history of the taxonomic group to which it belongs. Sometimes expressed as Haeckl’s law that ontogeny (the growth or size change and the development or shape change of an individual organism) recapitulates phylogeny (the evolutionary history of a species), this theory has been extensively refuted by science but remains attractive to writers of science fiction, who have variously drawn on the idea that the development of advanced species passed through stages represented by adult organisms of more primitive species. Birds, for example, would carry phylogenetic markers of their ontogenetical descent from reptiles (their feet resemble those of some lizards). In the sense of recapitulation, the word palingenesis or rather palingenesia can be traced back to the Stoics, who used the term to refer to the continual re-creation of the universe by a demiurge (creator) after its absorption into himself. In certain schools of philosophy the related concept of metempsychosis in its broadest sense denotes the theory that the human soul does not die with the body but is born again in new individuals or incarnations. Schopenhauer articulated a similar idea invoking not the soul but the will. Repetition, or recapitulation is at the heart of the analysis of apocalypse to be developed in this chapter, which discusses the representation in film and fiction of the term’s dual meaning as destruction and renewal.

Failures of the Imagination

2In Jack Arnold’s film of 1957, The Incredible Shrinking Man, whose re-make is due out in 2012, it is not the world that faces extinction, only the hero, Scott, who through accidental exposure to radiation steadily decreases in size, until, it is to be assumed, he reaches vanishing point. The Shrinking Man, the original 1956 novel by Richard Matheson (of I Am Legend fame), a metaphor for human disappearance by reason of science gone wrong, perfectly illustrates Susan Sontag’s view that science fiction on the theme of apocalypse addresses atavistic fears in the human psyche, namely the amorphous feeling that something terrible is about to happen (Sontag, 1979): a process arguably akin to that involved in the cultural constructions of myths.

3Shrinking, of course, can also be read as a metaphor, writ both large and small, for the fear of a return from Being to Nothing: humanity vis à vis the cosmos or the embryonic self at a state of existence in which individuation from the body of the mother is not yet a possibility. The omnipotence of the all-encompassing watery womb within readings of apocalypse lends itself to many none-too-subtle interpretations. In psychoanalytic thought, the return to the womb has been brilliantly explored by object-relations theory (Chodorow, 1979; Dinnerstein, 1987) as the dreaded and desired loss of the self in a (m)other who was there was before that self existed. Not a paternal but rather a maternal deity, disturbingly imagined as a reality before Adam and Eve, the self, we ourselves, were a glimmer in the procreative eye of a powerful (pre)(pro)genitress whose being, we now find, is our ex nihilo: an entity preexisting and independent of that which it might or might not conceive (namely, us).

Water, Water Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink

4It is no coincidence, therefore, that ultimately, and revealingly, in the Western imagination – from the old Norse Ragnarök (Sturluson, 1916) to Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods (1876) which the former inspired, to Jehovah’s Flood – a father’s preferred mode of inflicting apocalypse on his unruly children involves the reinstatement of the primeval oceans of the womb. If you don’t behave, I’ll tell mother. In the Ragnarök (‛final destiny of the Gods’), cataclysmic events which include a great battle foretold to result in the deaths of the Gods Odin, Thor, Freyr and the giant Loki, end in the submersion of the world in water, from which it later resurfaces newly cleansed. The surviving Gods meet and the world is re-populated by two human survivors. In Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods, Odin attempts to by-pass his own daughter Brunhilde and gives the magic ring capable of granting world power to its owner (and itself made of gold stolen from the Rhine, which is the dominion of maidens) to her lover Siegried. In Wagner, the homosocial collusion between father- and son-in-law is undone by the mutual loyalty of an early ‛monstrous regiment’ of women. Brunhilde returns the ring to the Rhine maidens (Eve’s sisters in seduction and temptation), and these destroy Valhalah, the dominion of the Gods. They do so, furthermore, and adding insult to injury, using the latter’s weapon of choice: fire, which extinguishes the males although it is itself extinguishable by the watery element from which they originally sprang.

5And in Genesis, in one of his moments of most blatant pique, God punishes the world with a flood, Noah builds his Ark, and the rest is history (or at least myth). The small print in the narrative of the Flood, however, includes the caveat that, albeit having allowed the world the benefit of the doubt and a fresh start, the grudging deity suspects that the second attempt will almost certainly fail, just like the first:

Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: ‛Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood’ (Genesis 8: 20-21, italics added)

6Plus ça change… In Miguel Torga’s short story, ‛Vicente’ (Torga, 1987), the narrative of the Flood is replayed with a modification, namely that this time disobedience wins the day immediately, rather than being postponed a few generations. In the Ark, humanity and all the species cower in the face of the wrath of God. One creature alone, the raven Vicente (dark counterpart to the white dove which replaced the original black raven in Genesis 8: 7-9), defies confinement in the floating prison and takes flight, extending defiance rather than an olive branch. Just the tip of one tree on what used to be a hill remains above the water line and the waters continue to rise. As Vicente persists in not returning to the Ark, God apostrophizes the raven’s disobedience and desire to explore alternatives (curiosity, of course, namely that of Eve, being that which had already once before led to the loss of paradise). Each antagonist faces a choice: for Vicente, either drowning or defeat, a return to the Ark and the abdication of the free will which had first driven him to fly off; and for God, either the abdication of supreme authority or the destruction of his finest creation: that self-same free will embodied in Vicente’s audacity.

Noah and the rest of the animals looked on at the duel between Vicente and God. And in the clear or confused mind of each, just one dilemma: either the waters did not submerge the branch on which Vicente had landed, the Lord preserved the greatness of the moment of Genesis – the absolute autonomy of the creature with regard to his creator – or, the branch once submerged, Vicente would die, his annihilation rendering meaningless that supreme event. The very meaning of life itself was inextricably linked to the act of insubordination [and to…] that black raven, drenched from head to foot, who, tranquil and obstinate, resting on the last possibility of survival, defied omnipotence. (Torga, 1987: 133-34)

7In the end, the raven wins the battle of wills and the waters stop rising, leaving the bird perched on top the only tree branch left on Earth, which for him, too, as for Adam and Eve, but here with no strings attached, is yet another tree representing disobedient, stubborn life. Vicente, like Milton’s Satan, is a charismatic villain, but unlike the latter he is also a triumphant one, and the reader’s secret sympathies are satisfied.

8In Western Europe the Fall in Genesis was arguably the first real apocalypse, in the course of which not just life, but eternal life was lost and a disobedient animal (not a raven but a reptile, the former’s evolutionary forbear, whose scaly feet it shares) won the first skirmish. In ‛Vicente,’ God is temporarily defeated, although, as was the case with the events that took place in the original Ark (given that ‛every inclination of [man’s] heart is evil from childhood’ Genesis 8: 21), the seeds may already be planted for a new cataclysmic repetition. And another, and another (although not necessarily ad infinitum, since, difficult though it may be to imagine, one day the end could really be the end).

9Barring that, however, in a curious game in which the only options available to a thwarted Creator are either to concede defeat or to annihilate his own work, and as understood in WarGames (Badham, 1983), following the near-miss of global planetary destruction, the lesson learned by God is that the only winning move is not to play.

Not Quite the End

10The broad spectrum of fiction and nonfiction on the subject of planetary destruction ultimately only very rarely envisages total annihilation. God almost invariably opts not to play and instead, almost without exception, from ancient Norse myth and Biblical renditions to modern sci-fi, what structures these narratives is the logic of the close escape: near-universal annihilation but with just enough life left intact to guarantee a reasonable likelihood of a new beginning. If the belief in a second chance underpins most apocalyptic thinking, however, the certainty that old habits die hard and old mistakes get repeated is equally fundamental to narratives of catastrophe. This chapter will address the plight of those left behind in the aftermath of planetary near-destruction. It elaborates on the notion that all scenarios of apocalypse are also morality tales that conclude with the medium-term effects of an opportune lesson well learned, and a new ethic of intended non-repetition in the future of past mistakes: moral recklessness, social dissipation, ungodliness and the hubris of knowledge/power run-amok.

11As M. Keith Booker (2001), James Berger (1999), Joyce A. Evans (1998) and other writers on apocalypse observe, therefore, in general, either global destruction is narrowly averted or near-global cataclysm does actually take place, but in its aftermath previous mistakes are set right and a new (although, not very different or necessarily better) world is built. Or at least, that is the intention. In reality, and that is the basis of the argument that follows, the deep structures of the new world often have inbuilt in them the prototypes of old errors repeatable indefinitely.

12Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods) is the title of the last of Wagner’s cycle of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). In the final moments, the Gods and their home, Valhalla, are destroyed. In Wagner the Gods are undone but the world is not. In the Norse mythology which he largely used as his source, however, the world itself is destroyed. Ragnarök, in old Norse ‘Final destiny of the Gods’ or ‘Doom of the Gods,’ is an event also referred in one poem in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources, and in Gylfaginning, the first part of the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century and generally attributed to the Icelandic poet and historian, Snorri Sturluson.

13Ragnarök narrates a great battle between the Gods, in which several, including the major figures of Odin, Thor and Loki are destroyed. The world is consumed by fire, but subsequently, reappears, new and fertile. The surviving Gods meet, and the world is re-populated by two human survivors, Lif and Lifbrasir. Their offspring will inherit the Earth, and the sun, personified as Sól (interestingly also – minus the accent – the Latin root for ‛sun’), bears a daughter ‛at least as beautiful as she,’ (Sturluson, 87) who will follow the same path as her mother. Appropriately resonant with contemporary fears of a nuclear winter following global thermonuclear war (for example the world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), in the Edda the world is plunged into prolonged winter, ‛that winter which is called the Awful Winter:’

In that time snow shall drive from all quarters; frosts shall be great then, and winds sharp; there shall be no virtue in the sun. Those winters shall proceed three in succession, and no summer between; but first shall come three other winters, such that over all the world there shall be mighty battles. In that time brothers shall slay each other for greed’s sake, and none shall spare father or son in manslaughter and in incest; so it says in Völuspá (Sturluson, 1916: 78):

Brothers shall strive
and slaughter each other
Own sisters
shall sin together
Ill days among men
many a whoredom:
An axe-age
, a sword-age, shields shall be cloven;
A wind-age
, a wolf-age,

ere the world totters. (Sturluson, 1916: 79)

14The fabric of the community begins to fray in a way that supplants even the worst excesses of contemporary sci-fi, including Margaret Atwood’s panorama of genetically molested creatures in Oryx and Crake (Atwood, 2003) and The Year of the Flood (Atwood, 2009):

Then shall happen what seems great tidings: the Wolf shall swallow the sun; and this shall seem to men a great harm. Then the other wolf shall seize the moon, and he also shall work great ruin; the stars shall vanish from the heavens. Then shall come to pass these tidings also: all the earth shall tremble so, and the crags, that trees shall be torn up from the earth, and the crags fall to ruin; and all fetters and bonds shall be broken and rent. (Sturluson, 1916: 79)

15In a continuation of the imaginings that have subsequently fed Gothic literature, horror fiction and canonic adolescent texts (notably the Harry Potter phenomenon, where a werewolf of the same name figures second only in malevolence to Voldemort himself, in a battle that might have triggered the end of that particular world),

Fenris-Wolf shall advance with gaping mouth, and his lower jaw shall be against the earth, but the upper against heaven,—he would gape yet more if there were room for it; fires blaze from his eyes and nostrils. The Midgard Serpent shall blow venom so that he shall sprinkle all the air and water; and he is very terrible, and shall be on one side of the Wolf. In this din shall the heaven be cloven. (Sturluson, 1916: 79)

And nothing then shall be without fear in heaven or in earth. (Sturluson, 1916: 80)

″Afterward, when all the world is burned, and dead are all the Gods and all the champions and all mankind? […] Shall any of the Gods live then, or shall there be then any earth or heaven?” (Sturluson, 1916: 83-84)

16Fortunately, mindful of audiences’ good will, and as is almost invariably the case in narratives from the most venerable early myth to Hollywood, the answer is yes.

Hárr answered: ″In that time the earth shall emerge out of the sea, and shall then be green and fair; then shall the fruits of it be brought forth unsown. […]” (Sturluson, 1916: 84)

17But not, however, without a caveat: namely, that just as previously it all came to an end, when it all begins again, the seed is already planted for the cycle to begin all over again. Perhaps.

Now, if thou art able to ask yet further, then indeed I know not whence answer shall come to thee, for I never heard any man tell forth at greater length the course of the world; and now avail thyself of that which thou hast heard. (Sturluson, 1916: 85)

18At the end, then, counter-intuitively, Armageddon runs a full cycle, and perhaps, but only perhaps, permits a new beginning, albeit possibly only to strike again in an unspecified future. Which might explain why, in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, in the aftermath of four days and fifteen hours of operatic sturm und drang, the last bars unfold in a quietude in some respects even more menacing than the musical battering that went before.

19The end of the world, this world, that world, prior to the coming of a new era features both in the Old Testament (the Book of Daniel) and in the New (Revelation). In The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode (1968) discusses visions of the end both as a theme and as a trajectory of narrative itself, but, as observed by James Berger, ‛such visions have increasingly given way to visions of what happens after the end. The apocalyptic sensibilities both of religion and of modernism have shifted toward a sense of post-apocalypse’ (Berger, 1999, XIII). Berger discerns a common thread of radical critique of the existing political and social order linking apocalyptic visions as chronologically disparate as the Book of Revelation, the work of Michel Foucault (Foucault, 2001; 2009) and the preaching of millenarian evangelical fundamentalists such as Hal Lindsey (Lindsey, 1973).

Apocalypse in Our Time

20In contemporary analyses of apocalypse, the Jewish Holocaust during World War II figures large, the rivers of ink spilt on the subject of this particular cataclysm and its aftermath contradicting Adorno’s famous summing up of humanity’s moral cataclysm, to the effect that, after Auschwitz, nothing remains but silence. Adorno argued that the Holocaust had ‛demonstrated irrefutably that culture had failed’ (Adorno, 1992, 366). While agreeing that the Shoah represented an existential and ethical paradigm shift, ‛a reality which, by [its] very nature, obliterate[d] thought and the human program of thinking,’ Arthur Cohen questions Adorno’s statement that when contemplating the Holocaust, ‛absolute negativity is in plain sight,’ and argues instead that the Holocaust was a transformative event whose effect was to show that the path to change lay through culture. It described ‛a new beginning for the human race that knew not of what it was capable.’ In Cohen’s view, faced with the moral paradigm shift that was the Holocaust, a new beginning was possible, requiring the process of witness testimony acting as both haunting memory of loss and affirmation of survival: ‛We must create a new language in which to speak of this in order to destroy the old language which, in its decrepitude and decline, made facile and easy the demonic descent’ (Cohen, quoted in Berger, 1999, 60). For Cohen, post-apocalypse, the destruction of an advanced civilization offers the opportunity for a return to what truly matters.

Figure 12. Reuven Dafni, Corpses in a Mass Grave, Bergen Belsen

Never Again?

21Berger’s statement that ‛apocalyptic desire is a longing also for the aftermath’ (Berger, 1999, 34) mirrors Cohen’s belief (and in this context the term ‛belief,’ in the sense of ‛faith without proof,’ may be the operative word) in the possibility of a new beginning (that which Berger denominates ‛the triumph of apocalypse over trauma […], of the utterly new beginning over the repetition of history,’ Berger, 1999, 53). Each finds support in the abundance of fiction and film based on that principle.

22The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (Herman, 2008) is a film aimed at a young adolescent audience who often also read the original novel (Boynes, 2008) as a set text in secondary school. The theme of an uncomprehending German child faced with the reality of the Jewish Holocaust presents him as vulnerable because he fails to understand what he is witnessing, something which in turn leads to his own death. At the end of the film the boy, the son of the concentration camp commander, sneaks into the camp to join the Jewish child whom he has befriended across the barbed wire, in order to search for the latter’s father who has inexplicably disappeared. The two boys are caught in a crowd of men being herded into the ‘shower rooms’ where they are all gassed. What had seemed to be a narrative of one boy helping another escape from his deadly fate turns into the tragedy of random death for the two children. In the novel, the shock is partly transformed into catharsis by the final lines, according to which some retrievable hope remains, namely that in dealing with human evil, beyond a certain point, the sheer scale of it will ensure that nothing similar can ever happen again. The danger of such a belief, of course, weakening, as it does, the awareness that history can and often does in fact repeat itself, is that it might permit that very repetition. Or, if it does not, that that might be only because the point has been reached at which absolute obliteration means that there is nothing left to be repeated.

23The idea of a tipping point which, if crossed, would trigger extreme consequences, which is also the rationale behind the safeguard of M.A.D. and also some of the films already discussed (Fail-Safe, Lumet, 1964; Frears, 2000; By Dawns Early Light, Scholder, 1980), means that in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, error, rather than terror (or error within a larger scenario of terror), suffices to set in motion a chain of events at the end of which, for different reasons in each narrative but to similar emotional and rhetorical effect, a point of no return is crossed. Interestingly, Fail-Safe and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas both conclude with epilogues that almost exactly echo one another: in the former, a short dialogue between the two nation’s leaders in which one, in the aftermath of the Oppenheimer-style realization that he has become Death, asks despairingly what they can say to the survivors. The reply is ‛we will tell them that it will never happen again’ (Frears, 2000). In The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas a similarly-worded statement is made: ‛Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in our day and age’ (Boynes, 2008, 216). They are both wrong, as is made clear at the end of Fail-Safe (Frears, 2000), by a slow scrolling of a list of countries which, at the time of the film’s release, controlled nuclear weapons. Things, be they small or massive (on the scale of World War II or the Holocaust), can always happen again.

Figure 13. Marc Chagall, Apocalypse in Lilac, Capriccio
If anti-Semitism involves the assertion that the Jews killed Jesus Christ
, in this image a vulture-like figure of Hitler, identifiable by the moustache and swastika, appears to pick at miniature figures of people sheltering under the ladder that leans against the cross where Christ hangs crucified.

24In the case of the two films discussed, prior to the brutal endings, the sheer magnitude of the potential horror had led savvy audiences to believe that nothing other than a last-minute reprieve should be expected (the cavalry always arrives on time). Instead, the shocking climaxes move both films outside all reasonable genre expectations, locating them instead in the same league as classics such as Stanley Kubrick’s laugh-hard-but-only-if-you’re-stupid film, Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick, 1964) and Ray Bradbury’s novel, Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury, 1976), the latter also made into a film, and all of which hopefully encourage the pedagogical realization that the worst really can and sometimes does happen. In Berger’s sobering words, ‘after the end, there will be something else – unimaginable.’ (Berger, 1999: 34).

25In Shute’s On the Beach, the difficulty of comprehending the idea of an absolute end is articulated by the scientists and submarine crew that visited for the last time regions of the world where the radiation that eventually will spread to the entire planet has already put an end to all life:

‛Did it ever strike you that nobody will ever – ever – see Cairns again? Or Moresby, or Darwin?
They stared at him while they turned over the new idea.
‛That’s so,’ Dwight said thoughtfully. […] We’re the last living people that will ever see those places.’
Peter stirred uneasily. ‛That’s historical,’ he said. It ought to go on record somewhere, oughtn’t it? Is anybody writing any kind of history about these times?’
John Osborne said, ‘I haven’t heard of one. I’ll find out about that. After all, there doesn’t seem to be much point in writing stuff that nobody will read.’ (Shute, 1974: 73)

26And in Russell Mulcahy’s unforgiving film of the same novel, Dwight Towers, having toured the northern hemisphere and ascertained the absolute eradication of life, including in his hometown and in his own home, where he finds his family dead in bed, returns to an Australia itself now in the last stages of demise. In one of the most effective and cruel scenes in the film, Towers seeks refuge in a café from what appears to be a lynch mob. This, however, turns out to be a group of two men and a woman in search of food. All four sit down, share a tin of baked beans, and part, without having exchanged a single word (Mulcahy, 2000). At the end of the world, clearly, polite meal-time conversation is no longer necessary.

Same Again

27The supposition that a limit to horror can be reached beyond which it is determined that nothing similar will ever be permitted to happen again (Berger’s ‛utterly new beginning’) is at the opposite end of the spectrum to Adorno’s unforgiving nihilism. As an alternative to both, and in some ways even darker than either, other writers have argued that the Nazi death camps were neither an end point in human history nor a point beyond which any alternative, however bad, must necessarily be better. Instead, according to this line of thinking, the Shoah was simply a more efficient version of other historical genocides. In preceding and subsequent exterminations, the trains may not have run quite as impressively on time as under the Nazi genocidal machine, and the targets outlined in the original mission statement may not have been quite as near-as-dammit fulfilled; but even so, this line of reasoning would have it, it is dangerous to work on the principle that an event like the Holocaust was unique and unrepeatable either because in its aftermath we will forever guard against it or because after it there can only be silence. The danger, unpalatable but not inconceivable, that it could in fact happen again, makes any rhetoric that comfortingly or nihilistically suggests otherwise unwittingly complicit in the likelihood that what was in fact just a larger-scale version of an old story, might in fact be repeated.

28‛It is startling to realize how little is said in Kant’s ethics about the more violent forms of immoral action. There are discussions of lying, deception, self-neglect, non-beneficence – but apart from suicide, a great silence about the darker actions’ (Herman, 1993: 113). According to Berger, until the end, there will be narrative and after the end too: contrary to Kant’s ‛great silence’ and Wittgenstein’s certainty that if one cannot think it/speak it, ‛thereof one must be silent,’ Berger argues that the supposedly unthinkable is in fact always thinkable, because if we call something unthinkable, by definition we are already thinking it, and, we would now argue here, even the inescapable consciousness of our own laboured silence brings into being that which we seek to leave unacknowledged.

Very few apocalyptic representations end with the End. There is always some remainder, some post-apocalyptic debris, or the transformation into paradise. The apocalyptic desire is a longing for the end […]. But apocalyptic desire is a longing also for the aftermath […]. This combination of violent hatred for the world as it is and violent desire for the world as it should be has characterized apocalyptic representations and apocalyptic social movements since their first recorded instances. (Berger, 1999: 34)

29The fact that imagining the world as it should be is almost as tricky as imagining no world at all is discussed in chapter 5 with regard to visions of utopia. In either case, ultimately, if the unimaginable – whether unimaginably bad or unimaginably good – is just that, ie. unimaginable, it stands to reason that in attempting to imagine it we fall back upon familiar scenarios. In Milton, even in Hell there is something: the infernal flames may issue no light but darkness is visible (Milton, [1667] 1990: 160), and hence perhaps his rather approachable Satan, who is in many ways someone we can understand. Someone like us. Thus, even if, as Berger supposes, the apocalyptic event divides history into before and after, the narration of what comes after must, by definition, be constructed by those who were present in the time before, and the narrative of what comes afterwards must therefore not only pre-suppose that there is something (and someone) left after apocalypse, but also that it and they are, even if only by antithesis, partly defined by what preceded them.

Figure 14. Anselm Kiefer, Lots Wife
s work engages with the problems of history and memory, and often returns to the Holocaust. In Genesis 19: 26 Lots wife, escaping from the destruction of the Cities of the Plain, disobeys God, looks back and is punished by being turned into a pillar of salt. In Kiefer the past both forgotten and re-visited at a peril is that of the concentration camps of the Holocaust, to which the rail tracks had led, and where humanitys potential for destruction was reaffirmed in a new language.

30When we imagine apocalypse – the end of the world as we know it – what is imagined is never nothingness. At most it may be something completely different, but, whatever that may turn out to be, at that given point it is still something (some thing), even if it is ultimately destined to end in nothing (no thing), because at that point, at least in our imagination, there is always something to be experienced and someone experiencing it. In effect, as confirmed by most post-apocalyptic narratives, what tends to follow imagined apocalypse is essentially the past repeated. We can only imagine something that can be articulated in the vocabulary of what we already know. Adam and Eve lose everything but find a new world in its place. In Milton paradise is lost, but even as the first parents are expelled,

Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose,
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way. (Milton, [1667] 1990: 388)

31Moreover, in the admittedly less effective sequel that is Paradise Regained, they are promised a post-dated return:

A fairer Paradise is founded now
For Adam and his chosen Sons, whom thou
A Saviour art come down to re-install,
Where they shall dwell secure, when time shall be. (Milton, [1671] 1990:435)

32And tellingly, in the Book of Revelation, following the general apocalypse due to afflict humanity’s remaining descendants at the end of the world, an angel will sketch out the New Jerusalem using earthly measurements:

And he that talked with me had a golden reed to measure the city, and the gates thereof, and the wall thereof. And the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal. And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel. (Revelation, 21: 15-17, italics added)

33Faced with the unimaginable, what we are able to articulate as its aftermath must by definition be just another version of what we already know, in measurements we understand: ‛Humanity in its essence […] is what these apocalypses unveil’ (Berger, 1999: 10).

Imagine This

34Curiously then, or perhaps not so curiously after all (given the philosophical impossibility of imagining something we have never witnessed and which, by definition, were we to witness it, we would not survive to relate), in the nuclear age the number of narratives that experiment with scenarios of absolute destruction is almost nil. Whether dealing with the possibility of natural disaster in film or fiction (The Drowned World, Ballard, 2008; The Andromeda Strain, Crichton, 1995), alien invasion (Independence Day, Emmerich, 1996; The Blob, Yeasworth, 1958) or man-made cataclysm of various forms (nuclear conflict: Fail-Safe, Lumet, 1964; Frears, 2000; Armageddon, Bay, 1998; War of the Worlds, Spielberg, 2005; biological war: Atwood’s Oryx and Crake; Virus, Bruno, 1999; ‛The Stolen Bacillus,’ Wells, [1894] 1982; global warming: The Day After, Meyer, 1983), the end is never really the end, and, as films with indicative titles suggest, there is usually not only a day after, but even a Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004).

35Exceptions are Thomas Hood’s ‛The Last Man’ (Hood, 1826), Helen Clarkson’s The Last Day (Clarkson, 1959), François-Xavier Cousin de Grainville’s ‛Le dernier homme’ (de Grainville, 1992), Edgar Allan Poe’s ‛Conversation of Eiros and Charmian’ (Poe, 1839), Camille Flammarion’s La Fin du Monde (Flammarion, 1999), Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (Shute, 1974), Robert Hugh Benson’s The Lord of the World (Benson, 2005), Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7 (Roshwald, 2004), Thomas M. Disch’s The Genocides (Disch, 2000) and Stanley Kubrick’s deadly serious lampoon, Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick, 1964).

36In Poe, unexpectedly, the annihilation of life is brought about through the unleashing of an excess of the stuff out of which life is born: oxygen:

It had been long known that the air which encircled us was a compound of oxygen and nitrogen gases, in the proportion of twenty-one measures of oxygen, and seventy-nine of nitrogen, in every one hundred of the atmosphere. Oxygen, which was the principle of combustion, and the vehicle of heat, was absolutely necessary to the support of animal life, and was the most powerful and energetic agent in nature. Nitrogen, on the contrary, was incapable of supporting either animal life or flame. An unnatural excess of oxygen would result, it had been ascertained, in just such an elevation of the animal spirits as we had latterly experienced. It was the pursuit, the extension of the idea, which had engendered awe. What would be the result of a total extraction of the nitrogen? A combustion irresistible, all-devouring, omni-prevalent, immediate; the entire fulfilment, in all their minute and terrible details, of the fiery and horror-inspiring denunciations of the prophecies of the Holy Book.
Why need I paint, Charmion, the now disenchained frenzy of mankind? That tenuity in the comet which had previously inspired us with hope, was now the source of the bitterness of despair. In its impalpable gaseous character we clearly perceived the consummation of Fate. […] Then, let us bow down, Charmion, before the excessive majesty of the great God!; then, there came a shouting and pervading sound, as if from the mouth itself of HIM; while the whole incumbent mass of ether in which we existed, burst at once into a species of intense flame, for whose surpassing brilliancy and all-fervid heat even the angels in the high Heaven of pure knowledge have no name. Thus ended all. (Poe, 1839)

37Poe’s tale of apocalypse foreshadows the scenarios of annihilation of a number of science fiction plots over one century later, including some already discussed. In general, however, the general rule stands that only rarely do such scripts end with the equivalent of a blank page or screen. Absolute destruction, leaving the Earth reduced to fire, stone and sand, has proved to be generally unthinkable, unimaginable in the sense of that which cannot be said or imagined. And after all, even in Poe, there is an afterwards, albeit only in the form of the narration made by Eiros to Charmion in the aftermath of the end of the world.

38We have never seen nothingness, we cannot imagine it or describe it, in fiction, film or image, and at best (or worst), for Derrida, in customary gnomic style, ‛the future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger’ (Derrida, 1974: 5). In On the Beach we anticipate an absolute end, but we do not give it words or images. ‛In order to draw a limit to thinking we should have to be able to think both sides of this limit (we should therefore have to be able to think what cannot be thought)’ (Wittgenstein, 1981, 27). On the other hand, whether because we like to scare ourselves with horror stories or because we sense that in order to avoid something we must first be able to imagine it, the possibility of apocalypse as the prequel to utter obliteration remains a fundamental part of our cultural imagination, acting among other things as a mechanism of self-defence, even if ultimately, as predicted by Wittgenstinian logic, since we have not been there we cannot articulate it. Instead, that ‘whereof we can speak’ are reparation scenarios after the events that led to the Scorched Earth outcome in the first place.

New Beginnings

39Science (Rees, Our Final Century, 2003; Our Final Hour, 2003), science fiction (Wyndham, The Chrysalids, [1955] 1984; Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, 2007; Stewart, Earth Abides, [1949] 1973; Dick, The World Jones Made, [1956] 2003; Dr. Bloodmoney, [1965] 2007) and millenarian evangelical Christianity (the Book of Revelation; Lindsey, The Late, Great Planet Earth, 1973) have all envisaged apocalypse, whether satirically or with a proselytizing agenda, as a critique of existing societies, and usually, as a cleansing process, but always involving the possibility of the resumption of life: either on Earth or extra-terrestrially, in variations of space-stations or other-planet scenarios, or in a religious, metaphysical here-after.

Playing Safe

40If one takes apocalypse to mean absolute wipe-out, logically, there can be no post-apocalypse within reality as we know it. Nonetheless, post-millenarian unorthodoxies, for example, while offering (threatening) radical difference in the aftermath of apocalypse, and maintaining that escalating sin will inevitably trigger the advent of global cataclysm, also believe in an ensuing Rapture following which the New Jerusalem will be established on Earth and the Kingdom of God will become the property of the righteous (who are of course, and without exception, their coreligionists). Membership of the Rapture club requires, of course, a preceding life of virtue.

41While differing in some essential aspects from Millenarian convictions, ancient philosophies such as stoicism, Eastern beliefs such as Buddhism, and orthodox Christian thought, to give but three examples, also maintain that although perfection is only to be found in a variously defined eternity, it is the duty of human beings, notwithstanding, to work towards the betterment of this life. (To this effect, medieval Christianity, for example, punished with death those – Manicheans, Alumbrados and other assorted heretics – who preached that life and conduct on Earth mattered not at all, since salvation and damnation were individually predestined). For most established creeds, even on Earth, rules are rules. Could this be just in case there is nothing else? Or because whatever there might be in a possible Hereafter is thought to be organized along the same parameters as prevail here and now? Whatever the reasoning, in the end most schools of thought in one way or another make provision for an afterlife that in essence amounts to much the same as what was there before, namely a universe divided into self and other.

Just the Same Old Story?

42Whether what comes after end-time is life in space stations, extra-terrestrial colonies or a transformed planet following divine obliteration and reconstruction by the enraptured happy few, the term ‘post-apocalypse’ turns out to be both a misnomer and a conceptual error. What follows apocalypse ought to be either nothing or something epistemologically different but in effect almost always turns out to be merely a not-very-revised version of prior realities.

43Nowhere is this point upheld more literally, but also more effectively, than in Judith Merrill’s novel of 1950, The Shadow on the Hearth, in various ways one of the most direct fictional statements of the fact that, for good or evil, things seldom change. A wide-ranging, surprise nuclear attack on the US in the late 1940s (memories of World War II and Hiroshima at that point still fresh on the mind) is narrated entirely from the point of view of a woman, Gladys, her two young daughters, and their maid, confined at home while the men are absent in the field of action. The brief glimpses Gladys gets of events in the outside world remind her of her memories of both world wars. Men do not feature significantly, other than those marginalized (feminized or at least female-identified) by circumstances: a school teacher on the run because, having previously played the role of Cassandra, opposed nuclear armament by the West and warned of the possibility of a nuclear attack on the US, he is now an undesirable; a young doctor too junior to have fully absorbed the lesson of unquestioning obedience to the authorities; and, at the end, the returned husband, wounded, incapacitated and in need of nursing. Although their outsider status lends these three men a certain amount of charisma, overall the women and girls are left to cope by themselves.

44In the face of a changed reality of food shortages, looting gangs and radiation sickness (brought into this particular home by, of all unlikely enemies, a cuddly toy inadvertently left out in the radioactive rain), women respond with homely remedies: nourishing food, plenty of rest, a home visit from the doctor. These, improbably, in the end succeed where the emergency measures put in place (semi-authoritarian, vigilante-style policing, high-tech medicine) did not. As the men go and subsequently come back, the only sustainable reality is that of a domesticity maintained by stubbornly clinging to a familiar routine. If, as James Berger maintains, ‘the moment of cataclysm is only part of the point of apocalyptic writing […], the vehicle for clearing away the world as it is and making possible the post-apocalyptic paradise, the study of what disappears and […] of how the remainder has been transformed,’ (Berger, 1999: 6-7), in Merrill, it appears, the answer to the latter is that what remains has only changed through a temporary feminization of the status quo, in the absence of viable males. When the men return, it is to be supposed, so will the old order.

45Like or unlike Merrill’s in some ways soothing rendition of domestic routine enduring in the face of Armageddon, novels which intriguingly both deny and re-affirm this are M.P. Shiel’s early, iconic novel The Purple Cloud published in 1901, Margaret Atwood’s twin novels, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, and Mike Jackson’s and Barry Hines’s devastating hypothetical docudrama, Threads (Jackson and Hines, 1984). The latter was first broadcast on BBC 2 on 1 August 1985 as part of a week of programmes marking the fortieth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

46All offer kaleidoscopic views of the planet in the aftermath of near-annihilation. In The Purple Cloud (Shiel, 1901), Adam Jefferson, the last man on Earth, a hero whose name counter-intuitively resonates with the possibility of new beginnings (Adam in Genesis named the world, Thomas Jefferson in the newly born USA laid down the outlines of the new nation), travels around the planet setting fire to cities already partly destroyed by poison gas from a volcano which had extinguished life on Earth. He acts therefore both as witness to the disaster and as participant in the thorough implementation of its final stages. In his travels, however, he meets a second Eve – not a first but a last woman – who may however (although this is never confirmed) offer the possibility of a new beginning. Shiel’s novel, published at the beginning of the twentieth century, finds an eery echo in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, published in 2003 just after that century and millennium had drawn to a close. Narrated in flashback, in a plot which begins/ends with a last-man-on-Earth scenario and right until the very last pages defies full understanding, Atwood unfolds the nightmare of a Cities of the Plain-style world of dehumanization, engineered genetic modification, and social and moral fragmentation. The novel culminates with the revelation that the entire world’s population has been extinguished by a deadly bacterium created and unleashed by Crake, a decadent adolescent turned-scientist, turned-vengeful God.

47In preparation for the big wipe-out, Crake had created in his research unit, Paradice, a new species of child-like humans, the Crakers, made very much not in his own image. The Crakers, also known as the Children, are renditions of the Noble Savage and do not understand the dangers of the world. They also do not understand technology even in its simplest of forms. In his futuristic republic, Crake, somewhat like Plato before him, sought to eliminate the disruptions of emotion: love, lust and jealousy. He designed the Crakers to mate every three years, a frequency calculated to be sufficient to sustain population size. As in Plato’s Republic, all forms of imagination, desire and need are abolished, in a community driven by the sole objective of perpetuation of the species. In a tradition that echoes the Platonic sociopolitical ideal but also Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (Huxley, [1932] 1977) and Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day (Levin, 1994), weakness and illness are not tolerated and the Crakers automatically die at the age of thirty, ‘suddenly without getting sick. No old age, none of those anxieties. They’ll just keel over’(Atwood, 2004: 356). The novel is narrated from the point of view of the last man on Earth, Jimmy, now referred to as Snowman, an unlikely holy son chosen by Crake as guardian of the new species following the extinction of himself and the rest of the human race. At the end of the novel, Snowman, abandoned on the beach like a reluctant St. John the Baptist with no forthcoming Saviour to announce, learns from the Children that while he was away from them for a brief period, people ‛like him’ (two men and a woman) visited the Crakers. Jimmy delays an encounter with what may be the only other surviving humans on the planet. The following morning he seeks out the unfathomable trinity. The novel ends inconclusively: Jimmy looks at his blank watch which to him reads ‛zero hour’: ‘time to go’ (Atwood 2004, 433). This conclusion, both cryptic and unsettling, leaves open the possibility of a new beginning, albeit one already containing the potential for renewed internecine destruction in a variety of possible scenarios: three Adams fighting for one Eve; the visitors turning against Snowman; or Snowman left alone again with the children (nonviable simulacra of humanity), after destroying the last three members of his species, in a microcosmic replay of Crake’s holocaust.

48In Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, which follows the same story line from the point of view of different characters, with references throughout to Crake as the creator of the virus (‘the waterless flood’), we find that in the aftermath of almost global annihilation there are of course more survivors than was at first apparent, covering the spectrum from new gangsters, new dictators, new missionaries intent on reconstruction in the name of God (or of good), and new bemused bystanders: in short, all the components for a new start to a world which, albeit on a smaller scale population-wise, promises to be not very different from the one recently annihilated.

49Merrill’s, Shiel’s and Atwood’s tales of post-apocalypse explore radically different scenarios but, like some of the works yet to be discussed, share a common rationale of re-built communal life following almost universal destruction. The same is true even in works as extreme in their depiction of end-of-the-world plots as for example Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, recently adapted to the cinema (Hillcoat, 2009). Here, too, as in Atwood’s grim, no-future futuristic nightmares, survival at best and extinction at worst remain equally weighted at the end. McCarthy’s novel, a macabre and elegiac combination of buddy movie, road narrative and adventure of quest, follows a father and son as they journey together for an indeterminate period of time across a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape, in the aftermath of a nuclear cataclysm dating back some ten years, to a time shortly after the boy’s birth. Civilization has been destroyed, and most animal and plant species have become extinct:

He thought the month was October but he wasn’t sure. He hadn’t kept a calendar for years. They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another winter here. […] He studied what he could see. The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of color. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke. […] He just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God, God never spoke. […] An hour later they were on the road […] shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire. (McCarthy, 2007: 2-4)

50Amidst ‘the ashes of the late world’ (McCarthy, 2007: 10) the only living organisms the father and son encounter on their journey are a dog, some edible mushrooms, moss, and some shrivelled apples in an orchard. There is no sun, the atmosphere is suffused with ash, the climate has been radically altered and plants no longer grow. In a mockery of earlier consumerist societies, the remnants of humankind now consist mostly of cannibals, who, in a world where there is nothing left and no means of production, capture and eat their own species, in the form of refugees and travellers, themselves driven to scavenging for food.

51As the narrative progresses it transpires that the boy’s mother, pregnant with him at the time of the cataclysm, committed suicide some time before the story begins, as the only alternative to either a violent death or a slow one through starvation. She walks out without saying goodbye, armed with a sharp shard with which to slash her wrists (possibly her last gesture of love, since they had just two bullets left for three of them, McCarthy, 2007: 57), leaving her husband with one last question: ‘Can you do it? When the time comes? Can you?’ (McCarthy, 2007: 28). Following her departure, the man and the boy set off on their journey in search of the sea in warmer southern climates. In a world of extreme danger in which what is left of humanity has given way to the law of the jungle, they learn that survival may require that they too abdicate their humanity. In a narrative of survival in extremis in which the mother’s suicide is open to interpretation either as self-sacrifice or as a betrayal of the duty of endurance for the sake of one’s species, father and son, each ‘the other’s world entire,’ try to keep faith and survive, while aware that, in a radically altered environment, suicide may after all be their only option. In due course the father dies, but after a symbolic three days awaiting almost certain death, the boy encounters not the feared stranger-danger but a family of four including one son and one daughter. They live in a relatively undamaged environment and invite the boy to join them, thus setting up the beginnings of a community at least as promising (or even more so) than that of the first family in Genesis. In this instance, and circumventing the unanswered Biblical quandary as to whom, other than their own siblings, were the mates available to the children of Adam and Eve, the boy in The Road will at least be able to reproduce with a girl who is not his blood relative. Life goes on.

When Spring comes,
If I am already dead,
Flowers will bloom as usual
And the trees will be no less green than last Spring.
Reality does not need me.
I feel extremely happy
When I think that my death doesn’t matter at all
If I knew that tomorrow I would die
And that Spring was the day after tomorrow,
I would die happy, because it would be here the day after tomorrow.
If that is the right time for it, when else would it come, other than at the right time?
I like everything to be real and right;
And I like it because it would be so even if I didn’t like it.
Therefore, if I die now, I will die happy,
Because everything is real and everything is right.
They can pray in Latin over my coffin, if they like.
If they like they can dance and sing around it.
I have no preferences regarding a time when I will no longer be able to have preferences.
Whatever will be, when it is, is the thing that will be. (Caeiro, 1914: 137-38)

Figure 15. Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

52All is as it should be, then, as long as something still is. The unforgiving way in which a world portrayed as empty of almost everything is depicted in McCarthy’s tour de force may get as close as any narrative has come to imagining the impossible, and to preserving an unresolved dialectic between probable defeat and vestigial hope. Something also expressed with no need for further words by the Germanic nineteenth-century Romantic imagination in search of new worlds of Caspar David Friedrich.

When Will We Ever Learn?

53Sometimes, even with the benefit of advance warning (H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, [1895] 1982; John Wyndham’s ‛Consider Her Ways,’ [1956] 1983), disaster cannot be avoided. In The Time Machine the protagonist, a scientist identified simply as the Time Traveller, sets off on a journey into the future. His experience of time travel and the spectacle he witnesses of the evolution of the planet are told in the first-person in a narrative within a narrative. During his time-travel adventures, the first-person narrator tells of how he observed the sun and the moon traversing the sky and the changes to buildings and landscape around him as he travels through time to the year AD 802,701, when most of the story takes place, and briefly even further in time. In AD 802,701 he finds an apparently peaceful, pastoral community of humans who call themselves the Eloi. Like Margaret Atwood’s Crakers (Atwood, 2003), the Eloi, who are small, delicate and seemingly happy, appear to be unintelligent and child-like. The surface perfection of their playful, carefree existence is however shadowed by an inexplicable fear of the night-time hours of darkness. This, it is revealed, is caused by regular nocturnal attacks by the Morlocks, dwellers in underground caves, who occasionally turn against their masters and literally devour them. As he explores this landscape, the Time Traveller comments on the factors that have resulted in the Eloi’s physical condition and social arrangements. He supposes that their lack of intelligence and vitality are the logical result of humankind’s past struggle to transform and subjugate nature through technology, politics, art and creativity. The eventual achievement of this goal had led to a state of stagnation characterized by unimaginative and incurious contentment. With no work to do, humans also become physically weak and small in stature and intellectually disabled.

It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane. I thought of the physical slightness of the [Eloi], their lack of intelligence, […] and it strengthened my belief in a perfect conquest of Nature. For after the battle comes Quiet. Humanity had been strong, energetic and intelligent, and had used all its abundant vitality to alter the conditions under which it lived. [… N]o doubt the exquisite beauty of the buildings I saw was the outcome of the last surgings of the now purposeless energy of mankind before it settled down into perfect harmony with the conditions under which it lived […]. This has ever been the fate of energy in security; it takes to art and eroticism, and then come languor and decay. (Wells, [1895] 1982: 31-33)

54After many adventures among the Eloi and Morlocks, the Traveller returns to his machine and travels into the far future, thirty million years from his own time, where he witnesses the final moments of a dying Earth whose very rotation has ceased under the dimming light of a fading sun. As the world begins to grow dark, life on Earth comes to an end.

I looked about me to see if traces of animal life remained. […] From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. […] All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives – all that was over. […] The sky was absolutely black. (Wells, [1895] 1982: 77-78)

55Traumatized by the knowledge he has gained, he puts the machine into reverse, arriving back in his laboratory just three hours after he had left. He recounts his experiences to his disbelieving friends, one of whom returns the following day to find that the Time Traveller had left again, this time taking a camera, presumably with the intention of collecting evidence for his claims. Having witnessed the end of the Earth on his first trip but having omitted to check on the date of his own death, however, he does not return from his second foray into time.

56Even with the advantage of both foresight and hindsight, the Time Traveller is faced with the classic philosophical impasse of all time travel fiction, namely that the future, even if knowable, is always unchangeable. This quandary forms the basis of one of the philosophical underpinnings of Western culture: from the Ancient Greeks’formulation of the unavoidability of fate to some of the most accomplished science fiction to date. Important examples of the latter are Connie Willis’s The Doomsday Book (Willis, 1993) and ‛Firewatch’ (Willis, 2005), as well as John Wyndham’s thought-provoking ‘Consider Her Ways,’ to be discussed.

If I Knew then What I Know Now

57In The Doomsday Book (Willis, 1993) Kivrin Engle, a young historian specializing in medieval history in 2054 Oxford, uses available time-travel technology to carry out field work in her research period, fourteenth-century England. An equipment malfunction results in her arrival twenty years later than planned. As twenty-first century Oxford succumbs to a deadly influenza epidemic, Kivrin finds herself in 1348 England, the year of the arrival of the Black Death. While in the twenty-first century medical resources are eventually able to gain control over the flu bacterium, back in the fourteenth century Kivrin is powerless to do anything other than watch as an entire community succumbs to a disease which she knows in the future will be curable.

58In Wyndham’s ‛Consider Her Ways,’ a novella narrated in the first person, Dr. Jane Waterleigh wakes up in what appears to be a hospital, trapped in a gigantic body she knows is not her own, but with no memory of her past. As her memory gradually returns she recalls taking part in a scientific experiment using a drug thought to trigger alternative states of consciousness. As she gathers more information, she realizes that she has been propelled into the future, to a society consisting entirely of women, most of whom have never heard of men. In due course she meets a historian who gives her enough information to allow her to deduce that she is now living approximately one and a half centuries after her own time. She learns that shortly after the time of the experiment that led her to where she is now, a scientist, Dr. Perrigan, unintentionally created a virus that killed all the men in the world, leaving only women. After a period of chaos, famine and widespread social breakdown, the small number of women who at that point had attained an advanced level of education (found mainly in the medical profession), had assumed control.

59In Wyndham’s novella, a forerunner of Poul Anderson’s Virgin Planet (Anderson, 1959) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale (Atwood, 1985), and with theological allusions which also echo the ones in The Terminator, to be discussed, the task of social reconstruction in the aftermath of the cataclysmic event follows a blueprint conceived according to a Biblical model: ‛Go to the ant thou sluggard, consider her ways’ (Proverbs 6: 6). Global social reconstruction leads to the formation of a Christian, four-tiered caste-based society: doctors, mothers, servitors and workers. Within this model, based on the hierarchical arrangement of an ants’nest, each class has a specified function. The mothers’role is that of a factory-style production line in childbearing, reproduction without men being now possible thanks to emergency research undertaken following the catastrophe. Upon returning to her own time the narrator seeks out Dr. Perrigan, just then embarking on the experimental work that in the future will lead to the accidental creation of the virus. Failing to persuade him of the disastrous consequences that his research will have in the future, she resorts to murder and burns his research papers. The story concludes with a conversation between two of her colleagues who having succeeded as expert witnesses at her trial in sparing her a charge of murder, saw her placed in a psychiatric hospital on a lesser charge of diminished responsibility. While lamenting the insanity triggered by the experimental drug and commenting in wonder at the intensity of the hallucinations it induced, one of them ponders as an afterthought that Dr. Waterleigh had never discovered that Dr. Perrigan had left a son, also a biologist (and also called Dr. Perrigan), at that point engaged in completing his father’s unfinished work.

60Consider Her Ways is more than just a standard science fiction story. Particularly notable is a lengthy argument between the first-person narrator and the historian as to whether the new all-female society is better than the old one. In 1956, Wyndhams speculation on the nature of an single-sex society and his references to genetic manipulation and drug-related experiences are eerily prophetic of contemporary concerns (the dangers of GM crops, ideological debates around the battle of the sexes, but, above all, the problem, now real, of decreasing fertility rates in the West, particularly among men).1

61In 1959, three years after the first release of ‛Consider Her Ways,’ Poul Anderson took up the same preoccupations from a different angle, in the novel Virgin Planet (Anderson, 1959), whose title also carries Biblical associations. The same preoccupation with human extinction originating either in the disappearance or in the infertility of either sex, is also revived in Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things (Auster, 2005), P.D. James’s The Children of Men (James, 2000, made into a film directed by Alfonso Cuarón in 2006) and in Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale.

62The Children of Men, first published in 1992, is set in England in the early twenty-first century and, like the other works mentioned, it centres on the consequences of mass infertility. The title of the book is derived from the Old Testament: ‛Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, “Return, ye children of men”’ (Psalms 90(89): 3). The narrative voice in the novel alternates between the third and first persons, the latter in the form of the diary kept by Dr. Theodore Faron, whose name is normally shortened to Theo. Theo is an Oxford don (a profession that bears some relevance to his future role as teacher/leader/conduit of enlightenment. The novel opens with the first entry in Theo’s diary. The date is 2021, the year when the last human being to be born on Earth was killed in a pub brawl in Buenos Aires. The novel’s events, however, have their origin in 1995, which is referred to as Year Omega. The year before, in 1994, for reasons unknown, the sperm count of men had plummeted to zero world wide. The last generation of children are called Omegas, after the last letter in the Greek alphabet. In 2006 Xan Lyppiatt, Theo’s rich and charismatic cousin, appoints himself Warden of England and one last general election is held. Thereafter, as discussed in chapter 5, and as is often the case in end-of-the-world narratives, democracy is abolished in response to global cataclysm, and dictatorship is established. Although, unlike the scenarios depicted in Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale and Wyndham’s ‛Consider Her Ways,’ the main rationale for autocratic rule in The Children of Men is the fact that, faced with the end of the species, most people no longer have any interest in politics, Xan is nonetheless regarded as a despot by his opponents. The plot unfolds around Theo’s encounter with a woman called Julian, a member of the Five Fishes, a group of dissidents that includes their leader Rolf (Julian’s husband), Miriam (a midwife) and Luke (a former priest). An eventful plot unfolds with the revelation that Julian is pregnant not by her husband but by the now deceased Luke. Following the deaths of both Xan and Rolf the demiurgically named Theo takes control of Council. Theo(dore) – ‛God’s gift,’ who, like God, in the long-distant past had lost/ sacrificed a child (in Theo’s case the daughter he accidentally ran over) – now presents to the three remaining Council members (three Wise Men) the baby, begotten by a man who, in his capacity as priest, was God’s representative on Earth, and whom he now baptizes. Julian, like Em in Earth Abides (Stewart, 1973) and Molly, Mark’s mother in Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (Wilhelm, 2006, to be discussed), all stand as equivalent representative figures of the Woman of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation, herself variously interpreted as representing the Church, the Mother of Nations, Mary or Eve.

Figure 16. Peter Paul Rubens, The Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse.
The Woman of the Apocalypse appears in Revelation 12: 1-18.
And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet [...] And being with child, she cried travailing in birth [...]. And there was seen another sign in heaven [...] a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns [...]. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to be delivered: that, when she should be delivered, he might devour her son. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with an iron rod. And her son was taken up to God and to his throne. [...] And there was a great battle in heaven. [...] And that great dragon […] who is called the devil and Satan […] was cast unto the earth: and his angels were thrown down with him.

63The film version of The Children of Men (Cuarón, 2006) differs from the novel’s plot in some respects but maintains the basic tenets of a race on its way to extinction, a world in retreat from human influence and on a return path back to nature, and a reprieve couched, as was the case in other works mentioned above, in the vocabulary of a recognizable Christian cosmogony. Aspects of James’s novel (gender power imbalances, threatened fertility, species continuity, restoration of divine authority and the nature of authoritarian rule), central also to popular works such as Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials (Pullman, 2007), will be discussed further in chapter 5.

Not Mending Our Ways

64From the Book of Genesis to Hollywood, in the aftermath of apocalypse, whether in a chastened Earth struggling to rebuild itself, or, as is sometimes the case, in outer space’s colonial new beginnings, narratives of reconstruction almost always present us at best with ambiguity. Mistakes, also the lynchpin of historical narratives, tend to repeat themselves, hubris still defines humanity, and, as Joyce Evans observes, post-holocaust narratives act as ‘the extension of the […] belief in [humanity’s] invulnerable omnipotence’ (Evans, 1998, 136). Thus, as M. Keith Booker remarks with regard to Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney (Dick, 2007), unlike standard romanticized versions of a new and better world after holocaust, ‛the negative aspects of a post-holocaust world are the ones that most resemble the characteristics of [contemporary reality]’ (Booker, 2001, 94). On the other hand, even when post-holocaust narratives do not end hopefully (for example, if they fail to suggest the rebirth of human civilization), they ‛tend to present the death of the old civilization in a highly romantic way’ (Booker, 2001, 95).

65In The Blob (Yeasworth, 1958), a town otherwise torn by conflict (rebellious teenagers on the one hand, the representatives of authority – parents, the police – on the other), becomes united in the joint battle to defeat the eponymous gelatinous monster from outer space. Although victory at the end does not come with an absolute guarantee (in 1958 the monster is frozen by being sprayed with fire extinguishers and transported to the North Pole, but there is always a vestigial possibility that in the future it may defrost and come back to life – another twist to our current fears of global warming), within the diegetic time span of the film, harmony reigns at the end, even where none had prevailed before. What is established in the aftermath of the Blob’s visitation, therefore, is an exaggerated version of a nineteen fifties, socially harmonious idyll. Paradoxically, however, this is the very status quo in which dissent had prevailed and that in some way had initially invited the visitation of Nemesis in the form of the arrival of the Blob. And what is not addressed is the question of what it might have been about the nature of that particular society that brought about the punishment in the first place. Whatever it might have been, in any case, the possibility of the return of a defrosted Blob seems much more likely in a reinstated order largely unchanged and defined by business as usual. Another day, another Blob.

66Similar irresolution prevails at the end of Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo (Wolfe, 1952). Having fled from America to a remote island in the Indian Ocean during World War III, the protagonist, a brain surgeon called Dr. Martine has lived there for eighteen years studying the islanders’ traditional technique of Mandunga, a kind of lobotomy used to control aggression. When he travels back to America after his long absence, Martine is horrified to discover that what remains of the world after widespread nuclear destruction is now ruled by the culture of Immob (immobilization), which involves voluntary amputation as a somatic form of disarmament, aiming to control human aggression. In anticipation of works such as Huxley’s Brave New World, This Perfect Day (Levin, [1970] 1994), The Penultimate Truth (Dick, [1964] 2005) and The Simulacra (Dick, [1964] 2004), worldwide crowd control by an occult elite (achieved, in these four novels by the rule of fear and/or by the administration of docility-inducing drugs) is achieved, in Limbo, either by lobotomy, for the savages in the island or by bodily mutilation in the rest of the world, while at the same time a secret agenda promotes the escalation by both sides of nuclear weapons, in preparation for one final war. Martine ultimately understands that voluntary amputation, while presented as a radical strategy for preventing war is in reality a betrayal of that objective (since it itself involves violence). Furthermore, it conceals a fundamental power structure (the controlling forces running the two opposing regimes) that operates on the basis of individual alienation (lobotomized diminishment; the disadvantages of the amputee; the loner/misfit nature of Martine, similar to that of Ish in Earth Abides, Stewart, [1949] 1973, to be discussed). And finally it encapsulates the failure of human communal existence, ultimately leading back to war.

Really New New Beginnings

67The cases in which the possibility of human continuity seems most hopeful are precisely those in which, following apocalypse, a radical difference is introduced in the re-constructed world. In Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (Wilhelm, [1976] 2006), both the dangers of repetition (here represented in the most literal way by the motif of a world perpetuated by cloning) and the need for difference (taken to the point of extreme individual alienation) are central to the unfolding of the plot. Global human infertility and environmental death are brought about by the deadly coalescing of the twin off-shoots of scientific advancement: pollution and war. The answer is initially deemed to be found in the search for more of the same, namely the science-driven perpetuation of species, including humans, through cloning, as a device for replicating things literally as they were. Cloning, however, as an exaggerated version of inbreeding, in due course is found to carry the same problems (genetic degeneration, increasing species non-viability), only more so. In the end, the solution, although still fragile and susceptible to ultimate failure at the conclusion of the novel, is a two-fold return to past practices: sexual reproduction in the rare cases where fertility still endures, and a parallel retracing of history away from scientific solutions to the rural, agricultural, community existence of the Noble Savage. Mark, brought up in clandestinity by his biological mother in a period when such family arrangements were already part of prehistory and children (clones) were raised in state-run communities, escapes and returns to an atavistic social arrangement – now almost completely extinct – of family, group loyalty and genetic diversity achieved through sexual reproduction.

68In George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, similarly, following near-extinction as the result of an unnamed epidemic, the remnants of humanity (the fittest in this new status quo), set about a new beginning under the leadership of Ish (whose name echoes that of Ishie, a real-life Native American who in the twentieth century was the last surviving member of his tribe). As is often the case in post-apocalypse novels, the central characters are better able to survive the changed circumstances because in the world that’s now gone they had never fitted in, had formed no strong bonds and therefore had nothing much to lose by its disappearance: in The Day of the Triffids, too, Bill Masen describes not only his but the general situation of the group of survivors from the comet as being generally one of more or less rootless alienation:

Curiously I realized that in all this I had met no other person who was searching for someone else. Every one of them had been […] snapped clean away from friends or relatives to link him with the past, and was beginning a new life with people who were strangers. (Wyndham, 1954: 202)

69Similarly, in The Kraken Wakes (Wyndham, [1953] 1980), Mike and Phyllis Watson, who some years before the events that lead to the world-ending disaster, had lost their only child, have no one left to worry about but themselves. And in Earth Abides (Stewart, 1973), Ish, the post-apocalyptic new Adam, who, prior to the epidemic had been one of society’s alienated misfits (he ‘always was solitary’ with no ‘need to talk to other people’) realizes that ‘in some ways, very curiously, he felt a new security and even satisfaction at the contemplation of a solitary life’ (Stewart, 1973: 42).

Something Old in Something New

70Throughout Earth Abides, a sui generis bildungsroman that takes Ish from youth to old age and death, the revelation granted to him (in the common usage but also apocalyptic sense of the term) is that retracing the path back to what was in place immediately prior to the epidemic is not an option. As is often the case in post-apocalyptic narratives, however, that being one of the central points developed here, finding a new form of existence proves to be more difficult than would at first appear, even in circumstances in which the old way had been destroyed. Instead of a radical new world, almost always, the chosen path to survival involves retracing and recreating human history: in the case of Earth Abides, by retracing humanity’s footsteps far back to a rudimentary society structured along lines which possibly reproduce the earliest human communities:

He had been in the Library hundreds of times before […] But now under the new conditions, he felt a strange new sense of awe. Here rested in storage the wisdom by which civilization had been built, and could be rebuilt. Now that he knew himself soon to be a father, he had suddenly a new attitude, a feeling for the future. The child should not grow up to be a parasite, scavenging forever. And it would not need to. Everything was here. All the knowledge. (Stewart, 1973: 118)

71Recreating what had been in place before, inevitably involves the recognition and perpetuation of old power structures and role allocations, privileging from the very beginning Ish’s own position as male, demiurge and first comer in the processes of both the writing of history and the moulding of the future:

That was the difference between woman and man. She felt only in terms of the immediate, and was more interested in being able to spot her child’s birthday than in all the future of civilization. Again he felt superior to her. […] But yet, as so often, her instinct was right – a great pity if the historical record should be broken at some point! Doubtless in the long run, archaeologists could restore the continuity […] but it would save a lot of work if someone merely kept the tradition. (Stewart, 1973: 119-21)

There must be others that he could find also to join with them – good people who would help in the new world. He would start looking for people again. He would look craftily, trying to keep away from all those who had suffered too much from the shock, whose minds and bodies were not what one wanted to build up the new society. (Stewart, 1973: 122)

72In short, ‛people like us,’ suitable to join Em (Emma) as the ‛mother of nations’ and himself as the founding patriarch, in building a new ‘world without end.’ (Stewart, 1973: 123)

73In a more metaphysically speculative way, in Solaris, Stanislaw Lem’s novel of 1961, adapted to television by B. Nirnburgs in 1968, into a feature film by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, again by Steven Soderbergh in 2002, and into an opera by the German composer Michael Obst in 1995, there are no new worlds that the human mind can experience and the imperative of repetition is made both literal and ontological. Solaris is a planet covered by a malleable substance able to imitate human experience exactly. Its nature, which is that of a mirror, means that Solaris’s own reality, if it indeed exists, is forever unavailable: wherever one looks, one sees only what one already knows. In this way, Solaris imposes upon those who experience it the realization of the limits of their perception. We can never grasp anything new or different, only that within which we already find ourselves. Just as in the nightmare scenarios of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (Carpenter, 1981) or Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things (Auster, 2005), it is possible that an alternative reality exists, but we can neither imagine it, comprehend it nor gain possession of it. In Auster’s novel, for example, Anna Blume travels to the unnamed city of the title where, after an unspecified large-scale event, reality has given way to a nightmarish self-enclosed world of violence, famine and shadowy dictatorial rule. In Auster, however, while like in Solaris repetition is the default mode, it is also that which must at all costs be avoided, lest one should lose oneself:

Bit by bit, the city robs you of uncertainty. There can never be any fixed path, and you can survive only if nothing is necessary to you. Without warning, you must be able to change, to drop what you are doing, to reverse. In the end, there is nothing that is not the case. […] The essential thing is not to become inured. For habits are deadly. Even if it is for the hundredth time, you must encounter each thing as if you have never known it before. No matter how many times, it must always be the first time. (Auster, 2005: 6-7)

74With the cyclical relentlessness that commonly characterizes these fictional infernos, the world may have ended, but, as J.K. Rowling would have it, the battle nevertheless continues:

You would think that sooner or later it would all come to an end. Things fall apart and vanish, and nothing new is made. People die, and babies refuse to be born. In all the years I have been here, I can’t remember seeing a single newborn child. And yet, there are always new people to replace the ones who have vanished. (Auster, 2005: 7)

75At the heart of Anna’s quest in the city are two young men: her brother William, whom she had originally come to the city to rescue from a never-specified disaster; and Sam, the lover by whom she conceives a child which she later miscarries, from whom she is separated and with whom she is later reunited. In the meaningless void of a city in which slaughterhouses sustain a black market in human flesh, Anna escapes being killed but, prior to their reunion, Sam loses his mind:

I gave up trying to be anyone […]. The object of my life was to remove myself from my surrounding, to live in a place where nothing could hurt me anymore. […] The idea was to achieve indifference, an indifference so powerful and sublime that it would protect me from further assault. I said goodbye to you, Anna; […] I said goodbye to the thought of going home. I even tried to say goodbye to myself. […] To want nothing, I kept saying to myself, to have nothing, to be nothing. I could imagine no more perfect solution than that. In the end I came close to living the life of a stone. (Auster, 2005: 162-63)

76Sam’s catatonia echoes that of Edmond in Meg Rosoff’s heart-rending and hilarious How I Live Now (Rosoff, 2005). Written in the first person by yet another female narrator, in this instance fifteen-year old Daisy, it narrates with adolescent matter-of-factness what might possibly have been the end of the world. While on holiday in England with until-then unknown relatives, following her widowed father’s second marriage to an unpleasant stepmother (Davina ‛the Diabolical’), and in an Enid Blyton-ish absence of any grown-ups, Daisy and her cousins live through world-shattering events and their aftermath:

The first thing that happened wasn’t our fault. That was a bomb that went off in the middle of a big train station in London […] and something like seven or seventy thousand people were killed.
That obviously went down very badly with the population at large and was pretty scary etc., but to be honest it didn’t seem to have much to do with us way off in the country. […G]iven that we were about four million miles from the epicentre I’d say we stood a pretty good chance of surviving. […]
We went […] and bought as much bottled water and canned things as we could carry home […]. That still left a whole afternoon with the end of the world about to happen […]. (Rosoff, 2005: 27-30)

77Following separation from Edmond, her cousin (and lover, even though they were ‛too young and too related,’ Rosoff, 2005: 51), Daisy survives the war, is forced to return to a USA wrecked by global conflict and after some years succeeds in returning to England where she finds Edmond, now a post-traumatic mute who spends his days tending a garden that bears testimony to the unspeakable violence he had witnessed during the war:

I’ve never had my own garden but I suddenly recognized something in the tangle of this one that wasn’t beauty. Passion, maybe. And something else. Rage. […]
After that day, I could barely enter the garden without a huge effort of will. The air was suffocating, charged, the hungry plants sucking at the earth with their ferocious appetites. You could almost watch them grow, pressing their fat green tongues up through the black earth. They emerged selfish and starving, gasping for air. (Rosoff, 2005: 196-67)

78Like Sam in Auster’s novel, Edmond survives but only just, both physically and mentally, and like Sam, only with the help of the girl who narrates his tale to us. In Rosoff, too, the ending is inconclusive, leaving at best the possibility of a new beginning of sorts, but never free from the remnants of the past:

I have no idea how damaged Edmond is [… S]o now I’m here with him and […] all the hard work of running a farm and staying alive in a country deformed and misshapen by war. […] And that’s how I live now. (Rosoff, 2005: 210-11)

79Within these altered realities, no further alteration is possible. In a manner akin to the reversal and repetition of a möbius strip, so, too, in Solaris (Tarkovsky, 1972; Soderbergh, 2002), Escape from New York (Carpenter, 1981), In the Country of Last Things (Auster, 2005) and How I live Now (Rosoff, 2005), a process of brutal de-familiarization of the familiar (the real) creates discomfort and unease in two mutually contradictory ways that, in coexistence, annul the possibility of meaning: by making what used to be familiar strange, and by emphasizing its fundamental immutability.

80In Solaris, Lem’s central epistemological position […] is that we can never know the noumen of things; that we are forever imprisoned by the structure of our minds and bodies. (Franz Rottensteiner, quoted in Ketterer, 1974, 185).

In other words, man’s understanding of the external universe is fundamentally anthropocentric. […] For Lem there are no new worlds that men can experience. Wherever man goes there are only extensions of himself. (Ketterer, 1974: 185)

81In the infinitely malleable planet of Solaris there is no such thing as a new reality. Less intuitively obvious, but with the same effect in what has been argued above, is the hypothesis that even after cataclysmic (apocalyptic) change, we can only ever imagine more of what we already know.

82There are of course exceptions, for example I Am Legend (Matheson, 1954) or ‛Dark Benediction’ (Miller, 2007), in which, as discussed previously, normality (non-vampirism, un-diseased existence) is a relative concept, always susceptible to change, and defined, at any given moment, merely as what a majority deems it to be. Mostly, however – including extreme cases such as for example Kurt Vonnegut’s Cats Cradle (Vonnegut, 1981) or J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World (Ballard, 1985), in which respectively the planet and time itself freeze – the end wrought by apocalyptic upheaval may after all take the shape of stagnant continuity (permanent immobilization) of what was already there. A tendency for business as usual may be both humanity’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

Outlandish Hope

83At the outer reaches of fictional survival, albeit with the support of some of science’s most august minds, we find the kind of narrative that does accept the possibility of global annihilation but relocates left-over humanity on another planet, or at least in the search for one. Writing about the possibility of absolute planetary destruction, Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, argues as follows:

‛The thought of cutting off life’s flow, of amputating this future, is so shocking, so alien to nature, and so contradictory to life’s impulse that we can scarcely entertain it before turning away in revulsion and disbelief.’ […]
It would be absurd to claim that emigration into space is the answer [… If] some disaster reduced humanity to a far lower population, living in primitive conditions in a devastated wasteland, the survivors would still find Earth’s environment more hospitable than that of any other planet. Nevertheless, even a few pioneering groups, living independently of Earth, would offer a safeguard against the worst possible disaster – the foreclosure of intelligent life’s future through the extinction of all humankind. (Rees, 2003: 169-70)

84Walter Miller’s defining novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz (Miller, 2007), is a rendition of this scenario in fiction. The story is structured in three parts: Fiat Homo, Fiat Lux, and Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let there be Man, Let there be Light and Let Thy Will be done). The parts are separated by periods of six centuries each. The first part begins 600 years after 20th century civilization has been destroyed by a nuclear war, known as the Flame Deluge. The war had led to a violent backlash (known as the Simplification) against the culture of advanced knowledge and technology out of which had sprung nuclear weapons. During Simplification, anyone of any learning and eventually anyone who could simply read becomes the target of lynch mobs. Illiteracy, as in the autocratic utopias of This Perfect Day (Levin, 1994), Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury, 1976), and to a limited extent Huxley’s Brave New World, becomes the guarantor of social stability, and books are destroyed en masse. Isaac Edward Leibowitz, a Jewish electrical engineer working for the United States military, who survives the war and converts to Roman Catholicism, founds a monastic order, the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, dedicated to preserving knowledge by hiding books (Memorabilia), smuggling them to safety (booklegging) and, as in Fahrenheit 451, memorizing, and copying them. Leibowitz is eventually betrayed, martyred and later beatified as a candidate to sainthood.

85The last segment, Fiat Voluntas Tua (Thy Will Be Done) is set in the year 3781, following catastrophic wars of various natures over a period of centuries. The world’s two remaining superpowers, the Asian Coalition and the Atlantic Confederacy, have been embroiled in a cold war for 50 years, and it is rumoured that both sides are now assembling nuclear capabilities in space. The Leibowitzan Order’s mission of preserving the Memorabilia has expanded to the preservation of all knowledge. The abbot, Dom Jethras Zerchi, recommends to New Rome that the Church reactivate long agreed contingency plans, code name Quo Peregrinatur Grex (Wither Wanders the Flock), involving unspecified vehicles in the Church’s possession since 3756. Following a nuclear incident between the two superpowers and its rapid escalation, Quo Peregrinatur is launched, carrying a crew and the Order’s Memorabilia, with the objective of perpetuating the Church on colony planets. In a valedictory passage at the end of the novel Brother Joshua, the last crew member to board the starship, shakes Earth’s dirt from his sandals, murmuring ‛sic transit mundus’ (‛thus passes the world’). A final vignette depicts the devastation left on Earth: as seabirds and fish succumb to the poisonous fallout, a shark, the oldest living species on the planet, escapes contamination by moving down into deep water, although even there, it is noted, there is nothing left for it to eat. The knowledge preserved by the escaping flock, we suppose, would include the awareness of the nuclear possibilities that had necessitated this new exodus in the first place. Paradoxically, then, the mechanism now activated to ensure that even if the entire Earth is destroyed, its intellectual achievements are not, transplants to the new reality that which led to the destruction of the old one: at the end, what we witness is the beginning of a new but identical cycle, merely in a different place.

86Escape into outer space, oceanic depths or, as in Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero (Anderson, 2006), into another universe in a different time dimension, stretches science fiction to the limits of philosophical intelligibility but worryingly ultimately results in all-too-familiar scenarios. In the latter novel, for example, due to an engine malfunction a space ship is propelled through cycles of billions of light-years, beyond the end of the universe, and through to the early stages of a new one. There, the crew homes in on a newly-created planet where, paradoxically they find that the only vocabulary that can articulate the new reality is a risibly arcane one. Arcane and therefore also limited by all the hallmarks of the old reality, now dead: competitiveness, hierarchy, species entitlement:

‛The important thing is that we be about the first intelligent life in those parts.’
They stared at him.
He smiled in a way they had not seen before. ‛I’d like us to have our pick of worlds, when our descendants get around to interstellar colonization,’ he said. ‘And I’d like us to become – oh, the elders. Not imperialists; that’s ridiculous; but people who were there from the beginning and know their way around, and are worth learning from. […L]et’s make this, as nearly as possible, a human galaxy, in the widest sense of the word ”human.″ Maybe even a human universe. I think we’ve earned that right.’ (Anderson, 2006: 186)

87The law of the jungle, whether articulated in terms of a supremacy of intellect, territory, age, species, or, as will be discussed shortly, gender, would appear to remain a constant, whatever the universe may be.

Plus Ça Change: Needs-Must Dictatorship

88In Tau Zero’s brand new universe, in a cosmologically different time dimension, a super-educated heroine who was formerly in charge of the space mission’s personnel, now shows aspirations that are conservative in both political and gender terms, and dreams of becoming the traditional little woman behind a very macho throne occupied by her former subaltern:

’Kings get no holidays. […] They look to you, the man who saved them, the man who dared survive, they look to you for – ’
He interrupted her in the most enjoyable way.
’Carl!’ she protested.
’Do you mind?’
’No. Certainly not. On the contrary. But – I mean, your work – ’ (Anderson, 2006: 189)

89Ingrid Lindgren, now no longer top-notch cosmonaut but coy princess prettily diffident before her man, embodies the immediate reinstatement of old norms, even in what is most literally a different time and place. If cataclysm is the starting point for a new beginning, it is also often the opportunity for the rise of new forms of leadership redolent of all that was most familiar (and often most reactionary) in the time before. As in George R. Stewart’s inexplicably well-regarded Earth Abides, in Anderson, too, even in a different universe, male fantasies of alpha-male superiority remain an immutable phenomenon.

90And in Will Self’s The Book of Dave, post-flood London society 500 AD (After Dave, which is approximately 2500 CE), is governed according to the embittered diary rantings of a London cabbie (short-hand for xenophobia, misogyny and general reactionarism) unearthed five centuries later, and adopted as the gospel of a new religion.

91In this new world, an extreme backlash against the custodial lack of rights of divorced fathers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has resulted in a society in which men and women live apart because the men so choose: ’It’d be better` if we never ’ad to shack up wiv’em in the first place – don’t chew agree? Knock ’em up – then fuck off!’(Self, 2006: 348). In this new world, divorce courts now see ’mummies’ (women) burnt at the stake as the normal outcome of disagreements over custody (the hated changeover of children from one parent to the other, after each allotted period of access).

That you, Sharún Lees, on three separate occasions, did willfully retain your three kiddies and keep them concealed from their lawful dad; for this heinous malefaction […] you have been sentenced […] to be burned and the noxious exhaust of your chellish body piped into your kiddies. Let it be marked, no Changeover – (Self, 2006: 387)

92Similarly, in Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale, following nuclear, chemical and biological war, the Republic of Gilead (the name comes from Genesis 31:25 and Numbers 32:1 meaning ‘hill of testimony’ or ‘mount of witness’), a country formed within the borders of what was originally the United States of America, comes under the control of a new theocratic government sustained by the rule of a military dictatorship. As in The Children of Men (James, 2000), a large portion of the population has become sterile. The underpinnings of the Republic of Gilead are derived from the Biblical story of Rachel, wife of Jacob. Rachel was barren. After many years, she finally achieves her desire for motherhood by persuading Jacob to impregnate her maid, Bilhah, who subsequently gives birth while reclining between her legs.

And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die. And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife: and Jacob went in unto her. And Bilhah conceived, and bare Jacob a son. (Genesis 30: 1-5)

93In Atwood, the story is told from the point of view of the Bilhah figure, Offred, the latter a patronymic which describes her function: she is the property ’of Fred,’ of her Commander, to whom she belongs as his concubine or tithed reproductive commodity. In a profane rendition of Mary’s fiat in the Annunciation (‘behold the handmaid of the Lord’), and like all women who are still fertile, Offred is the chattel of an (omni)potent male ruler, and is enslaved as Handmaid for the purpose of impregnation. She is part of the first wave of Gilead’s women who still remember pre-Gilead times (approximately 1970–2000 AD within the text), a version of late 20th century Western societies in which women, albeit comparatively free, feared physical and sexual violence, and despite long-running feminist campaigns, had not yet achieved full equality. Thus, in pre-Gileadean society, and despite holding a university degree, Offred was a low-ranking white collar worker whose colleagues, all women working under a male boss, generally lacked full material autonomy. In the Handmaid’s account, therefore, women are depicted to a greater or lesser extent as the property of men in both societies, the implication being that in the world pre-Gilead (which is our own contemporaneous, twenty-first century one), some of the premises of female subordination, albeit in a less extreme form, are shared with the future Gilead regime.

94The common thread of misogyny (critically or uncritically observed) that links the nature of post-apocalypse futures in Will Self (2006), Margaret Atwood (1991), George R. Stewart (1973), Poul Anderson (2006) and many others, results in new worlds filled with compliant Stepford wives: a phenomenon itself worthy of scrutiny in a future study.

95In unstable post-apocalyptic statuses quo (Wyndham’s The Chrysalids; This Perfect Day, Levin, 1994), moreover, differences other than gender also underpin criteria for fear and exclusion. In books by authors from Aldous Huxley and George Orwell to Ira Levin, Philip K. Dick and P.D. James, unusual intellectual gifts often represent a danger to those that possess them, and can be used as the justification for undue exercise of force on the part of a defensive status quo.

96In numerous narratives, ranging from canonic texts to popular science fiction, as will be discussed in chapter 5, following the advent of large-scale catastrophes and ensuing social collapse, autocratic regimes almost invariably assume control. In many post-apocalyptic dystopias including the ones described in Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and in Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale, no conclusive resolution is reached. In all of them, however, we find strong hints that after global events of a cataclysmic nature, authoritarian statuses quo tend to emerge as the default social organization. Furthermore, these new autocracies, and the brands of alienation they sustain, may turn out to be quantitatively but not qualitatively different from social structures ostensibly supposed to be or to have been essentially democratic. It may be true, then, that, as suggested by these and other works, in all cases, albeit with diverse enemies in mind, and in the language of the standard film trailer, we should all be afraid. We should be very afraid!

Boxing with Shadows

97More worryingly, even, as both Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel, 1956; Kaufman, 1978) and Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale imply, the enemy may be all the more dangerous for being not alien, but in fact just like us, either actually one of us or at least indistinguishable from us. Sometimes, even, one of those who, in Western democracies, we have selected and elected to protect us. In Shadow on the Hearth (Merrill, 1950), for example, although an unexpected Soviet nuclear attack was the catalyst for a radical world change, from the point of view of Gladys, the immediate adversary in the aftermath of the disaster is someone much closer to home. More pressingly than any remote foreign enemy or even than radiation danger, her most immediate threat is Jack Turner, her neighbour, now revealed as the community’s figure of authority selected by the government in preexisting preparations for the event of a nuclear attack. In the emerging post-apocalyptic new order, Jack emerges as Gladys’s sexual pursuer, with all the authority bestowed upon him in a world in which old rules no longer apply.

98In Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, likewise, the American President’s chief strategic advisor is the possessor of an unfortunate arm which regularly jerks out of control in a salute evocative if not of the current Enemy Number One (Cold War Russia) at least of the one very recently defeated (Nazi Germany). In the end, in films such as John Frankenheimer’s classic Seven Days in May of 1964 or in Fail-Safe (Lumet, 1964; Frears, 2000), already discussed, the destroyers of worlds are close to home, and, more worryingly even, in the case of Fail-Safe (as arguably in the case of Oppenheimer, who coined that famous phrase), they act with good intentions (the perceived greater good). In Frankenheimer’s film, for example, Burt Lancaster, as the square-jawed Air Force General James Mattoon Scott (supposedly based on the real-life figure of General Edwin A. Walker), plots a coup détat to oust a president dangerously keen on nuclear disarmament, something in his view likely to render the US vulnerable to Soviet attack. The film, disapproved of by the Pentagon but encouraged by President Kennedy in the months before his death, opens up debate on the possibility of democracy being overthrown in the name of national security.

99Which of course is more disturbing, even, than an enemy from the ranks of the usual suspects. If the enemy is one of us, who shall I fear today? Are enemies, old or new, in fact sometimes not identifiable and controllable others, but instead part of the fabric of a self which, as urged by the oracle in the Temple at Delphi, we should seek to know? Are the atomic explosions unleashed by a homely Stetson-wearing cowboy at the end of Dr. Strangelove the precursors of real-life possibilities under the command of equally attired leaders such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush? Is Kubrick’s nightmare lunatic in fact a warning that we have indeed failed to keep the Body Snatchers at bay? That they are already in our midst? That they are us?

Who Shall I Be Afraid of now?

100In our new century the imminent bogeyman is no longer Communism lurking behind an iron curtain or in a Caribbean backyard. He is instead the Middle Eastern version of the oriental Kamikaze, the elemental high-jacker of jumbo jets flung against the skyscrapers of the New World in the first year of the new millennium, or else an enemy even closer to home: the Beardy Weirdy with a black rucksack on the London underground. At present, the alien Muslim in our midst is ever at hand to justify the silencing of inopportune civil rights libertarians prone to condemning knee-jerk preventive reactions on the part of Establishmentarian forces of law and order. In his essay on the American 1950s fear of Communism, The Great Fear, David Caute (1978) argues that the body politic has always used popular paranoia as a useful means for containing and controlling dissent. The cast may change, but the plot, whether fictional or historical, old or new, does not differ in essentials. The script, whether that of sci-fi plots, real-life historical autocracies or their contemporary equivalents (Pentagon neo-cons, their Whitehall fellow travellers, Middle Eastern enmities of polymorphous varieties, to name but a few) remains essentially unchanged. A number of conspiracy theories, both in fiction and in reality, argue that the forces ostensibly deployed by the status quo to protect us against supposed aliens in our midst aim in fact to protect that self-same status quo against us. Such theories underpin the common fear behind many of science fiction’s and political thought’s diverse agendas from Orwell to Foucault: namely, speculations regarding a world manipulated by hidden forces of unknown nature, generic Big Brothers who use fear to control potential troublemakers. Writers from Ray Bradbury to Philip K. Dick, from Aldous Huxley to Margaret Atwood, from H.G. Wells to José Saramago, have all worried about a fear behind a fear: namely that the ultimate threat (absolute apocalypse) made flesh (or machine), may after all be not the ultimate threat but the penultimate one. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

101In Philip K. Dick’s novel, called, very much to the point here, The Penultimate Truth (Dick, 2005), nuclear holocaust never really happened but humanity has been conned into believing that it did. The human race, or what is left of it, now lives in underground bunkers, producing the technology for a supposedly on-going nuclear war fought by machines (robots known as ‛leadies’) on the surface of a planet believed to be irreparably contaminated. The reality, however, involved a limited and short-lasting nuclear war which left behind an only partly contaminated Earth, now divided into enormous quasi-feudal demesnes ruled by a happy few (very few), thanks to a confidence trick that has kept the remnants of left-over humanity in bondage and servitude.

We All Fall Down

102In José Saramago’s Blindness (Saramago, 1997), and with more than a coincidental whiff of a similarity to Camus’s La peste (Camus, [1947] 1972), the disaster which strikes a community (blindness, rather than disease), but which soon acquires many of the characteristics of standard pestilence (dead bodies, decay) comes with no explanation, and only the possibility of a link, causal and/or punitive, to a wider and polymorphously perverted status quo. Either way, the effects are essentially similar to those in Dick’s novel: in this not-so-brave new world, reality becomes meaningless and blindness, here literal rather than symbolic, becomes the unmanageable norm, in a world that no longer makes sense. In Saramago, as in other apocalyptic novels and films (The Day of the Triffids, already mentioned, canonic narratives and films/series such as Earth Abides, 1973; Survivors, 1975-77, 2008-10) the onset of chaos is almost immediate, and is characterized by the swift arrival of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse: famine, since the blind cannot easily find or make food; war, as the result of competition for scarce resources; pestilence, as people die and bodies decompose, and death, which feeds on the effects of the other three. In Saramago, as well as in the other narratives mentioned, the component of decay and the resulting stench become the primary objective correlatives of a problem that is literal but also symbolic (of political and social corruption). In each case the disaster not only unleashes violence and autocracy in a variety of forms but it also reveals that such tendencies were always already there, only latent. Camus’s allegory of encroaching Fascism in La peste is echoed in the prompt decision taken by the powers that be in Saramago’s novel to control the contagion of blindness – that which defines these others as other – by incarcerating them, appropriately, where dictatorships have traditionally confined that which is unorthodox: a disused psychiatric hospital. And why not? The label of madness is a solution which has been historically tried and tested by every human autocracy (whether defined by party politics, class or gender) since difference began. And it is perhaps apposite that, in the omnipresent stench that is the principal hallmark of the catastrophe in Saramago’s novel, from the point of view of both the outside on-lookers and those who cannot see but can still smell (the increasingly filthy and dehumanized prisoners themselves), the affliction renders its sufferers literally abject, Kristeva’s term for a variety of social and political exclusions.

[the doctor] … felt a pressing need to relieve himself. At the spot where he found himself, he was not sure that he would be able to find the lavatories, but he decided to take a chance. He was hoping that someone would at least have remembered to leave there the toilet paper which had been delivered with the containers of food. He got lost twice on the way and was in some distress because he was beginning to feel desperate and just when he could hold back no longer, he was finally able to take down his trousers and crouch over the open latrine. The stench choked him. He had the impression of having stepped on some soft pulp, the excrement of someone who had missed the hole of the latrine or who had decided to relieve himself without any consideration for others. (Saramago, 1997: 88)

103And in The Day of the Triffids:

The first thing I was aware of the next morning was the smell. […] I am not going into details about [it]; those who knew it will never forget it, the rest of it is indescribable. It rose from every city and town for weeks, and travelled on every wind that blew. When I woke to it that morning it convinced me beyond doubt that the end had come. Death is just the shocking end of animation: it is dissolution that is final. (Wyndham, [1951] 1984: 149)

104It is curious although also surprisingly unimportant that in H.G. Wells’s ‘The Country of the Blind’([1904] 1982), the definition of orthodoxy (sight as opposed to sightlessness) is reversed without however causing any significant change in overall effect. Normality, it soon becomes clear, is only what the majority declare it to be. In Wells, the hero, Nunez, is an educated man, traveller, explorer and philosopher, conqueror of both lands and ideas, who in the course of a mountain climbing expedition finds himself adrift in an imponderable new world. Arrival in the country of the blind is a plunge into the unknown, both literally (he falls down a ravine into the valley where that country is located) and rhetorically (he finds himself marooned in an upside-down world, where life is lived by night and sight is an unknown phenomenon).

105Exploration as both concept and practice usually has a double edge (knowledge and conquest, gnostic and material profit) and it is seldom a fair trade. Nunez’s instinctive reaction on finding himself in a community where all are blind, resembles that of the opportunistic Taylor faced with a population of mutes in Planet of the Apes (1968): ‛Look on the bright side: if this is the best they’ve got around here, in six months we’ll be running this planet’ (Schaffner, 1968). Both adopt a standard formula, namely the desire for conquest in both senses of the word (conquest of power and conquest of love), based on the assumption that in the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king (and the two-eyed man, presumably, is Master of the Universe). In effect, however, in each narrative the sighted or speaking man finds himself at a counter-intuitive disadvantage in a habitat set up respectively for either blindness or ape domination, and in which neither sight nor human status are of any relevance.

106In Wells, Nunez is eventually required to have his eyes gauged out as the precondition for being allowed to remain in the community and marry the girl he loves. As was the case with vampirism in I Am Legend (Matheson, 1954; Lawrence, 2007) and Twilight (Meyer, 2007), or skin disfigurement in ‘Dark Benediction’ (Miller, 2007), it is not sight, nor blindness or an unblemished complexion per se, therefore, only the value attributed to them in any given set of circumstances, that really alters in any significant way either the brutal specificities of majority rule or its criteria for defining who is predator and who is prey.

We Will Look after You

107In the new worlds post-apocalypse, even under relatively benevolent rules of government (Survivors, Nation, 1975-77; Hodges, 2008-10; Earth Abides, Stewart, 1973) any threat to the community (diseased new arrivals, supposed delinquents) is summarily dealt with by capital punishment, in the interests of a commonweal that must prioritize its own continuity above all.

108And as was the case with the H.G. Wells and Saramago texts, in Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, too, widespread social disintegration encounters the immediate or eventual problem of opportunistic dictatorship (the one-eyed king): the newly arrived conqueror in Wells, the diktat of authoritarian power that initially confines the first few victims of blindness to a make-shift leper colony in Saramago, and the triffids who, with uncanny speed take advantage of near-universal blindness to begin an efficient takeover of the world:

Those damn [triffids] have the drop on us. […] there’s more to them than we think. How did they know? They started to break loose the moment there was no one to stop them. [When we went blind] they were around this house the very next day. […] They couldn’t do that here until conditions made it possible. They didn’t even try. But when they could, they did it at once – almost as if they knew they could. (Wyndham, [1951] 1984: 235-36)

109Something which, indeed, had been presciently foreseen years before the catastrophe, by an earlier triffid expert:

If it were a choice for survival between a triffid and a blind man, I know which one I would put money on. (Wyndham, [1951] 1984: 48)

A triffid’s in a damn sight better position to survive than a blind man. (Wyndham, [1951] 1984: 77)

110In Saramago, the blindness of a minority leads to the implementation of a despotic, final-solution style bureaucracy, only curtailed by the subsequent on-set of general blindness, which abolishes the minority’s difference and makes sightlessness the norm. In the early stages of the epidemic the problem to be addressed regards the means whereby the status quo (the sighted) might control the alien (the blind and contagious other), something reinforced by the bureaucratic language that describes the measures taken in response to this outbreak of difference:

The Government is fully aware of its responsibilities and hopes that those to whom this message is directed will, as the upright citizens they doubtless are, also assume their responsibilities, bearing in mind that the isolation in which they now find themselves will represent, above any personal considerations, an act of solidarity with the rest of the nation’s community. (Saramago, 1997: 41)

The Government regrets having to enforce to the letter what it considers its right and duty… (Saramago, 1997: 65)

The army regrets having been forced to repress with weapons a seditious movement responsible for creating a situation of imminent risk, for which the army was neither directly nor indirectly to blame… (Saramago, 1997: 81)

111In Saramago, then, blindness leads to dictatorial rule, whether by the sighted over the blind or by the ruthless over the meek (within the ranks of the blind). Similarly, in The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, attempts to restore structures of social organization in the aftermath of disaster, inevitably assume the character of dictatorial rule.

112And in H.G. Wells’s ‛The Country of the Blind’ (Wells, [1904] 1982), blindness and sight, while demarcating difference, simply reverse definitions of supremacy and subalternity. The arrival of Nunez in the country of the blind is not the gnostic outcome of an enterprise undertaken with deliberation, but an unintended plunge into the geographic and sociopolitical unknown. In this case, therefore, the journey of discovery was wrong-footed from the start, and the knowledge that is attained is troubling (in the country of the blind the one-eyed man is not king after all, and may in fact be forced to go blind in order to gain acceptance).

113Is it possible, then, ever to learn one’s lesson, or is it rather the case that any lesson can only ever be learnt after curiosity has already irreversibly killed the cat? If, as suggested before, the loss of paradise following the theft of knowledge was the first apocalypse, it is clear that after Eve, you can’t go home again, not ever, not to any real pre-lapsarian state of being. There is no such thing as a born-again virgin or an un-fallen mother. In ‘The Country of the Blind’ every parameter of understanding is destroyed by the immovable resistance of those who do not wish to be led to the light. In Wyndham, science leads to apocalypse (in the shape of panoptic, all seeing satellites whose possible malfunction may have resulted in the emission of the light wavelengths that led to widespread blindness) and at the end it remains unclear whether the conquering spirit of science will ultimately lead to humanity’s restored dominion over the triffids which it cultivated to begin with, or whether, if human rule is restored, what will ensue will be the cyclical repetition of the same mistakes, driven by curiosity and hubris. In Saramago, knowledge comes with the flavour of the proverbial poisoned apple: as the world recovers its sight, it is left with the consciousness that all it takes is the temporary removal of the restraining binds of civilization for the primeval brute to re-surface in the average citizen. And in both works, therefore, the very concept of civilization, which to have meaning requires belief in its superior merits, becomes untenable when we acknowledge the ease with which it can be pushed aside.

114Common and unsettling patterns run through all the texts discussed in this section: more or less violent misogynistic gender diktat (in Self, Atwood, Stewart and Anderson), dictatorship and ostracization (of the blind in Saramago and Wyndham, of the sighted in H.G. Wells), the imprisonment of the powerless (the sighted man in the valley of the blind in Wells, the survivors from blindness corralled by the triffids into communities under siege, the blind in the disused psychiatric hospital, in a city spiralling into chaos, in Wyndham and Saramago, respectively).

115The Solomon’s choice offered in the country of the blind (elective blindness) may in effect be a metaphor for the fact that whether or not you have sight, there is always a power greater than the individual, and beyond that there is never really any choice. Theoretically, the one-eyed man’s arrival in the country of the blind gives him a clear conquering (albeit not gnostic) advantage (since he may be king, but what can he possibly learnt from blind people who presumably live in darkness in all senses of the word?). The answer, however, as Nunez learns, invalidates his status as a viable human being, let alone as king, because it addresses, in the end, something fundamental: the art of survival. In Saramago’s Blindness, living in darkness – another double-edged expression which may also signify living in a particular state of mind, living in a state of obscurantism – is curiously not (or at least not literally) the fate of those afflicted by sightlessness, since their blindness is characterized by a sensation of bright white light. That sensation, habitually the correlative of either enlightening, understanding, epiphany or arrival at Eternal Life (which is arguably the attainment of ultimate knowledge orunderstanding), however, here betokens spiralling despair. The ophthalmic and existential darkness of the inhabitants of the country of the blind, on the other hand, is literal, (they only see darkness, they live by night and sleep during the day when it is too hot to work) but it is also not so. Progressive but gradual generational blindness had resulted in the development of a community with a blind-friendly, perfectly structured and organized habitat in which life for the blind (everyone) is prosperous and productive, and sight is an irrelevance or even a drawback (the rules of communal existence being determined by the blind for the blind). To see or not to see, that is not the question. In the end, like the triffids who have no sight or indeed any other sense apart from touch, the usual human definition of fitness is not necessarily meaningful in the survival stakes, or in gaining mastery, in these differently-arranged universes.

I’m Just Fine, How Are You?

116In all of these texts two clusters of potential survival emerge: the first composed of those who, having been blind from birth, know how to get by without sight (everybody in Wells’s ‛The Country of the Blind,’ the relatively happy few in Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, one single man in Saramago’s Blindness), and the second composed of those who for various reasons escaped the near-universal blight. Within these setups, however, while adjusted modes of existence quickly emerge, the radically altered circumstances unhelpfully show signs of reproducing the intellectual, moral and social defects that arguably provoked the present disaster. Or, in other words, the seed of a recycled end already lies at the heart of the brand new beginning.

117Violence is always ready to manifest itself in texts of the post-apocalypse: the intended blinding of the foreigner in H.G. Wells; the gang rape by the men and the murder of their leader at scissors-point by the doctor’s wife in Saramago; the proposed reinstatement of feudal, quasi-segneurial law as a means of re-establishing world order in Wyndham; dictatorial world orders in Philip K. Dick, Ira Levin, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and P.D. James. Whether with good or bad intentions, it all boils down to the fact that post-apocalypse, brave new worlds more often than not come already equipped with a hell pre-paved with those intentions. If heroes are ordinary people asked extraordinary things in terrible circumstances and delivering (Mo, 1991: 404), post-apocalypse there may be some heroes, but not necessarily enough, and usually, as in Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road, they are outnumbered by villains. Whatever the causal components of catastrophe, be they war, scientific hubris or natural cataclysm, the common factor in the aftermath of apocalypse may be that the two categories of humanity are at best evenly matched but probably not even that. And this, in its turn, opens the possibility that in the near tabula rasa that follows global disaster, the problems that brought about that disaster in the first place become part of the new equation. Faced with the unimaginable, what we are able to articulate in its aftermath will almost certainly be just another version of what we already knew: ‘Humanity in its essence […] is what these apocalypses unveil.’ (Berger, 1999: 10)

118Who was provenly more damaging to the commonweal in Robert Coover’s novel, The Public Burning (Coover, [1977] 2000) or indeed in the real-life events that inspired it (the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg)? The would-be enemy – Communism – supposedly represented not just by them but later, during the McCarthy witch hunts, by thousands of others in the fields of academia, science and the arts (Charlie Chaplin, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, Linus Pauling – twice Nobel laureate – and, with supreme irony, Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb intended to destroy that very enemy)? Or the Cold War warriors that purported to protect the world from it? In the end (after the End), the real shock of the new is that it is not actually new at all.

119With variations, the same logic informs texts on utopia/dystopia to be discussed in chapter 5, for example Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids: namely a post-cataclysm set-up involving an authoritarian despot or ruling power which officially saves humanity from itself through the exercise of a panoptical control that in effect in various ways dehumanizes it.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 12. Reuven Dafni, Corpses in a Mass Grave, Bergen Belsen
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Légende Figure 13. Marc Chagall, Apocalypse in Lilac, CapriccioIf anti-Semitism involves the assertion that the Jews killed Jesus Christ, in this image a vulture-like figure of Hitler, identifiable by the moustache and swastika, appears to pick at miniature figures of people sheltering under the ladder that leans against the cross where Christ hangs crucified.
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Légende Figure 14. Anselm Kiefer, Lots WifeKiefers work engages with the problems of history and memory, and often returns to the Holocaust. In Genesis 19: 26 Lots wife, escaping from the destruction of the Cities of the Plain, disobeys God, looks back and is punished by being turned into a pillar of salt. In Kiefer the past both forgotten and re-visited at a peril is that of the concentration camps of the Holocaust, to which the rail tracks had led, and where humanitys potential for destruction was reaffirmed in a new language.
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Légende Figure 15. Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog
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Légende Figure 16. Peter Paul Rubens, The Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse.The Woman of the Apocalypse appears in Revelation 12: 1-18. And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet [...] And being with child, she cried travailing in birth [...]. And there was seen another sign in heaven [...] a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns [...]. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to be delivered: that, when she should be delivered, he might devour her son. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with an iron rod. And her son was taken up to God and to his throne. [...] And there was a great battle in heaven. [...] And that great dragon […] who is called the devil and Satan […] was cast unto the earth: and his angels were thrown down with him.
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