Alfred Bester, Brian Aldiss, Carolyn See, Clifford D. Simak, Douglas Adams, Edgar Pangborn, Elizabeth Hand, George R. Stewart, Greg Bear, H.G. Wells, Harlan Ellison, Isaac Asimov, Jack London, James Morrow, John Wyndham, Keith Roberts, Lucius Shepard, Mary Shelley, Nevil Shute, Octavia Butler, Peter George, Philip Latham, Piers Anthony, Raymond Briggs, Richard Jefferies, Ronald Wright, Russell Hoban, Stephen Baxter, Thomas Bailey Aldrich
I had great plans for my Cognitive Mapping series that ran in Vector between 1995 and 2001. At one point I envisaged producing 100 of the columns, which could then be gathered together as a decent-sized book. But at some point the project ran out of steam. I had maybe another half-dozen columns started but never completed. Apart from a parody piece (written by another hand, not naming names Mr B****r), the column was over. But at the end of 2005 I produced one last hurrah, appropriately enough on how science fiction deals with the end of things. This last column was published in Vector 244, November-December 2005.
Stoddard and Arnold sat huddled together watching the groping figures grow dimmer and dimmer until the last ray of light was extinguished in the dense impenetrable blackness. But hours later they knew from the sound of voices and the pressure of hands and bodies, that thousands were still crouching in their seats waiting hopefully for the light that had always returned.
Arnold dozing against Stoddard’s shoulder found himself repeating a phrase from Friedmann’s last remark: ‘There is no hope — There is no hope —’
‘The Xi Effect’ (1950), Philip Latham
George looked at his granddaughter’s empty suit. He thought of Job. Satan lacked imagination. To crack a man’s faith, one need not resort to burning his flesh, ruining his finances, or any such obvious afflictions. One need only take a man’s species away from him.
This is the Way the World Ends (1986), James Morrow
‘A woman is sitting alone in a house. She knows she is alone in the whole world: every other living thing is dead. The doorbell rings.’ This short short story, ‘A Woman Alone with her Soul’ (1912) by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, is just one of many versions of this brief scenario, and its very ubiquity is an excellent illustration of science fiction’s uneasy fascination with eschatology. We are drawn to notions of the end of the world, but find it difficult to confront the end of humankind. That final ring isn’t just vaguely comic because of the domesticity of a doorbell, and vaguely disconcerting because we wonder what it might be; it betokens continuation, that life goes on beyond the catastrophe.
The Gothic imagination, with its romantic attraction to images of ruined castles and storm-blasted nature, was naturally drawn to notions of the end of things. As British science fiction grew out of the Gothic, therefore, writers such as Mary Shelley (The Last Man (1826)) and Richard Jeffries (After London (1885)) contemplated, with surprising equanimity, a time after our civilisation, one lone representative of our race approaching the wilderness with the sort of fortitude with which a contemporary would have approached a journey into the dark heart of Africa. So H.G. Wells’s famous image of a black creature flopping across an empty beach under a final sunset in The Time Machine (1895) is unusual in drawing a line not only under humanity but under all life. Yet when Stephen Baxter continued the story in The Time Ships (1995) he went beyond the end of time into a new beginning. Even on such a cosmic scale it is easier to think that life, in whatever form humanity might have adapted by then, will continue rather than that it will come to a complete stop.
Contemplating a time after the catastrophe wasn’t just a prerogative of British scientific romance, Jack London presented a world in which a handful of survivors decline into barbarism in ‘The Scarlet Plague’ (1912). But it was after two world wars, followed by the immediate possibility of global nuclear destruction, that the catastrophe became a universal theme. American writers from George R. Stewart in Earth Abides (1949) to Edgar Pangborn in Davy (1964) competed with British science fiction from John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) to Keith Roberts’s The Chalk Giants (1974) in presenting the results of nuclear catastrophe, either directly or through a fairly transparent metaphor. But in the main these are not stories of the catastrophe itself, but of humanity’s survival afterwards. In the sort of rural idyll that Stewart presented in Earth Abides, for instance, the small body of survivors may face trials and threats but they are also rid of the sprawl and poverty of big cities, the pressures of urban life. The earth does abide, life does continue, we may see the loss of human civilisation, but that has not always been presented as an unalloyed virtue in science fiction and at least the chance to start again in the sort of close community that we haven’t seen since the early days of the American West makes nuclear catastrophe almost attractive.
The British equivalent presents a revival of the Dunkirk Spirit as a small bunch of survivors has to pull together to survive the depredations of giant plants or giant wasps (in Keith Roberts’s The Furies (1966)) in order to restore a cosy suburban way of life.
Throughout the 1940s and 50s there was a spate of stories in which the last survivors of the catastrophe turned out to be Adam and Eve promising, with little genetic justification, the rebirth of humankind, the best of them being Alfred Bester’s ironic variant on the theme, ‘Adam and No Eve’ (1941). Sometimes, of course, there are stories that suggest that human history on Earth has come to an end, as, for instance, in Clifford Simak’s City (1952) where humanity abandons the planet. But here the dogs who step into the ecological niche we have vacated take on sufficiently human characteristics for us to identify with them: they are human in all but name. Or Isaac Asimov’s stunningly doom-laden ‘Nightfall’ (1941), in which an advanced civilisation watches the inevitability of its own destruction and madness; though here, too, we are contemplating the end of civilisation not of life, we already know they have climbed to this peak before and will probably do so again. The overwhelming message that came from the vast majority of science fiction that assumed the mantle of nuclear warnings in the 1950s and 60s was that the holocaust could be survived, and though it might be a bit difficult at times, man would come through and everything would get back to the way it used to be. (Occasionally, as in such varied stories as Piers Anthony’s Sos the Rope (1968) or Lucius Shepard’s ‘Human History’ (1996), this post-Holocaust idyll would contain within it a group of scientists in a redoubt who maintain all the old, bad medicine of nuclear physics and who must not be allowed out to despoil our world again. But even this mildly anti-scientific message tends to be ambiguous, in Riddley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban, for instance, the rediscovery of gunpowder is a bad thing but also an inevitable process in the redevelopment of human civilisation.)
Of course, the archetypal central figure in science fiction is the competent man, and the idea of defeat, the idea that no solution can be found, runs directly counter to such competence. Which makes Philip Latham’s ‘The Xi Effect’ so unusual for its period. Here the metaphor for nuclear disaster is a gradual but inexorable shortening of wavebands which steadily wipes out everything from radio to light. Latham’s competent scientific heroes are allowed to explain the effect, but not to find a solution. The final statement of hopelessness must have been almost unique in sf of that era.
If science fiction’s message of catastrophe was essentially palliative, it was left to writers outside the genre to be more honest and more despairing. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) denies any hope of survival, as does Peter George’s Dr Strangelove (1963), while the film The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) left an ambiguous ending but little real sense of hope. Such negative messages were coming at a time when the science fiction of comic books was pretending that nuclear accidents might turn ordinary mortals into superheroes such as Spiderman (1962).
During the 1960s increased nuclear tension triggered by events such as the Cuba Missile Crisis, increased public awareness of the effects of nuclear weapons, coupled with a mood of protest and alienation, allowed a new generation of science fiction writers to present a bleaker canvas, though the threat was more likely to take the form of ecological spoilage as in Earthworks (1965) by Brian Aldiss or loss of individual power, as in ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’ (1967) by Harlan Ellison. Most recently, the renewed ecological threat of BSE and CJD has prompted a revision of Jeffries’s notion of an Earth returning to natural fecundity in the absence of humanity in Ronald Wright’s A Scientific Romance (1997), while one can only assume the approaching millennium is behind such apocalyptic visions as the total social and environmental breakdown portrayed in Elizabeth Hand’s Glimmering (1997). Nevertheless, when incidents such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and the increasingly obvious instability of the Soviet Union revived nuclear fears in the West, it was again writers from outside the genre who presented the starkest pictures. In the TV films Threads (1984) and The Day After (1983), the graphic novel When the Wind Blows (1982) by Raymond Briggs and the novel Golden Days (1987) by Carolyn See we get a graphic representation of the sores, sickness and inevitable death that is the lot of those unfortunate enough to survive the initial blast.
Science fiction, meanwhile, was now happy to present the destruction of the Earth, either comically as in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978) by Douglas Adams or more seriously and more uncomfortably in The Forge of God (1987) and Anvil of Stars (1992) by Greg Bear or the Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-9) by Octavia Butler. Nevertheless, no matter how darkly and uncomfortably Bear and Butler and Hand presented the moment of catastrophe, such stories still presented survival, with the aid of aliens (or in Hand’s case, ghosts or intruders from some otherwhere), as an option for their heroes, and through them for humanity.
Again it was a lone voice, James Morrow in his bleak novel This is the Way the World Ends, who, alone of science fiction writers, was prepared to follow the notion of destruction through to the obliteration of humanity. Science fiction has often claimed to think the unthinkable, but just as individual death is clouded with visions of immortality or rebirth, so it seems that humanity’s death can only be presented in hopeful colours of survival or rescue.