End of the World

Tagged: Theme

Together with Utopias and cautionary tales, apocalyptic visions form one of the three principal traditions of pre-twentieth-century futuristic fantasy. Visions inspired by the religious imagination go back into antiquity (see Mythology; Religion), and the artist John Martin depicted vast biblical catastrophes with particular relish from the 1820s to the 1850s; but the influence of the scientific imagination did not make itself felt in literature until the late nineteenth century, and the end-of-the-world theme maintained many of its religious overtones until more recently. The phrase itself has become looser in meaning; once the Comte du Buffon (1707-1788) had in Epochs of Nature (1780) popularized the notion that a whole series of "worlds" had occupied the Earth's surface, the finality of any particular end of the world became dubious. A wide spectrum, within which no firm dividing line can be drawn, extends from authentically apocalyptic visions to accounts of large-scale Disaster; it would therefore be over-pedantic in this discussion to construe "world" as "planet".

The earliest Scientific Romances of world's end were the products of Romanticism: the anti-progressive The Last Man, or Omegarus and Syderia (1805; trans 1806) by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville and Mary Shelley's gloomy Great Plague story The Last Man (1826). Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) also wrote a poem on the Last Man theme, and Thomas Hood (1799-1845) parodied it. Plagues were to remain one of the standard literary means of depopulating the world and destroying society, but the cosmic-disaster story rapidly became a particular favourite of scientific romance. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" (December 1839 Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine) is an early Comet-strike story, but many more followed Camille Flammarion's popularization of the idea in various magazine articles of the 1890s. Notable examples include George Griffith's Olga Romanoff (23 December 1893-4 August 1894 Pearson's Weekly as "The Syren of the Skies"; rev 1894) and H G Wells's "The Star" (December 1897 The Graphic). These are Near-Future stories, but Far-Future stories of the ultimate end of life on Earth began to appear in the same period. Flammarion's own apocalyptic Scientific Romance La fin du monde – envoi de l'auteur (1893 La Science Illustrée #182-189; 1894; trans anon as Omega: The Last Days of the World 1894) allows the Earth to survive its brush with a Comet, but leaps ahead to describe the freezing of the world when the Sun cools. Wells did likewise in The Time Machine (1895), and Gabriel Tarde's Underground Man (1896; trans 1905) imagines a much more rapid cooling. A similarly long-range view is taken in George C Wallis's "The Last Days of Earth" (July 1901 The Harmsworth Magazine). The visionary sequence in William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland (1908) makes the death of the Earth a minor incident in a grander scheme – an implication of irrelevance which is also used with telling effect in J D Beresford's "A Negligible Experiment" (in Signs and Wonders, coll 1921) and Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker (1937).

End-of-the-world stories are frequently ambivalent, their writers often taking delight in contemplation of the destruction of everything that they hate. Robert Cromie's The Crack of Doom (1895) – one of many tales of threatened apocalypses which are aborted in the nick of time – gives the scientist who wants to put an end to the human story abundant space to present his case. Wells thought that large-scale destruction was a necessary prelude to utopian regeneration, and M P Shiel's The Purple Cloud (1901), in which Earth is depopulated by a cloud of cyanogen gas, contrives nevertheless to end with a triumphant affirmation of the progressiveness of Evolution. John Davidson's "The Salvation of Nature" (1887) is far more cynical, as is James Elroy Flecker's The Last Generation (1908 chap), in which mankind accepts extinction voluntarily. Twentieth-century religious apocalyptic fantasies – notable among them R H Benson's Lord of the World (1907) – tend to revel in the expectation that an imminent end of the world will put a well-deserved end to apostasy and decadence. There was a dramatic resurgence of apocalyptic scientific romance after World War One, among them many bitter parables arguing that modern men and women thoroughly deserved to lose all the gifts of civilization because of their stupid inability to refrain from warfare. Notable examples include Edward Shanks's The People of the Ruins (1920), Cicely Hamilton's Theodore Savage (1922; rev vt Lest Ye Die 1928), Neil Bell's The Seventh Bowl (1930 as by Miles), John Gloag's Tomorrow's Yesterday (1932) and J Leslie Mitchell's Gay Hunter (1934).

In fictions of this subgenre the impending end of the world is often foreseen (sometimes mistakenly) by the characters involved, and there are many stories in which those armed with foresight set out to make what preparations they can (usually derided by their neighbours – but they laughed at Noah, too). Examples include The Second Deluge (1912) by Garrett P Serviss, Nordenholt's Million (1923) by J J Connington, When Worlds Collide (September 1932-February 1933 Blue Book; 1933) by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer and "Ark of Fire" (3 April 1938 American Weekly) by John Hawkins. There are many stories in which only a few people are able to escape atomic war, in shelters, or to escape into space when the Sun goes nova; examples include Death of a World (1948) by J Jefferson Farjeon and One in Three Hundred (February 1953 F&SF; exp 1954) by J T McIntosh. A more subtle version explores the effect on various characters of the knowledge (again sometimes mistaken) that the world will end. Early examples are William Minto's The Crack of Doom (1886) and Hugh Kingsmill's "The End of the World" (in The Dawn's Delay, coll 1924); more recent ones are "The Last Night of the World" (February 1951 Esquire) by Ray Bradbury, "The Last Day" (April/May 1953 Amazing) by Richard Matheson and On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute.

The early sf Pulp magazines featured numerous luridly bleak visions of the end of the human race, and of the Earth itself, including Donald Wandrei's "The Red Brain" (October 1927 Weird Tales), Amelia Reynolds Long's "Omega" (July 1932 Amazing) and Lowell Howard Morrow's "Omega, The Man" (January 1933 Amazing), but such stories appeared alongside others which were confident that mankind could outlast the Earth, if necessary, and need not be unduly troubled by the prospect of its end – a notion rarely met outside the magazines, although a notable exception is J B S Haldane's "The Last Judgment" (in Possible Worlds, coll 1927). Humanity lives on beyond the death of Earth in John W Campbell Jr's "The Voice of the Void" (Summer 1930 Amazing Stories Quarterly) and Arthur C Clarke's supremely smug "Rescue Party" (May 1946 Astounding) – but Campbell also wrote stories in which mankind became extinct and Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God" (in Star Science Fiction Stories 1, anth 1953, ed Frederik Pohl) makes an apocalyptic joke out of the smugness of Western Man. The theme continued to evoke mixed emotions no matter what new twists were given to it. Edmond Hamilton's "Requiem" (April 1962 Amazing) is a poignant story which regrets the commercial exploitation of the Earth's death as a spectacular Television show for a Galaxy-wide audience.

The idea that we might easily destroy ourselves and our world as our Weapons of war become ever more powerful gained ground steadily throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The atomic bomb in H G Wells's The World Set Free (1914) is fairly feeble, but the one in Harold Nicolson's Public Faces (1932) is more like the real thing. The "ultimate deterrent" or "Doomsday weapon" was introduced (and used) in The Last Man (1940; vt No Other Man 1940) by Alfred Noyes. Such anxiety became extreme in Alfred Bester's "Adam and No Eve" (September 1941 Astounding), in which atomic destruction requires evolution to begin all over again in the sea. After Hiroshima the possibility of imminent atomic holocaust was clear to everyone, and lent new pertinence to apocalyptic thinking. It seemed entirely likely that the world would end with a bang and not a whimper after all, despite the broad sexual pun in the title of Damon Knight's last-man-meets-last-woman story, "Not With a Bang" (Winter/Spring 1950 F&SF). Notable examples of atomic-Holocaust stories include Shadow on the Hearth (1950) by Judith Merril, The Long Loud Silence (1952) by Wilson Tucker and Level 7 (1959) by Mordecai Roshwald. The depth of the anxiety is perhaps better reflected by Satires and black comedies than by earnest speculation; notable examples of bitterly ironic apocalypses include Ward Moore's Greener than You Think (1947), L Sprague de Camp's "Judgment Day" (August 1955 Astounding), Kurt Vonnegut Jr's Cat's Cradle (1963) and Peter George's Dr. Strangelove (1963). Fritz Leiber's ironically despairing vignettes, including "A Pail of Air" (December 1951 Galaxy), "The Moon is Green" (April 1952 Galaxy) and "A Bad Day for Sales" (July 1953 Galaxy), are particularly effective in combining poignancy with irony. The urgency of the anxiety is reflected also in bleakly downbeat stories whose nihilistic temper is most unusual for a pulp-descended genre; examples include Robert A Heinlein's "The Year of the Jackpot" (March 1952 Galaxy), E C Tubb's "Tomorrow" (1954 Science Fantasy #8) and Robert Silverberg's "Road to Nightfall" (July 1958 Fantastic Universe). The post-World War Two decade also produced sf's boldest novel about the end of the Universe: James Blish's The Triumph of Time (1958; vt A Clash of Cymbals 1959).

This pattern of ironic despair, bitter satire and grimly pessimistic "realism" extended into the 1960s and 1970s, when many more causes for the sense of imminent doom were popularized, including Overpopulation and Pollution. Notable apocalyptic black comedies from this period include The Genocides (1965) by Thomas M Disch and "The Big Flash" (in Orbit 5, anth 1969, ed Damon Knight) by Norman Spinrad. "When We Went to See the End of the World" (in Universe 2, anth 1972, ed Terry Carr) by Robert Silverberg is more slickly ironic. A savage sense of despair is evident in "We All Die Naked" (in Three for Tomorrow, anth 1969, ed Robert Silverberg) by James Blish and in The End of the Dream (1972) by Philip Wylie. A note of ironic innovation was struck by Poul Anderson's After Doomsday (1962), the first ever whodunnit in which the Earth itself is the murder victim; equally ironic in its own way is the ingenious "Inconstant Moon" (in All the Myriad Ways, coll 1971) by Larry Niven, in which a sudden increase in the Moon's brightness reveals to those who can deduce its meaning that the Sun has gone nova and that dawn will bring destruction.

The increasing familiarity and plausibility of the idea of an imminent apocalypse has promoted the production of surreal apocalyptic visions both inside and outside the genre. Examples include the title story of Up and Out (coll 1957) by John Cowper Powys, Ice (1967) by Anna Kavan, both stories in Apocalypses (coll 1977) by R A Lafferty, God's Grace (1982) by Bernard Malamud and Galapágos (1985) by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. A similar spirit is detectable in those Cyberpunk stories which use the obliteration or radical metamorphosis of Earthly civilization almost as a throwaway idea; examples include Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix (1985) and Michael Swanwick's Vacuum Flowers (1987). The end of the Universe is similarly relegated to throwaway status in Charles Sheffield's Between the Strokes of Night (1985). An authentic emotional depth is, however, conserved by such poignantly bitter accounts as Hilbert Schenck's A Rose for Armageddon (1982), Frederik Pohl's "Fermi and Frost" (January 1985 Asimov's) and James K Morrow's heart-rending description of World War Three This Is the Way the World Ends (1986).

The end of the Cold War soothed anxieties about nuclear war, and the anticipated hysteria which formed the basis of such sardonic millennarian fantasies as Russell M Griffin's Century's End (1981) and John Kessel's Good News From Outer Space (1989) is not to be taken seriously, but there was a late-twentieth-century boom in cosmic-disaster stories occasioned by the fashionability of the celebrated question: "If we're not alone in the Universe, where are they?" (see Fermi Paradox) Apocalyptic "explanations" of this presumed enigma include Across the Sea of Suns (1984) by Gregory Benford and The Forge of God (1987) by Greg Bear. The "Agent" whose impact breaks up the Moon in Neal Stephenson's Seveneves (2015) is never clearly identified – it may be a tiny Black Hole – the result is the destruction of all surface life on Earth by a "Hard Rain" of fragments that is set to continue for 5000 years.

A relevant theme anthology is The End of the World (anth 1956) edited by Donald A Wollheim. A notable collection of essays on apocalyptic literature is The End of the World (anth 1983) edited by Eric S Rabkin, Martin H Greenberg and Joseph D Olander. [BS]

see also: Entropy.

further reading

links

Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.