The trend is nigh: What your apocalypse means

Let’s face it, all of us love a good story about the end of the world. We all had that bittersweet buzz the first time we saw Alderaan explode where we were sad about the tragic death of millions but also, dude, that’s a really big laser… But what does it say about us with how it ends?

I just finished reading Adrian Barnes’ Nod, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke award, where the end of the world comes without explanation, when people simply stop sleeping. It got me thinking about how we’ve come to handle the apocalyptic in fiction.

Supposedly it all starts with science fiction’s grand matriarch, Mary Shelley, whose The Last Man basically rocked the genre before it even existed. Since then we’ve minted our own demise through various wars and ultimate weapons, pandemics, alien invasions, meteors and asteroids, environmental disasters and even a slow fade after we use up all of Earth’s resources. We all have favourite examples of all of these (I’m putting in a vote for the utterly bonkers film, A Boy and His Dog, incidentally).

What’s much more interesting, however, is how the fashions have developed. There’s the obvious boom of nuclear calamities around the cold war for instance, the rash of meteors and asteroids in the 1990s or the more recent tales of genetically engineered disaster, effectively shown by Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy.

Reading Nod, however, the apocalypse is only named by Paul (the narrator) - who admits they probably have different words for it the world over - and is never really understood. This is a more existential disaster, something perhaps more honest than all the ones before in that it faces up to an implicit and animal fear of extinction, one we can’t control. Apocalyptic fictions starts a plague, moves through with the crystallisation of a new kind of global politics with the UN and reaches today where civil wars are live-tweeted. Nuclear war is still a threat, it’s just not as pervasive any more.

Writing about the apocalypse always has a political angle because contemplating the failure of an entire species has to consider why we didn’t save ourselves. That’s no surprise, and authors have made great use of this to consider contemporary social and political issues. With Nod, however, we start to move beyond that into a world of individual culpability for global disaster. Paul didn’t cause the end of the world, but he accidentally creates the local franchise and is forced to participate, to take responsibility.

Whether or not this is a good thing for you depends on the kinds of book you like, but for me this represents an important shift in dynamic. Science fiction almost by definition is literature of aspiration and fear, of prophecies and warnings for us all as a race. This is a moment when we stop looking at the world to find fault, to identify things we can break. It might not always be as bombastic to read, but to me it’s full of promise.