17 June 2009

SF Apocalypses

If there were one thing the apostle John would appreciate about Science Fiction, it would probably be the genre's propensity for apocalyptic prophecy. From H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds to Dynamix's Earthsiege Universe, the genre has compiled an impressive number of attempts at the ultimate prognostication - the end of the world as we know it. The artists of the last ten years are certainly no exception - here's a (surely incomplete) list of Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic SF published in the last decade:

11. WALL-E

Take a look at this list for more (not genre-specific or within the last 10 years): http://www.quietearth.us/postapoc.htm

And this is leaving out all those great pre-millenials like Armageddon, Deep Impact, The Andromeda Strain, The Omega Man, etc., so forth, ad nauseam.

Science Fiction has been a primary vehicle for the darkest fears of our imaginations. When was the last time you saw a movie, read a book, or played a game that posited the destruction of this universe because of magic or mysticism? Take a look at ExitMundi, an amusing collection of eschatology. The category of apocalypses with the most entries is Science. The next highest is Space, and the third Earth. Note that most of the apocalypses in these categories would remain completely hidden from us without the aid of scientific inquiry. Certainly nearly every culture in the world circulates some form of the end times or another, vastly outnumbering the presently conceived scientific armageddons. That is not my point. The point is that we, as a western culture, are more and more concerned with the potential for annihilation revealed and/or created by the reaches of science.

Why the shift in interests? Is it because we have begun finding plausible threats? Hardly: civilization has known of the perfectly scientific apocalypses of disease, natural disaster, and Malthusian overpopulation for centuries. Is it novelty? Surely scholarly research into the eschatologies of obscure world cultures has kept apace. What about a growing sense of our own hubris, a sort of premonition before the fall? Perhaps, although civilization seems to be steaming along at a fairly unstoppable pace at this point.

The answer may be that we are more interested in exploring the options we have the capacity to resist or avoid. Take a look at the list above: it runs the gamut from malevolent god-like AI, nuclear holocaust, disease, global warming, gray goo, various natural disasters in space and on earth, malevolent aliens, portals into other less amenable dimensions, and pollution. The link between all of these calamities is that the stories that tell us about them argue that there is something we can do to rectify, avert, or minimize their negative impact on the chances of survival for our species (often by using more science!).

Where they get their science wrong, we laugh, deride, and forget them. But when these stories have frightened, inspired, and most of all - convinced us, we began to pay attention.

In the past decade, for example, we have successfully identified the trajectories of roughly 85% of large Near Earth Orbit (NEO) objects in our solar system. That feat, considering that the attempt began in 1998 with almost nothing, is remarkable.

What is more remarkable, perhaps, is that Deep Impact and Armageddon were both released in 1998.

"Printer's ink has been running a race against gunpowder these many, many years. Ink is handicapped, in a way, because you can blow up a man with gunpowder in half a second, while it may take twenty years to blow him up with a book. But the gunpowder destroys itself along with its victim, while a book can keep on exploding for centuries."

- Christopher Morley


Geoffrey Wykes said...

The End Times are easy fodder. Ruined buildings are easy, as are collapsed, struggling societies, and so many of these examples use these very things as the core of their being, that is, they focus on it and dwell upon The Event as the only thing worth knowing about.

Nothing is wrong with this, except--and there is always an except-- that this is an area where Science Fiction has plodded along, barely flexing worn out muscles, for far too long. The repertoire of stuff is often great but just as often formulaic. My favorite series of the past several years has been SM Stirling's Emberverse tales, which are post-apocalyptic in the beginning but swiftly move into new territory, almost completely discarding any real awareness of The Event. It is good reading in any case, but I regard the later books as being far closer to genius, mostly because they accept that an apocalypse is really, at its core, a scene-cleaner.

The proliferation of apocalyptic fiction is a response to the opening of the scientific mind, the knowledge of knowledge. The human mind, however, is very poorly equipped to deal with this, and so we see more ways of annihilation as meaning more CHANCES of annihilation, as if we were playing disaster Jenga. Being men, we add in all that is unknowable, just for good measure.

Adam Wykes said...

Oh I certainly agree - one of the most formulaic of SF plots. But even these, as I think I show, serve a purpose.

I also agree with (and find intriguing) your assertion that apocalypses work as a slate-cleaner. In one sense I can easily see how this is true, because civilization appears (to western eyes) to ascend in terms of complexity. In another sense, however, the best post-apocalyptic stories are those which use the remains of previous civilization to influence their plot. Thinking back to Master of Orion, for example - all civilizations have a prehistory, but some have a prehistory laced with Ancient Artifacts. Or as in Higaara from Homeworld: a prehistory devoid of the knowledge of the predecessors until one fateful day when a giant colony ship is discovered in the desert.

In any case, one should ask himself: why the urge to clear the slate? Alternate history, far future, alternate societies - any of these would do the job as well. But we seem to be particularly fond of annihilating the prior civilization as a pretext for our stories.

My bet is that it fits into the Greek scheme of Tragedy/Comedy: the old is overcome by the new in cycles which mirror the cycling generations of humankind. Our stories mirror our biology?

Geoffrey Wykes said...

I think it's a lot less than that. Basically, it's a chance to make things DIFFERENT without being too different, you know, much like how Everything Is Better IN SPACE! and the like.

Same biology, but twisted, generally. Same geography, but ruined and/or changed. Same people, but stranded, misplaced, or otherwise not where they would be before.

Adam Wykes said...

Sure, but then you run into the problem I revealed in paragraph 3 of my previous comment here.

Geoffrey Wykes said...

I don't think that they should be so easily equated. Alternate history requires at least a passing knowledge of the past, and the far future is very very hard to do properly, even assuming an imaginative reader base. No, I think that the partial slate-clearing of an apocalyptic scenario is far more reader- and writer-friendly.

Adam Wykes said...

Doesn't preclude it from also being a subconscious wish to overthrow the oppression of the established order so that the new order may prevail.