Writing the end of the world

This story was originally published on The Economist’s culture blog, Prospero.

WWZ
A still from the film adaptation of World War Z. Photo via The Economist

April 12, 2017

THE apocalypse has proved fertile ground for writers of popular fiction. In “The Day of the Triffids” (1951), John Wyndham saw mankind’s end hastened by perambulating carnivorous plants; Stephen King made a case for murderous mobile phones in “Cell” (2006). Readers are invited time and again to imagine a world devastated by natural disaster, destroyed by radiation or wracked by plague.

The Doomsday Clock is another touchstone of the geopolitical mood. A countdown to global catastrophe devised by scientists in 1947 in the wake of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was conceived as an analogy for the threat of global nuclear war. The clock started at seven minutes to midnight, with midnight symbolising the end of life as we know it. The hands have been adjusted 22 times, fluctuating between two and 17 minutes to midnight. Since 2007, it has reflected global challenges more generally, encompassing climate change and artificial intelligence as well as nuclear war.

Over the course of the clock’s 70-year history, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature has seen waves of popularity; this chart maps them against each other. Each time the hands edge closer to midnight—that is, when a threat is most tangible—writers seem to start scribbling about the near annihilation or total extinction of the human race (if you allow for the fact that it takes a minimum of two years to write and publish a novel). A general mood of fear and unease, as reflected in the clock’s movements, seems to roughly correlate with novels expressing fears about the future and mankind’s place within it.

Indeed, although the Doomsday Clock once gauged the level of nuclear threat in particular, publishing trends provide a window onto popular fears more generally. Discounting novels in which supernatural forces or aliens are responsible for triggering the apocalypse, literature written in English since 1947 shows three major perceived threats to humanity: nuclear war, an untreatable virus—whether natural or a man-made bioweapon—and natural disasters or climate change (often resulting in an ice age or catastrophic global warming).

From the end of the second world war until 1991, the threat of nuclear devastation dominated apocalyptic fiction. America and the Soviet Union launched a series of nuclear test detonations in 1956; in 1959 and 1960, Pat Frank, Walter M. Miller, Mordecai Roshwold, and Alfred Coppel published their bleak visions of world war three. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962—not reflected in the Doomsday Clock because it escalated and de-escalated so quickly—preceded another wave in 1964 and 1965: Philip K. Dick’s “Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb” (1964) imagines how a confrontation between America, the Soviet Union and communist China leads to war in Cuba. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, novels about nuclear disaster dropped off.

But other sources of fear had emerged. In the 1960s J. G. Ballard explored the implications of catastrophic flooding (“The Drowned World”, 1962), devastating drought (“The Burning World”, 1964) and a wind so powerful that it threatens life on earth (“The Wind from Nowhere”, 1961). Although these apocalyptic forces are attributed to nature rather than human actions, this period shows a growing literary interest in the implications of climate change, perhaps triggered by increasing awareness of the effects of pollution and the impact of global warming. Publications such as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962) made waves for its documentation of the detrimental effects of pesticides.

Interest in viruses and pandemics resurged in the 1980s (news of a fatal new disease affecting gay men first broke in 1981) and remains a perennial fear: since 2003, at least 20 apocalyptic novels have taken up the theme. Often it is a fear of a naturally-evolving virus, as in Max Brooks’s “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War” (2006) or Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” (2014). Yet, with the advent of new biotechnologies, authors also considered the impact a malignant engineered virus would have on humanity, as seen in Margaret Atwood’s “Maddadam” trilogy (2003 onwards) and Justin Cronin’s “The Passage” trilogy (2010 onwards).

In January, the hands of the Doomsday Clock were adjusted to two and a half minutes to midnight: the closest they have come to catastrophe since 1953. Attributed to rising nationalism, wavering public confidence in democratic institutions, Donald Trump’s comments about nuclear weapons and his repeated denials of the existence of man-made climate change, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists warned that “global danger looms”. The fears of the scientists are often echoed in fiction. Another wave of apocalyptic novels may be on its way.

*A note on titles. To assemble the list of novels used in our chart we cross-referenced dozens of databases and lists of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature, weeding out those with aliens and supernatural triggers for the apocalypse, as well as short stories, novels not originally penned in English and self-published titles. In the absence of a comprehensive database of every such book published since 1947, we hope we have successfully identified the bulk of the titles published during this period.

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