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The End Is Just Another Beginning

ThedrownedworldContributor Fleetwood Robbins is an editor, writer, and speculative fiction enthusiast.

In approaching the End of the World, one should always come bearing a light heart. R.E.M. had that much right, at least. Aside from knowing that the end is really just another beginning, we often look to apocalyptic scenarios, hoping that some of the tender nature of humanity remains in whatever is left of the world. I am reminded of The Road Warrior’s Lord Humungus—the Warrior of the Wasteland, the Ayatolla of Rock and Rolla—and his offer of solace to his soldier Wez, whose companion has just been killed with a razor-sharp boomerang. “Be still my dog of war. I understand your pain. We’ve all lost someone we loved.”

In a movie known for its bleak presentation of the world after the world, this is arguably the most compassionate moment shared between the characters. Hope does exist, however. The belief in a better world beyond the wasteland drives the movie and the characters toward its conclusion. The end is never truly the end.

A Canticle for Liebowicz is a prime example. In the wake of a global nuclear war, the survivors rebel against the knowledge and science that allowed human society to nearly sew its own destruction, but the Albertian Order of Liebowicz is formed in order to preserve knowledge for a future renaissance. The Flame Deluge, as the nuclear war is referred to in the book, serves much the same function as does the myth of the great flood, an event that is visited upon humanity as a method to cleanse it of vice and impurity. The flood is necessary to prepare humanity for a new age.

Less as a method of cleansing the world of human corruption, the flood is used to great affect again in The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard, who imagines a distant future in which solar radiation has melted the polar ice caps and created a world of lush tropical flora and fauna. A fact-finding mission to the more balmy southern climes leads a team of scientists into a confrontation with the more regressive elements of human nature in Stangman, an id-driven reaver of sorts, who has come to the flooded ruins of London to loot what treasure lies beneath the water. Ever present in the narrative is Ballard’s interest with Freudian psychoanalysis. How might living in an environment similar to the Triassic period affect the thought and consciousness of humanity? Ballard speculates we might regress. Who am I to argue?

Regression is an assumed state in a post-apocalyptic world. It is often assumed the humanity will forget or lose its advanced knowledge. The root of apocalypse, however, is revelation. The etymology of the word comes from the Greek and Latin, where its meaning is closer to “disclosure.” That which is occluded becomes revealed.

A common theme in end-of-the-world scenarios is that even though we live our everyday lives in accordance with the laws of civilization and society, those laws cannot prevent the inevitable collapse of our values when faced with disaster. Venality, greed, and other corruptions spill out of a shattered civilization like mercury from a broken thermometer, always seeking the lowest point. But in revealing humanity’s vice we are also shown its great virtue.

In Stephen King’s monumental novel, The Stand, the story’s heroes, in the wake of a worldwide pandemic, strive for a free society based on the pillars of American democracy, while the villainous Randall Flagg, working out of Las Vegas of all places, stands as a brutal and tyrannical demagogue. They cling to that which is good, hoping against hope to outstretch the darker shadows of human nature.

But as we are hoping to go into the end of the world with a light heart, I suggest finally Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut, as always, delivers a very sad and darkly funny novel in which a human scientific advancement turns out to have grave consequences. If there is one thing present in almost all novels about the end of the world, it is that humans are too smart for our own good.

Still, we merrily march along. The refrain as always, “It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).”

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