Joshua Greene

Unhappily Ever After

Now in Bookstores: The Post-Apocalypse World

apocalypse books

Recent bestsellers on life after Armageddon point to a growing paranoia: humanity may not be capable of managing its own survival.

In her book Oryx and Crake, Booker Prize-winner Margaret Atwood tells a cautionary tale about a near-future time when the world has become a wasteland due to genetic experiments gone horribly awry. On her blog, Atwood describes the subtext to her depiction of bizarre crossbreeds and eerie landscapes: “What if we continue down the road we’re already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who’s got the will to stop us?”

“Several of my close relatives are scientists,” she writes, “and the main topic at the annual family Christmas dinner is likely to be intestinal parasites or sex hormones in mice, or, when that makes the non-scientists too queasy, the nature of the universe…. So I’d been clipping small items from the back pages of newspapers for years, and noting with alarm that trends derided ten years ago as paranoid fantasies had become possibilities, then actualities.”

It was during her writing that 9/11 happened. “It’s deeply unsettling when you’re writing about a fictional catastrophe and then a real one happens,” she says. “I thought maybe I should turn to gardening books—something more cheerful. But then I started writing again. Because what use would gardening books be in a world without gardens, and without books?”

Cormac McCarthy has no such concern for runaway technology in his Oprah-recommended bestseller The Road. Its stripped-down storyline describes a man and his young son trekking through an unexplained nuclear-winter landscape in search of food and warmth as they run from bands of cannibalistic outlaws. Scavenging in abandoned towns and withered forests, they provide each other with just enough encouragement to not lie down and die. It is a spare book, filled with hypnotic prose and poignant depictions of emotional longing. Indeed, for all its stark, ash-gray finality, it is McCarthy’s belief in love’s power to redeem when there is no hope for redemption that makes The Road such an engrossing portrait of things to come.

Such portrayals of humanity’s demise might have continued to reside on the shelves of Science Fiction, were it not for one unsettling development: we’ve made fiction into potential fact. An apocalyptic caution runs through today’s news, warning us that the same technological savvy which prolongs life also threatens to bring about its end. In a recent New York Times Op Ed1, Robert Wright, Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, describes three ways this might happen.

    (1) Classic nuclear Armageddon. This one is in remission since the end of the Cold War, Wright says, but current political circumstances could revive it.
    (2) Eco-apocalypse. Solving climate change requires global cooperation, which many nations big and small refuse to offer.
    (3) Terrorism. As the ranks of terrorists grow, we risk a “clash of civilizations” scenario. Should hostile nations fall into the hands of radicals, the nuclear Armageddon scenario gets revived. And if the world polarizes into “them and “us,” it would also sabotage the cooperation needed to avoid an eco-apocalypse.

Wright’s solution to this dire prediction is that “we may have to cultivate our moral imagination, putting ourselves in the shoes of people who hate us. The point wouldn’t be to validate the hate, but to understand it and so undermine it. Still,” he admits, “this understanding involves seeing how, from a certain point of view, hating us ‘makes sense’—and our evolved brains tend to resist that particular epiphany.”

Wright has reason for concern: for most people, there isn’t much impetus to cultivate a moral imagination and saving the world amounts to nothing more than a nice idea. If cooperation suits our political or economic or religions agenda, we will; if not, we won’t. Without a more compelling reason to set aside the very real concerns of today, global warming and other concerns fail to touch all but the most charitable of souls—or the most wealthy, those who can afford to volunteer as planetary stewards. To quote poet George Meredith, “In tragic life, God wot, no villain need be! Passions spin the plot: We are betrayed by what is false within.”

And therein lies the rub. Like their notable predecessors Brave New World and 1984, these books admit the existence of something “false within” yet stop short of identifying its shape or how it can be rectified. In remote history, the Bhagavad Gita also depicted the mindset of those who would put the world at risk to realize their personal visions of glory:

“In this world there are two kinds of beings, one divine and the other demoniac…. The demoniac do not know what is to be done or not done…. They say this world has no God in control, that its main moving force is sex, and following such conclusions they engage in unbeneficial, horrible work that can destroy the world… ‘So much is mine now,’ they tell themselves, ‘and it will increase in times to come. I have killed my enemy and soon others shall also die…'”2

Yet this same wisdom text also describes a frame of consciousness that can be world-transforming, one that includes compassion, respect for nature, and work selflessly offered for the wellbeing of all. Some scholars point to chapter 11 in the Gita as a depiction of an Apocalypse-like scenario: Krishna manifests a terrifying form that devours the universe in an explosion of nightmarish imagery and atomic fire. But there is no indication that this is how things must be. The Gita is overall an optimistic work that resides at the bright end of the literary spectrum.

Guided by the Gita’s teachings, members of the bhakti community benefit from resources that writers and peacekeepers might want to consider when envisioning a way out of the morass: (1) knowledge of the fundamental oneness of life on its substratum of consciousness, and (2) faith in a beneficent divinity capable of resuscitating even the most devastated of post-Apocalypse scenarios. The two tools go together. Knowledge without faith remains abstract and does not assure change in behavior; and faith without knowledge remains blocked on the level of sentiment and may even fuel fanaticism.

Unlike the wildly popular Left Behind Series, which also depicts an end-of-time scenario, the Gita does not posit any exclusive clubs for those who will be saved. A simple acknowledgement that the sanctity of things precedes selfish interests suffices for a multitude of unseen resources to kick in. Amazing, really, what even a hint of humility can do to set humanity back on track.The Gita may lack some of the page-turner qualities of the current spate of Apocalypse literature (for that you’ll need to revert to the larger work Mahabharata of which Gita is but a handful of chapters). Still, for an ending that leaves readers feeling hopeful and a bit more cheerful, Gita deserves the Pulitzer.

1 New York Times, April 28, 2007
2 Paraphrased from Bhagavad Gita chapter 16, verses 6-15


One Response to “Unhappily Ever After”

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful engagement with these books and the world they imagine (or portend). When I read Brave New World as a teenager, it seemed little more than science fiction to me. But, in the age of genetic engineering and the growing hegemony of Big Pharma, I see that Huxley was (unfortunately) a prophet of sorts.

    Thanks for your analysis of the symbiosis between faith and knowledge as well. It seems that much more can be said on that score.

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