WHATEVER happened to the future? A “new catastrophism”, in the words of the sociologist John Urry, has displaced the optimism of late-20th-century Western thought. We are enthusiastic consumers of stories that foretell our imminent downfall. The end of the world is repeated in fiction and film, as humanity succumbs to a range of disasters, including environmental cataclysm, nuclear war, global pandemic, fascist dictatorship, alien invasion, and, with alarming regularity, crowds of flesh-eating zombies.
Examples from contemporary fiction include the triology Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam (2003-13), in which Margaret Atwood presents a ruined world, witnessed by one lonely survivor, of “dead houses, dead malls, dead labs, dead everything”. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) follows an ailing father and son as they walk across a bleak, denatured, ash-coloured United States.
A plethora of novels for young adults, including The Hunger Games trilogy (2008-10), imagine authoritarian states in which children are subject to humiliating and violent rituals. These prescient narratives might be interpreted as prophetic warnings about the destructive tendencies of human behaviour, and as parables of the political present.
VISIONS of the future as a kind of earthly hell are not, however, entirely new to popular culture. In Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), the species is all but wiped out by plague; After London (1885), by Richard Jefferies, imagines a post-catastrophe England descending into brutality and violence; in a trip 800,000 years into the future, H. G. Wells’s unconventional scientist in The Time Machine (1895) encounters a similarly disturbing and degenerate society.
Perhaps the most popular — though not always critically admired — work of British religious art of the 19th century is John Martin’s eschatological sequence The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-53). During an era in which Evangelical spirituality was extraordinarily influential, vast numbers of spectators gathered to see these canvases depicting the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell.
Although the power of Protestant public piety has evaporated, the taste for end-times spectacle remains as strong as ever. Does the commonplace, even clichéd, 21st-century label “apocalyptic fiction” continue to connect with biblical ideas of prophecy, renewal, and hope?
CONTEMPORARY journalists often use the word “biblical” when reporting catastrophe — flood, famine, plague, war, earthquakes (”Hurricane Katrina was billed as a biblical storm […] and it prompted an exodus of biblical proportions”, The Guardian said in 2005). Newspapers that have no specific religious alignment continue to draw on this religious idiom.
The motif, in an era of relative biblical ignorance, has global mobility, and is a cheap way of conferring meaning and asserting scale on horrors that are a daily reality for some, and yet are aestheticised as elements of popular entertainment for others.
Stories about the end of the world are as old as story itself. The concept of a destructive, God-willed ending is most commonly associated with the Revelation of John. Yet early in Genesis, supposedly the book of beginnings, a violent end is decreed against life on earth. The foundational story of the great flood — one of catastrophe, punishment, and endurance — has been revisited multiple times in the 21st century in novels by, among others, Jeanette Winterson, Michèle Roberts, Sam Taylor, David Maine, Maggie Gee, and Geraldine McCaughrean. Climate change and the prospect of flooded cities, wrecked agriculture, and starving, homeless millions make the story of the deluge particularly apt for our times.
Apocalypse, then, is widely understood as a synonym for spectacular destruction, death on a vast scale, and the collapse of all that a society might hold dear. Yet this misses the primary meaning of the term — derived from the Greek term apokálypsis — that signifies revelation, the uncovering of what was previously hidden. Indeed, as Joseph L. Mangina observes in his study of the Revelation of St John, the last book of the Christian scriptures begins with this Greek term, “suggesting a disclosure or unveiling”.
Indeed, in studying the apocalyptic in the Gospels, Michael Wheeler observes that “the end-time is held in tension with wisdom teaching which assumes that the world will continue.” The apocalyptic, because of popular screen manifestations and Cold War associations, “has come to mean simply the disastrous end of things”, and yet biblical accounts offer scope to understand apocalypse as source of hope rather than only destruction.
Kathleen Norris asserts that the Revelation of John “has suffered from bad interpretation”, and that the narrative is far from “cruel”, but, rather, “boldly asserts that our cruelties and injustices will not have the last word”.
APOCALYPSE as hope is not, in fact, absent from contemporary renderings. McCarthy’s The Road has provoked a vast number of interpretations: George Monbiot, for example, describes the novel as “the most important environmental book ever written”, while others read it as a nihilist fable. The Road certainly teems with biblical allusion. In one flashback sequence, a woman urges her stoical husband to abandon hope by telling him to “curse God and die”, a precise citation from the Book of Job, the only words spoken by the nameless wife of the righteous man of Uz (Job 2.9).
The book also contains distinctively Trinitarian language: the most significant bond is between the father and the son, but the third person of this trinity might be the reason for their continued journey towards the coast — their existence is not simply a matter of survival, but because they are “carrying the fire”.
The father sometimes makes brutal decisions that compromise his ethical integrity, but he also knows that the son is “his warrant”, and that, “if he is not the word of God, God never spoke.” A future hope is rooted in the figure of a vulnerable child, who questions the logic of violence that dominates the world into which he has been born.
ONE characteristic of 21st-century apocalyptic fiction is a tacit antipathy towards the corrupt present in which the novel is written. The ruined worlds that they evoke are, it is implied, created by current sins of environmental degradation, consumer greed, the loss of human rights, and the exploitation of future generations.
The final chapter of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (2014), for example, concludes with a dystopian evocation of 2043, a post-oil world. The narrator reflects that the new era of “Endarkenment” cannot be blamed on God: “My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth’s Riches knowing — while denying — that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.”
There are contemporary thinkers who view the apocalyptic tendencies of modern secular culture as a destructive legacy of biblical religion. “The myth of the End”, John Gray says, “has caused untold suffering, and is now as dangerous as it ever was.” There are, however, alternative ways of thinking about the apocalyptic tradition: Terry Eagleton argues that the eschatology in the New Testament interrupts “the human narrative, upending its logic, defying its priorities, unmasking its wisdom as foolishness” (Hope Against Optimism, 2015).
At their best, contemporary end-of-the-world tales offer a similar challenge to complacency and ethical disregard for the future. The popular spectacles of death on our TV screens are not truly apocalyptic, and yet stories of hope, survival, and sacrificial love might be, in the best sense, a revelation.
Dr Andrew Tate is Reader in Literature, Religion and Aesthetics at Lancaster University. His new book, Apocalyptic Fiction, is published by Bloomsbury.