The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent.
So the world ends, as witnessed by the time traveller in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Entropy has come upon the Earth, winding terrestrial existence down to darkness, cold, silence. No more life, no more colour, no more sound. The world itself is ending as completely, as inescapably, as everything that ever moved upon its surface. It is a moment of horror, and yet a moment of inevitability. This is the way that Wells’s understanding of science, of evolution, tells him the world will end. It is unimaginably distant in time; the sun has grown dim and cold, the planet has drifted out of its orbit drawn inescapably towards the sun. It is a picture of the end of terrestrial time that is not too different from what scientists today might imagine.
It is a scenario that should be all too familiar to science fiction readers, because science fiction was imagining the end of the world long before Wells came on the scene, and continues to imagine it right up to the present day. But the end of the world we encounter in so many science fiction novels is rarely the inhuman moment presented by Wells. Because in science fiction the end of the world tends to be equated with the end of human life. After all, one of the earliest examples of the end of the world story is Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, a title that rather gives the game away.
In science fiction terms there are three horsemen of the apocalypse. Or at least there are three that ride ahead preparing the way for the fourth horseman, Death. The three are not the traditional War, Pestilence and Famine, but War, Pestilence and the Environment. But we’ll come to that last shortly. Today, and over the next couple of days, we’re going to look at the different ways that science fiction has ended the world. Let’s take them in order, starting with …
Science fiction writers have always had a liking for bringing about a violent end to things. For instance, Olga Romanoff by George Griffith is one of several works around the end of the 19th century that imagined the world being struck by a comet. More recent examples of the same scenario include Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.
Other versions of the apocalypse included a mysterious gas cloud that envelops the Earth in The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel (a much more benign version of this was In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells).
After the First World War the mood darkened, the horrors of the trenches convincing many that human civilisation was doomed, or was at best a sham. We started to get novels like Theodore Savage by Cicely Hamilton in which war destroys London and people revert to a superstitious barbarism. A similar scenario arises in H.G. Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come, before the militaristic utopia of the airmen takes over the world.
Then came the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Suddenly science fiction writers had a veritable doomsday weapon, and a weapon that became more terrible as the Cold War intensified. Throughout the 1950s there was a rash of stories about small groups of survivors contemplating their oncoming annihilation as the consequences of nuclear war come closer. Novels such as On the Beach by Neville Shute, Alas Babylon by Pat Frank and Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald all follow this scenario. These were all relatively isolated communities, but over time the emphasis shifted to the way the horrific consequences of nuclear war would affect people in a modern urban setting, as in Golden Days by Carolyn See, something that became particularly compelling in television programmes from The War Game to The Day After and Threads. The theme even crept into YA fiction in books such as The H-Bomb Girl by Stephen Baxter.
One of the more effective novels that explored the consequences of armageddon was This is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow, in which the handful of survivors of a nuclear war are put on trial by the souls of those who will now never be born. But this was also a late example of the form, with the ending of the cold war, tales of nuclear annihilation have largely slipped from the sf vocabulary. The end of the world has taken other forms.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.