Author Archives: Mike White

The First Modern Post-Apocalypse Novel: After London

Richard Jefferies’ After London (1885)

bankofenglandruinsGothic and Romantic writers — like Cousin de Grainville, Lord Byron, Edgar Allen Poe, and most significantly, Mary Shelley — wrote the first important End of the World fiction early in the 19th century. But as Romanticism waned, the nascent genre languished for half a century, until it came roaring back with a new wave of future fiction that occurred during the last few decades of the century. Alongside various utopias (Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887), dystopias (Caesar’s Column), and future war stories (Battle of Dorking), post-apocalyptic fiction became popular among writers in Britain, France, and America. The familiar genre images of the primitive society, the wasted city, the ruined Statue of Liberty, the cataclysmic new ice age, and the barren, Dying Earth, was all there in the best-selling, futuristic fiction at the end of the 19th century. The genre has been popular ever since.

The first post-apocalyptic novel of this new wave of future fiction was Richard Jefferies’ 1885 After London. As we all know, End of the World fiction is most often about the end of the world as we know it and its aftermath — not about the utter extinction of humans or the complete destruction of life on earth. Earlier Romantic writers were an exception; they really did deal with the utter end of the world. But After London is about the survivors and the transformed world they’ve inherited. Continue reading

Poe’s Comet Cataclysm: End of the World 1839

Edgar Allen Poe’s The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion (1839)

Great_Comet_1861The word “apocalypse” not only means a cataclysm that ends the current world order, but also, from the word’s Greek root, a revelation of truth. Poe’s very short story about the End of the World is an apocalypse in both senses of the word. In this early instance of the cataclysmic-collision-with-celestial-object tale, Poe makes an odd mix of science and prophesy to capture the moment of “the speculative Future merged in the august and certain Present.” “Eiros and Charmion” shows us what happens when the unknown becomes the dramatically revealed known.

The story starts with Eiros waking up to the startling realization that the afterlife is real, and that he (or she — Poe doesn’t say) is in it. His old friend Charmion, who died ten years earlier, is there to welcome him, happy to see Eiros “looking life-like and rational.” Charmion informs Eiros that their earthly names have been discarded, and that tomorrow he’ll induct his friend “into the full joys and wonders of your novel existence.” Continue reading

End of the World, 1826: Mary Shelley’s The Last Man

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826)

BouguereauFirstMourningNot all post-apocalyptic fiction is about death. That might seem odd, given the high death toll in this genre. But most of it is about something else, like nature, war, technology, civilization, or even religion. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is an exception: it is a book about death.

And death is what saves it from being just another 19th century door-stopper, doomed to bore contemporary readers. Shelley did what, as far as I know, no other writer in the genre has done. She turned her personal grief into the End of the World. In the Last Man, the deaths of her husband, her children, and her friends are transformed into the complete extinction of the human species. Continue reading

One of world’s best ideas: the distinction between genotype and phenotype

One of the most important ideas ever is the distinction between genotype and phenotype – between our genes and the traits they influence. It seems obvious to us now, but scarcely more than 100 years ago it wasn’t, which led to a lot of confusion.

The scientist who really clarified the distinction between genotype and phenotype (and who, along with the word gene, coined these terms), was Wilhlem Johannsen. I recently wrote about Johannsen for Pacific Standard, in the context of the recent discovery of the molecular basis of a European blond allele. Here I want to show why Johannsen’s key insight dispelled so much confusion.

Johannsen summed up his views in a 1911 paper, “The Genotype Conception of Heredity.” He starts out by saying that scientists have been confused because they are thinking about apparent heredity, or the “transmission-conception” of heredity. This transmission conception, which had been around since Hippocrates and Aristotle, was that “the personal qualities of any individual organism are the true heritable elements of traits!” Continue reading

Last Man Science Fiction, 1805: The Bible as Gothic Futuristic Romance

Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville’s The Last Man (1805)

martinLastManLong-time readers know I’m a fan of post-apocalyptic science fiction, because it reveals so much about our feelings toward science and its place in civilization. Science mediates between us and nature; in modern civilization, we rarely encounter the raw power of nature without science’s buffering effects.

But are we like the sorcerer’s apprentice, putting the world at risk by playing with powers that are out of our league? Have we used science to truly transcend nature’s casual brutality, or are we just kidding ourselves? How much does our own human nature depend on the scientific underpinnings of civilization, and what happens when science’s support is yanked away — will it be Mad Max-style battling warlords, or pastoral communities in tune with nature’s rhythms, as in Earth Abides?

In End of the World fiction, the answers to these questions are all over the map, and that’s why this genre is so awesome.

I’ve already covered post-apocalyptic SF from the 40’s and 50’s, but it’s time to go back to the beginning of the genre, with the very first book that you could call a Dying Earth science fiction novel: The Last Man, by the French priest Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville. Published in 1805, it’s a bizarre rewrite of the Book of Revelations as futuristic Gothic novel, filled with temples, spirits, visions, and trans-Atlantic airships. Continue reading