What does our obsession with End of the World scenarios say about our relationship with science?
As I wrote about here, I’ve embarked on a post-apocalyptic reading project, to survey 60 years of post-Hiroshima End of the World science fiction, essentially the road to The Road.
Science is a mediator between humans and nature. This mediating role rests on the ability science gives us to predict, control and manipulate nature. Even science done out of pure curiosity is based on control: in order to obtain scientific knowledge, we manipulate nature by doing experiments. The prime test of our scientific theories is how predictive they are, how well they enable us to manipulate nature with predictable results. From a scientific perspective, it is impossible to understand nature without controlling it. Post-apocalyptic science fiction describes situations in which our ability to predict and control fails catastrophically. Nature escapes our control, through world-wide plagues, collisions with asteroids, or invasions by alien species; or else we’re done in by our own efforts at control, by nuclear war or human-induced ecological catastrophe.
Thus End of the World science fiction is a fine setting for fiction writers to explore the relationship between science and society. To what extent does civilization depend on the ability to control nature, i.e., depend on technology? How do our relationships with each other depend on the security of scientific control? Are there dark (animal?) elements of human nature, kept normally under wraps by civilization, that surface when science fails and civilization cracks up? In other words, how much does being human depend on how we relate to nature? What are the negative side-effects of our scientific quest to render nature tame and predictable? Have we deluded ourselves into believing we have more control than we really possess?
And so I’ve laid out a reading list for 60 years’ worth of End of the World novels. The pickins were slim some years, so here and there I stretch the genre. This is a project already in progress. The first few links (1947-1950) will take you to previously posted material, but starting with 1951, follow me here at The Finch and Pea. I’ll update the links below as I progress through the series.
UPDATE: The road to The Road has taken a detour, back to the 19th century beginnings of the genre. Follow along as I trace the two-century history of post-apocalyptic fiction.
1805 – The Last Man, Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville
1826 – The Last Man, Mary Shelley
1839 – “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion”, Edgar Allen Poe
1843 – “The New Adam and Eve”, Nathaniel Hawthorne
1885 – After London, Richard Jefferies
1889 – The Last American, John Ames Mitchell
1893 – Omega: The Last Days of the World, Camille Flammarion
1895 – The Time Machine, H.G. Wells
1896 – The Underground Man, Gabriel Tarde
1898 – The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells
1901 – The Purple Cloud, M.P. Shiel
1906 – The Doomsman, Van Tassel Sutphen; see also Valhalla, George Long
1908 – The War in the Air, H.G. Wells; see also The Evacuation of England, Louis Pope Gratacap
1910 – The Death of the Earth, J.-H. Rosny aîné
1912 – The Night Land, William Hope Hodgson; see also The Scarlet Plague, Jack London, and The Second Deluge, Garrett P. Serviss
1913 – The Poison Belt, Arthur Conan Doyle
1947 – Greener Than You Think, Ward Moore
1948 – Ape and Essence, Aldous Huxley
1949 – Earth Abides, George Stewart
1950 – City at World’s End, Edmond Hamilton (See also Genus Homo, L. Sprague de Camp and P. Schuyler Miller, Judith Miller’s Shadow on the Hearth, and Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles were published in book form this year.)
1951 – The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham
1952 – The Long Loud Silence, Wilson Tucker (Also Star Man’s Son, Andre Alice Norton, Vault of the Ages Poul Anderson, and Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo)
1953 – Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke (Also noteworthy are Henry Kuttner’s Mutant and John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes.)
1954 – I Am Legend, Richard Matheson (Also The Dark Millennium, A. J. Merak, Hero’s Walk, by Robert Crane, and World In Eclipse, by William Dexter.)
1955 – The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett (See also The Chrysalids, John Wyndham.)
1956 – No Blade of Grass, John Christopher (See also Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars.)
1957 – On The Beach, Nevil Shute
1958 – The Tide Went Out, Charles Eric Maine
1959 – Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank (See also We Who Survived, Stirling Noel.)
1960 – A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller (And Dark December, Alfred Coppel.)
1961 – The Wind From Nowhere, J.G. Ballard
1962 – Hothouse, Brian Aldiss (See also The Drowned World, J.G. Ballard)
1963 – Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
1964 – The Burning World, J.G. Ballard (See also The Penultimate Truth, Philip Dick, The Wanderer, Fritz Leiber, and Greybeard, Brian Aldiss)
1965 – The Genocides, Thomas Disch (Also Dr. Bloodmoney or: How We Got Along After The Bomb, Philip Dick.)
1966 – This Immortal, Roger Zelazny (See also Edgar Pangborn’s The Judgment of Eve and The Crystal World, J.G. Ballard)
1967 – The Einstein Intersection, Samuel Delany (See also Ice, Anna Kavan)
1968 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
1969 – Damnation Alley, Roger Zelazny
1970 – The Day After Doomsday, Rena Vale (See also The Incredible Tide, Alexander Key)
1971 – The Day After Judgment, James Blish
1972 – The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner
1973 – Hiero’s Journey, Sterling Lanier (And Edmund Cooper, The Cloud Walker.)
1974 – Inverted World, Christopher Priest
1975 – Dhalgren, Samuel Delany
1976 – Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (Also Deus Irae, Philip Dick and Roger Zelazny.)
1977 – Lucifer’s Hammer, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
1978 – Dreamsnake, Vonda McIntyre (See also The Stand, Stephen King)
1979 – Down to a Sunless Sea, David Graham (See also, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, Engine Summer, John Crowley, and Shikasta, Doris Lessing.)
1980 – Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban
1981 – Starship and Haiku, Somtow Sucharitkul (See also The Quiet Earth, Craig Harrison.)
1982 – A Rose for Armageddon, Hilbert Schenk
1983 – Orion Shall Rise, Poul Anderson
1984 – The Wild Shore, Kim Stanley Robinson (Also Emergence, David Palmer.)
1985 – Fiskadoro, Denis Johnson (See also The Postman, David Brin, This Is The Way The World Ends, James Morrow, and The World Ends in Hickory Hollow, Ardath Mayhar.)
1986 – Nature’s End, Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka (See also, Watchmen, Alan Moore and David Gibbons)
1987 – The Forge of God, Greg Bear (See also Swan Song, Robert McCammon)
1988 – At Winter’s End, Robert Silverberg (See also The Last Ship, William Brinkley)
1989 – Lilith’s Brood (Xenogenesis), Octavia Butler
1990 – Wolf and Iron, Gordon Dickson (See also, A Gift Upon The Shore, M.K. Wren)
1991 – Fallen Angels, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn
1992 – Children of Men, P.D. James
1993 – The Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler
1994 – Queen City Jazz, Kathleen Ann Goonan
1995 – Amnesia Moon, Jonathan Lethem
1996 – The Killing Star, Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski
1997 – Eternity Road, Jack McDevitt (Also In The Country of Last Things, Paul Auster.)
1998 – Aftermath, Charles Sheffield
1999 – Mara and Dann, Doris Lessing
2000 – The Slynx, Tatyana Tolstaya (original Russian publication was in 2000)
2001 – The Night of the Triffids, Simon Clark, or possibly The Aftermath, Samuel Florman
2002 – The Tain, China Mieville or The Year Zero, Jeff Long (See also, Y: The Last Man, Brian Vaughn and Pia Guerra)
2003 – Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
2004 – Dies the Fire, S.M. Stirling
2005 – It’s only Temporary, Eric Shapiro, The Possibility of an Island, Michel Houellebecq
2006 – The Road, Cormac McCarthy (Also Max Brooks, World War Z.)
Read along, posts your thoughts, and list your suggestions for other post-apocalyptic novels. And check out the rest of our science fiction posts here at the Finch and Pea.
10 thoughts on “What the End of the World says about science”
Post-apocalyptic fiction goes back a lot further than that. Check out The Last Man by Mary Shelley.
The sub-genre certainly has some great pre-Hiroshima examples – others worth checking out are The Purple Cloud, After London, George Allan England’s Darkness and Dawn Trilogy, The Night Land.
The reviews here are clearly still a work in progress… maybe over the Holidays I’ll get a chance to post the next unfinished dozen or so.
In the meantime, I’m looking for new suggestions.
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, 2012. Somehow “Road”esque but more enjoyable for me.
I’ve heard that one’s good – will have to put that on my list.
Holy shit, I’m starting a very similar project for the new year for myself. Ive been working on a list of all the PA ever written, so I compared against yours and got a few new titles on there I had yet to come across. I can’t wait to go read what you’ve had to say about all of these. Yey. Another lover of the end of the world stories, fascinated with why we keep telling ’em. Awesome.
I’d love to read what you think about the books you read as you go through them. This project has gone more slowly than I’d hoped, but the reading has been a blast.
Here I’ve only posted one or two picks for each year, but I also keep a big spreadsheet of all the PA titles I hear about. It’s up to 289 entires – I’ll try to put it up as a public document, and we can trade recommendations.
Jack London; The Scarlet Plague, 1915