Ending the World for 60 Years: 1953

The possibility of human extinction in End of the World sci-fi is sometimes paired with a consideration of our next evolutionary step – a concept that is less scientific than it sounds (evolution shouldn’t be considered in such linear terms), but one that does make an effective fictional tool for thinking about human impermanence.

Arthur C. Clarke’s majestic Childhood’s End is about the end of Homo sapiens and evolutionary succession, in a sense. In this case the end of the human species doens’t occur as a result of nuclear annihilation or an asteroid stike, and our evolutionary successors don’t emerge from a struggling population of mutant survivors. The end here comes through a double transcendence. Our species leaves behind its childhood in a way that reveals our relationship to nature in its most universal form, and to science and rationality, which prove not only more powerful than our wildest imaginings, but also, paradoxically, small and limiting in the larger scheme.

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Ending the World for 60 Years: 1952 yet again

Post-Holocaust Noble Savages

I’ve read three 1952 post-apocalyptic novels for this seriesThe Long Loud Silence, and two books that are so similar that they can be dealt with in a single post: Star Man’s Son, by Andre Norton, and Vault of the Ages, by Poul Anderson. Both of these books are basically fantasy/neo-barbarian novels set hundreds of years after the North American continent has been ravaged by nuclear war. Both feature late teenage boys defying their elders and seeking out the lost knowledge of the god-like-but-fallen pre-apocalyptic ancestors, ancestors who held so much knowledge, but squandered it in a catastrophic nuclear war. Both feature climactic battles among various tribes, and finish with grand peace settlements (catalyzed by the boy heroes and accompanied by lengthy speeches) as humanity tries to recover the lost secrets of technology.
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Ending the World for 60 Years: 1952

Wilson Tucker’s 1952 The Long Loud Silence is The Road of the 1950’s.

It’s a pure survival story, one about the complete deterioration of society into a vicious, gritty state of no-holds-barred struggle after a nuclear and biological holocaust. Unlike many other post-apocalyptic novelists, Tucker doesn’t envision much society left at all after total destruction: there is no reversion to a pseudo-Native American tribal state, to early rural 19th century agrarianism, to feudalism, to a theocratic dystopia. A total Hobbesian (or Darwinian…) state of nature prevails for decades after the catastrophe. Society does not rebuild.
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Ending the world for 60 years: 1951

Triffids versus Humans!

For our 1951 pick, we have the work of one of the great British writers of sci-fi’s Golden Age. In The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham presents a horror story of giant, ambulatory, flesh-eating plants that topple humans from their dominance of a world they thought they had tamed. The theme is common to other post-apocalyptic stories of the 1950’s: we may tame nature with our technological wizardry, but our undoing is our inability to tame ourselves. We take our dominance of the planet for granted – and it wouldn’t take much to find ourselves in a relentlessly hostile world where we have compete as a species with a new top dog.

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What the End of the World says about science

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. Continue reading “What the End of the World says about science”

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