“That’s great, it starts with an earthquake,” sang Michael Stipe in 1987. Or, depending on who else you listen to, it might start with plague, a biblical flood, a kinda porn-y sounding comet, a bunch of carnivorous plants, a nuclear holocaust, our own technology turning on us, or an alien invasion. The cataclysm in question might never even be described, but that doesn’t really matter, because when it comes to pop-cultural conceptions of the end of the world, there’s almost always some sort of definitive event that sets the eschatological boulder rolling.
The point is, each of these instances assures us that we’ll know. When the end of the world is about to happen, we’ll know. Whether it’s four horsemen riding over the horizon or one of the dramatic scenarios above, when the end times are upon us, we’ll know. This is a reassuring idea, in its own curious way: in ages past, we lived in a world where great changes seemed to happen at the whim of chance. An earthquake, a wildfire, or a volcano didn’t mean the literal end of the world, but it could well mean the end of your world — even if you weren’t killed in the cataclysm, you’d be left in a society that would have changed irrevocably. Metaphorically, then, the apocalypse came to represent human fears of the way everything could be taken away in a single, unexpected moment..
As humans, we tend to construct narratives around things we don’t understand, especially when such things appear to have an arbitrary, limitless power. Dramatic, civilization-shaking events seem too meaningful to happen by pure chance — they seem like some sort of divine punishment. As a result, apocalypse narratives throughout history have often come with strong moral connotations. There are recurring themes in the eschatological mythology of many different cultures, often concerning a final battle between good and evil, with the righteous ascending to paradise and the latter condemned to hell. (Or, alternatively, they’ll be left behind on a godless and righteous-less Earth, which is implied to be pretty much the same thing.)
What unifies these stories is the idea that the end will come because of something humanity has done wrong. By this rationale, we have some measure of agency: if the apocalypse is brought about by human misbehavior, it can be avoided by humanity behaving itself. If the end does come, it’s our own fault and we deserve what’s coming to us — but we’re given the license to avoid it if we reform our evil ways.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that we keep telling ourselves these stories. Instead of Ragnarok or the Rapture, our modern, secular stories often involve us bringing the whole edifice down on our own unworthy heads: a nuclear holocaust, an escaped bioengineered virus, Skynet, global warming.
As much as it may resemble earlier, religious mythology, modern eschatology is more concerned than its antecedents with what might happen after an apocalypse. Specifically, we’re concerned with what might happen to us. Dystopian fiction is more popular than ever, and the dystopias we imagine grow directly out of our own society. The Road, The Hunger Games, Fallout… pretty much every popular dystopian narrative envisages what might be left after the end of our world.
There’s a question to ask here, though. Given that their engagement with real-world scenarios has manifested through an obsession with exploring how we might survive the apocalypse, though, why do our stories rarely examine the most realistic of apocalyptic scenarios?
First, let’s think about how the world might actually come to an end. It might be entirely random: we might end up like the dinosaurs, getting creamed by some sort of unexpected asteroid, or wiped out by the chance mutation of a virus that has nothing at all to do with our actions. The chances of either scenario seem relatively low, though: it’s been 65 million years since the dinosaurs met their unexpected demise, and nothing similar has happened since. Extinctions via uncontrolled pandemics have also been thin on the ground, although globalization has created unprecedented opportunities for disease to spread across continents.
Our narratives have one thing right, then: if we do meet our end in the near future, it’s likely to be as a result of our own actions. Most likely, though, it won’t be as the result of a single definitive event. In the 20th century, with the Cold War in full swing and all of humanity seemingly one itchy finger away from mutually assured destruction, that may well have appeared to be the most likely scenario. In the 21st, though, we’re more like the proverbial frog in slowly heating water — in our case, it’s the sea level slowly rising and the planet slowly heating up. If the world ends, it most likely won’t do so with a bang.
You might argue, well, some of our narratives do deal with such scenarios: there are certainly dystopian narratives set in worlds that reflect a credible future. Even these, though, often rely on some sort of catalytic factor: the 2007 film Children of Men, for instance, depicts a dystopian Britain crumbling under the pressure of resource scarcity and a global refugee crisis, but it also posits a scenario in which humanity has become mysteriously infertile. Waterworld deals with the potential effects of global warming, but in a hilariously extreme way: in its future, sea levels have risen some 25,000 feet, meaning there’s no dry land anywhere. And so on.
The reason for this, I think, is that the alternative is accepting dystopia as a necessary consequence of our own society. If the transition to dystopia requires a catalytic event, then equally, without that event, dystopia remains impossible. Without that surety, there are some startling questions to be answered: what if we’re already living in the sort of dystopia we’ve always feared? What if the end of the world has already happened? What if we didn’t know?
If you think I’m being overly dramatic, well, let’s compare the actuality of 2016 to the dire warnings of the past. Even the earliest dystopian fiction has its startlingly prescient moments: H.G. Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes, for instance, depicts a plutocracy in which the majority of the populace is engaged, day and night, in tedious, never-ending work. (The Time Machine examines the ultimate result of this: a world where the rich have become so complacent and lazy that they are literally fed upon by the poor. Sadly, this prediction hasn’t come to pass quite yet.) Most strikingly, perhaps, E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops gives us a world where humanity is confined to small cubicles, communicating by videoconference, their labor directed at the maintenance of the machine that provides for them.
I’m cherry-picking aspects of these novels, obviously, but still, to pre-20th-century writers, dystopia was, as much as anything else, a place where humanity was subjugated into endless labor, with the freedom that is man’s birthright having been leached away by industrialization and enforced conformity. There are clearly echoes of the fears engendered by the Industrial Revolution here, but the ideas also have plenty of resonance today. Forster’s Machine, for instance, mightn’t have been meant as a metaphor for capitalism, but it’s a strikingly good one nonetheless, and one later repurposed by Fritz Lang for Metropolis. What is an individual worker in a capitalist society, these stories ask, if not a cog in some huge, infinitely complex machine?
Dystopianism really took off in the 20th century, though, and the dystopian narratives of that era fell into two broad types. We might call one the Nineteen Eighty-Four category and the other, the Brave New World category. The former depict worlds in which the populace is repressed by fear and brutality. In these worlds, the future is, in Orwell’s famous words, “a boot stamping on a human face forever.” The repression is direct, overt, physical, and violent. I generally think of these as “direct oppression” dystopias, and they arose out of very 20th-century fears, namely those of totalitarianism and the rise of extremists on both left and right.
The second category depicts worlds where repression is more subtle — these I think of as “indirect oppression” dystopias. And it’s these that present the most compelling scenarios for how human society might descend into dystopia without even realizing it, because while they come in many varieties — the world of The Matrix is as much an indirect repression dystopia as is Brave New World — they’re characterized by the fact that the oppression of the population in question is carried out in a manner that doesn’t involve open totalitarianism. Control can be exerted through pleasure (Brave New World‘s hypothetical drug soma), or subterfuge… or just endless, pointless work.
It’s worth noting here that futurist writing up to and including the 20th century was also generally characterized by outlandish ideas of what the future might be like. If it wasn’t an exotic dystopia, it was an equally exotic utopia: the 20th century gave us The Jetsons, ecotopias, hippie communes, Aldous Huxley’s Island, and a whole heap of other visions of the future that were dramatically different from the reality of the time in which they were conceived.
The 21st century has moved toward a vision of the future that’s far more recognizable: if we’re not obliterated in nuclear fire or wiped out by a stray asteroid, it seems, things will continue pretty much as they are. Writing about this possibility a couple of years ago, I suggested we might call this idea “mundane futurism.” The future we envisage today is very much like the world we live in, and the implication is that we’re already living in the future. We’re here. We made it.
But where are we? In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published his essay “The End of History?” in which he argued that the collapse of communism represented “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” This end point represented the final triumph of capitalism, as both ideology and as the world’s dominant model for society.
Fukuyama’s ideas have been challenged in many ways since 1989, and today his pronouncement that we had reached the end of history is more often the subject of wry humor than serious analysis. But in one respect, he was correct: capitalism remains unchallenged and ubiquitous.
In Greek, the word “apocalypse” literally means “a lifting of the veil.” And the further we get into the 21st century, the more we see that capitalism is a Potemkin village, not a utopia. We work longer hours than ever. There are no flying cars. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Our democratic process is a sham of polarization and deadlock, dominated by ever more ridiculous rhetoric that reflects nothing of how we’re actually governed. The machine keeps running, and it doesn’t look like it’ll ever stop. We’ve arrived at the most mundane of dystopias: the world of late capitalism.
Was the end of history, in fact, the end of the world? Are we all living in some sort of global afterlife already?
Clearly, in the most literal sense, the answer to that question is “no”: I’m sitting here and writing this, and you’re sitting here and reading it. But as we’ve seen, the end of the world functions as a metaphor for the end of a world — a world that a society has created, a world that the inhabitants of that society believe they’re living in. We’re brought up to believe in the idea of capitalism as meritocracy, of democracy as representative, of the justice system dispensing justice. The more we lift the veil, the more we see that none of this is true. (Take note, for instance, of the fact that what horrifies the Republican establishment about Donald Trump isn’t his views as much as the fact that he doesn’t veil those views at all.)
It’s no wonder, then, that our stories of the apocalypse and resultant dystopias don’t reflect a potential reality; if they did, they wouldn’t be fiction. And the strangest irony of all: we can’t get enough of those stories. In the absence of the possibility of a definitive end to it all, we find ourselves yearning for exactly that. We tell ourselves stories of a final judgment, a dramatic event that’ll shake us out of our lethargy. In a curious way, we see echoes of a more meaningful future in a world overrun by zombies or left empty by a nuclear winter. Anything’s better than being in this cubicle forever.