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not with a bang but a whimper

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

–T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

While apocalyptic fiction stories are a dime a dozen these days (what with the anything-with-zombies craze that’s been building up for a while now…) the genre isn’t new by any means. In western culture, we could trace it back even to Revelations in the bible. We’ve been worrying about our impending doom for a long, long time.

If eschatology isn’t new, perhaps our awareness of its human scale is. In the last half-century the advent of nuclear and biological weapons has changed how we think about the end of the world as we know it: we’ve grown less focused, I’d say, on the extraordinary events that we imagine as prerequisites for such a thing to occur, and more focused on the impact on individuals and everyday life that this would have. Simultaneously with the cold war we got a much clearer picture of how thin the edge of the razor on which humanity’s existence stands really is. Nuclear war, bioweapons, a super flu, an asteroid, Yellowstone, you name it. That is — not only we know the world can end, we also know that there’s multiple sure-fire ways in which it can happen. The question becomes, then, more often than not, what happens to us, shifting the view away from the pyrotechnics to the quiet that remains. A whimper, not a bang.

Two of the earliest, fullest realized examples of this is that I can think of are Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) and Nevil Shute’s On The Beach (1957). Granted, I Am Legend was ahead of its time in terms of the cause of the end of the world but I’d argue its focus nevertheless is no longer from “how could this happen?” or “why?” but rather “now what?”

More recently there are many others I could mention, but a great example is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) which had a (surprisingly) fairly faithful adaptation in the 2009 movie. Incidentally, The Road contains one of my favorite passages in any kind of fiction:

What is it? she said. He didnt answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What is happening?

I dont know.

Why are you taking a bath?

I’m not.

The subtlety and quiet power of that moment, all that is said and all that isn’t, get me every time. But I digress (if only slightly).

To this list I now have to add Will McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse. I won’t spoil the story, and I’d recommend avoiding reviews and just reading it. What I found interesting is that it deals with a fairly complex set of causes, albeit in sketch form — not unlike the “Why are you taking a bath?” paragraph from The Road. It communicates as much in silences, in what it doesn’t say, as in what it does. In the specifics, the only weak point I can remember is that it references the frog-in-boiling-water urban legend, but I’ll even accept that as something a character thinks he knows, but isn’t true.

In any case, it’s a great book. Highly recommended.

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