Thursday, April 15, 2010
The Apocalypse Cometh, and Armageddon Sick of It
We are, as a rule, inordinately fond of catastrophe, so long as it happens to someone else. How many people slow down to gawk at a car smash? Don't all answer at once. Tragedy - preferably somewhere else - is ratings gold. And of course, destroying the world, and in ambitious cases the universe, multiverse, or the whole of reality, is something of a staple in fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy. Horror tends not to destroy it so much as populate it with all manner of unpleasantness and turn humanity into 'dinner'.
Naturally, any evil overlord worth his spiffy black cape (sorry, evil overlording tends to be mostly a male job. For whatever the reason evil overladies are usually just skanky bitches and not all that evil) has some kind of grand plan to destroy the world, often with a certain short-sightedness - after all, he's got to live there too, and if he destroys it, where's he going to live? Well, unless there's a convenient Death Star hanging around.
It used to be a pretty simple thing - the fifties are full of evil overlords of one sort or another rubbing their hands together with evil glee while preparing to kick of nuclear armageddon and forgetting that even their super secret base is going to get contaminated. Before that there was the notion that enough dynamite would do it. Then there's the potential for nuclear mutants - who usually end up getting some kind of bizarre super-powers instead of super-cancers, and never acquire extra limbs from damaged DNA. There's been the Dr Moreau style of animal-human cross-breeds on an isolated island.
In the sixties and seventies John Wyndham was remarkably imaginative in the ways he destroyed if not the world, then at least civilization as he knew it. There were the Triffids taking advantage of a mysterious meteor shower that blinded most of the Earth's population, massive ocean level rises (not caused by humans but by something that deliberately parked heaters at the ice caps), nuclear war (everyone's got to do it at least once), and perhaps most terrifying, spiders.
Yes, spiders. Super-spiders, intelligent, capable of swimming, and working in packs - or swarms if you prefer. If you want alien intelligence, that certainly qualifies.
I don't think anyone's been quite that prolific about destroying civilization since.
Thing is, people read them and enjoyed them. We like to watch Armageddon happen - to someone else. But we also like there to be some hope at the other end of the apocalypse. From The War of the Worlds to Independence Day, between and beyond, the most popular destructions of the world either end with or show the plucky survivors working to build something from the ashes, or the threat is averted (often at the very last minute) and life goes on. We even jokingly refer to snowpocalypse (the Northeast USA and the succession of major storms that dumped snow in places that usually don't get much, if any), pollenpocalypse (every spring for me) and the like.
Some of my favorites are the Apocralypse of the Discworld, which may or may not be apocryphal, the Whitewashing end of the world in a wave of absolute Good in Eve Forward's Villains By Necessity (in which the world narrowly escapes destruction due to the efforts of - of course - a mismatched band of villains), and as I mentioned before, the implied death-by-intelligent-spider in John Wyndham's Web.
What are your favorite literary apocalypses, and what makes them interesting or different from the run of the mill?