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?

26 comments:

matapam said...

E.E. "Doc" Smith had a dandy range of planet killers. And the sense to not demonstrate them on Earth.

The Sunbeams were neat, but my fav was the planet with the opposite but equal velocity dumped via hyperspace tube right into the path of the offending world.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

!KATE!

You post should have come with a spider warning. I was scrolling down innocently, when suddenly a huge spider confronted me.

Arghhh. I had to go of and have a strong cup of tea to recover!

C Kelsey said...

I hate spiders. :P

I've lost count of how many times Ringo has destroyed the population of the Earth, but the most entertaining methods were all in Live Free or Die. The genetic manipulation for repopulating the planet with desirables was even more entertaining... giggle-tastic even.

Why are there never any evil over-ladies? They're so rare that I can't actually picture a good one in my head.

Bill said...

I don't really do apocalyptic writings (though I have plenty of current valid theories), but I just wanted to say...

I am inspired now to write about an evil queen/overlord-ess (?!).

Women are much more interesting villians, on the whole, if done right.

Thank you. :-)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

The Year Of The Jackpot. Robert A. Heinlein. Also The Strange Profession of Jonathan Hoag.

I want to do one, and it's planned out. It's based on a line from a Leonard Cohen song about the end of the world "And time, itself, unwind." :-p

Oh, and spiders don't bother me. Snails, OTOH. Ew ew ew ew.

Brendan said...

The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner. Greed, ignorance, secrecy and stupidity all work together to make problems worse and worse until it is too late.

Jim McCoy said...

Probably my favorite apocalyptic tale (other than the one I'm currently writing..sometimes. I wish I could get my muse to decide to work on one project instead of several. She's being a real pain about this.) is probably the Robotech saga, a tale of love, war and revenge. It's got it all. The human angst, the never say die attitude, a cool MacGuffin power source and enough love triangles to make you think you're in a trig class. The important thing here is that no matter how many times the Earth gets pounded from space (at last count three) the human race always picks up, carries on and continues to survive.

Ok, granted RT is primarily a TV show that was later novelized but I like it anyway.

Stephen Simmons said...

Ends of worlds, or near-facsimiles thereof (other than the one my first-readers are currently reviewing, as chance wuld have it, of course) ... let's see ...

Clancy's destruction of the entire US government in "Debt of Honor" was inspired (and eerily prescient, considering the weapon he used). Also his weaponized super-germ from "Rainbow Six". Second Sarah's nomination of "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag". "Lucifer's Hammer", by Niven & Pournelle, which I think beats the recent movies based on the same idea by a wide margin.

For a really different take on it, see if you can lay your hands on David R. Palmer's "Emergence". It's almost 30 years old, and long out of print, but well worth the effort to hunt down, imo.

Kate said...

Matapam,

Oh, I'd forgotten all about those! And the planet drop is cool - it's a two-fer.

Kate said...

Rowena,

I do hope you've recovered! For whatever the reason spiders don't bother me, although I will admit to caution in the vicinity of that particular beastie (it's a funnel-web, for those who are wondering. And yes, they were used as the model for Shelob in the Lord of the Rings movies)

Kate said...

Chris,

I'm not sure why there aren't any Evil Overladies. Some have started well, but they all end up going skanky bitch.

I'll look forward to reading the Evil Overlady book!

Kate said...

Bill,

Go right ahead. I'd love to see what you end up with.

Kate said...

Sarah,

Oh, yeah. Those. Hoag was definitely chilling.

I recall one afternoon spending a great deal of time teaching snails to fly. I figured if they learned how in the time it took them to sail over the fence of my townhouse's little garden, good for them.

Kate said...

Brendan,

That sounds horribly realistic. I believe it was Einstein who said that there are no limits to stupidity, and I'm sure whoever said it was right.

Kate said...

Jim,

Oh, yes. I remember the Robotech saga fondly - not least because of the wonderful little twists that went in there. They used to screen it during the kiddie-pap morning show. I'd endure all manner of ridiculous nonsense, just so I could get my half-hour fix.

And yeah, they did do a pretty thorough job of devastating the Earth - and a fair few other places along the way.

Kate said...

STephen,

I'll have to check the Palmer one out sometime - you've caught my curiosity. Care to drop a few more hints about it?

(As always, no guarantees - and you're still welcome to send me your manuscript. I just never got around to replying to you. Sorry).

Stephen Simmons said...

Kate,

Palmer's back-story: babies conceived during the flu epidemic of 1918 carried the genetic-precursor-mutations for a more evolved race of humans. (You learn this in about chapter 4-ish.)

Main character is an eleven year old super-girl, and the book is her journal. Her father is a high-level government-consulting scientist. The book starts immediately after WW III, and she had snuck down into his government-provided bomb shelter while he was in DC dealing with "the crisis".

Blurb by Spider Robinson (as nearly as I can remember it off the top of my head): "You, lucky reader, are about to meet one of the most remarkable heroines ever created. And if you find yourself helplessly, hopelessly in love, don't say I didn't warn you." (I did.)

Thank you very much for the offer! Which flavor would you prefer? The "completed" (but not "finished") volume one of the multi-universe sci-fi, or the partial fantasy epic?

Stephen Simmons said...

Oh, I completely forgot to include David Gerrold's "War With The Chtorr" series. An alien intelligence is "terraforming" Earth, seeding the planet with their microbes and lower-order organisms. The resultant "plagues" wipe out upwards of 70% of the human population world-wide.

And that's all just back-story ...

Dave Freer said...

Kate - The overall prize IMO has to go to Edmund Cooper's 'Kronk' - where armageddon came (deliberate chose of words) as venereal disease - which... inhibited the aggressive instinct in humans.

Kate said...

Stephen,

That sounds fascinating. It reminds me a little of some of the Richard Matheson short stories, although they leaned rather more towards horror.

I don't care which you send - I'll get to it sooner or later :)

Kate said...

Stephen,

Heh. It's always fun when the backstory destroyed the world/life as we know it and the actual story is happening with the results.

Kate said...

Dave,

I have to agree. That definitely er... yeah. Wins.

It's a unique idea, and would work rather well. And spread very, very quickly.

Dave Freer said...

Actually Cooper did a masterful job of thinking it out, Kate. As the book is long out of print (although you can read it here, there are a lot of other books I need you to read and things I need to talk to you about ;-)) I'll 'spoil it'.The disease ran through several phases as it affected the brain - first the pomiscuous (spreading it faster and further), then the pacifistic... and then the final stage where the victim became intensely aggressive - with a nice long lag phase in each.

Mike said...

I know, I know it's late, but... I happened to catch an episode of Primeval on Japanese TV today, and wondered whether this had made it to America. It's a British SF show, about anomolies -- which are time slips. Very localized, but they are happening here and there around London. And there's a group investigating them, and hiding them from the public. However, although there is at least one monster and hole in time in each episode, the story really focuses on the interactions of the team. There's the administrator in charge, who seems to enjoy his power, the scientist heading up the team, the nerd and female counterpart (who seem to sort of maybe like each other), etc. I think I'd categorize these as "cozy catastrophe" stories, where even if the world is falling apart around us (or we've got monsters from the past eating people), well, we can still be friends, can't we? Not quite an apocalypse, but interesting.

Amanda Green said...

Mike, it has played here in the States and the first season was pretty good, imo. The second season, after a "time shift" lost it a bit for me, but it was still a fun ride.

matapam said...

I'm currently going through Primeval on Netflix. Just finished the first season.

Such well done critters, and not the standard T Rex or Veliociraptors. And just enough of a hint that there's a cause and direction behind it to be interesting without distracting from the immediate nasty Bad Thing. Or the interlocking "love triangles" or hexagrams or whatever.