Adrian Barnes is the author of the novel Nod, published by Bluemoose Books and shortlisted for the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award. His next novel, Neverhasbeen, will be published in the spring of 2014.
You can learn everything you need to know about a society from its nightmares. Vampires, serial killers, werewolves, corporate bankers, demons, and zombies–the list of bogeymen is long and terrifying. Today, apocalypse is all the rage as writers of all stripes envision the ultimate end of…well, of everything. From The Walking Dead to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to the upcoming World War Z, to my own recent novel, Nod, in which the end of the world as we know it arrives courtesy of an insomnia epidemic–apocalypses are everywhere you look.
And why not? Doomsday scenarios make for great entertainment. Death on speed dial, toppling skyscrapers, unfettered revenge, doomed love–at the end of the world every dramatic possibility is cranked up to the proverbial Eleven. It’s opera staged in a field of corpses.
A superficial analysis might lead one to diagnose either morbid fascination or self-hatred as the motivator for both the creation and consumption of such entertainments. But I disagree. In fact, I believe the driving force behind our lust for disaster is…hope.
How so? Well, let’s look at a few things we all know. If humanity keeps on as it is, the result will be doom in pretty short order–a real apocalypse that won’t be very entertaining at all. Our oceans will grow hot and our fields will grow dry as our crops wither. Our economies will collapse and what little peace the world knows will vanish overnight. We all know this, and none of us knows what to do.
In the face of such a bitter, unswallowable pill, apocalyptic art attempts to engage this reality. Let’s try to think it through, says the creator. Let’s rip it all down and see what’s left. Then let’s see what happens next.
The massively popular (but not especially good) Walking Dead is a great reference point for this argument. All zombie apocalypses begin with the end–with the rising of the dead and the sudden vapourizing of everything safe and familiar. But that’s just the first ten pages of the graphic novel or first ten minutes of the TV series. Everything that comes after is about rebuilding, about the discovery of hidden strengths, about hope for the future, even if that hope is often very dim indeed.
When I sat down to write Nod, I had a couple of thoughts running around in my head. One was a notion about the fragility of reality, of nightmare pasts lurking out in the dark–pasts that aren’t really past at all. Another idea had to do with the biblical Book of Job. Strip everything from a man that he thinks he can hold onto–his life, his home, and even his love–and see what’s left.
It makes sense to me to think in these terms. After all, we’re all going to die, right? We’re all going to lose everything soon enough: our hair, our teeth, our sex drives, our mental competency, our lives. So, in light of these looming personal apocalypses, what to do? How to live?
At this point in one’s thinking the need to find hope becomes as real if not more real than the consciousness of impending doom. In The Politics of Experience, R.D. Laing wrote that “There are sudden, apparently inexplicable suicides that must be understood as the dawn of a hope so horrible and harrowing that it is unendurable.” It’s dangerous stuff, hope. Leaden-footed disaster and eggshell-thin hope walk a fine line, side by side. They are inextricably linked and together they face and try to make sense of a world filled with lies and illusions. No wonder most of us would rather just pretend the current ‘reality’ is real.
Contemplating this truth is far from a casual or self-indulgent thing. In fact, facing up to the darkness that lies ahead and scouring that nightmare landscape for a sliver of light is a noble calling.
Viva apocalypses. I don’t see how we can do without them.