The SFnal Comforts of Being an Apocalypst
“Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us, and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts, and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of St. John will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison.” – Heinrich Heine, “Lutetia; or, Paris,” Augsberg Gazette, 1842
I have been back from Readercon now for several days, and ideas are still bouncing around in my head. I have a list of topics I want to discuss, all at once. But this week I want to trace a line of thought that popped up unexpectedly during a panel discussion that I was leading. The panel was on “Comforting Fiction: Faux Estrangement in Fantasy” and we were discussing the notion of estrangement versus recognition. John Clute asserted that the distinction is a false dichotomy, that there is no one or the other. My immediate response in my head was “Huh. Maybe this explains my love affair with apocalypticism.”
When I think about why I am drawn to and revel in fantastika — SF in particular — the first thought that pops into my head is “because the world is going to end someday, and someday is right up ahead of me.” I instantly connect the comforts and joys of reading such literature with the unshakeable idea that the human species has a finite time on this planet, in part due to our own machinations. SFnal literature demonstrates to me, perhaps paradoxically, that we are hurling towards a demise partly of our own making, while haphazardly struggling to prevent it. SF has a number of elements that give me, a battered but undeterred apocalypst, a cornucopia of ideas and images to feast upon.
Many fans of SF frequently assert that the genre gives them hope by opening a window to possible futures, by using scientific postulates to imagine advances that allow the human species to overcome its environmental limitations, such as being stuck on Earth. For some critics, this use of science is heart of the genre; perhaps the best example of this is Darko Suvin’s theory of “cognitive estrangement” as the conceptual engine for SF. The literature is for the most part a utopian project that uses rational thought to defamiliarize the world so that we can visualize and ponder new or reformulated possibilities. Sometimes it tries to demonstrate our potential for hubris, excess and myopia, while at other times showing us what potential the species has to remake the world and explore beyond our current boundaries.
And yet, a lot of SF utilizes or responds to apocalypse, in the modern usage of the term as “a cataclysmic event.” When I first began reading SF I was more interested in post-apocalyptic works than gung-ho space opera or science-admiring futurism. I devoured stories along the whole spectrum, from 1984 and The Wild Shore to the Traveller series. I sought out doomsday stories in fiction and film; I watched The Road Warrior several dozen times through high school. Even as I discovered the wider world of fantastika I continued to seek out any narrative that was about the world’s end or rebirth from some terrible end.
But my seeking wasn’t about the end per se; it was about coming to grips with endings. I came to high school as an alien being, ejected (because of parental indiscretions) from a tightly-knit, extremist evangelical community where I had been trained as a child evangelist and preacher. I had been brought up in those years to believe that there was a discernible and inevitable End Times approaching that only we could prepare for. But I had suddenly been cut off from that, and was searching for other ways to look at the future, while also finding some comfort in the present. Fantastika presented this, initially through SF, and I hunted down any story about the end of the world to both assure myself that there was more than one possible end and, weirdly, to assure myself that humans might be able to deal with those endings.
I grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the tail end of the Cold War. Nuclear destruction seemed very possible; I clearly remember nights when I would look up at the sky and wonder if some moving light was actually the beginning of The Last War. The fear of this was lessened during my religious years, when the End was something that was sought after, was a sign of eventual renewal. But through high school and for a few years after I was gripped by occasional bouts of terror that the world was going to end, was going to be destroyed by our own aggressive foolishness, and I needed to know that there was more than one future that could emerge. So I looked to SF, serious and silly, for those futures.
But not for hope. I was a true apocalypst. What I really wanted was that old-time idea of revealing, the root of the word: “‘revelation, disclosure,’ from Church Latin apocalypsis ‘revelation,’ from Greek apokalyptein ‘uncover, disclose, reveal.’” I wanted to understand other could-bes, test out what they felt like, if they seemed possible. I wanted futures to refute and futures to simulate, futures to reject and futures to sit with. This is why I was struck so powerfully by Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias project, his envisioning of multiple futures in the same place. It’s why I found Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home to be a comfort, even after I found it to be deeply problematic in some ways. It’s why I later wrestled with Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. It’s why I so deeply adored Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun novels, so cut off from the present yet still a world dealing with endings. All of them told me that the idea of ending itself was elusive and probably foolish.
SF provides a host of comforts for an apocalypst seeking revelation, because the stories not only talk about the future, but the present of the writer. They also let the reader refract their past and present and future within the play of words and imagination. Critique appears in unlikely places; assumptions are reproduced even as they are supposedly refuted. The ends of the world spiral back to the moment of the work’s production and to the reader’s interactions with their words. This is why I disagree with those who say that books are only “of their time” and can be only be understood as such. If one looks for revelation, SFnal stories can contain much more than what the author intended, or even what the reader seeks.
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