I'm praying for the end of time,
It's all I can do (ooh, ooh)
I'm praying for the end of time,
So I can end my time with you!
-Meat Loaf, "Paradise by the Dashboard Light"
Japanese anime likes to juxtapose words that wouldn't normally go together in their titles, like
Bubblegum Crisis, Cowboy Bebop, and Log Horizon. Our real-world names for dramatic events
are usually a bit more obvious and less playful. So far we've survived Y2K, the Great Recession,
and that Mayan calendar thing from 2012; and now we're entering the third year of the
Trumpocalypse. There's an online Rapture Index, the Christian equivalent of the only
somewhat more secular Doomsday Clock. And this stuff has real effects. Groups like ISIS and
the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo base their violent actions on their interpretations of their own
I have so far failed to figure out exactly what percentage of science fiction is explicitly about
the End of the World, but it's a very common theme. Why are we so enamored of this
There is no small amount of irony in the fact that we are much more
comfortable contemplating the total annihilation of civilization than
entertaining the notion that how we view the world might be in need of
- Gross & Gilles, The Last Myth, p. 184
According to G&G, the literal meaning of the Greek word apocalypse is "the lifting of the
veil," that moment when the future reveals its meaning, when all our past decisions are
demonstrated, beyond doubt, to be either right or wrong. Of course, we almost always
assume that it's those other people who are on the wrong side of history. History's end is the
perfect opportunity for them to admit just how wrong they are, implicitly, by burning in Hell, or
being eaten by zombies, or being sucked down with the last oil tanker in the raised oceans of
Waterworld. Climate change and other nasty technical/political problems do not have to be
viewed through such a petty lens of moral judgement, but because of our cultural obsession with
end-times, they often are viewed that way, to the detriment of doing anything about them.
For most of humanity's time on this planet, until around 5000 years ago, there was no history,
as we currently think of it: a timeline with a beginning, an end, and a moral judgement point.
For prehistoric societies like the ones described by Frazer in The Golden Bough, which I wrote
about here, time was circular. Meaning came from contemplating and ritually re-creating the
beginnings of the world, not the end of it. The vagaries of individual lives were nothing more than
noise perturbing the eternal signals from beyond.
Fictional cultures in folk and pop art sometimes still have a bit of this cyclic mythological feel.
More often they are static empty theaters where individual characters can stage their adventures,
like a sourcebook for a role-playing game. It's a rare genre fiction character who is allowed to
age all the way to death, like Beowulf or Walter Moseley's Easy Rawlins, as opposed to Bart
Simpson and Peter Pan, who never age, or that poor sap Peter Parker, who keeps getting
rebooted to high school with ever-increasing frequency. A fictional world that ages, like Tolkien's
Middle-Earth, winding down from the First Age of the Valar to the Second Age of the Eldar and
the Dwarves into the Third Age of Men, and finally into the dirty industrial Goblin blah of today,
is even more rare. Tolkien was responding in part to the Victorian mythology of capital-P
Progress and maybe in part to sociologist Max Weber's theory of disenchantment.
Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic--but it is
magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar
devices of the laborious, scientific, magician . . . The magic of Faerie is not
an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction
of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the
depths of space and time. Another is (as will be seen) to hold communion
with other living things.
- JRR Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories"
For Tolkien (it seems to me) this loss was not simply the rising tides of entropy; it was a personal
and societal choice. Stories in this tradition range from The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord
Dunsany to Mike Mignola's Hellboy. Other early SF authors like Robert E. Howard had
explicitly cyclic models of history, in which kingdoms founded in the glory of battle would
inevitably become decadent and be replaced by new barbarian invaders. More on this next month.
G&G follow the evolution of apocalyptic thinking from its beginnings in the Near East, comparing
it to a virus collecting genes from different hosts. I like the metaphor because of the way the
meme has infected our current environmental debates.
The idea that an entire culture could die, on its own, without being conquered by anybody,
came from the Indo-Aryans discovering the recent ruins of the Harappan culture in
Pakistan's Indus Valley. This led to the Declining Ages of Man, an idea that echoed
throughout the ancient world (and then through SF, as described above).
The Zoroastrians of Iran contributed the idea of good and evil being involved in a war--not
an endless circling of interdependent opposites like the Yin and Yang of Taoism, but a war
that would inevitably end with good winning. (You're seeing how this is relevant to SF,
and especially epic fantasy, right?)
The Israelites became the Jews by combining all these ideas in the cauldron of their captivity
in Babylon. How could a chosen people keep being conquered? How could a conquered
people keep being a people, rather than being assimilated by their conquerors (and their
conqueror's gods)? By focusing not on the ugly facts of the past, or the inconvenient
present, but on a future where they would be inevitably redeemed.
That last bit is material covered in more detail by Robert Wright in The Evolution of God,
but G&G get the highlights across in a quick and entertaining way. They also continue the
story past Wright's chosen time period with further developments, including the wars of
religion in Europe, the Great Disappointment of 1844 (when the world did not end as
predicted), and the popularization of the Rapture by "a drunk, a liar, and a thief" named
Cyrus Scofield, who was ironically a former US District Attorney.
Science fiction's particular obsession is to pit scientific and technological progress against
morality and human connection. What G&G point out so lucidly is that scientific progress
IS a moral philosophy, in competition with the idea of apocalypse. In answer to the
question of "When is Jesus coming back to fix the world for us?" Progress says,
Don't worry; we'll fix it ourselves.
That works fine when things are going well economically, when consumer confidence is
high, but people get nervous when Progress stalls, or when the social and environmental
costs of Progress become too obvious. Nervous people tend towards panic and killing
each other and setting stuff on fire. Sometimes the stuff of the people who are supposed
to be leading said progress. Which looks, to those leaders, like the end of the world.
As writers, as artists, we have to recognize that these turds are always out there, floating
in the cultural punchbowl, and that people actually drink this stuff. Stories of apocalypse
are not about solving problems; they are essentially stories of magical escape. Working out
our personal anxieties in public (or published) spaces, or just following the zeitgeist in
order to gain a few more followers, may have unforseen consequences.
Sure, the Sunni fringe wrote books about the fulfillment of Islamic
prophecies. They mixed Muslim apocalyptic villains in with UFOs, the
Bermuda Triangle, Nostradamus, and the prognostications of evangelical
Christians, all to reveal the hidden hand of the international Jew, the
Antichrist, who cunningly shaped world events. But the books were
This changed after the 2003 invasion [of Iraq by the US].
William McCants, The Isis Apocalypse
Randall Hayes, Ph.D., is happy to hold the keys to your typewriter until you sober up.
Though this one makes some sense, as it is a reference to a popping bubble.
McGuire, P., and Anderson, T. Trumpocalypse: The End-Times President, a Battle Against the
Global Elite, and the Countdown to Armageddon. FaithWords, Hachette Book Group. New
York, NY (2018).
No, seriously, this is a thing. Supposedly DT's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of
Israel is paving the way for the building of the Third Temple, and ultimately the Second
Coming. They urge their readers to "think and act supernaturally."
The "prophetic speedometer of end-time activity." Notice how the speedometer metaphor
avoids having to pick a falsifiable date, a classic mistake of the apocalypse predictor.
McCants, William. The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the
Islamic State. Picador, St. Martin's Press, New York (2016).
Contains appendices translating four of those multi-pronged prophecies into English.
Also reminds us that our word "terrorism" comes from the French Revolution. The
Terror was a label they adopted themselves, enthusiastically.
Lots of SF influences on the thoughts of this group, the leaders of which were hanged last
year. Very old-school, Japan.
My Ngram-fu is weak.
Does not list the best of the lot, A Canticle for Liebowitz.
"Together with Utopias and cautionary tales, apocalyptic visions form one of the three
principal traditions of pre-twentieth-century futuristic fantasy."
From September 2017, "The Bastard Sister of Science"
Mosely has also written some SF.
Gross, MB, and Gilles, M. The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About
America. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY (2012).
I loved this book and devoured it in two sittings.
A five-hour lecture series by Canadian historian Ronald Wright. Not limited to the
Though this guy says not, that each was responding independently to the same societal
Presents a sort of "whack-a-mole" view of magic, rather than the tragic loss model that
runs through so much of SF.
This book is not especially usable without an account, but I applaud the attempt to re-engineer the textbook as a form of communication.
Links to Tolkien's famous essay, "On Fairy Stories."
One of a 15-part series on the history of violence.
Read more by Randall Hayes