So here we are, right back where we were a few decades ago and hoped we’d never have to be again: staring down the barrel of global catastrophe. Anyone over 40 will remember the feeling. The numb resignation, the night panic, the sense of a world gone mad. The missiles, it seemed, were already overhead, hanging like a pregnant pause. And now the feeling is back, and anyone under 40 has to wonder what’s in store for them before they die. Will they live to see the cities drown, the fields dry up, the food system collapse? Will they die a peaceful death, or will they be driven from their homes to wander the roads and eat grass? And if the worst does come, how will the survivors find the will to go on?
Novelists have been asking themselves the same questions, just as they did in other times of existential threat. Apocalyptic fears have played a part in the human imagination since at least the rise of the great world religions. The sky will be rolled up like a scroll, or Shiva will burn the three worlds to ash. Armageddon will arrive, or the Tribulation, or the closing of the Kali Yuga. A divine figure will descend to bring an end to human time: Messiah or the Bodhisattva of the Future, the tenth avatar of Vishnu or the Twelfth Imam. We seem to require such myths to maintain our moral and metaphysical equilibrium–a sense of justice and, in Frank Kermode’s phrase, the sense of an ending. But terrors of a modern apocalypse are not therefore to be dismissed, for they differ from the traditional kind in one crucial respect. It used to be that God would end the world, because only God could. Technology has made us capable of exterminating ourselves.
H.G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds (1898) when the specter of industrialized conflict, soon realized, was beginning to haunt the human imagination. Nevil Shute wrote On the Beach (1957) during the worst days of the cold war, right after the American and Soviet H-bomb tests. It should come as no surprise that two of our leading novelists have, in recent years, created works that refract the dread of global warming. Cormac McCarthy published The Road in 2006. Margaret Atwood published Oryx and Crake in 2003, the first part of a projected trilogy of which the second, The Year of the Flood, has now appeared.
Apocalyptic fiction is not the same as the dystopian variety, which remains a common mode of social criticism. (Atwood herself produced an instance, The Handmaid’s Tale, more than two decades ago.) It is not, or not only, an extrapolation of current trends but something necessarily more radical: an investigation into what it means to be human. In the wake of universal disaster, amid extremes of scarcity and threat, the essential drives and qualities are laid bare. McCarthy’s figures are simply “the man” and “the boy,” allegorically general, stripped of social identities that no longer exist. Their actions, as they plod through a charred and wintering landscape under a continuous rain of ash, address the basic biological needs: finding food, keeping warm, staying in motion. The necessities that even dystopian fiction can take for granted–potable water, cooking fuel, shoes–become the focus of complex exertion and elaborate narrative attention. The moral situation is equally reduced: