Apocalypse Before Long

There may always be hope for the future, no matter what happens. This edition published by Pan Books 1980. Cover illustration by Geoff Taylor.

Visions of Britain after some apocalyptic disaster frequently appear in science fiction.  They can suggest evocative scenarios in which we could imagine ourselves in the near future, usually exerting some of the “Dunkirk spirit” with which our country is still widely associated.  And, unlike equivalent stories in some other locations, there doesn’t always need to be a happy ending – perhaps, after a thousand years of experience, we in this country know that things don’t always turn out as you wish.

In films such as 28 Days Later from 2002, the cause of the catastrophe is clearly man-made; in that case, society collapses after the accidental release of an extremely nasty virus and the plight of a handful of survivors becomes increasingly desperate.  It brings to mind the television series Survivors from the 1970s, where most of the world’s population is wiped out by a plague which spreads rapidly across the planet; life for the few people who are left is fraught with danger.

There is a sense in such stories that the human race brought the disaster on itself, much the same as it did in the many tales of a struggle for survival after a nuclear war.  In a cruel way, humanity is getting its just deserts.  But the same cannot be said where some threat from outer space lies at the root of the problem, and mankind is an innocent victim coping as best it can under grave difficulties.

We see this in the 1999 ITV television series The Last Train, where a group of people is cryogenically frozen when gas is released on board a train, awaking decades later to find Britain in ruins after an asteroid strike has devastated the Earth.  As it turns out, the authorities knew it was going to happen and made appropriate arrangements – at least, for themselves.  Probably the definitive classic in the genre is John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids – the famous aggressive plants are only able to thrive after a dramatic meteor shower causes blindness in most of the world’s population, though even then there is speculation that it was caused by a malfunction of orbiting weapons.

Richard Cowper’s 1974 novel The Twilight of Briareus is very much in this tradition.  The star Briareus Delta, only 132 light years away, goes supernova, and observers are fascinated by this amazing sight in the sky while communications satellites are knocked out and the Earth is irradiated at previously unknown levels.  Heating of the upper atmosphere changes the climate drastically, but certain people develop abnormal brain rhythms which give them occasional views of the future, and a very grim future it is, too.  Most significantly, every person on Earth becomes infertile, and governments are driven to ever more extreme measures to try to ensure that humanity has a future of some sort.

Social breakdown in the face of a future with no children, and the state’s attempts to counteract it, have featured in stories such as Robert Ray’s 1969 novel The Seedy.  Similarly, society stands on the brink of collapse after years of global infertility in the 2006 film Children of Men, where Theo Faron and a handful of others fight for the survival of one woman who is miraculously pregnant.  We get a sense of the desperation felt by everyone when life still goes on despite a very limited future.

But if a neighbouring star should go supernova, we could be pretty helpless, as the Eighteenth (and Last) Men find in Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men when, despite their civilization being the most advanced in humanity’s history, the event brings about the end of life in our Solar System.

If we ever face any such potential threats, there is probably very little we could do about them.  The only answer might be that of Nigel, Theo’s cousin who runs the government’s repository of artworks in Children of Men, when asked how he keeps going when there will be no-one around a hundred years from now to look at any of it: “You know what it is, Theo?  I just don’t think about it.”

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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