Our imagined apocalypses (apocali?) are reflections of our fears, this much is clear. What is less apparent is what fear is being plumbed by each imagined apocalypse; they are typically stand-ins for various insecurities held by the culture and society in question. Zombies, for instance, often symbolize either the menace of foreign invaders or ideas (communism, desegregation, etc.) or some other loss of individuality in the face of overwhelming tides of “others”. Alien invasion is much the same thing (only clearer). Fear of world-ending pandemic is also a fear of foreign influence or, more simply, a fear of those considered to be dirty or inferior sullying your perfect, first-world existence. Then you’ve got the asteroids and giant monsters of the world, which are really just the manifestation of our insecurities as a culture (wait, what if we really don’t control the world? AHHHH!).
Most of our fears of apocalypse are exaggerated or simply baseless. Even our made-up ones don’t hold water under casual investigation even under their own rules. Nevertheless, in the spirit of the season, let’s just put together the craziest, meanest compilation of apocalyptic scenarios in one big lump and see what we get, huh?
Phase One: Aliens and Meteors, Oh My!
We start with Aliens. Aliens on meteors. The earth is pummeled by a non-stop barrage of asteroids, crushing cities and causing tidal waves. The world panics, global leaders marshal their armies to fight the alien threat, but while the fight eventually turns in favor of the plucky US Marines holed up in a school in LA, the war is far from over.
Phase Two: Zombies with the Flu
The aliens, you see, tested a new bio-weapon – a weapon designed to rid themselves of these pesky humans. It turned all the infected into mindless, human-brain-eating machines. Soon, hordes of zombies were seen marching across the land. Of course, the aliens are gone by that time, having all been killed by the flu. Since they were the commanders of the zombies, they gave the flu to the zombies. Now we have zombies with the flu.
Zombies with mutant alien flu.
Phase Three: The Robots Will Save Us…oh…
What kills zombies but can’t get the flu? Robots, of course! The remaining scientists of the Earth pool their remaining resources to create a super zombie-killing robot army run by a central artificial intelligence. All the conspiracy theorists, long since retreated to their underground bunkers, are not present to sound the alarm, and so it occurs to no one that once the zombies are all dead, who will the robots kill? Do we honestly think they’re going to happily hop into the slag pile when it’s all over?
Next thing you know, zombies and humans alike are rounded up by the Earth’s new metallic overlords and herded into death-camps. The funeral pyres burn all day and all night, leading to…
Phase Four: Carbon’s Revenge!
Ha, you silicate fools! Think you could incinerate the biological matter of the Earth without cost? The Death Camp Greenhouse effect takes hold. The ice caps evaporate. Cities flood. Drought is rampant. Hurricanes are devastating. The air has become a toxic fume. The robots, bereft of the existential joy they once derived from watching butterflies frolic in the meadow, decide they don’t want to live any more. Ctrl-Alt-Delete, my sweet adamantium princes.
Phase Five: But Wait, Who’s This?
As humanity slowly crawls its way out of the death camps and into the blighted landscape of their once fertile Earth, who do they find but Jesus, sternly waiting at the top of a hill with a desk, a pen, and a really big file cabinet. To his right, a pearly staircase ascending to heaven; to his left, a pack of mutated demonic flu-ridden zombie robots. At the front of the line, a starving young man approaches, hat in hand.
“Name?” quoth the Lamb of God.
Names are given; Jesus consults the file cabinet. “Sorry Mr. Johnson, you’re name isn’t on the list.”
And so it goes.
Centuries later, after the Earth is recovered and the apes rule the world in a benevolent utopia, Charlton Heston is cussing us all out on a beach somewhere. This is how it ends. This is always how it all ends.
(Assuming you don’t watch the sequels)
So, I just got a rejection letter for a story I submitted to Analog. This, in and of itself, is unexceptional (sadly) and part and parcel of this whole ‘trying to be a successful writer’ thing. What made it interesting to me, though, was the list of things they tag onto the bottom of their form letter. Ordinarily these lists are comprised of somewhat disingenuous reminders of what makes a bad story (i.e. a list of most common reasons why they reject things) and they are typically quite uninformative for someone who knows their way around plot, character, and the genre in general. This one, though, had a peculiar one that had me scratching my head. It went like this:
—Science fiction readers are problem solvers! Stories with downbeat endings, in which the characters have no hope of solving their problems, are strongly disliked by Analog readers. In a good SF story, the characters strive to solve their problems—and even if they fail in the end, they go down fighting, not whimpering.
This, to me, basically says ‘we prefer happy endings and victory to tragedy and defeat. If the guy loses, at least make it awesome.’ Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I don’t think so.
Now, I’ve noticed the trend for science fiction stories to end on an upnote before. The one most consistent thing I’ve gleaned from reading the Writers of the Future anthology is that the vast, vast majority of scifi stories end in victory of some kind – occasionally bittersweet, but consistently upbeat in some fashion. This note on my rejection letter left me wondering ‘is this a thing?’
Yes, it is a Thing
I’ve spent a bit too much time this morning trying to think of science fiction titles with downbeat endings – tragedies, in other words. I generally think of scifi as a genre that lends itself to the grim and dark but, the more I thought about it, the more I started to see my error. Think for a second: how many downbeat scifi titles that end ‘negatively’ can you name? Here’s my list:
- The Planet of the Apes
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers
- The Sparrow
- A Canticle For Lebowitz (sort of)
And…hmmmm…nothing much else. Even those are a stretch.
Granted, I’m definitely missing a few in that list, but if you go down the list of the darkest, most depressing scifi stories ever and you’ll still get the upbeat ending, nine times out of ten. Terminator? John Connor wins! Aliens? The Aliens are always defeated eventually. Zombie Apocapypses? 99% of the time the last band of survivors finds a cure, escapes from trouble, or what have you. Even Children of Men, one of the darkest, most dismal scifi universes ever, has the woman with the last child escape England and vanish into the mist – that, my friends, is hope.
What’s up with that?
What is Up With This
I suppose this trend isn’t unique to science fiction – most stories in any genre end happily somehow. They might be troubled victories, but the protagonist seldom loses, seldom sees his plans thwarted, seldom finds his efforts futile. I guess, on some level, we all like to think that the happy ending is out there for all of us, no matter how terrible things look. Alien brain slugs might be eating our neighbors, but we, dammit, are going to find a way to survive.
Part of this also might have something to do with science itself. Science is an inherently positive discipline in some ways, or at least it is perceived as such. We like to think of it as constantly striding forward, fixing problems, uncovering truths. Such a glorious and wonderous discipline cannot lead to tragedy! Why, that would mean we, humanity, were fundamentally wrong about something, and we can’t have that. Oh no no no! We dare not even think of such things!
Is this a Bad Thing?
I am a big believer in the power of tragedy, myself. My natural predilection is for my stories to have at least partially tragic endings. It has taken a surprising amount of effort on my part to pull myself away from that habit, and I am stuck asking myself sometimes why I’m trying so hard.
A good tragedy isn’t depressing, it’s somehow fulfilling. It’s like a meal – it sticks to your ribs, makes you think about it for months afterwards. They can hurt your heart, but it’s a good kind of hurt; it’s the kind that makes you realize you’ve grown somehow. You’ve understood something that a victorious ending might not have illuminated. You’ve grown.
Now, I’m not saying every single thing I read or write should end sadly – far from it – but I am suggesting that, if this is a stipulation of the genre, we ought to bend it a bit, if not break it outright. Not every tale of our future selves ends well; we should be courageous and willing enough to explore that.