Apocalyptic Books & the Meaning of Life

Lisa Vox on end-of-the-world reading. From the Bookscombined archive, originally posted in November 2017

The research for my recent book on apocalyptic beliefs spanned 15 years, and most of the fiction I read during that time period had something to do with the end of the world. I was in my early 20s when I started reading apocalyptic fiction, and doomsday books were on my nightstand throughout many of life’s happenings when I was a young adult.

I struggled with depression throughout my 20s, and sometimes I felt like the characters in On the Beach (1957), trying to go through the motions of life despite a pall hanging over me. On the Beach showed the different ways people dealt with their impending deaths and the realization that they were witnessing the extinction of humanity in the wake of a nuclear war. Total nuclear war is evil not just because of the billions killed but because it wipes out the memory and collective achievements of all who came before. Their experience of meaninglessness resonated so powerfully with me that I came to realize that the worst thing to fear wasn’t death, but the idea of my life having meant nothing at all.

In my 30s, I needed a sense of humor to deal with the aftermath of the Great Recession in 2007 that tanked the value of my first house. Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963) featured an absurdist religion led by Bokonon, a prophet from a fictional Caribbean island. As the world is slowly ending due to a scientist’s invention of a substance that turns everything to ice, Bokonon tells the narrator that his planned book about Hiroshima should be titled a “history of human stupidity.” When I read news reports about the Wall Street sociopaths who brought the world’s economy to a halt, I remind myself of one of Cat’s Cradle themes: don’t make a religion out of faulty human creations. The hagiographic treatment of the wealthy in the United States surely contributed to that mess.

As an American, I cried in despair the night a member of that wealthy class, Donald Trump, won the 2016 presidential election. Shortly after, I read the last installment in a science fiction trilogy from a Chinese author, Cixin Liu. Deaths End (2016) brought to a conclusion a story about a Chinese scientist who purposely invited aliens to come conquer Earth. Her action was born of a misanthropy developed during her experience of China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. The trilogy suggests that the universe is a “dark forest” populated by competitive intelligences who destroy other intelligent species who make the mistake of exposing their existence to others. The three books are full of epic ideas about the nature of the universe with a timeline that spans millennia. They’re a heady read, at times grim, but the imagination of Cixin evokes the vast mysterious cosmos that extends beyond this planet and dwarfs the existence of any one of us, including a narcissistic reality show US president.
As I write this post, American news is showing scenes from a march held by white supremacists August 12, 2017, in the state of Virginia. One drove his car into a crowd of progressive protesters, there to peacefully oppose the white nationalists. The book that I keep thinking today about is J:A Novel by Howard Jacobsen about the “end of the world as we know it,” after a second Holocaust has occurred. Society is in tatters with guilt and shame degrading the perpetrators’ descendants, making them violent and mean. They refuse to remember the event—which is never named—or its victims. It’s a grim portrait, but there is a glimmer of hope in the idea that some memories can’t be purely suppressed. I sometimes worry that the American refusal to honestly confront its past will tear us apart. And we won’t be able to help mend the problems we have helped create, like climate change.

Reading repeatedly about the end of the world was itself a gloomy experience. Though I haven’t become a survivalist, I sometimes wonder why we aren’t all losing sleep every night due to the number of risks to our ourselves and our world. So, I appreciated Ben H. Winters’s recent The Last Policeman trilogy (2012-2014) about a detective who keeps working cases even during the final days of Earth’s existence, as a collision with an asteroid is imminent. There’s something admirable about the titular character’s determination to keep doing his duty until the end. Sometimes when events threaten to overwhelm me I have to remind myself that all I can do is my best at the things I think are important—spreading empathy and understanding for others by teaching and writing history.

Lisa Vox teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Her new book, Existential Threats: American Apocalyptic Beliefs in the Technological Era is published by the University of Pennsylvania Press (2017)