The Return of the Genre

The Return of the Genre
One Must Live Through It

Russ Pitts | 3 Jun 2008 08:46
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What would it be like to be the last person on the planet, to be lonelier than you've ever been, and, perhaps, to face horrors heretofore unimaginable in the bargain? We've all been alone. We've suffered loss. We've said goodbye to things we've held dear. We've felt that cold, empty feeling inside when we've wondered, if only briefly, if we'd ever be loved again. What does that feel like magnified by a factor of everything?

What kind of steely resolve does it take to stare in the face of the End? What does it take to set one foot in front of the other, day after day after day, slouching toward some Bethlehem that may not even exist? If it's the same resolve it takes to sleep single in that double bed, or celebrate the birthday of someone who's passed, then we'll need a lot more of it. No matter how much personal loss we may have suffered individually, the loss of everything, the revelation of the emptiness of the world, is sure to be a crushing blow to the psyche beyond imagining.

According to David Dowling, author of Fictions of Nuclear Disaster, stories about the apocalypse are "attempts to bridge the gap, to grasp imaginatively the most hideous assaults on sensibility. ... Like all fiction," Dowling states, "its purpose is to speak to us ... [and] help us to make sense of where we stand."


Where we stand is at the edge of an abyss, looking at the end of everything we know, looking at the prospect of a future so bleak, even if we survive, we'll wish we hadn't, and if we don't ... well, that's not nice to contemplate, either. We fantasize about the apocalypse in order to prepare ourselves for it. To live through it without actually living through it, so that, should we have to live through it, we'll know some part of what to expect. Apocalyptic fiction is the emergency preparedness card for the nuclear age. Each devastated wasteland is like a cartoon of airline passengers smiling as they don their oxygen masks. We take it in hoping we'll never have to test the theory against the fact.

As Dowling says:

Through [fiction] we can escape from the unbearable and unproductive contemplation of the one fact of the nuclear age which we know empirically, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ... To read these fictions is to place oneself imaginatively in a position of personal suffering and global despair.

Will we ever wake to a world destroyed and be forced to make do without grocery stores, refrigeration or the internet? Perhaps. And it's a good feeling knowing that, should the apocalypse ever come, some of us will be prepared to survive, ready to bring the world back from the brink. Or at least better able to cope. That's the theory anyway. We'll have to wait a while to find out for sure. Hopefully a good long while. Hopefully forever.

Russ Pitts has been contemplating the apocalypse for decades. He'd still much prefer never going to visit. His blog can be found at

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