If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last fifty years of scientific advancement and the expansion of our understanding of the known universe, it’s that life is rare and the universe is out to get us.
Asteroids are headed in our direction, the sun will balloon into a red giant and engulf us in five-ish billion years, and rogue planets and black holes are roaming the universe just looking for a nice blue-green planetary party to crash. Closer to home we’ve got global climate change fueling monster storms, water shortages, floods, and fires that threaten our property, while insect migrations spread deadly disease, overprescription of antibiotics breeds resistant superbugs, and scientific illiteracy foments fear, breaks herd immunities, and threatens our most vulnerable. At the same time, extreme political ideologies drive wedges into cracks in the foundations of our freedom, while personal cowardice, corporate greed, and wealth inequality strangle any real social or political progress.
Beset on all sides as we are, it’s a wonder we’re still here.
In the cold war 80s, we practiced ducking and covering from Russian nukes, the New Madrid fault, drugs, and HIV. Now, on the doorstep of the 2020’s we wonder who doesn’t have nukes, when’s Yellowstone going to blow, and how did we let Big Pharma get so many of us addicted to opioids?
As fragile and vulnerable as we are, we’re super good at imagining the worst. So, at times like these, it’s almost inevitable that fictional apocalypses fall from the skies like acid rain after a volcano.
One of my first tastes of apocalyptic fiction came in the form of Thundarr the Barbarian, the Saturday morning cartoon set in a fictional far-future world that was rising from the ashes of our fallen one. About a decade later, a TV mini-series of Steven King’s The Stand kind of blew my mind. Another decade (or two) further on, and TV and the internet are full of examples of our obsession with the end of the world.
When I started writing apocalyptic fiction, books like Phil Plait’s Death from the Skies!, and TV shows like Life After People provided ideas and added visual and conceptual depth to my understanding of literal life-altering events and the environmental ramifications of the absence of humans.
Even now, the poppest pop-culture—like Avengers: Endgame—often features apocalyptic scenarios, and help to show us just how good we’ve got it. So until we’re living in a stable utopia or half our planet has been incinerated by a gamma-ray burst from a nearby supernova, we’ll keep working through our existential angst by telling each other stories about the end of the world.