The end of the world has always been nigh. The ancient Assyrians, nearly five thousand years ago, expected it to arrive any minute. Tenth-century Christians thought it would come in 1000, 17th-century Christians in 1666, Cotton Mather in 1736, Charles Wesley in 1794, Mother Shipton in 1881, Pierre Lachèze in 1900 and Jim Jones in 1967. The end of the great plague of 2020 may be in sight, but doomsday predictions come thick and fast these days. The ‘sixth mass extinction event’, the election of Donald Trump, the Mayan calendar cataclysm of 2012, the ‘clash of civilisations’, the millennium bug, all looked – or look, to some of us – like our last bow. According to an article quoted in Adam Roberts’s book It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of? (Elliott & Thompson, £14.99), 41 per cent of Americans and 58 per cent of white evangelical Christians believe Jesus will return before 2050, while 83 per cent of Muslims in Afghanistan, 72 per cent in Iraq and 68 per cent in Turkey anticipate the arrival of the Mahdi (the end-times messiah) in their lifetime. Roberts’s title assumes we are afraid of the end of the world, but we seem unable to live without it.
In the Book of Revelation, a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes summons the Four Horsemen, the sun turns black, the moon turns red, stars fall out of the sky, and an angel sets free a legion of horse-sized locusts with men’s faces, women’s hair and lion’s teeth, who torture the unsaved for five months. Then 200,000 horsemen appear wearing armour made of fire, jacinth and brimstone, sitting on fire-breathing horses with lion’s heads, along with an angel with a rainbow on his head, a sun instead of a face, and feet made of pillars of fire. There are pages and pages of monsters, angels, armies and extreme weather in Revelation. Even if only a fraction of it is actually going to happen, then like the evangelicals, I hope it happens in my lifetime. Who wouldn’t happily submit to five months of locust torture for an IRL rainbow-headed angel?
Revelation is the most rococo of the classic apocalypses, but its competitors keep the special effects department almost as busy. At Ragnarok, the Old Norse blockbuster, the gods battle a giant serpent, a giant wolf – escaped, like the man-faced locusts, from a giant cavity inside the Earth – and countless giants, including a fire giant with a giant flaming sword. As in John of Patmos’s vision, the sun blackens and the stars fall out of the sky. In the Islamic version, the vicious cannibals of Yajuj and Majuj (Gog and Magog in the Old Testament) go on a killing spree, the Beast of the Earth appears – a monster with feet like a camel, the head of an ox, the wings of a bird, the ears of an elephant and the tail of a ram – and a battle takes place between the Dajjal (Antichrist) and Isa (Jesus), whose gaze melts the Dajjal ‘like salt in water’. This is before the dead are brought back to life in advance of the final judgment. Apocalypses have their unpleasantnesses, but you wouldn’t want to sleep through any of them.
The Ancient Greek word apokalypsis means ‘revelation’. It’s the first word in the original Koine Greek version of the Book of Revelation and provides its English title. It’s also a distinct category among the stories we’ve told ourselves about the end of the world. God, or gods, step out from behind the curtain; there’s a showdown between good and evil, an Armageddon – in Greek Harmagedōn, transliterating the Hebrew Har Məgīddō, the place where the armies would gather, according to Revelation – and we are judged. One reason these stories are oddly comforting, for all their horror, is that they clear up the issue of what we’re doing here and who’s responsible. You may be doomed to burn in hell for all eternity, but at least you know why.
In the classic apocalypse, the devastation precedes a moment of rebirth. According to Hindu mythology the world is recycled every 4,320,000 years, after passing through a series of four ages – yugas – in which humanity’s moral and physical condition progressively deteriorates (Zoroastrianism works to a similar timetable). We are generally thought to be in the last of the four, the kali yuga, which is presided over by the demon Kali, a foul-smelling monster with a huge tongue (not to be confused with the goddess Kali). Humanity in the kali yuga is characterised in the Mahabharata as dishonest, greedy, irreligious, intolerant, physically weak, obsessed with sex, and addicted to drink and drugs: as we are, basically. We are finally put out of our misery when Kalki, an avatar of Vishnu, appears on his white horse, sword in hand, to defeat the forces of evil and restart the cycle of time. The pattern recurs, post-Armageddon, in Revelation (‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth’), in Islam after the defeat of the Dajjal, which ushers in an era of peace and justice, and in Norse myth with the reappearance of the gods post-Ragnarok and the healing of the natural world. Mankind gets a second chance and the blasphemers, debt-collectors, deplorables and Satan-worshipping reptilian paedos are all thrown in a pit and set on fire. This style of apocalypse is something we crave far more than we fear.
Unfortunately, the cathartic purge and rebirth may never happen (though be careful who you mention that to), and the apocalypses in which it doesn’t (apocalypses in the loose sense) are scarier. Most of the literary and cinematic examples that Roberts uses to illustrate more modern notions of the end of the world – climate catastrophe, AI takeover, zombie outbreak – adhere to the classic apocalypse paradigm by finishing with a reset. At the close of Max Brooks’s zombie novel World War Z (2006), for example, the zombies are on the back foot, China, Cuba and Tibet (finally free, both of zombies and Chinese rule) have become democracies, and the entire population of North Korea has been wiped out. But these stories fail to provide an answer to Roberts’s question, ‘What are we really afraid of?’ A chilling passage from H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, which Roberts quotes in his chapter on the heat-death of the universe, embodies our worst fears more effectively. The time-traveller finds himself billions of years in the future confronting a universe devoid of animal life: ‘The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow … From the edge of the sea came a ripple and a whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent … In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.’
Wells captures what the philosopher Eugene Thacker refers to in his book on the apocalypse, In the Dust of This Planet (2011), as the ‘world-without-us’ – which can only be partially and indirectly evoked, since to describe it we would have to perceive it, which we can’t do if we’re not there. Thacker believes the ‘world-without-us’ is what we’re really afraid of, and he makes a convincing case. Shades of it have crept into works of demonology and occultism, as well as the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft and his ‘black seas of infinity’, but Thacker finds it expressed most fully in an anonymous poem called ‘The Subharmonic Murmur of Black Tentacular Voids’, to which he devotes his final chapter. In a flat, objective tone, the poem delineates a dead world:
Temperature constrains all life
In the permafrost,
Hibernating for millions of years or
Decomposing for millions of years
No well-established growth temperatures
In thermotolerant caves
For living optimally
For any of the Bacteria, Archaea or Fungi.
But between the world-without-us and the world-without-our-enemies there’s the possibility of a world perhaps more horrifying still, in which we continue to exist but are no longer human. In zombie stories the zombies never win, but if they did, this is the world they’d inherit. Zombies have been used many times as a metaphor for the ‘mindless consumerism’ of humans under late capitalism, most famously in the mall scene from George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), which resembles the news footage they used to show, pre-Covid, of the Black Friday sales (it’s cool how one kind of apocalypse prevented us from acting out another). In Capitalist Realism Mark Fisher used them as a metaphor for our mindless nine-to-five-ing: capitalism is a ‘zombie-maker’ and ‘the living flesh it converts into dead labour is ours, and the zombies it makes are us.’ It’s no stretch to imagine either mode of zombification – Fisher’s dead labour or Romero’s dead recreation – being intensified to a point where it’s no longer a metaphor and we really are bereft of sentience. One highly plausible vision of the future, as in E.M. Forster’s short story ‘The Machine Stops’, or Wall-E, combines the zombie apocalypse with the AI apocalypse to describe a world in which we’ve become so zombified by our technology that we are no longer capable of looking after ourselves, let alone effecting systemic change. This end of the world – pod-life, the morphine drip, the gruel straw – has come to feel scarily imminent as we’ve got used to the pandemic lifestyle, shuffling around at home in our trackies, staring at our laptops, waiting for the Amazon drop. If we’re not really afraid of it, maybe it’s because it’s already started.