Saturday 1 March 2014

It's the end of the world...just not quite as we imagined

One night in the winter of 1999/2000, I was walking down Gorgie Road in Edinburgh and began to conceive of a short story. Over the next three months I wrote and edited it and finally submitted it for the Macallan Scotland on Sunday short story competition. It didn’t win, which is fine, as it was – well, not awful, as such – just not a short story. In spite of two years’ close reading of many, many science fiction short stories in the late 1980s, I didn’t know then and don’t know now, what makes a good or even effective short story. Still haven’t read William Trevor, or Maupassant,  Poe, V.S. Pritchett. Or Chekhov. I have read an awful lot of Kipling, hugely enjoyed what I’ve read of Saki, and have been left largely cold by Raymond Carver’s first collection. This probably goes to explain much, and lends weight to the suspicion that the touchstone for my literary judgement is the first ten Three Investigators novels, written by Robert Arthur, Jr.

The short story had an end-of-world-theme and was called ‘Payday’. Subtle, non? It cut back and forth between an unnamed narrator and his family life in the present day, and the same characters after an unspecified apocalypse known only as The Fall. The notion was that there was an inescapable causal connection between the two, that we were living on credit and there would be a reckoning even though we weren’t aware of it. You can’t be brought up in the shadow of Calvinism, as we are in Scotland, and avoid predestination.

So far, so ho-hum. But there was another idea in back, never expressed through the story, which was a little more interesting: the angst, the dread, of the Cold War would find some payoff, some expression down the line. Put simply, you couldn’t spend 40 years worrying about the prospect of the world ending in nuclear holocaust and then simply put that worry away. In my imagination those decades had built up a psychic charge, a potential energy which would find some way to be released in the real world. Very William S. Burroughs.

Of course, many cultures – possibly every culture – has wondered and told stories about the end of the world, asked the question, ‘how long can this go on for?’ They seem to be going through something of a vogue again, with various zombie-apocalypse games and movies, and the likes of The Road, The Book of Eli, Children of Men. (Much as I admired Children of Men for its technical brio, the story and setting seemed to me to have been dredged out of 1982, or thereabouts. I see the novel – which I haven’t read – is from 1992, leading to the uncharitable thought that here we have yet another example of those outside the field playing catch-up.) As Will Self says in his introduction to Riddley Walker: ‘Every generation gets the end-of-the-world anxiety it deserves; it used to be transcendental, then it became elemental, and now it’s environmental.’

Immediately preceding this are the lines: ‘More serious objections [about Riddley Walker] will focus on the nuclear holocaust angle. Surely that was a post-World War Two thing, and all gone now with the end of the Cold War?’ I did not think so.

My wee ham-fisted short-story had this idea at its core, arising from an inchoate gut dread on a wet winter’s night: we are waiting for the other shoe to drop, even if we don’t know it. In 2000, I couldn’t have told you what was coming; even what I suspected might be coming. Compared to where we are now, things were pretty good in many ways. Clinton was still President, the Tories were still nowhere, Blair hadn’t revealed himself to be a religious nutter, and the Scottish Parliament had just been elected. In 2007, with the fourth IPCC report, the shoe dangled, and two years later at Copenhagen, it dropped. I think I first read about global warming in 1984, when I was young enough to think that the consequences were a long way in the future, and that there was no way we would allow things to get that bad. Governments, authorities, institutions, were flawed but essentially benign, and would take steps. Sue me, I was 12. I also thought we’d have a moon base by now.

If there’s a post-apocalyptic novel which has relevance for where we are today, one might think it is On the Beach, in which the characters continue with their everyday lives despite knowing that the results of a nuclear conflict are shortly to engulf them.  As a country – as a species –  we are in effect pretending that nothing has happened, that nothing is happening, that nothing will happen.

In fact the SF novel which is most apt is The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Clearly Mr Adams had it right: we are not the descendants of a small group of hominids with hard-won expertise in survival, but of Golgafrinchan telephone sanitisation engineers.


According to a popular online encyclopedia (others are available), the title of On the Beach is in part taken from this:

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.

-          The Hollow Men, T. S. Eliot

The third line of this little excerpt is key. And avoid speech. Hence the long silence.