Why do I have such a visceral aversion for dystopian fantasy and apocalyptic fiction? After a friend convinced me to read Ling Ma’s Severance (2018), a debut novel that has lately garnered a lot of renewed attention, the reasons for my resistance become clearer.
As an announced work of apocalyptic fiction, it can be no spoiler to write that Severance ends with the pregnant Candace marching off through a deserted Chicago to a bleak future. I hear a mournful movement from a Mahler symphony as she walks through once vibrant, now deserted streets. After readers have shared her journey thus far, the scene has some power. But it is power undercut by futility. What’s the point?
Three apocalyptic scenarios come to mind, all grim.
Over the millennia, cult leaders have used the Bible’s notion of “apocalypse” in the Book of Revelation as the reason, or pretext, to persuade their followers that mass suicide is a path to heaven. So far, all forecasts of Armageddon have been wrong. It would seem that whatever the message of the Book of Revelation may be, it’s too inscrutable for human comprehension. Yet we can be confident that in the future, more charlatans will walk their flocks figuratively or literally over the cliff.
The prospect of nuclear weapons destroying the world is far more plausible. Current leaders of several countries talk as if they are willing to bring on nuclear winter, and none of their subjects appears to have either the capacity or courage to stop them. Analysis of how such a scenario might play out would be worth reading, even in a fictionalized form, because it ought to hold open the possibility of stopping the attack at the outset or, though terrible to contemplate, after it has begun. But a novel that assumes nuclear war has already ravaged the entire globe but for a few survivors has no value other than to depress.
Ling Ma’s novel is predicated on a similar disaster scenario, in her case a pandemic, which is why, due to its 2018 publication, it has been received as a precursor of the COVID era. Some suggest that artificial intelligence is an equally grave threat.
True, climate catastrophe alarmists also predict a destroyed earth, but these prophets of doom don’t revel in despair. Their repeated warnings about the dangers are meant to provoke action. Apocalyptic authors who premise their fiction on a world already destroyed induce apathy.
The third form of apocalypse is less about the world than individual groups. A segment of America’s population evidently feels beleaguered by immigrants, African-Americans, Asians, women and no doubt others. They may not see the world destroying itself, but as groups within their own society destroying the country as they know it. Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 assault on an Oklahoma City federal building and the January 6, 2021 insurrection explode out of this quasi-religious resentment. The object of these movements seems to be to destroy the forces that supposedly oppress them or to die resisting them. They are Leonidas’s three hundred Spartans fighting to the last man at Thermopylae in 480 BCE. They are the Sicarii committing mass suicide in 73 or 74 CE rather than submit to Roman rule. At any rate, it appears that’s how they see themselves.
That a false heaven, despair and violence are the only endings seen through an apocalyptic lens explains why I wholeheartedly reject apocalyptic fiction.
Why, then, do so many literate people advocate for apocalyptic fiction? I suppose an analogy could be made to crime fiction, where readers generally expect a murder for maximum effect. A mere robbery won’t do. Yet what could be more depressing than murder? The difference is that the best mysteries delve into the psyches of various characters to explore motives and vulnerabilities, thus giving us insights into ourselves and our fellow human beings. By contrast, apocalyptic fiction takes us only to emptiness.
But perhaps, exactly because apocalyptic thinking leads to a void, it fills a void. If you feel life has nothing to give you, or if you’re feeling that you and the group with which you identify are threatened, then the idea of the apocalypse might have an appeal.
Or maybe the explanation is as simple as that almost all of us get pleasure from activities that have little or no value, whether it’s watching others play sports or going on shopping binges.
But unlike such mostly innocent activities, apocalyptic thinking does, or could cause, harm. Following a charismatic leader on a fraudulent trip to heaven saves you from having to deal with the sorrows of your life and world. Contemplating a wretched, lonely existence after nuclear holocaust distracts you from the day’s intractable problems. Building a militia around the illusion that other groups are out to get you spares you from the annoyance of life’s compromises and accommodations. If your attitude is “We all die anyway,” reinforced by visions of a post-apocalyptic world, why bother trying to address financial inequality, racism or immigration, never mind how to work things out with a noisy neighbor, a harsh supervisor, a teacher who singles out your child for ridicule?
Fascination with the apocalyptic says that there’s an urge inside us to contemplate obliteration. Yes, existence comes to an end, our own and one day even the earth’s. But that apocalyptic fiction has become so popular that it is now a genre is deeply disturbing.