One Must Live Through It

To know what the end of the world is like one must live through it. – The Atomic Age Opens

Like the man who wears Gucci loafers every day for three decades until they finally come back into style, I’ve been beating the apocalypse drum my entire life. I held it as a certainty, at some point, the Doomsday Clock would again inch closer to midnight and civilization’s imminent demise would reclaim its place at the front of the cultural consciousness. And lo, it has come to pass.

From movies to books to games, stories based on the end of the world have once again, following a brief drought during the 1990s, resurfaced as a major American pastime. What is it, exactly, that prompts our fascination with the end of everything? What makes us fantasize about that which we most fear? Why not watch movies with happy endings, or paint butterflies on the wall, hold our hands over our ears and shout “na-na-na?” The world is a beautiful place. Why destroy it over and over in our imaginations when its destruction is what we most fear?

It’s a Small World (Not)
From a storyteller’s perspective, the wish to see our celestial vessel obliterated might be based on its size. That annoying Disney song to the contrary, the world is a pretty big place; bigger than we often realize. From billionaire adventurers to World War II airmen to Amazonian wildmen, people get lost in it all the time, in spite of satellite navigation and Google Maps.

In an age when you can plan a route anywhere just by clicking a mouse, when your car can guide you to the nearest Taco Bell and you can’t even hide from the law in Mexico, the idea of ever being lost seems almost ridiculous. Yet it happens. Every day, seems like. The world really is that big.

It’s also full of stuff. Every single inch has something in it, whether it’s a rock, a lizard or a pile of trash left by some idiot slob who can’t be bothered to drive all the way to the dump. I was wandering around in the Texas wilderness many years ago, in one of the largest, emptiest states in one of the largest, emptiest nations on the large, empty planet, and as I turned a corner looking for a good-sized bush behind which to pee, I found a diaper. A disposable diaper sitting on the ground, left by some wandering traveler, waiting there for me to discover.

There are a million empty crevices into which a person can fall, and each one contains a bit of trash, or an aviator lost for decades, or an entire civilization lost for generations; a diaper or a diamond waiting to be discovered. It’s enough to blow your mind. If you’ve been tasked with recreating our world in miniature, or creating a simulacrum in the form a videogame, this preponderance of things in a seemingly endless sea of vast, empty spaces is something you might consider the bane of your very existence.

As Warren Spector discussed at GDC 2007, the increase in computing power that game developers have been able to leverage against telling their stories has directly increased the detail they’re required to employ when telling them. To create a realistic fight scene in a bar, it’s no longer good enough to simply paint a bar background and allow two characters to fight. In today’s 3-D, interactive game environments, developers are encouraged to go so far as to individually render each bottle and glass the two characters might stumble into or break during the course of their battle, as well as any characters who might be in the way of falling glass or spilled beer, and then code their reactions as well.

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This can be a daunting undertaking, and it’s not a new one. Designers have, for years, shied away from telling complex stories requiring more graphical or technical detail than they could manage, and videogame makers aren’t alone in this. Playwrights suffer from this malady the most, forced to restrict their storytelling to venues they’re able to recreate onstage. Heaven forfend Scene Three take place on a cruise ship, and Scene Four in the Arctic tundra. Not to mention the most complicated part of telling any story is creating a believable world in which your characters fit. How better to avoid the perils of anachronism, of complicated scenery, than to do away with the world entirely? Enter: the Apocalypse.

The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek language, from the word meaning “to uncover what’s been concealed.” The apocalypse, then, is a revelation, both in the biblical and personal sense. At the end of days all will be revealed, is the thinking. Good will face Evil, the gloves will come off and the Final Battle will occur. Also, a lot of people will die, taking a lot of their crap with them, either blown to dust or buried by the sands of time. What’s left will be not only a perfect canvas for writing a story free of extraneous detail, but also for starting over from scratch, building a better society from the ashes of the old. Considering how frequently people complain about the world in which we live, it’s a small wonder there aren’t more of them actively seeking the apocalypse.

Pretty much anyone who’s ever considered how to make the world a better place has spent a little time seriously entertaining the idea of total annihilation. Even God, if the Old Testament is to be believed. After all, if the state of the world – and the people in it – is the problem, then why not wipe the slate clean? Noah, grab your ark. The thought passes once you realize it’s completely insane – or you’re not omnipotent – but if you’re blessed with the gene of sociopathy and you’re unable to cope with the world’s ills, then sitting around waiting for a catastrophe is probably in your future. If things are truly bleak, apocalypse may be merely another way of making an exit; more dramatic than putting your head in an oven and with less paperwork than buying a gun.

Even if you’re not seriously deranged, the thought of dying at the end of the world may be preferable to the thought of surviving it. It’s been posited that, in the event of apocalypse, survivors will be subjected to such brutal torments that the living will envy the dead. Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning novel, The Road, tells the story of an unnamed man’s journey to an unnamed place in the days following an unnamed apocalyptic event. It’s a setting so brutally savaged by torments both natural and man-made that fighting to keep setting one foot in front of the other in spite of the horrors encountered along each new stretch of the road becomes the story’s main conflict.

Yet, according to David Zuckerman, author of the terrifying book, The Day After World War III, apocalypse may not be the final exit many fear (or hope) it will be. “The people may believe that nuclear war will be the end of the world,” he says, “but the government seems not to.” Zuckerman’s book presents a detailed accounting of the U.S. government’s plans for not only surviving a nuclear Armageddon, but also rebuilding the nation afterward.

Since 1979, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been soaking up your tax dollars to fantasize about the apocalypse – and to prepare for it. More specifically, it’s been preparing for “after” the event, amassing everything from legal documents, legislative bills and executive orders to blankets, bottled water and opium just in case something goes wrong. Executive Order 12127, signed by President Carter, created FEMA from the ashes of several separate government agencies to hope for the best, plan for the worst and be ready to completely take over all government functions in the event of the unthinkable.

The conviction that the post-nuclear-war world will contain recognizable people capable of engaging in complicated, coordinated activities is the basis upon which the American armed forces make plans for a drawn-out nuclear war that could last for weeks or months in round after round of strike and counterstrike. It is the basis of planning not only of the Federal Emergency Management Agency but also the Treasury, with its position papers on the post-nuclear-war tax system, and the Postal Service, with its plans to distribute emergency change of address cards and forward the mail after a nuclear war.

Billions of dollars worth of industrial metals and other raw materials (including opium) were stored in at least 122 sites around the country by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of the National Defense Stockpile. FEMA also encouraged major corporations to build alternate facilities, out of the way of major cities or other target areas, so they might carry on operations in the event of a nuclear attack. Such facilities, like AT&Ts bunker in Netcong, New Jersey, were generally underground and more closely resembled fallout shelters than corporate offices.

Unbearable and Unproductive Contemplation
Fictions of nuclear disaster … call on the power of the word to de-fuse the power of the fused atom. – Fictions of Nuclear Disaster

Where does that leave us? Storytellers, psychopaths and deranged government employees. Not exactly a party. Where do we fit in?

Harvard psychiatrist John Mack divides people into two camps; the “thinkables” and the “unthinkables.” Thinkables are those who believe surviving the apocalypse is not only possible but worthwhile, and thus plan for its aftereffects. He says “the thinkables appear unable to experience, or have found a way not to experience, the terror of the nuclear reality.” By contrast, the unthinkables, he says, believe the apocalypse will be so physically and emotionally devastating they see no need to plan for the event, preferring to perish or believing they will regardless.

Mack says unthinkables, unlike thinkables, have been able “to experience directly, or hold emotionally, the reality of the nuclear danger,” and as such see the end result of the apocalypse so clearly, or at least the horror of it, that they believe they’ll be unable to cope.

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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