the end


The post-catastrophic novel began with Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), in which a plague kills most of humanity and provokes incessant warfare. Plague remains the triggering calamity in much post-catastrophe fiction up through the Manhattan Project; even as late as George Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949), plague rather than nuclear war is the problem. But between the invention of James Watt’s coal-fired steam engine in 1784 and the start of the Cold War, the most haunting sci-fi visions were not visions of the end of the world. They were visions—in dystopian novels like We, Brave New World, and 1984—of the consolidation of technological civilization into a system of total social control. Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell did not imagine a time when the boots stamping on human faces could no longer be industrially manufactured, so that people would return to smashing one another’s faces the old-fashioned way, with stones. The bombing of Hiroshima revived this notion of a reduced, brutally simplified future; and from Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) to Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro (1985), through many novels in between, the idea of a future more primitive than the past ran alongside the idea of a future ever more technologically advanced.

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