Be forewarned: this is long and self-indulgent. Kinda threw everything and the kitchen sink at it.

In the August 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Walter Kirn’s “Easy Chair” column called “Apocalypse Always” revealed his brief, boyhood fascination with dystopian fiction. This genre has been around for a very long time, to which the Cassandra myth attests. Kirn’s column is more concerned with “high mid-twentieth-century dystopian fiction,” which in his view is now classic and canonical, an entire generation of Baby Boomers having been educated in such patterned thought. A new wave of dystopian fiction appeared in the 1990s and yet another more recently in the form of Young Adult novels (and films) that arguably serve better as triumphal coming-of-age stories albeit under dystopian circumstances. Kirn observes a perennial theme present in the genre: the twins disappearances of freedom and information:

In the classic dystopias, which concern themselves with the lack of freedom and not with surplus freedom run amok (the current and unforeseen predicament of many), society is superbly well organized, resembling a kind of hive or factory. People are sorted, classified, and ranked, their individuality suppressed through goon squads, potent narcotics, or breeding programs. Quite often, they wear uniforms, and express themselves, or fail to, in ritual utterance and gestures.

Whether Americans in 2018 resemble hollowed-out zombies suffering under either boot-heel or soft-serve oppression is a good question. Some would argue just that in homage to classic dystopias. Kirn suggests briefly that we might instead suffer from runaway anarchy, where too much freedom and licentiousness have led instead to a chaotic and disorganized society populated by citizens who can neither govern nor restrain themselves.

Disappearance of information might be understood in at least three familiar aspects of narrative framing: what happened to get us to this point (past as exposition, sometimes only hinted at), what the hell? is going on (present as conflict and action), and how is gets fixed (future as resolution and denouement). Strict control over information exercised by classic dystopian despots doesn’t track to conditions under which we now find ourselves, where more disorganized, fraudulent, and degraded information than ever is available alongside small caches of wisdom and understanding buried somewhere in the heap and discoverable only with the benefit of critical thinking flatly lost on at least a couple generations of miseducated graduates. However, a coherent narrative of who and what we are and what realistic prospects the future may hold has not emerged since the stifling version of the 1950s nuclear family and middle class consumer contentment. Kirn makes this comparison directly, where classic dystopian fiction

focus[es] on bureaucracy, coercion, propaganda, and depersonalization, overstates both the prowess of the hierarchs and the submissiveness of the masses, whom it still thinks of as the masses. It does not contemplate Trump-style charlatanism at the top, or a narcissistic populace that prizes attention over privacy. The threats to individualism are paramount; the scourge of surplus individualism, with everyone playing his own dunce king and slurping up resources until he bursts, goes unexplored.

Kirn’s further observations are worth a look. Go read for yourself.

I was never much drawn to genre fiction and frankly can’t remember reading Orwell’s 1984 in middle school. It wasn’t until much later that I read Huxley’s Brave New World (reviewed here) and reread 1984. The latest in the dystopian pantheon to darken my brow is Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. None of these are pleasure reading, exactly. However, being landmarks of the genre, I have at times felt compelled to acquaint myself with them. I never saw the 1959 movie On the Beach with Gregory Peck, but I did see the updated 2000 remake with Armande Assante. It rather destroyed me — forcing me for the first time to contemplate near-term human extinction — but was mostly forgotten. Going back recently to read the original 1957 novel, I had a broad recollection of the scenario but little of the detail.

The story is set in Melbourne, Australia, the southernmost major city of the Southern Hemisphere, a year or so after a full-scale nuclear exchange, mostly cobalt bombs (known as doomsday devices), has remade the entire Northern Hemisphere into a cemetery. Survivors in the distant south are given a roughly 6-month death sentence before atmospheric radioactivity diffuses southward to kill them off as well. Shute essentially explores what happens as the last remains of human society begin to relax, fray, unravel, and disintegrate before finally falling into extinction.

Critics and fans of fiction often labor over details of authorial imagination that lack scientific rigor or character consistency (e.g., the sound of spaceships flying through space when a vacuum should admit no sound). Of the dystopian novels I’ve read, Shute’s departs from reality the least because there are no futuristic sci-fi technologies or newly configured post-apocalyptic social orders (e.g., Mad Max, also set in Australia) to consider. Rather, he presents an entirely plausible post-apocalyptic scenario told almost exclusively through dialogue and character action. For instance, given Australia’s isolation and resource scarcity, automobiles have disappeared from the roadways when fuel supplies ran low, but electrical service (and electric trains) is maintained via coal burning. Food, water, and (notably) booze are still plentiful enough (no mention of drugs), and Shute cites but skips over a period just after the war when survivors indulged in wanton, self-destructive bacchanal before growing bored of it and returning (not uniformly) to principled behavior more consistent with military discipline and the forbearance of the renowned British (read: Australia — part of the British commonwealth) stiff upper lip.

Third-person perspective shifts between a handful of characters given different tasks to perform with the time remaining them. One of them, Capt. Dwight Towers, is a U.S. submariner who ventures north to reconnoiter an intermittent radio signal in the vicinity of Seattle in hopes of finding survivors and/or gathering information. The substantial lack of information as to what transpired in the month-long nuclear war that destroyed the earth and its inhabitants is consistent with classic dystopias. Shute includes a scene where several scientists and military officers offer conjecture based on what sketchy information is available, eventually deciding to etch a brief history sealed like a time capsule between panes of glass for anyone who might later (hundreds or thousands of years) seek to discover what may have happened. This is remarkably prescient on Shute’s part, considering that The Long Now Foundation’s Rosetta Project is doing something quite similar (first mentioned by me here). Scientists, military personnel, and the media also withhold information (wisely or unwisely?) from the public, even though it no longer serves a purpose because the endgame is well known to all.

Shute’s writing isn’t beautifully crafted in the romantic or pastoral style the way I prefer to enjoy fiction. He’s rather matter-of-fact, and characters are sometimes difficult to distinguish from each other, all possessing a polite, mannered acquiescence to their shared fate. Indeed, they all acknowledge obliquely that death stalks them (rather soon, and prematurely) but nonetheless defy and deny through euphemism and forthright carrying on in the face of inevitable defeat.

She [Moira Davidson] had known for some time that his [Capt. Towers’] wife and family were very real to him, more real by far than the half-life in a far corner of the world that had been forced upon him since the war. The devastation of the Northern Hemisphere was not real to him, as it was not real to her. He had seen nothing of the destruction of the war, as she had not; in thinking of his wife and of this home it was impossible for him to visualize them in any other circumstances than those in which he had left them. He had little imagination, and that formed a solid core for his contentment in Australia. [p. 81]

At one point, Shute has one character ask innocently who another character would most like to murder (not kill but murder!) but doesn’t tread far down that path. Indeed, most of the novel is about retreat, projection of power having become quite passé. As radiation sickness finally overcomes them, characterized by vomiting, diarrhea, and ultimately death, Shute’s characters employ a variety of polite language to soften their reality, once referring to the vomit-and-diarrhea phase humorously as “giving at both ends.” The final character death on the last page, like most of the others, is closer to a quiet, final sleep than succumbing to grave illness. The horror that literally no one is left is profound enough, I suppose, to allow individuals to pass on without undue melodrama.

One darkly funny episode describes a grand prix automobile race. As the conclusion draws near, hoarded fuel supplies reappear, and those with fast cars decide to hold a final race. Enough entrants seek positions that several shorter qualifying heats are run a couple weeks in advance of the race itself. Both the heats and the race find drivers, many woefully underskilled, taking mad risks and crashing, accompanied by significant injury or death. Given their choices, going out in a blaze of pseudo-glory is to some preferable to getting sick and taking the exit pill (my euphemism, not Shute’s) provided to those persisting until the bitter end.

Having seen the 2000 movie and studied for a decade now the doom awaiting us in some as yet undetermined timeframe, reading the novel didn’t have the soul-destroying effect I expect others might experience. I’d already processed both hypothetical and real-life scenarios. Nonetheless, Shute captures a Cold War mentality that threatens life on earth intransigently. Nuclear angst resurfaced in the 1980s but calmed again. Renewed sabre rattling between the U.S. and North Korea has been going on for five or more years (noted here) with quite recent provocations undertaken by U.S. leadership that, as stated above, can’t govern or restrain itself. This shit never really goes away, and even with the passage of time, we make negative progress dealing with our demons.

For instance, just a few days ago, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, launched in 1947 before the Cold War was even a meme, updated yet again its infamous Doomsday Clock:

2018: The failure of world leaders to address the largest threats to humanity’s future is lamentable—but that failure can be reversed. It is two minutes to midnight, but the Doomsday Clock has ticked away from midnight in the past, and during the next year, the world can again move it further from apocalypse. The warning the Science and Security Board now sends is clear, the danger obvious and imminent. The opportunity to reduce the danger is equally clear. The world has seen the threat posed by the misuse of information technology and witnessed the vulnerability of democracies to disinformation. But there is a flip side to the abuse of social media. Leaders react when citizens insist they do so, and citizens around the world can use the power of the internet to improve the long-term prospects of their children and grandchildren. They can insist on facts, and discount nonsense. They can demand action to reduce the existential threat of nuclear war and unchecked climate change. They can seize the opportunity to make a safer and saner world.

I’ve blogged about the Doomsday Clock repeatedly and can only surmise now that we stand metaphorically “two minutes to midnight” that the phrase “The failure of world leaders to address the largest threats to humanity’s future …” basically says it all right there.

In addition, the World Economic Forum (which just concluded its annual meeting in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland — yes, that Davos of ill repute visited annually only by the world’s ultrarich and political elite) recently issued its Global Risks Report 2018, 13th Edition, an update on its threat assessment from an economic perspective. It has the appearance of a scientific paper, plotting known risks on an x-y graph of likelihood and severity of impact, and puts WMDs below average in likelihood but maxed out in impact. Its worst threats on both scales are extreme weather events, natural disasters, and failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation. Significant categorical overlap there I haven’t bothered to sort. At the center of an array of interrelated threats is profound social instability. You don’t say ….

So who you gonna believe? Elites with their obvious vested interests? Novelists with their imaginative foresight? (Some cultural critics say artists always express first what takes everyone else longer to formulate.) Talking heads and pundits in mainstream media desperate to claim their portion of the public’s attention? Doom bloggers like me? This blog post has obviously gone far beyond reviewing On the Beach; it’s turned into a rant. But in my defense, the issues raised by high mid-twentieth-century dystopian fiction, even if not wholly accurate (see Kirn above), have yet to be resolved. More recently identified threats have yet to be even addressed. Meanwhile, profound social instability is already manifesting as the far political left and right both eat their own and centrists like me find themselves ignored or out-shouted in a public debate that has grown egregiously uncivilized, unhinged, and pointless considering the principal aim is to score imaginary points rather than make the world a better place to live or indeed one in which we can continue living. Bread and circuses.

Four years ago, I wrote this:

It would be a legitimate function of government to provide a safety net troubled populations could not fall through, but alas, our government functions instead to reward the wealthy and powerful with more wealth and power rather than serve the health and wellbeing of society as a whole, including the problems of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised among us.

That assessment about who’s being rewarded (and by implication, who’s being punished or held back or abandoned) holds true today. A recent headline indicated that 82% of world income in 2017 was earned by 1% of the population. This is unjust and can only lead to unrest. But we probably won’t have time to do much. The radioactive cloud that descended on Melbourne in On the Beach is, in effect, overtaking us in real life, though not in quite the same substantiation. It’s not solely nuclear annihilation staring us in the face but, as the Global Risks Report notes, an array of threats. Heaven help us, and in the meantime, where’s my exit pill?

  1. Kitchen sink, indeed.

    I recall reading On the Beach back in the seventies, while in high school. When the naval vessel reached the source of the radio signal (I think it was a branch blowing in the wind?) I was crushed. What a lousy book, I thought, where is the heroic resistance to the impending doom, the survival!

    The curse of our species, looking for drama and a narrative after the curtain has fallen.

  2. Brutus says:

    Yeah, I already knew the outcome of the submarine voyage and still couldn’t help but to hope for a different resolution. Same is true in real life, of course.

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