Science Fiction Studies

#34 = Volume 11, Part 3 = November 1984

Donald Watson

Doomsday--And Beyond

W. Warren Wagar. Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982, xiii+241pp. $24.50.

Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, & Joseph D. Olander, eds. The End of the World. Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1983. xv+204pp. $19.95.

Nothing should scare us more--at least theoretically speaking--than the death of the world; yet other, more immediate possibilities actually disturb us more radically: the death of one's self, soul, family, friends, ideas, ideals, nation. The business of apocalyptic fantasies is to make the remote and unimaginable end accessible, dramatic, present, and terrifying. Seldom is this task accomplished. The recent television drama, The Day After, has passed into the ephemeral history of media-hype, a non-event whose fiction could not even engage the passion of the distinguished actor Jason Robards. And the probabilities of an all-out nuclear holocaust must appear to us all as far more real than the invasion of hostile aliens from outer space, the voracity of giant insects, the unstoppability of plague-ridden microbes, or the venomous stings of killer bees. In such cases, we place our faith in the powers of reason, of Black Flag insecticides, or of antibiotics, or in the ingenuity of counterinsurgent entomology--or else we just dismiss the fictions as silly. Nevertheless, an extensive literature of "terminal visions" has arisen in response to the ultimate "what if" which is hardly marginal to the concerns of SF.

We may thank Professor Wagar for trudging through more than 300 fictions about what Armageddon will look like. Few of the most ardent readers of SF will be familiar with all his texts; as they read through Terminal Visions, they will encounter old favorites, regret or wonder at the resurrection of some justly neglected works, applaud the analysis of a handful of forgotten visions, and remember a few apocalypses Wagar has omitted. His monograph nevertheless breaks new ground in several ways. Wagar approaches "speculative" fiction from an interesting perspective: as an intellectual historian, he concerns himself less in the forms and conventions of a subgenre of SF than in the cultural implications of the apocalyptic imagination. Even so, he tends to believe in the literal descriptions of annihilation and only occasionally analyzes the possibility that writing about The End might be a way to write about something far different.

Wagar presents his reader with five sections of progressively more interesting exposition; and though each has its limitations and faults, he writes clearly and logically in describing the fictional manifestations of terminal visions. Part One explores the "distinguished heritage" of "disaster in the highest order of magnitude: the idea of the end of the world, not as a restatement or exegesis of Biblical eschatology, but as a creative act of the secular imagination" (p. 5). Here he defines his subject matter as the apocalyptic fantasies which have their first full embodiment in the secular eschatology of Mary Shelley's triple-decker, The Last Man (1826) and which continue to flourish today. Though Wagar pays some attention to Poe, he hardly grasps the centrality of the apocalyptic imagination in all Romantic literature, English, Continental, and American, a failure which will bother most literary scholars in other ways throughout the monograph and which actually works to keep "speculative fiction" in the "literary ghetto" Wagar wants to liberate it from (P. 9).

The second section, "Archetypes,' outlines varieties of traditional eschatology, particularly its "decisive reconception of public time," as "Hebrew history" created "a sacred literature in which myth shades imperceptibly into national chronicle" (p. 46). The analysis here, though compressed, offers us useful generalizations, especially about the Christian promise of a "public vindication of the oppressed" at the Last Judgment as well as of "personal resurrection" (p. 50). But in mapping a passage from the age of faith "to our own post-Christian culture," Wagar says only that it "occurred between the middle of the seventeenth century and the middle of the nineteenth. There is not space to do it justice here" (p. 60). He does not even take a shot at trying, so why does he write a literary history of doomsday from the beginning to Mary Shelley and leave out the crucial 200 years? The transition from religious prophet to secular visionary could be the most interesting problem an intellectual historian could speculate upon: from Protestant Reformation to Enlightenment to Romanticism, the origins of early modernism.

In Part Three, "The Etiology of Doomsaying, " Wagar categorizes his fictions by specifying the fears which inform them. This "stratrigraphy of fear" consists of personal fears, the "ends and beginnings of the self," of the "dread of nature" and its real and imagined dangers, and of the "lethal effects" of science, technology, and industry (pp. 66-67). In this first layer, though he obviously admires their works, Wagar inadequately explains how such writers as J.G. Ballard and Doris Lessing have used speculations about endtime to comment upon the self-destructive narcissism and dessicated rationality of the 20th century and to express an intense desire for some new psychological metamorphosis of humanity. The other two layers offer fewer problems, since the first is filled with the inexorable laws of entropy, the probability of cosmic "accidents," the cyclicity of pestilence, and the possibility of alien invasion; the second full of insane scientists, greedy capitalists selling out the environment of future generations, and mad generals pressing the buttons to initiate totally destructive holocausts. Here his analysis works well enough, combining useful summary, brief commentary, and judicious connections. Even so, as soon as Wagar admits the possibility that in such space operas the alien forces of the macro-organic world or the extra-terrestrial invasion may be "metaphors for more familiar human adventures" (p. 104), he forges onward to the next chapter.

Once more, Wagar starts over, this time identifying three world-views implicit in these speculative fantasies. Now we arrive at the crucial thesis of the monograph:

Terminal visions are not just stories about the end of the world, or the end of the self. They are also stories about the nature and meaning of reality as interpreted by world views. They are propaganda for a certain understanding of life, in which the imaginary end serves to sharpen the focus and heighten the importance of certain structures of value. They are games of chance, so to speak, in which the players risk all their chips on a single hand. But games just the same. (pp. 132-33).

This statement as clearly summarizes the kernel of Wagar's monograph as any other I could quote, and--two-thirds of the way through the book--the reader is happy to have it. Yet the clarity is elusive; world-views, the meaning of reality, structures of value, and games of chance seem too much for one paragraph. "Propaganda" is a most unfortunate choice of words, one which Wagar uses often in these chapters (11-14), since few of us--literary or intellectual historians--would describe the fantasies of individual novelists as propagandistic; didactic, polemical, simplistic, maybe, but propaganda is the product of power and institutions, not of authors, not of games of chance. Nevertheless, in placing a variety of "visions" in his three categories of romanticism, positivism, and irrationalism, Wagar usefully reveals some of the hidden assumptions "encoded" in these "endtimes." In these pages, he manages to convey best the philosophical questions inherent in the imagining of a literal public endtime, both as an interpretation of public values, often its cause, and as a response, usually the manifestation or creation of alternate values.

This uncovering of the deeper structures of intention is most impressive. If one finds in Terminal Visions much to challenge, much to question, one must applaud Wagar's approach to speculative fiction's expression of world-views, its secular eschatology, its "mythogeny," its quest for cultural metamorphosis, its admonitory concerns. Yet, reviewers, I suppose, always want more. Since so much 19th and 20th-century literature struggles with exactly these same interests, the segregation of speculative fiction seems all the more artificial, and the occasional allusion to such "mainstream" writers as Wordsworth, James, Kafka, Camus, and Sartre only whets my appetite for an intellectual and literary history which would integrate all the serious appearances of the apocalyptic imagination, including even its significant presence in our century's art, music, and drama. But, alas, too seldom are these boundaries of genre crossed by analysts of SF; we usually get too much and too little.

The framework of Wagar's book prompts a final reservation about Terminal Visions. In "A Personal Preface," he describes the crisis which led to this undertaking as his own participation in a "dying culture"--"the national-bourgeois culture of the post-Christian West. " He feels the "senescence" of humanism as "credicide, " the loss not only of all traditional beliefs but the decline of faith in faith itself (pp. xi-xini). Terminal Visions, then, was a personal enterprise, a search for "prophetic insight" into what will replace a "faltering civilization" (pp. 204-05). This search provides "the bigger point": "The bulk of eschatological fictions. . .can be read as indicators of a growing consciousness within modern Western culture that its end is in view and that a new, higher, or radically different civilization and public order will replace it during the next century." Perhaps; hope springs eternal for academics as well as for the survivors of endtimes, but seldom has it been expressed so strangely and desperately in a scholarly monograph. One wonders why Wagar did not take on the much larger chore of analyzing utopias.

Longer versions of two of Wagar's chapters appear in The End of the World. Though it first might appear that a not unusual accident has befallen the publishing schedules of two university presses--Terminal Visions antedating the collection from Southern Illinois by a year--Wagar's essays should be welcomed. His essential points remain unchanged here--that doomsdays are fresh beginnings and that traditional systems of belief lie in ruins--but the space the editors have allowed him offers the possibility of a more developed analysis than he gives in his own book; perhaps the manuscript for the book suffered some injudicious compression. Though I came to these essays after reading Terminal Visions, I found them better than most of its chapters.

A short introduction to The End by Eric Rabkin asks "Why Destroy the World?" and answers that apocalyptic fantasies "display the consequences of our social values" as well as "the meanings of our wishes" (p. xv). The six essays engage speculative fiction in terms of this sense of conflict and renewal. Psychiatrist Robert Plank writes mediatively and analytically about fantasies of surviving the apocalypse; these satisfy a psychological need to respond to the "climate of anxiety" of the threatening present and provide "cautionary tales to be used with great caution" (p. 52). Robert Galbreath examines various types of the "End/means relationship in eschatological transcendence," both as a desire for a new supernaturalism and as "a lack of confidence in any future. " The fundamental ambiguity in such speculative fiction lies in its awareness "that transcendence can only be a further question, not a final answer" (p. 72). Here, too, humankind desires the fulfilment of a psychological need for something beyond self and nature, a need occasioned by the violent anxieties of the 20th century, and asks the question to "awaken understanding," even if that understanding is doomed to frustration.

Brian Stableford's "Man-Made Catastrophes" explores fictionalized warnings against "gambling with the happiness of future generations in the pursuit of immediate gratification for our selves." Again, Stableford agrees with Wagar and Galbreath that "the real heart of the problem" for speculative fiction "is a lack of faith in ourselves" (p. 113), but he finds optimism in the prominence in contemporary SF of a refusal to pin the blame on scapegoats and of warning us "about what we are doing to ourselves." Rather than defusing anxieties, the best eschatological fictions confront them, attempting "the construction of a new mythology of moral responsibility ...the metamorphosis of our concepts of sin" (p. 101). The enemy is us, and the "cardinal sin" is stupidity, the miscalculation of the "consequences of one's actions" in a "wholly pragmatic world" (p. 136). Yet, as Stableford concludes, the foreseeing of real nightmares involves moral choices more than technical expertise, and moral choices made through "collective creative effort," an activity at which "we haven't had much practice" (p. 138). Fictional amplifications of anxiety, therefore, may in their extrapolations help us to avoid mortgaging our future.

The best analysis in this collection is Gary Wolfe's "The Remaking of Zero: Beginning at the End. " Wolfe discusses the " sources of mythic power" in apocalyptic stories, specifically in "post-Holocaust narratives." His structural analysis persuasively explores the literary power generated by what he identifies as "a fairly characteristic narrative formula": (1) the experience or discovery of the cataclysm; (2) the journey through the wasteland created by the cataclysm; (3) settlement and establishment of a new community; (4) the re-emergence of the wilderness as antagonist; and (5) a final, decisive battle or struggle to determine which values shall prevail in the new world" (p. 8). Wolfe refers to many novels to illustrate variations of the formula and concludes with an extensive discussion of Stewart's Earth Abides as a representative version of its power. "Such novels," he argues,

are in the broadest sense, epics of the power of humanity to remain dominant in the universe. Read this way, the cataclysm is literally a new creation or genesis, the period of exploration a dispersion or exodus, the establishing of a community, the invention of a social contract, the emergence of the wilderness a testing of the social contract, and the final battle of the Elect [the competing ideologies of good and evil] a confirmation of permanence. (p. 19)

Nature, once technology and culture are reduced to rubble, may return as an adversary; true heroism may emerge; and readers may be assured of survival and renewal. One might add to Wolfe's formula the irony that though the beliefs and values of tradition may be totally displaced in contemporary secular eschatology, the narrative structures of classical and biblical literature live on; so that Wolfe's formula may explain the epics of Moses or Aeneas as effectively as those of Ish and Em, names which are themselves connections with the resonance of mainstream tradition. Again, one regrets the segregation of speculative fiction.

There remains much to ponder in these two books and in the paradox of the beginning in the end, in the ambiguity of despair and hope, in the irony of destruction and affirmation.

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