Saturday, April 10, 2010

The End of the World in Fiction - Ideas from Past and Present

With this post I will have somehow written my third installment in an 'end of the world in fiction' series. I think, however, that this post will get the apocalypse out of my system ... at least for now.

In my first post I talked about the aspects of an 'end of the world' scenario that inspire fear and obsession. (I also mentioned why in reality, worrying about these scenarios was probably not as productive as worrying over more likely forms of our demise.) Yet, people still enjoy contemplating the end of the planet when reading and viewing fiction. For example - this piece of art named "Ensanguined Verdict." The artist provides enough of the back story that motivated the piece that we know this is no natural disaster. This is one alien civilization attacking another. (And we might be either one, I suppose.)

My second post in this 'series' discussed the elements a writer might use in a story about the end of the world. These elements are based on the topics from the first post that seem to most enthrall readers: risk of large scale disaster, sense of the unknown, lack of control, religious or spiritual overtones, and of course a good dose of excitement.

With all of these together, it looks like the 'perfect' plot is one where our Main Character does not know what is about to happen, but it is going to be nasty. Something big. It threatens things the character cares about, and he/she cannot control important aspects of the event. There are hints of omens, foreshadowing, and portents. Something that makes the character think they might be the one; the person who can control one or two elements, and make a difference before or after the disaster.

Hmmm ... sounds like it's been done. Several times. Yet inside every overdone story is an untold tale waiting to be sculpted by a master. Right?

One of the oldest works of apocalyptic literature that comes to mind is found in the Bible. I'm not going to discuss the Bible as 'real' or 'fiction.'  Some people regard the Bible as literal truth, while others see it as allegory, and others an expression of common myth. I'm not going break open that can of worms. I'm simply going to look at the parts of the story, and show how they include all the elements I mention above - in this case, the story is that of Noah and the Ark. This is certainly a world-shattering disaster, with the threat of the entire planet flooded and almost every creature wiped out. The spiritual element is obvious, with God telling Noah what he needs to do to save his family, his species, and all the species of Earth. Noah has no way to stop the flood, only the means to save a select group. For days, the Ark floats, with Noah hanging on to faith through the unknown.

This is of course the archetypal "saving some select part of the world from disaster" story. We've seen the ark redone as ships, domes, special habitats, rockets, underground fortresses, or what have you. This theme has really been explored, and explored again. But people keep using it, including '2012.' It can still work, as long as the story has some unique aspects, and is moving, exciting, and powerful.

Another story that comes to mind is H.G. Wells, "The War of the Worlds." This time an invasion by Martians threatens humanity. Again, it contains the large scale threat, religious portents (most concretely through the character of the curate who believes the Martians are here as the vanguard of Armageddon), a menace out of the main character's control, a constant sense of fear of the unknown, and plenty of suspense as we follow the narrator on his journey around the country.

A more modern story would be "Lucifer's Hammer" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. In this novel a comet smashes into the Earth and results in the now-standard devastation and de-evolution of society back to feudal times. The religious element is provided by the evangelist Henry Armitage. The calamity is unexpected, and beyond anyone's control. In the aftermath, several characters attempt to reform civilization to follow their vision, either light or dark, with tension peaking in the final, decisive battles.

All three of these stories have the same elements, but each uses them in a unique way, and gives the reader something unexpected and compelling. My analysis of what makes us obsessed with these disaster stories is, I think, pretty consistent with the body of literature already present. So I certainly won't dismiss the topic out of hand as not worth revisiting. But before I write my apocalypse novel (if I ever do) I'll be sure to know the themes that worked before, why they worked, and consider how I can give readers something really original as part of the package.


Image Credit:  "Ensanguined Verdict" used with generous permission from the artist julian399 on deviantArt.

My comments:  Another great piece.  As with most of Juilan's art, you have to go to the site and look at the higher-res image to appreciate the amazing detail.  In this case, there are tiny ships swarming near the surface of the doomed planet.

Artist comments:  A bit of back story, "a new dawn has come before us... let their world burn into cinders; do not cease til every single grain of sand is but glass!"


Amy said...

The biblical story of the flood is a great example of a classic story, and tells us just how long our idea of "story" has been around:

Intro: Noah as a pious family man

Inciting Incident: God tells Noah he is going to destroy humanity and gives instructions on how to build the ark

Developing Action and Conflict: Noah builds the ark, collects the animals, and is verbally harassed by his unbelieving neighbors

Crisis: The rain hits

Climax: The dove returns with the olive branch

Resolution: They arrive on Mt. Sinai

We still use these techniques to tell a story, and yet we never seem to run out of different ways to do it. That tells me how much human beings need stories to help us make sense of our world.

Bryce Ellicott said...

Amy - Excellent points. I really like the breakdown of the story into its component parts. It seems that the idea of a 'story' is common not only through time, but from one culture to another.

Julian said...

very interesting thought...

even in the book of the Apocalypse (aka Revelation), it ends with hope and good promise.

I guess we of all people enjoy stories that starts frightening and doom ridden but in the end soothes you with a nice ending.

Bryce Ellicott said...

Julian - Thanks for reading and commenting! The more-or-less happy ending of many of these stories is a good point. By that I don't mean that the characters, even the main character, get what they want, or maybe even survive. But instead, somehow the story imparts the idea of life going on in some new way, or elsewhere, or transcending the material plane altogether. It is rare to see one of these stories where there is no real resolution, or some modicum of hope.