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This Way to the End Times
Author: Robert Silverberg




THIS BOOK’S EPIGRAPH COMES FROM the one of the earliest pages of the Bible. We are told of the creation of the world in the first chapter of Genesis and by chapter six, after God has brought forth Adam and Eve and their progeny has multiplied greatly, the Lord has tired of His handiwork and, as quoted at the beginning of this book, resolves to cleanse the planet of it by sending a terrible deluge upon our ancestors.

Fortunately for us, He is not bent on total destruction: Noah is instructed to build an ark and bring his family aboard, and it is duly stocked with a host of creatures, “clean beasts and . . . beasts that are not clean . . . fowls . . . every thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Two by two they go aboard, dogs and cats and sheep and, I suppose, elephants and wombats and aardvarks as well, so that when the waters of the flood recede the world can begin anew, and here we are in what we Westerners call the twenty-first century, looking forward to the next terminal convulsion of our Maker’s mood.

The second volume of the Good Book lets us know that another apocalypse will eventually be heading our way. In the Second Epistle of Peter, chapter three, verse ten, we are advised that “the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which, the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” And a few lines later, St. Peter tells us that inasmuch as all things thus shall be destroyed, it behooves us “to be in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat.” We should, we are told, “look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” Once again we are given hope of ultimate redemption, although apparently it will be provided us in some other universe.

The apocalyptic warnings of the Bible, which culminate most spectacularly in the technicolor wonders of the Revelation of St. John the Divine (“And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. . . .”), were already ancient when the Scriptures, both New and Old, were set down a couple of thousand years ago. For whatever reason, humankind seems to take a certain grisly delight in stories about the end of the world, and the market in apocalyptic prophecy has been a bullish one for thousands or, more likely, millions of years. Even the most primitive of protohuman creatures, back there in the Africa of Ardipithecus and her descendants, must have come eventually to the realization that each of us must die; and from there to the concept that the world itself must perish in the fullness of time was probably not an enormous intellectual leap for those hairy bipedal creatures of long ago. Around their prehistoric campfires our remote hominid ancestors surely would have told each other tales of how the great fire in the sky would become even greater one day and consume the universe, or, once our less distant forebears had moved along out of the African plains to chillier Europe, how the glaciers of the north would someday move implacably down to crush them all. Even an eclipse of the sun was likely to stir brief apocalyptic excitement.

I suppose there is a kind of strange comfort in such thoughts: “If I must die, how good that all of you must die also!” But the chief value of apocalyptic visions, I think, lies elsewhere than in that sort of we-will-all-go-together-when-we-go spitefulness, for as we examine the great apocalyptic myths we see that not only death but resurrection is usually involved in the story—a bit of eschatological comfort, of philosophical reassurance that existence, though finite and relatively brief for each individual, is not totally pointless. Yes, the tale would run, we have done evil things and the gods are angry and the world is going to perish, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, but then will come a reprieve, a second creation, a rebirth of life, a better world than the one that has just been purged.

What sort of end-of-the-world stories our primordial preliterate ancestors told is something we will never know, but the oldest such tale that has come down to us, which is found in the 4,500-year-old Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, is an account of a great deluge that drowns the whole Earth, save only one man, Ziusudra by name, who manages to save his family and set things going again. Very probably the deluge story had its origins in memories of some great flood that devastated Sumer and its Mesopotamian neighbors in prehistoric times, but that is only speculation. What is certain is that the theme can be found again in many later versions: the Babylonian story gives the intrepid survivor the name of Utnapishtim, the Hebrews called him Noah, to the ancient Greeks he was Deucalion, and in the Vedic texts of India he is Manu. The details differ, but the essence is always the same: the gods, displeased with the world, resolve to destroy it, but then relent and bring mankind forth for a second try.

Floods are not the only apocalypses that ancient myths offer us. The Norse tales give us a terrible frost, the Fimbulwinter, in which all living things die except a man and a woman who survive by hiding in a tree; they follow the usual redemptionist course and repeople the world, but then comes an even greater cataclysm, Ragnarök, the doom of the gods themselves, in which the stars fall, the earth sinks into the sea, and fire consumes everything—only to be followed by yet another rebirth and an era of peace and plenty. And then there is St. John’s Book of Revelation in the Christian tradition, in which the wrath of God is visited upon the Earth in a host of ways (fire, plague, hail, drought, earthquakes, flood, and much more), leading to the final judgment and the redemption of the righteous. The Aztecs, too, had myths of the destruction of the world by fire—several times over, in fact—and so did the Mayans. It was not very long ago, as I write this, that much popular excitement was being stirred by an alleged Mayan prediction that the next apocalypse was due in 2012. Perhaps there was an error in translation from the Mayan glyphs, though, because we appear to have come through that one intact.

Since apocalyptic visions are nearly universal in the religious literature of the world, and probably always have been, it’s not surprising that they should figure largely in the fantasies of imaginative storytellers. Even before the term “science fiction” had been coined, stories of universal or near-universal extinction brought about not by the anger of the deities but by the innate hazards of existence were being written and achieving wide popularity. Nineteenth-century writers were particularly fond of them. Thus we find such books as Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s The Last Man, or Omegarus and Syderia (1805) and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), which was written under the shadow of a worldwide epidemic of cholera that raged from 1818 to 1822. Edgar Allan Poe sent a comet into the Earth in “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” (1839). The French astronomer Camille Flammarion’s astonishing novel of 1893, La Fin du Monde, or Omega in its English translation, brought the world to the edge of doom—but only to the edge—as another giant comet crosses our path. H. G. Wells told a similar story of near-destruction, almost surely inspired by Flammarion’s, in “The Star” (1897). In his classic novel The Time Machine (1895) Wells had already taken his time traveler to the end of life on Earth and beyond. (“All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over.”) Another who must certainly have read Flammarion is his compatriot Jules Verne, who very likely drew on the latter sections of Omega for his novella, “The Eternal Adam” (1905). Here Verne espouses a cyclical view of the world: Earth is destroyed by a calamitous earthquake and flood, but the continent of Atlantis wondrously emerges from the depths to provide a new home for the human race, which after thousands of years of toil rebuilds civilization; and we are given a glimpse, finally, of a venerable scholar of the far future looking back through the archives of humanity, “bloodied by the innumerable hardships suffered by those who had gone before him,” and coming, “slowly, reluctantly, to an intimate conviction of the eternal return of all things.”

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