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End-of-the-World Novels Are ‘Memento Mori’ for Civilization

Why envisioning the collapse of civilization can be unexpectedly life-affirming.

“It seemed to happen gradually, then suddenly,” Candace says, describing the spread of the new pathogen. “I got up. I went to work in the morning. Outside the office windows, the city thinned out.”

At first, the New York Times keeps a tally of Americans who succumb, but eventually the “Death Knell,” as Candace and her colleagues call it, is taken down at the government’s request.

Candace’s company asks her to keep the office open, even as most employees are told to work from home. The move is temporary, they assure her. The company isn’t shutting down. “Just putting things on hold.”

As the fever spreads, Candace runs out of work to do. Soon she’s alone in the office. Calls to her family go unanswered. A call to her boss goes to voicemail. Emails slow to a trickle, until they cease entirely. “More people are leaving this city than there are staying,” a 911 operator tells Candace when she makes a futile attempt to report an elevator malfunction. “The city is curtailing all its services.

Private security guards stand in front of empty houses and department stores. Newspapers stop publishing. Plants begin to grow in the streets. Times Square is empty. “There were no tourists, no street vendors, no patrol cars,” Candace says. “There was no one.”

Candace is the narrator of Ling Ma’s Severance, a novel celebrated for its brutal yet empathetic portrayal of how humans seeking meaning in modern-day capitalism cling to the structures and expectations of work. Severance was published in 02018, but as with Emily St. John Mandel’s 02014 novel Station Eleven, in which a “Georgia Flu” kills 99 percent of humanity, anyone who picked up Severance after, say, March 02020 finds an entirely new level of resonance in its references to N95 masks and travel bans and cravings for routine as any sense of “normality” crumbles.

Reading Severance today is a powerful reminder of how much things changed, and how bad they got, during Covid-19. Yet it serves another haunting purpose: as a reminder of how much worse they could have been.

Memento Mori

Two thousand years ago, the ancient Stoics wrote of the concept of memento mori. Loosely translated as “remember death,” memento mori describes the practice of thinking about death as a reminder that life is impermanent and unpredictable. “You could leave life right now,” Marcus Aurelius wrote sometime around the year 00170. “Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

Today memento mori is usually thought of as an individual practice, as a mental tool to help you focus on what matters most to you. While it sounds depressing to regularly remind yourself that your existence will eventually end, quite possibly not at a time or in a manner of your choosing, many people find clarity in the exercise. It’s easy to get caught up in life’s pointless commitments and petty burdens and meaningless aspirations and take for granted what enables those commitments and burdens and aspirations: the remarkable fact that you’re a human being who is alive right now.

Civilization — the world as we know it — may be less precarious than our individual lives, but that doesn’t make it permanent. Many aspects of everyday existence depend not just on you remaining alive but on the world as you know it remaining alive: The work commitments and calendars that give our days structure and purpose. The smartphones and streaming services that give us connectivity and information and entertainment. The subways and roads and planes and public services that give us the ability to commute and travel. The laws and norms that give us food and medicine and clean water. The democratic principles that give us at least an imperfect opportunity for self-determination and self-actualization and justice.

To imagine losing all of that, and more, sounds like a morbid thought exercise. Picturing a major American city slowly emptying out for good (Severance) or humanity being nearly wiped out in a matter of days (Station Eleven) can indeed be pretty bleak.

But these stories can also be invigorating, even life-affirming. “There can be something reassuring about taking in a fictional disaster in the midst of a real one,” Hillary Kelly wrote in Vulture. “You can flirt with the experience of collapse. You can long for the world you live in right now.”

Books like these, as I wrote in an August 02020 newsletter that attempted to make sense of why I felt drawn to pandemic fiction in the middle of a pandemic, “let us peek over the other side to see what a worst-case scenario might look like, before retreating back to reality.”

End-of-the-world novels are memento mori — for civilization.

"An Incomplete List"

Of course, pandemics are not the only threat to the world as we know it.

There are nuclear disasters. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (02006), which somehow manages to be almost unimaginably bleak yet also full of love, may be unmatched when it comes to envisioning the world after such an apocalypse.

There’s also climate change. The increasing frequency of once-in-a-century floods and droughts and storms and heatwaves is matched by the increasing frequency with which new climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” hits bookshelves. Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness (02020) follows a band of volunteers participating in an experiment to live in the Wilderness State, a plot of land preserved from human destruction. We learn early in the novel that Bea, the protagonist, has enrolled her family in this uncertain experiment because her young daughter is dying from toxic city air.

In Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible (02020), an endearing and precocious collection of young adults grapples with their parents’ unwillingness to confront the severity of the climate crisis and misplaced faith that someone will fix it for them. “The parents insisted on denial as a tactic,” Millet’s narrator tells us. “Not science denial exactly — they were liberals. It was more a denial of reality.” Among the book’s warnings is that the consequences of climate change compound: It’s not just steadily rising temperatures and sea levels, in other words, but also catastrophic storms that lead to unpredictable societal consequences — like a group of men with guns who have taken over a McDonald’s and roam the area stealing food.

The novels of cli-fi master Kim Stanley Robinson, meanwhile, might immerse you in the fallout from a flood-submerged Washington, DC (the Science in the Capital trilogy, published as one novel, Green Earth, in 02015), or in a half-underwater New York City in which neighborhoods have been abandoned to the ocean and rising seas push New Yorkers — or at least those with resources — into higher and higher high-rises (02017’s New York 2140).

Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (02020) begins with a devastating heatwave in India that kills millions of people. Anchored on a United Nations agency charged with giving a voice to future generations in climate negotiations, Ministry follows humanity as we stumble toward something that one might loosely call a “solution” to the climate crisis.

While many end-of-the-world novels are premised on the world collapsing, it is the authors’ world building that make them so compelling. Within these worlds, some of the most chilling passages — some of the most vivid reminders of what has changed — reach the reader almost in passing.

Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars (02012), for instance, portrays a country decimated by a pandemic and cut off from the rest of the world. Throughout the book, some of the few survivors ponder whether the world as they knew it still exists beyond their borders. A hint comes when the protagonist, who has been fighting for survival in a land devoid of most modern technology, spots trails from two airplanes “heading west at thirty thousand feet.”

In American War (02017), Omar El Akkad’s portrayal of the United States in the aftermath of a civil war sparked by the banning of fossil fuels, American refugees in the South rely on food and clothes donated by the world’s “newborn superpowers: China and the Bouazizi Empire,” the latter of which is made up of countries that we know today as the Middle East and North Africa.

To convey the transformation of reality following the rapid spread of a deadly pathogen, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven offers the reader what’s titled simply “An Incomplete List.” Among the losses:

No more flight. No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows, points of glimmering light; no more looking down from thirty thousand feet and imagining the lives lit up by those lights at that moment. No more airplanes, no more requests to put your tray table in its upright and locked position — but no, this wasn’t true, there were still airplanes here and there. They stood dormant on runways and hangars.

It is in these fleeting descriptions that we’re reminded how quickly the world as we know it can be transformed into something barely recognizable. We find a taste of not just the disappearance of the daily routine, but the disappearance of the blocks of everyday life that provide the foundation and structure for something as routine as the daily routine.

Thousands of years of accumulated information and knowledge and know-how.

Technology, from complex supply chains to the internet to electricity to the printed book.

Societal customs like measurements of time — weekends, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries — that break the past and future into manageable chunks and help us plot our existence.

Freedoms that we take for granted: posting a snarky comment online or walking to the grocery store at a time of our choosing or buying medicine for a headache over the counter or simply experiencing the sense of community that comes from being surrounded by people we don’t know going about their daily lives, completely oblivious to us, all dependent on the mostly invisible infrastructure of society.

As We Know It

When asked to picture “the end of the world as we know it,” most of us focus on the first half of the phrase: the end of the world. It’s easy to overlook the “as we know it” part.

But as Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson writes in her “syllabus for a new world,” “You don’t wake up one morning to discover the apocalypse is over and a new world has begun. It’s slower and messier than that.” As Wilkinson puts it, “We’re always living through one apocalypse or another, big cosmic reset buttons that mark the end of the world as we know it, but some are showier, more cataclysmic, than others.”

The end of the world as we know it may well emerge not from a single dramatic event but from a series of small, almost imperceptible, events that leave in their wake a dramatically different world. The world as we know it can crumble “gradually, then suddenly,” as Ling Ma’s protagonist puts it in Severance.

Consider our very near future: the year 02024. In many ways, the California that Lauren Olamina calls home sounds a lot like our own world. Temperatures are hot, making water scarce, food precious, and fire a constant danger. Emergency services are unreliable. Basic health care is too expensive for most people. Violence is rampant, and guns are everywhere. More and more people are unhoused and desperate, having fallen through society’s cracks with nothing to catch them.

Lauren is the narrator-protagonist of Octavia Butler’s celebrated novel, The Parable of the Sower. Published in 01993, Parable has been heralded as a warning of an America ravaged by climate change, and it is certainly prescient on that front.

But Parable is also eerily prescient in describing an America in which power is concentrated among religious nationalists and large corporations, an America in which any notion of “common good” has disintegrated, and in which public services, from health care to education to public safety, have been privatized. It is an America in which state borders are closed, and freeways have become lawless walking paths leading toward the hope of food and jobs and safety further north, and the best clean water comes from commercial stations that “let you draw whatever you pay for — and not a drop more.”

The election of a right-wing president whose campaign promises include “suspend[ing] ‘overly restrictive’ minimum wage, environmental, and worker protection laws” for some companies, as Lauren describes it, helps precipitate the collapse of any remaining sense of stability that Lauren’s family and their neighbors have secured behind walls topped with barbed wire and shards of glass.

Some of the families in Lauren’s community depart for Olivar, a coastal town run by a corporation that has promised residents education, jobs, and safety. In exchange, the company has been given full control of the town and, more significantly, an unrestricted license to monopolize local industry and exploit and extract (previously) public lands and resources.

Parable of the Sower reveals an anarchic world in which capitalism has replaced democracy and libertarian fantasies of privatizing public goods have been taken to their inevitable end. In offering these dire warnings, Octavia Butler reveals the most important word in The end of the world as we know it: we.

An Unequal Collapse

Not all civilizational collapses discriminate by race, class, political preference, or bank account. But plenty do.

Tochi Onyebuchi’s Goliath (02022) is set in the year 02050, when much of Earth has become uninhabitable in the absence of protective masks or domes. Many of those who can afford to flee to nearby space colonies — who are largely white and financially secure — have long since done so, only to start returning to Earth to gentrify the mainly Black and brown communities that white residents had abandoned.

In Malka Older’s Infomocracy (02016), technology and globalization have yielded a planet in which national borders have collapsed and global governance has fallen to “Information,” an ever-present, and seemingly all-knowing, search engine. Some centenals, or districts, in this “micro-democracy” are controlled by what today we would call political parties. But others, like PhilipMorris and Sony-Mitsubishi, are run by private corporations.

In Bewilderment (02021), Richard Powers’s moving novel of a father and son struggling to navigate a warming and increasingly unstable world, a xenophobic president who makes public policy decisions in all-caps tweets begins arresting critical journalists, shutting down scientific research, defunding public universities following his reelection.

In the world Margaret Atwood builds in The Handmaid’s Tale (01985) and The Testaments (02020), the Republic of Gilead, which consists of much of today’s United States, has been taken over by a patriarchal theocracy bent and built on female subjugation, even as the world as we know it today continues tantalizingly close by: just north of the U.S. border in Canada. While the premise of the series might sound fantastical to some, in the acknowledgements to The Testaments Atwood notes one of the “axioms” of The Handmaid’s Tale: “no event is allowed into it that does not have a precedent in human history.”

Another not-so-speculative trajectory comes from Cory Doctorow’s Attack Surface (02020). A movement for racial justice has spawned huge protests in the San Francisco Bay Area and a similarly huge backlash from law enforcement — and, in turn, a huge opportunity for corporate interests. Two powerful companies, Xoth and Zyz, are competing for a lucrative contract from the Oakland Police Department. The companies and the department, which often operate indistinguishably, use drones, poison gas, and other military-grade weapons and surveillance technologies to throttle protests and sabotage organizers.

One of the main dilemmas facing the book’s protagonist is a version of the dilemma confronting legions of corporate, political, and media professionals today: If they say the right things about justice and democracy and public service, and if they vote the right way at election time, and if they donate money and time to philanthropic causes that stand up for racial justice and democracy and human rights, are their individual efforts enough to make up for the institutional damage they get paid for?

Attack Surface asks us to picture a world in which the military-surveillance-industrial complex has continued unchecked. For some readers, it offers a glimpse of the end of the world as they know it. For others, it’s the world they already know.

"Even some fiction might be useful"

Whether driven by new technologies, new viruses, or newly unsustainable concentrations of wealth and power, the end of the world as we know it is, like individual mortality, inevitable.

Despite this inevitability, however, memento mori as a reminder of individual mortality diverges in a fundamental way from memento mori for civilization. It is in this divergence that we find optimism: While death remains inevitable for each of us as individuals, it is far from inevitable for us as a collective.

As these end-of-the-world novels remind us, humanity may well extinguish itself through climate change or nuclear disaster or war. We may well end up leaving future generations to live in societies in which a handful of elite “zottas” — as Cory Doctorow’s characters in Walkaway (02017) call the professional elites who run the corporations that control most of the “default” world — use their wealth and power to control most everything and everyone, rendering notions of democracy and the collective good as anachronisms.

But not necessarily.

“The difference between utopia and dystopia isn’t how well everything runs,” Doctorow argued in WIRED when Walkaway was published. “It’s about what happens when everything fails.” From global warming to authoritarian takeover to corporate capture, end-of-the-world novels show what might happen when everything fails. They help us not just see but feel that failure, while not guaranteed, is a possibility.

They remind us, to paraphrase the title of Sinclair Lewis’s 01935 novel, that it can happen here, whether “it” is the rise of fascism in America (as Lewis portrayed) or another iteration of the end of the world as we know it. That’s a recipe for empathy and action, and an antidote to apathy or fatalism.

Those who recognize the possibility of civilizational collapse might find themselves surrounded by people who believe that such catastrophes are impossible, who attempt to reassure others that things aren’t as bad as they seem, who have simply convinced themselves that it can’t happen here.

In these novels, we find respite from such empty promises, which ultimately do little more than leave us less prepared and less equipped to confront the risks we face. We also find respite from the gaslighting that those with power deploy to justify why they have it and why others do not, the hand-on-heart insistence that the exploitation and extraction and entrenchment that they practice in plain sight is not only not happening, but good for us.

In Parable of the Sower, one of Lauren Olamina’s many strengths is that she, unlike many of her neighbors, refuses to rely on the “illusions of security” created by the walls of her community. Lauren is no doomsayer or fearmonger, but nor is she content to hide behind comforting delusions. She is willing to look squarely into what her father calls “the abyss,” the recognition that their safety and survival remains incredibly precarious.

One day, in the uneasy months before things go from bad to worse, Lauren speaks with one of her friends, trying to convince her to prepare to survive if the neighborhood’s walls are breached. Exasperated at her friend’s refusal even to entertain the idea, Lauren finally finds an opening. “Have you read all your family’s books?” Lauren asks.

“Some of them. Not all,” her friend replies. “They aren’t all worth reading. Books aren’t going to save us.”

“Nothing is going to save us,” Lauren agrees. “If we don’t save ourselves, we’re dead.” But, she adds, “use your imagination. Is there anything on your family bookshelves that might help you if you were stuck outside?”

While those of us in 02022 aren’t quite living in Lauren Olamina’s world, in many ways we’re inching uncomfortably close to it.

Books alone will not save us, as Lauren reminds her friend. But they can help. And, she adds, “Even some fiction might be useful.”

Adam M. Lowenstein is a freelance journalist who writes Reframe Your Inbox, an email newsletter of essays and interviews about corporate power, capitalism, and politics. He previously worked as a speechwriter in the U.S. Senate. He is working on his second book.

Learn More

Cory Doctorow and Kim Stanley Robinson have given talks at Long Now about their work and the ideas that inspire it:

• Cory Doctorow, The Coming Century of War Against Your Computer (02012).
• Kim Stanley Robinson, How Climate Will Evolve Government and Society (02017); Adapting to Sea Level Rise: The Science of "New York 2140" (02017); Learning From Le Guin (02018); Climate Futures: Beyond 02022 (02022).

Civilizational collapse — and how to prevent it — has also been the subject of a number of past Long Now talks:

• Jared Diamond, How Societies Fail — And Sometimes Succeed (02005).
• David Eagleman, Six Easy Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization (02010).
• Alan Weisman, World Without Us, World With Us (02010).
• Eric Cline, 1177 B.C.: When Civilization Collapsed (02016).

Long Now Research Fellow Lonny Avi Brooks discusses Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and other works of Afrofuturism in his Long Now talk, When is Wakanda: Imagining Afrofutures (02020). 

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