As the year 2000 approaches, there’s more in the air than the problem of making reservations for the millennial New Year’s Eve celebration at the right place with the right company — there’s the acrid, smoldering-ruin scent of doomsday. Millions of Americans expect a lot more from Y2K than computers going bananas. It’s been estimated that at least 8 million of us are keenly anticipating the gory Great Tribulation scenario foretold in prophetic biblical texts like the Book of Revelation: earthquakes, the Antichrist, locusts, rivers and oceans turning to blood, etc. And while the rest of us may not be expecting this kind of ultimate Jerry Springer show next year, we can settle for more subtle end-of-the-world entertainment — not the melodramatic tracts sold in religious bookstores, but doomsday books for the discriminating.
In The End of the World, Harper‘s editor Lewis H. Lapham has assembled mostly first-person accounts of world-class disasters throughout history: falls of empires, ends of eras, massacres, lurid volcanic and human eruptions. Some of these slices of history have the stark immediacy of great photographs, like Pliny the Younger’s eyewitness account of the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii in a.d. 79 and Olaudah Equiano’s description of being kidnapped deep in Africa, transported to the coast, and sold to white slave traders circa 1755.
If there’s a lighter side of doomsday, it can be found in A Portable Apocalypse, Allan Appel’s cheerful compilation of gloomy observations and witticisms, which range from Sophocles and Shakespeare to Oprah Winfrey and Woody Allen (”The universe is merely a fleeting idea in God’s mind — a pretty uncomfortable thought, particularly if you’ve just made a down payment on a house”).
And for an all-American take on the looming exclamation point at the end of history, there’s Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels in End-Time America, a funny, unsettling, crank-packed book by Wired magazine editor Alex Heard. Heard has spent 10 years tracking down fringe groups, many of which consist of just one fringe individual. So he finds himself crouching in the chill darkness of the Minnesota backwoods one night alongside several eager-to-be-abducted members of CSETI (Center for the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence) as they try to coax space aliens into making an appearance by shining flashlights toward the heavens and then go on full alert when they hear a repeated eerie, alien-caliber noise that turns out to be an attempt to communicate with earthlings transmitted by a large, indignant owl.
Heard also tiptoes around Unarius, a California sect inspired by the late Ruth Norman, ”who combined the couture sensibilities of a drag queen with the joie de vivre of a Frisbee-chasing Irish setter” and who prophesized the arrival of spiritually evolved space brothers in 33 spaceships in 1976 and then, on second thought, in 2001. He drops in on ”Earth Changes” who believe the earth is a conscious being about to swat away the human race as if it were a swarm of pesky gnats. He visits people who — through ”cryonics” (freezing their corpses for revival in a thawful future) or through mega-supplements — are determined to live forever or die trying. There’s a guy who wanted to create a libertarian utopia on an artificial Pacific island but who at the time didn’t have enough start-up money to get his own apartment. Heard’s mix of humorous skepticism for these obsessed, unquenchable characters results in an engagingly sane book that acknowledges the cultural need for eccentrics and weirdos and also the cultural need to keep an eye on them.
Read these books together and you end up discovering our dirty little human secret: There’s something deeply gratifying about the notion of a future that explodes in our faces. Maybe it’s the thought that the world shouldn’t be allowed to go on placidly without us, maybe it’s just our need for a dramatically satisfying climax, but the end of the world has always had a choke hold on the human imagination. That’s why a future that’s very good seems a bit insipid and why novelists, movie directors, and prophets have always been more interested in one that’s very, very bad.
The End of the World: A
A Portable Apocalypse: B
Apocalypse Pretty Soon: A