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The Eerie Literature of the Slow Apocalypse

These authors know that the end of the world doesn’t happen overnight

If you’re alive and don’t believe that COVID-19 is a hoax made up by whoever is running Hillary Clinton’s human-trafficking ring, you’re likely aware that society is teetering on the edge of something. But the thing is, terms like “apocalypse” or “doomsday” aren’t quite right — they carry too much cultural baggage to really describe the fix we’ve found ourselves in. After all, movies, TV, and most seminally, literature — ever hear of a little piece of apocalyptic lit called The Epic of Gilgamesh? — have given us the idea that when some kind of civilization-ending event happens, boy, WILL IT REALLY HAPPEN. 

And so, when we think of the potentiality for the collapse of modern civilization, the first images that pop into our heads are global mega-wars, people running through stalled traffic to escape tidal waves or swarms of killer insects or government personnel in control rooms with red lights flashing everywhere. 

History, however, shows us that The End is unlikely to be that dramatic. Even the most harrowing civilization collapses — the fall of Rome, the collapse of the classical Mayan civilization, the end of the Mediterranean Bronze Age — have been accordioned in our minds by perception. Rome’s demise was a dramatic event, to be sure, but the empire’s collapse was hundreds of years in the making. There were firings, political turmoil and foreign-relations disasters, all slowly playing out over so many generations that by the time the last Romans were watching the city fall to the Vandals, they likely felt little kinship to those who had lived through the empire’s glory days — to whom the idea of the end of Rome was probably as inconceivable as the idea of the end of the U.S. used to be.

That the idea of the collapse of the U.S. ever seemed impossible is due to the privilege of growing up in the “West,” and again, has been buttressed by the ways in which contemporary art has treated the subject. Movies like the Night/Dawn/Day of the Living Dead and The Day After Tomorrow present sudden, acutely catastrophic disasters. Novels churned out after the success of books like The Hunger Games and World War Z draw from the traditions of pulpy sci-fi doomsday paperbacks of yore, where ordinary men and women rise to the occasion when their livelihoods are threatened by fascism, aliens or extreme weather. A hallmark of most of these works is the suddenness and severity of it all. Things go from normal to bonkers overnight, and once the change has happened, everyone wakes up in a world where children are now forced to murder each other on TV and only the most hardened road warriors survive.

That is all very entertaining, but it doesn’t feel real, does it? 

Nor does it feel all that scary when compared to the rise of global fascism or climate change, which won’t simply wipe out most of us in one really bad Tuesday afternoon, but will slowly steamroll over us until all the machinations that make up our civilization become untenable and broken. The slow-burn apocalypse we’re (maybe?) seeing the beginnings of will almost certainly hit different than the War of the Worlds inspired literature we’re inundated with. 

As is the nature of history, this isn’t the first time things have felt like an old car slowly breaking down rather than a head-on collision, and the creeping dread we feel watching the coronavirus spread and scientists reveal that climate change is happening much faster than we thought has been captured on the page already. Because before the advent of our current Hell World, the slow apocalypse was the subject of several terrifying and timeless novels.

For starters, it’s easy to imagine the teen protagonist of Jim Shepard’s 1990 novel Lights Out in the Reptile House dying first if the authoritarian government he lives under decided to institute their own Hunger Games. Karel Shroeder is a shy 14-year-old who is too wrapped up in his internship at the titular reptile house at his local zoo and his crush on a girl named Leda to be concerned about the increasingly restrictive rule of the Party that has seized power in his unnamed home country. Karel is apolitical and believes he will be able to remain so if he minds his own business. When the government closes all schools and begins hauling away neighbors for hard-to-define infractions against the state, he is aware of the events as irregularities, but sees them more as an inconvenience to the way he’d prefer to live rather than as a direct danger to himself.

When Karel asks his father about hearing shouting in the night, his father merely replies that it’s the type of thing that happens “Nowadays.” The narrator follows up by clarifying “‘Nowadays’ was a common euphemism for the regime.” Karel isn’t oblivious to the rise of fascism, but it isn’t until much later in the book that he’s given the firsthand experience to understand exactly how grim the world his government is creating for its citizens really is. 

Leda is the Katniss Everdeen figure of the novel, struggling against fascism even though she knows it puts her in immense danger. Unfortunately for her, she isn’t living in a world where fascists make political dissidents the stars of reality TV competitions. As has been the hallmark of many actual authoritarian governments, dissidents (and people perceived to be dissidents) in Karel and Leda’s world are merely rounded up, tortured for information about their co-conspirers and then disposed of. 

All of which is to say, Leda understands the end game of her government’s increasing crackdown long before Karel. We’re introduced to her bemoaning to Karel about an insipid comment about the state of their world made by someone sitting next to her on the bus: “Strict rules don’t last for long.” 

And perhaps the government in Lights Out in the Reptile House will indeed crumble in short order. Although the book only gives the reader scraps of information, in line with Karel’s apolitical worldview, it’s clear that the increasingly strong grip of the state’s hand is a reaction to a war they seem to be having trouble winning against a rebel group. That perspective will be cold comfort to Karel by the end of the novel. Even though he hoped to run out the clock on fascism, he learns the hard way that when a government turns to violence against its citizenry to maintain power, there are only two sides — the government and its people.

Karel bears more than a little similarity to the protagonist of Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee. Like Karel, Michael K is living in a country on the brink, but instead of Karel’s fictional unnamed homeland, Michael K lives in Coetzee’s 1980s imagining of the near future when his home country of South Africa has been officially broken by the ruthless authoritarianism of the apartheid regime. Civil war has erupted, plunging a country already rocked by regular political violence into full-on anarchy. 

Michael K is also a character attempting to remain apolitical in a world where the ramifications of politics are unavoidable. At the beginning of the novel, he is living a life of social isolation working as a municipal groundskeeper in Cape Town and caring for his ailing mother. He is painfully timid and passive. The preservation of his simple life is his main motivation for getting out of bed and going to work every day. 

This is disrupted when Cape Town becomes one of the front lines of the conflict. Michael K reluctantly flees to the country, where he searches in vain for a place where he can escape the war. He ends up in internment camps, abandoned farmhouses, and eventually, a cave, where he sleeps during the day to avoid interaction with the outside world and wakes at night only to tend to a small garden. 

Both protagonists attempt to push the fact that the lives they’d known before are ending to the periphery of their attention until it’s no longer possible to ignore. Because of this, the signs and events that often get highlighted as inflection points by those who are politically engaged or utilizing historic hindsight come across as just another roadblock, like losing a job or having a fight with your partner.  

These roadblocks beguile the characters in another atypical apocalypse novel as well — Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders, which images the events of an actual societal collapse. 

From the 10th to 15th centuries, a far-flung outpost of Norse society existed on the western coast of Greenland. They lived in isolation from the indigenous Thule and Dorset cultures, and their brethren in Europe, with whom they had regular, but infrequent, contact thanks to trading ships from Norway and Iceland. After 500 years of a distinct and continuously sustained culture, the Greenlandic Norse seem to have fled their settlements, or died off — nobody really knows, as there is no historic record of the end of this culture. 

In the final years of their civilization, communications with Europe were growing less and less frequent (supply runs to Greenland got put on the backburner when the black plague ravaged the continent in the 14th and 15th centuries), and so, historians believe it wasn’t until over a hundred years after the Greenlandic Norse culture actually collapsed that anybody thought to check in on them, finding nothing but ruins in the process. 

The Greenlanders is specifically about this final century of their existence. But while Shepard’s and Coetzee’s work centers itself acutely in the crux of societal collapse, Smiley draws out the fall of the Greenlandic Norse in a way that illustrates exactly how intangible such events usually feel. By the time we’re introduced to the first of several generations of characters, the civilization has already begun its decline. Hauk Gunnarson, uncle of eventual protagonists Margret and Gunnar, is the last person in the colony who knows how to lead hunts in the island’s rugged northern extremes from which important trade goods like narwahl tusks are procured. When he dies suddenly in a hunting accident, that knowledge is lost with him, and we see through the propulsive narrative — years are often passed in the length of a sentence — that these expeditions transform from the regular trappings of life to almost mythical tales of a time gone by. 

The power of Smiley’s narrative is that we have the opportunity to observe a society perform the uncomfortable contortions of people trying to navigate the end of a culture. A season of bad weather begets another until untenable farming conditions are the new normal. The Greenlanders didn’t know at the time that they were experiencing climate change courtesy of a period scientists now refer to as the Little Ice Age. As one character notes, “My wife and her father say that even the weather is worse, and every year worse. I know this, that in the earlier days, a man who wished to take a ship and sail away for wealth and adventure had but to wait a year or so, and now he may see the birth of many children before he sees a single ship.” 

Despite the radically different subject matter, this is what makes The Greenlanders such a vital companion piece to more immediate stories like Life & Times of Michael K and Lights Out in the Reptile House. We are able to confirm what it is like to pass through the Rubicon of “it couldn’t happen here” to making the decision to abandon one’s home, let the churches of your community crumble and seek shelter in the wilderness. Toward the end of the novel, Gunnar observes the way his society has crumbled into lawlessness. “If disputes arose, then you must settle them or fight about them, and if men are killed in these fights, then the disputes are settled in that way,” he says, before coming to the conclusion that “the end of the world was upon the Greenlanders, at least.”

None of these books offer much hope to those of us who are acutely aware of the rise of authoritarianism across the world and its eventual ramifications, but their depictions of the apocalypse, societal collapse, ruination — whatever we want to call it — are a great source of commissary. The truth is, most of us aren’t Katniss Everdeen, we’re Karel, Michael K and the Greenlanders, just regular folks bestowed with the fate to witness something extraordinary and terrible at the same time.