A version of this post appeared at the blog io9, on 11/29/08. For more apocalypses, see this post.
TOP TEN APOCALYPSES OF THE RADIUM AGE
1. Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (1930). In his awe-inspiring, tragicomic first novel, Stapledon, a British philosopher and progressivist, ventriloquizes the future history of humankind as related to him telepathically by one of the Last Men — alien descendants of ours who will inhabit Neptune, where they'll face extinction as the sun burns out, some two billion years hence. So what does fate hold in store for us, the First Men? Well, the post-WWI "passionate will for peace and a united world" won't last long, Stapledon's narrator informs readers. Within a century aerial bombs and poison gas will have laid waste to Europe (including Russia), leaving the Chinese and Americans to compete for global military and economic domination. Eventually, a World State will be founded, and peace and prosperity will reign... until Earth's natural energy sources get used up! At that point, civilization will collapse and the First Men will devolve into superstitious savages living in the shadow of their ancestors' skyscrapers — "though for the most part they were of course by now little more than pyramids of debris overgrown with grass and brushwood" — until, after nearly 100,000 years, they'll re-civilize themselves and discover atomic energy. Which they'll use, "after a bout of insane monkeying with the machinery," to inadvertantly annihilate all but 35 men and women, whose mutated descendants will be the Second Men. This sort of thing goes on, and on, and on, entertainingly and soberingly, for 18 generations of humankind. Multiple apocalypses, and all for the price of one novel!
2. William Hope Hodgson, The Night Land: A Love Tale (1912). Hodgson, a British sailor, strongman, and visionary, paints a macabre, fascinating portrait of a frozen future Earth whose few remaining human inhabitants live in a vast underground space created by earthquakes, lit by the glare of lava bubbling up from below, and inhabited by dinosaurs. Worse, at some point in the distant past, overreaching scientists breached "the Barrier of Life" that separated our dimension from one populated by "monstrosities and Forces" — Watching Things, Silent Ones, Hounds, Giants, "Ab-humans," Brutes, enormous slugs and spiders — collectively known as the Slayers. The unnamed narrator, along with apparently every other surviving human, lives trapped in the Last Redoubt, a eight-mile-high metal pyramid-city constructed by their ancestors using now-forgotten technologies. The pyramid is protected from the Slayers, who surround and observe it constantly, by mysterious Powers of Goodness, and also by a massive force-field powered by the "Earth Current" — a Tesla-esque force drawn from the planet itself. Our hero is telepathic, and one day he receives a distress signal that appears to issue from a woman living in a long-forgotten community of humans sequestered in a distant Lesser Pyramid whose power supply is running out. Arming himself with a lightsaber-meets-brushcutter gizmo called a Diskos, and eating nothing but protein pills and powdered water, he sets forth on a mission impossible — into the Night Land.
3. M.P. Shiel, The Purple Cloud (1901). When Brian Aldiss quipped, in reference to PGA SF, that "the period was a welter of variously colored plagues," this is one of the two catastrophes that he must have had in mind; Jack London wrote the other one. Not a pandemic but a deadly vapor that sweeps across the planet — perhaps as some kind of chthonic punishment (as in M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening) for humanity's failure to respect Nature's mysteries — the purple cloud leaves behind only one living human, Adam Jefferson, who'd been away in the Arctic. Sporting an Englishman's idea of a Turkish pasha's get-up, Adam divides his ample time between roaming the world in search of other survivors, building himself a tropical-island castle that would have made Mad King Ludwig jealous, speculating on the nature of the Earth itself (is it intelligent? out to get him?), and burning cities down for fun. It's not much of a plot, but the writing is a delight, as purple as the poison cloud itself: "For oftentimes, both waking and in nightmare, I did not know on which orb I was, nor in which age, but felt my being adrift in the great gulf of space and eternity and circumstance, with no bottom for my consciousness to stand upon, the world all mirage and a strange show to me, and the frontiers of dream and waking lost." (This is how reading the best PGA SF makes you feel, in my experience.) Adam eventually discovers his Eve... but refuses to mate with her, because the human race doesn't deserve a second chance. Will he change his mind? Fun facts: Shiel was an Englishman born and raised in Barbados, an anti-Semite and racist (he coined the phrase "Yellow Peril"), and — according to some critics — a fascist. Ironically, this novel was an inspiration for the classy, anti-racist SF movie, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, in which Harry Belafonte won't mate with the world's last woman... because she's white.
4. Karel Čapek, The Absolute at Large (1922 as Továrna na absolutno; in English in 1927). In the near future (i.e., the Thirties), a Czech scientist invents "perfect combustion," and an industrial concern starts manufacturing an atomic reactor that provides cheap energy — with an unexpected byproduct: God. To be precise, it's the Absolute, the spiritual essence that permeates every particle of matter... or did, anyway, until matter began to be annihilated by the super-efficient Karburetor. Instrumental rationality, and the capitalist cult of efficiency, are satirized brilliantly by Čapek, the Czech absurdist whose 1921 play, R.U.R., first gave us the word "robot." As they're released from imprisoning matter by the Karburetors and Molecular Disintegration Dynamos cranked out in the thousands by Ford Motors (the novel's Czech title means "the factory of the Absolute") and other manufacturers around the world, God-particles infect humankind with wonder-working powers and ecstatic religious sentiments. What's more, the Absolute begins operating factories itself, producing far too many finished goods for anyone to consume: "It wove, spun, knitted, forged, cast, erected, sewed, planed, cut, dug, burned, printed, bleached, refined, cooked, filtered, and pressed for twenty-four to twenty-six hours a day." As a result, economies collapse, unemployment is universal, and from 1944 through 1953, fanatical sects whose -isms (including rationalism, nationalism, and sentimentalism) are religious only in the broadest sense do battle. Every single country on the planet is drawn into the Greatest War, during which everyone invades everyone else, atomic weapons are deployed, and civilization collapses. Now, that's instrumental rationality operating at peak efficiency.
5. Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Moon Maid (Chicago: McClurg, 1926; "The Moon Maid" was serialized in Argosy All-Story, June 22-July 20, 1923; "The Moon Men" was serialized in Argosy All-Story, February 21-March 15, 1925; "The Red Hawk" was serialized in Argosy All-Story, April 20-May 14, 1925). Those of us who grew up reading apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic potboilers like Lucifer's Hammer or Battlefield Earth might find the preceding four titles — as fun to read as they are — a tad slow-moving. Perhaps that's because they weren't written by Americans, or serialized in American pulps? Burroughs's The Moon Maid is a multi-generational, three-books-in-one saga that literally gallops from Julian 5th's crash-landing on the moon, where he makes a daring getaway (with a moon maid in tow) from subhuman Kalkars who dwell in the asteroid's hollow interior; to the same Julian's doomed effort to defeat a Kalkar invasion of Earth; to Julian 9th's failed but inspiring rebellion against the mongrel descendants of the Moon Men, who've presided over the Earthlings' return to a medieval agrarian lifestyle; to the final triumph of Red Hawk (Julian 20th), the leader of a primitive tribe of freedom-fighters who, 400 years after the invasion, finally defeats humankind's overlords — Battlefield Earth-style — in the ruins of Los Angeles. The Julian 9th story, one hears, was originally written after the Bolshevik revolution, and was rejiggered later to fit into the Moon Maid saga: it's a red-blooded example of anticommunist SF that predates Ayn Rand's We the Living and Orwell's Animal Farm by decades. ("We would slay all the Kalkars in the world, and we would sell the land again that men might have pride of ownership and an incentive to labor hard and develop it for their children, for well we knew by long experience that no man will develop land that reverts to the government at death, or that government may take away from him at any moment.") No matter what you may think of its politics, The Moon Maid has been described as "Burroughs' masterpiece of science fiction and a too-often overlooked pioneer work of social extrapolation in science fiction" — which is true.
6. Philip Gordon Wylie & Edwin Balmer, When Worlds Collide (1933). Wylie and Balmer's novel is, for the most part, pre-apocalyptic. The plot details the efforts of The League of the Last Days — an international band of 1,000 brilliant scientists, action heroes, and fertile women (I exaggerate, but not much; the main female character is named Eve!), who've discovered that two rogue planets are entering the sun's orbit, and that while one of these planets (Bronson Alpha) will collide with the Earth, a remnant of humankind might be able to survive on the other (Bronson Beta) — to design, construct, and outfit rocket-arks that will transport a few of their number to safety. We are treated to two terrifying apocalyptic scenes: One, when the rogue planets first pass by the Earth, triggering stupendous cataclysms; and the other, when worlds collide: "The very Earth bulged... It became plastic. It was drawn out egg-shaped. The cracks girdled the globe. A great section of the Earth itself lifted up and peeled away... The two planets struck." But it's the post-apocalyptic scenes that I enjoy most: a deserted, Ballardian Chicago whose skyscrapers are knocked out of plumb; violent, half-naked mobs battling the National Guard in Pittsburgh; an army of hate-filled Midwesterners that nearly succeeds in wrecking the rocket-ship project. Plus, I dig the quasi-Nietzschean philosophizing: "What are morals, fundamentally, Tony?" demands Eve of the novel's protagonist, her fiancé. "Morals are nothing but the code of conduct required of an individual in the best interests of the group of which he's a member. So what's 'moral' here wouldn't be moral at all on Bronson Beta." Eve is explaining, you see, why she won't be faithful to Tony even if they do survive doomsday. Sequel: After Worlds Collide (1934). Fun facts: The book influenced the strip Flash Gordon, while Siegel & Shuster lifted key ideas from both When Worlds Collide and Wylie's earlier SF novel, Gladiator when they created Superman. George Pal's 1951 movie adaptation of Worlds is a sci-fi classic (it inspired the Rocky Horror lyrics "'But When Worlds Collide,'/Said George Pal to his bride,/'I'm gonna give you some terrible thrills'"); one fears that Stephen Sommers's forthcoming adaptation won't be an improvement.
7. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Poison Belt: Being an account of another adventure of Prof. George E. Challenger, Lord John Roxton, Prof. Summerlee, and Mr. E.D. Malone, the discoverers of "The Lost World" (1913). Doyle's first Professor Challenger tale, The Lost World, was a romp through a South American jungle crawling with prehistoric monsters and beast-men. Why, critics have wondered ever since, did he follow it with a yarn that takes place almost entirely in a locked room? (That's Challenger, et al., crowded comically together on the book's spine.) Challenger discovers that the planet is about to be engulfed in a poisonous belt of "ether" (astrophysicists now prefer the term "dark matter"). Inviting his comrades to his home outside London, where he and his wife have laid up a supply of oxygen canisters, which may or may not save their lives, Challenger tells them: "We are assisting at a tremendous and awful function. It is, in my opinion, the end of the world." Barricading themselves into his wife's boudoir, like astronauts strapping themselves into a rocket, the adventurers sit and wait, debating everything from the possibilities of the universe to the "abysses that lie upon either side of our material existence," to the "ideal scientific mind"; meanwhile, the world goes to rack and ruin. True, Poison Belt is a Wellsian exercise, i.e., not nearly as action-packed as Doyle's usual output. But unlike other apocalyptic fictions, which model proper (heroic) action in the face of certain disaster, Doyle's novella models proper behavior — think of Nevil Shute's On the Beach ('57), for example. Also, the coda, in which humankind becomes more socialist, less fanatically religious and political, and generally wiser, is sweet; and Challenger's personal qualities — his scholarly sprezzatura, overweening egotism, and nerves of steel — make him fine company, whether in the jungle or in his wife's boudoir.
8. Jack London, The Scarlet Plague (1915). Although Mary Shelley and M.P. Shiel beat him to the punch, London's post-apocalyptic plague novel has proved more influential on subsequent SF apocalypses — from Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz ('59) to Hoban's Riddley Walker ('80), to Mike Judge's 2006 movie, Idiocracy, for example — whether they're of the pandemic, atomic, or natural-disaster variety. One suspects that Scarlet Plague influenced the Moon Men section of Burroughs's Moon Maid trilogy, too, since the plot begins in 2073, 60 years after a plague has reduced the world's population to a few scattered bands of neolithic scavengers. London's vision, like Burroughs's is an anti-Marxist one: See what happens when the proletariat take over? Everything gets worse, not better! In the post-apocalyptic social order, women are degraded and beaten: Vesta Van Warden, wife of the richest man in America before the plague, we learn from the ancient James Howard Smith, became the chattel of one of her former servants, a man known only as Chauffeur. Predatory nomads — members of the Chauffeur Tribe — named Hoo-Hoo and Har-Lip roam among the ruins of San Francisco. And poor Smith, formerly a professor of literature at UC Berkeley, is reviled by his juniors for being literate: "What I want to know," Edwin continued, "is why you call crab 'toothsome delicacy'? Crab is crab, ain't it? No one I never heard calls it such funny things." Not one of London's most rollicking adventures, but fun and provocative.
9. Edward Shanks, People of the Ruins (1920). Like London's Scarlet Plague, Shanks's pessimistic postwar novel explores a western society in steep decline. During a workers' strike in 1924 London, our protagonist — Jeremy Tuft, an "investigator in physics" — is accidentally frozen by an experimental suspended-animation ray; he wakes up in a medieval-style idiocracy, 150 years hence. Not only have his fellow Englishmen forgotten most of what they used to know, before a worldwide workers' revolution and famine led to civilization's collapse, but they don't particularly care to re-learn any of it. People of the Ruins is mostly an early Sleeper- or Idiocracy-like satire on Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward or Wells's The Sleeper Wakes, novels in which a Rip Van Winkle figure finds himself in a wonderful techno-utopia. However, though he is at first disconcerted by the failure of his era's doctrine of Progress ("He had held the comfortable belief that mankind was advancing in conveniences and the amenities of life by regular and inevitable degrees"), Tuft soon decides that post-civilized life is simpler, more peaceful, safer ("We used to feel that we were living on the edge of a precipice — every man by himself, and all men together, lived in anxiety"). In this sense, People of the Ruins is an early example of the "cozy catastrophe." Either way, it's worth reading — but doesn't get exciting until the brutish northern English tribes join forces with the Welsh and invade London!
10. H.G. Wells, The World Set Free (1914). "It is full of lively ingredients; it has no organic life," writes Aldiss of this book. "Wells the One-Man Think-Tank has burst into view. His books are no longer novels but gospels." Yeah, I probably wouldn't include this book in this Top Ten list if I'd managed to acquire and read J.D. Beresford's Goslings (a plague kills every male in London), or Cicely Hamilton's Theodore Savage (a post-apocalyptic novel by a noted feminist), or John Collier's Tom's A-Cold (I like the title). But I haven't — they're very rare. Also, The World Set Free is the best of Wells's four(!) PGA apocalyptic novels, so its lively ingredients are worth a look. Building on the recent discovery that "the atom, that once we thought hard and impenetrable, and indivisible and final and — lifeless — lifeless, is really a reservoir of immense energy," Wells conjures a 1950s England in which clean, efficient atomic engines have transformed life for the better. Alas, government and education, not to mention social justice, have not kept pace with advances in science and technology, and in the late '50s a world war breaks out. Atomic bombs that never stop exploding wipe out the world's great cities. Worldwide civilization is on the brink of collapse — "the community as a whole was aimless, untrained, and unorganized to the pitch of imbecility"; "there were rumors of cannibalism and hysterical fanaticisms in the valleys of the Semoy and the forest region of the eastern Ardennes" — when, miraculously, a New World Order is formed. But more about that another time. Fun fact: Hungarian-German-American astrophysicist Leó Szilárd, who worked on the Manhattan Project, claimed that The World Set Free helped him conceive of the nuclear chain reaction.