There is a peculiar sub-genre of science-fiction that deals with the total destruction of all human life, and it is a subject whose books and films are legion. In stories ranging from When Worlds Collide to The Killing Star, Humanity has suffered that most dire of fates, its light going out in the Universe either through the whims of Nature, aliens or its own stupidity or pride. What is it that prompts an author to explore such a nightmarish subject? Is it the exorcism of a primordial fear or a middle finger raised towards Humanity like a monument of disdain for pains that the author suffered over his or her lifetime? Whatever the case, the depiction of human extinction is a painful subject which only science-fiction seems capable of addressing as far as literature is concerned. The intent of this essay is to try and unravel the various strands that make up this genre, hopefully to help the reader deal with the nightmares that such literature might produce.
We live in the midst of death. It happens all the time. From newspaper reports of bombings and disease quotas to the roadkill that lies by the side of the road, we’re constantly reminded of the fact that nothing lasts forever, at least in this world, and that includes our own lives. If that weren’t enough, paleontological research has detailed five major extinctions during Earth’s history in which large numbers of species suddenly died out at once. That’s bad. And if it couldn’t get any worse, scientists have suggested that the Earth is now in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, brought on by yours truly: Humanity. Given the amount of extinction that has occurred in the past and the possibility that it might be occurring now (and on into the future), it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination for a science-fiction writer to come up with the idea of human extinction as a plausible storyline. The only problem is figuring out how to pull it off. Figure out the mechanism and the drama will follow.
When Worlds Collide stands out as a major contribution to the genre, even though it isn’t a pure example of the extinction genre. Somebody survives, after all. The story is a harrowing tale of the passage of a double planetary system, Bronson Alpha and Bronson Beta, into the Solar System and the eventual collision of Bronson Alpha with the Earth. The event is likened in the book to the splattering of a pea against a sixteen inch naval artillery shell. The descriptions of Bronson Alpha’s passage and the havoc its gravitational field plays with the Earth are some of the most terrifying in science-fiction literature. The shifting of oceans from their beds and the eruption of volcanoes throughout the Earth’s crust are awesome displays and most of the Earth’s population dies during the planet’s first passage. Only a handful of survivors scattered over the Earth’s surface manage to build and launch spaceships capable of reaching Bronson Beta and the rest of the population is left behind to die. The film version of When Worlds Collide had its flaws, but it still managed to capture the desperation and terror of Those Last Days.
When Worlds Collide was an example of the capriciousness of Nature when it comes to the survival of Humanity. Shit happens and sometimes it occurs in the form of a planet the size of Uranus passing through the Solar System. When Mauna Loa erupts on Hawaii and sends a stream of lava cascading down its slope, most people don’t spend their time protesting against the volcano, even if the lava threatens this or that town. When it comes to the works of Nature, the best thing to do is get out of its way.
Sometimes, of course, we’re not able to do that and therein lies the tragedy. In the poignant story ‘The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes’, Herbert Bittman is a young teenager gifted with precognitive skills who has achieved notoriety by making his predictions on television. Herbert sees something in the future that is so terrible that he decides to lie to his audience, telling them a world-wide utopia is coming and will arrive tomorrow. Amidst all of the rejoicing, Herbie confides in an unknown narrator that he would not have been able to understand the vision without his interest in astronomy. ‘Tomorrow, the sun will explode,’ he says in one of the most chilling ending sentences in science-fiction. There is nothing that Humanity can do to avert or even escape such a catastrophe and the reader is left with an understanding of what global mortality must feel like.
And it is an emotional response that this or any author is aiming for, the sensation of universal loss that such an event would produce. The Universe can be a pretty hostile place and perhaps the author is attempting to imbue the reader with a sense of just how precious life can be in the midst of so much danger. Sometimes, however, the stories that deal with the extinction of Humanity have a moral edge when our demise is caused by our own culpability.
The engines that we craft towards our own destruction can take numerous forms, all the way from bioengineered super-viruses (The Stand) to a killer satellite network (The Quiet Earth) to talking too much, at least from an electronic standpoint (The Forge of God). In these stories and others, the author is shining a light on human foibles as a warning that such willful actions have consequences too horrible to contemplate. Would anyone embark on such dangerous enterprises if they knew that it would cause the extinction of the human race? Probably not, but our perception of the future is never very accurate and the presence of doubt can call even our best predictions into question. Add the poisonous notion of human pride and it’s a wonder that we’ve managed to last as long as we have.
There are some stories dealing with human extinction that go beyond Natural proclivities or human faults and they probably have the most resonance, i.e. a failure to understand the nature of Evil in the Universe. Greg Bear’s The Forge of God is a good example of such a story since it deals with the destruction of Earth by a horde of self-replicating robots who drop a payload of neutronium and antineutronium into the Earth’s core. Their reason for doing so? Resources. The Earth is essentially a treasure trove of mineral wealth to be exploited, never mind the sentient beings who make it their home. It is somewhat understandable given the fact that human beings don’t usually consider the feelings of ant colonies that might inhabit a coal mine. In this case, however, there is a faction of these machines that oppose such an operation and do what they can to try and prevent it. They fail and the Earth is destroyed, but they instill a sense of revenge in the human survivors by making them watch the Earth converted into a cloud of debris. They even go as far as to call the destruction a crime which is exactly what it is. It is the casting of this event as an evil act that gives The Forge of God such a power of narrative, setting the stage for an act of revenge in the sequel The Anvil of Stars.
Sometimes there is payback after the fact. One particular short story whose title escapes me was interesting: Humanity has gotten too big for its britches and a civilization from Arcturus sends out an armada to whack us. They succeed. The destruction of Earth is total and the armada from Arcturus heads back with the last survivors of Earth in its brig, altogether about twenty souls. Strange things start to happen on the way back. One of the crewmembers commits suicide, an unheard of action and various other deaths start to occur. By the time that the Captain discovers the truth, it is too late. Humanity was, in fact, totally annihilated. The survivors, the vampires, werewolves and other immortal monsters of Humanity’s past are the only ones left and they head towards Arcturus in the serene knowledge that a new hunting ground is about to open up.
The presence of benevolent aliens or even revenge is missing in Charles Pellegrino/George Zebrowski’s The Killing Star, one of the grimmer offerings in a rather grim genre. Their description of Humanity’s destruction at the hands of an enormous kinetic kill weapon traveling at .92C is chilling, especially since there is no warning. A ‘relativistic bomb’ is bad enough being almost impossible to detect, but the engineering of the thing to even account for the rotation of planets (allowing for a full spread of projectiles) is mute testimony to the alien’s murderous intent. And the mopping up hasn’t even begun.
The trials of the survivors as they fight to live is compelling, though the sense of fury over humanity’s genocide seems to be missing for some reason. The authors’ command of science and speculation is spot on, as the characters employ any number of strategies to stay alive: from burrowing into the chromosphere of the Sun to creeping towards the Oort cloud. Perhaps, it is the authors’ suggestion that violence and revenge get in the way of survival, especially when you have so few eggs in one basket. Still, the characters’ reactions to the devastated Earth seem curiously morose, almost devoid of feeling. If ‘one man’s death diminishes me’ according to John Donne, then what about the death of millions, or billions? Is it a black avalanche, completely overwhelming our capacity to feel or even think? It’s interesting that when the planet Alderaan is destroyed in Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi clutches his chest rather than his head. Sometimes disasters are better felt by the spirit than the brain. In a sense, the Force acts as a kind of filter for Kenobi, informing him of the disaster without overwhelming him.
Most of the examples given are not pure extinction narratives since a small contingent of Humanity usually escapes, bearing their grief and memories into the future. It’s always assumed that Humanity would survive such an onslaught given its plucky determination and confidence in its technological abilities. But what if there’s more than simply the need to set up shop somewhere else? What if it’s more than simply the rebuilding of civilization? In Robert Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel, the threat of a Galactic Consortium to ‘rotate’ the Earth out of our plane of existence (without taking our Sun) is a Sword of Damocles hanging over the characters, especially when the character Clifford Russell imagines the fate of the surviving humans in Luna City being left behind and ‘dying of loneliness and despair’. Our existence as social creatures is a fact and even though we might not always like those people that we find in our company, we seem to need them. An extinction narrative is more than just the rather grim depiction of billions of people dying at once. All of us die, spread across 1.5 centuries of time. It is the unraveling of our connections to each other that is so terrible, and though we might not like to admit it, it is probably this that we fear the most, the specter of Loneliness that will never end.
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