There was a moment in the final judging meeting for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award when we invoked W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
It was something about the ordinariness of suffering and disaster, its everydayness. Because we’d realised that each of the books we had chosen, in quite different ways, was about the end of the world.
I’d also been rereading one of Freud’s case studies, in which the patient – not, in fact one of Freud’s patients – imagined that he was living after the end of the world:
At the climax of his illness, […] Schreber became convinced of the imminence of a great catastrophe, of the end of the world. Voices told him that the work of the past 14,000 years had now come to nothing, and that the earth’s allotted span was only 212 years more; and […] he believed that that period had already elapsed. He himself was ‘the only real man left alive’, and the few human shapes that he still saw – the doctor, the attendants, the other patients – he explained as being ‘miracled up, cursorily improvised men’. […] He had various theories of the cause of the catastrophe. At one time he had in mind a process of glaciation owing to the withdrawal of the sun; at another it was to be destruction by an earthquake
Disasters are not new, of course; taking a middle ground definition of science fiction we can see the end of the world in Mary Shelley’s other sf novel, The Last Man, and come close to it in H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. We have the so-called cosy catastrophes of Wyndham and Christopher, Ballard’s ecological psychological disasters. They are perhaps innoculations of fear of the real world ending in disaster – whether it is the ongoing fall out from the economic crash of 2008 with default always just round the corner or the latest salvo in the ongoing culture wars.
Six visions of the end of the world – three women, three men, a range of nationalities, a variety of publishers and a work – sort of – in translation. My thanks to the judges who chose the books and discussed them so passionately at four epic meetings.
Our judges found Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August to be “An unusual take on time travel with communication across generations [and] a metaphor for our lives”. Harry August lives his life over and over again, each time with his memories of the last life intact, trying to get things right. But the end of the world is coming, he is told, and the apocalypse seems to be getting closer all the time. One judge found it “Incredibly immersive” and “didn’t want it to finish”.
Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn is a “soft apocalypse”, a vision of a near-future Europe, Balkanising. Estonian chef Rudi is drawn into a shadowy organisation, whether he likes it or not, and there seems no way out. One judge called it “A novel about fragmentation – [with Europe] both becoming more localised and globalised.” We noted a minor character shared the name and some of the interests of one of our judges – coincidence we hope – and felt that it avoided “a lot of the probable pitfalls” of the near-future, international thriller.
Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things the judges found “Very Ken MacLeod but not MacLeod”, it was “Understated and unsettling and absolutely absorbing”. Christian pastor Peter Leigh is sent on a secretive mission to an alien planet where the indigenous species want to hear the gospel; he is not the first priest to do so, but no one will tell him what went wrong last time. Meanwhile, back on Earth, things are falling apart. We can’t help but read this with memories of Mary Dorian Russell’s The Sparrow, of course, and before that James Blish’s A Case of Conscience.
Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven straddles the apocalypse, both the Georgia flu that begins to wipe out 99% of humanity and the survivors twenty years later. The judges noted that it is “A feel good post apocalypse” and, while many post-apocalypse novels focus on the survival of humanity, this focuses on the survival of culture. According to Auden, “We must love one another or die.” Later he rewrote the line “We must love one another and die.” This novel for the judges, was “An elegy for the hyperglobalised present“.
M.R. Carey’s The Girl with all the Gifts is in the early days of the postapocalypse, some kind of zombie plague where our protagonist or antagonist – the eponymous girl – is among a group of child zombies being experimented on by uninfected survivors. She might hold the answer to humanity’s plight. The judges found it “Very emotional and suspenseful, truly horrifying” and note its move “from humanity to posthumanity” and how it “Worked through its sfnal premise logically”.
And finally, Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water takes us to several generations after some kind of disaster, where water has become scarce, and the protagonist’s father is a tea master, gifted with extra water, but under the constant suspicious eyes of an occupying force. Noria Kaitio looks likely to succeed her father, despite being a woman, but secrets, both of her parents and the half-forgotten pre-apocalypse put her at risk. The judges praised the “Beautiful writing” and “The strength of the relationship” at the heart of the novel. It is “intensely focused, narrow-ranging, almost flawless on its own terms.”
My job here, of course, is to draw connections, but we do have six very different apocalypses, sometimes quite mundane apocalypses, lived apocalypses. I’ll quote Auden again. The Old Masters:
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
And then, of course, we have something amazing – not thankfully a boy falling out of the sky, but a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award.