There’ve been many stories about the end of civilisation. Right back to War of the Worlds (Wells), through Day of the Triffids (Wyndham) and on to Mostly Harmless (Adams), writers have delighted in killing lots and lots of people. And the trend sees no sign of ending. Even my own work, Chivalry, has the end of nations as its backdrop.
Why is this? What is it in the imagination that leads us to such grim speculation?
I guess that part of it is that there’s something in all of us that shares the fear. There’s a common knowledge (rightly or wrongly) that we are constantly walking at the edge of the abyss. We all have so many worries, many stoked by the media, that we are about to enter a new Dark Age. So it’s easy to come up with a world-destroying mechanism that people will accept, will buy into. We’ve also learned so much more about our planet and the solar system we live in; we’re now so aware of the possibility of a supervolcano plunging us into an instant Ice Age or of a comet doing to us what one did for the dinosaurs so many years ago.
So destroying civilisation is easy and believable.
Another reason is that there are so many ways to tell the story. The hero can be trying to prevent the end of the world, or to rebuild some sort of society or just trying to survive. Or the story could pick up years later, like Tim Arnot’s story Wanted.
Maybe a lot of us subconsciously want society to fracture. We are, after all, a product of millions of years of evolution and for most of this time we’ve lived as small groups. It’s been suggested that humans struggle mentally when living with more that a hundred other people. Which is why most of us know, are related to, interact with, no more than that number despite being surrounded by so many more. And no, Facebook doesn’t count.
Of course, the world in microcosm has already ended many times. The Minoan civilisation ended as a (probable) consequence of the Santorini eruption around 1600 BCE. Believers in climatic determinism can cite a dozen more examples, and once upon a time I knew them too. I’m fairly certain that various collapses in Chinese dynastic history can be linked with periods of famine and environmental downturn.
These events, real or imagined, can provide great inspiration for writers. As well as a ‘true’ historical account of events at the time of great disasters, it’s at least moderately easy to transplant these disasters into different times or places. How about moving the effects of Santorini to Victorian London, or onto a brand new space-station posted at the edge of the solar system?
One of the major sources of inspiration for Chivalry was an academic book called Brittania: The Failed State. Written by Stuart Laycock, it tries to explain why the British abandoned the culture of Rome after the legions had gone. Maybe this is only of academic interest, but I find it fascinating. Laycock’s ideas may not be accepted by the people who matter, but it makes for a good convincing story.
For me, what really ‘clicked’ was the idea of people naturally reverting to old tribal boundaries once an overarching authority had been removed. And that’s what Chivalry became. Not the story: that always remained focussed on the small group of people I’d centred the tale around. But the background. The slow descent into anarchy.
I was always intending to write a sequel (which was going to be called Feudalism until someone said it was a not-very-good title) which showed the transition to a tribal society. That’s not happened. I did start it, and do some planning, but the idea’s stalled. The major problem for me is that I feel I’ve exhausted one of the main devices in Chivalry, which was to set part of the novel in a computer recreation of the Crusaders. Logically I can’t see a way to crowbar that sort of thing into a sequel. But without it I’m missing something; a spark, a flame – something to maintain the thrill of the first book.
Maybe my history books will provide the answer.