It’s the End of the World by Adam Roberts

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Reviewed by Annabel

I learned a new word this year. ‘Eschatology’ is defined as ‘the part of theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.’ With climate change, the pandemic, and political upheavals, it really feels like we are approaching the end of times, never has it been timelier to use that word.

At the start of the first lockdown, I read Irish journalist Mark O’Connell’s book Notes on the Apocalypse (reviewed here) which looked at physical ways that people are preparing for it. Then I developed an unhealthy obsession binge-watching zombie apocalypse TV series The Walking Dead, I’ve always enjoyed a zombie novel (Charlie Higson’s The Enemy series for older kids are particularly fun). Adam Roberts has previously written one himself with help from Dickens, I Am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas is freely adapted from A Christmas carol, and opens with a splendidly hilarious variation on the original, “Marley was dead, to begin with. Dead for about three minutes, that is: then he got up again.”

Roberts is best known for his numerous science fiction novels, which are quirky and full of fun concepts, (I particularly like the madness in Yellow Blue Tibia). He is Professor of 19th Century Literature at Royal Holloway with many academic works to his name as well.

It’s the End of the World, (I defy you to not continue singing the REM song in your head), is Roberts’s take on eschatology, written during lockdown. It perfectly complements O’Connell’s book, in that it’s about not so much about what people are doing as thinking about catastrophe. Roberts divides the subject into six main themes, together with a substantial introduction to the subject, an epilogue and index.

Before we get onto the themed chapters, Roberts introduces us to a statistical method known as Bayes’ theorem which appears to have a lot to answer for, as it predicts, but doesn’t prove, ‘doom soon’ rather than ‘doom delayed’ for us. (Roberts gives an example to illustrate this. If you had to pick a random ball from two tubs of numbered balls, one with ten, one with hundred balls and you pick ball three, the probability of it coming from from the tub of ten is higher than that of 100, but it isn’t proven, sort of thing.) The ‘doom soon’ and ‘doom delayed’ scenarios will be returned to throughout the book.

The first chapter takes on religious apocalypses of all kinds including Norse mythology. However, a major part is concerned with St John’s Revelations in the Bible. Roberts decodes some of its original context as comment on the Roman rulers of the time, which has ever since been re-mystified and re-obscured for frightening most of us. The thing about the religious apocalypses, is that they tend to lead to rebirth, not a real final ending after all.

Next, Roberts takes on zombies, whose rotting, shambling bodies intent on finding human food are the preferred foe these days, their persistence scaring as much as their appearance. Zombies have come a long way from their Haitian voodoo origins as reanimated corpses under the control of a sorcerer. He looks at their cultural impact on our screens, and how some directors and authors such as Danny Boyle in 28 Days Later, and MR Carey in The Girl With All the Gifts have developed them further into faster, more clever creatures.

He tackles plague next, including covid-19 as this book was finished during lockdown. While never belittling the power of deadly viruses to cause devastation and tragedy, the fear of catching something is palpable, if not realistic as a method of killing us all off. Films like Outbreak in 1995, and the much-loved 1970s BBC TV series Survivors really play to those fears.

My point is that disease plays an actual as well as a fantastical role in our lives, and it is the latter that is often apocalyptic. While the individual experiences of disease can be horrible and may be fatal, it is in the nature of apocalyptic imagining to extrapolate individuality onto the global canvas.

Technical Armageddons come next, from The Matrix to The Terminator, films portray how AI takes over the world, put on screen full of CGI effects, stories from classic SF stoke our fears. We then reach the most scientific types of apocalypses in the final two chapters, the end of the universe in the reverse of the big bang – yes, the big crunch – I kid you not, and climate change, which, let’s face it is closer than most and therefore truly scary. A whole new sub-genre of spec fiction, cli-fi, is preying on our fears now. As before, he combines the science with how it has been portrayed in books and film, and a rational analysis of why each type of world ending is not going to happen, or if it did, soon.

Honed by writing his novels, which are quirky, full of ideas and intertexuality, Roberts’s style in this short non-fiction book is equally fun, he indulges his sense of humour deliberately which makes him an engaging commentator. Coming in just under 200 well-spaced pages, it gives him sufficient space to set out his points, back them up with quotations and references, and entertain the reader with dry asides.

The main theme running through the whole book is the sense of endings bringing forth new beginnings, which occurs in almost all the scenarios he examines. Even though we tend to fear death rather than the world ending, change also brings a potent fear. In this, Roberts has answered the question that forms the sub-title of this book – ‘But what are we really afraid of?’

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors, and really must read more of Adam Roberts’s novels.

Adam Roberts, It’s Not the End of the World (Elliott and Thompson, 2020). 978-1783964741, 202pp., hardback.

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