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Review by Annabel

O’Connell is an Irish journalist who won the Wellcome Book Prize for his previous title, To Be a Machine (which I reviewed for Shiny here). His exploration of all the different transhuman movements, from cryogenics to calorie restriction via embedding chips in one’s body was absolutely fascinating and a great winner of the prize. I was dying to see what he tackled next…

Little did he know, when embarking on his latest book that we’d be in the first throes of a global pandemic when it was published, and thus the subject he’d chosen to explore would be so timely and appropriate for our current situation. (And don’t you just love that cover illustration?)

Indeed, after a busy year spent promoting To Be A Machine, O’Connell felt rather in limbo, at home with his young son, addicted to the news and watching videos showing polar bears suffering as the ice retreated, “I had come to think of my phone as my eschatology handset, my streaming service of last things,” he says. He couldn’t get started and it was causing him a lot of anxiety, so when his therapist suggested he threw himself into his work, he did.

First stop on his exploration of the worlds of those getting ready for the end of the world was naturally the ‘prepper’ community. He watched hour after hour of videos and read many books, mostly by Americans who, “were involved in the ongoing maintenance of a shared escapist fantasy about the return to an imagined version of the American frontier—to an ideal of the rugged and self-reliant white man, providing for himself and his family, surviving against the odds in a hostile wilderness.”  One author suggested that existing groups like Rotary Club chapters might take charge to police things, which O’Connell recognised as a form of crypto-fascism in disguise. These preppers are universally white middle-aged men with guns who reinforce the patriarchy. What a depressing beginning!

For those with cash to spare, to hunker down in a bunker is an option. O’Connell started his travels by going to South Dakota to visit a now private facility of decommissioned weapons silos  – one could be yours for $25k. The real estate developer is showing him around, “ ‘There’s going to be gangs roaming,’ he said. ‘Cannibals in great numbers. Raping. Pillaging. The have-nots coming after the haves for everything they’ve got. And my question to you is, do you want your daughters to live through that?’” What a sales pitch, eh?

If you’re a billionaire like Peter Thiel, the cofounder of PayPal, you can buy yourself New Zealand citizenship so you can purchase a private wilderness in the mountains and live out the apocalypse in your own Lord of the Rings fantasy utopia. Funnily, one of the influencers of New Zealand as the place to be in this situation is none other than Jacob Rees-Mogg’s father, William, who had co-authored a book with a chap who advises the rich on profiting from adversity: “an obscure libertarian manifesto” about societal breakdown called The Sovereign Individual.

If you’re even richer, your name must be Elon Musk, and you’ll be planning to go to Mars. O’Connell goes to Pasadena to the annual conference of the Mars Society, listening to many lectures about seeking out new worlds and new civilisations (sorry – that’s Star Trek!)  What he hears there does concern him though,

“I kept hearing this word, colonizing, and it seemed to me a strange and revealing choice of terminology, give the significant weight of historical baggage attached to the whole project of colonialism (conquest, slavery, mass murder, subjugation, and so on).” 

O’Connell rather lost me initially with the next chapter. When Dr Seuss’s children’s story, The Lorax, was published in 1971, I’d moved on from picture books, so never got to know the “Once-ler”, the environmental villain who destroys all (but one) of the trees in the Lorax’s land. It is O’Connell’s son’s favourite – and leads to O’Connell going on a wilderness retreat in the Scottish Highlands – no phones, no wifi. Part of the experience is to spend 24 hours in one single spot, he is almost through the period when his meditative calm is interrupted by an RAF Typhoon zooming by,

“This wilderness reserve, this place ostensibly dedicated to the undoing of human damage, was also a training arena for war.”

He saves the most fascinating visit for last though, visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in the Ukraine on an organised tour with his mate Dylan. Early on he realises the irony that, “because it is basically void of human life, it is effectively the largest nature reserve in all of Europe. To enter the Zone, in this sense, is to have one foot in a prelapsarian paradise and the other in a postapocalyptic wasteland.”  The way that the population of Pripyat had to drop their lives to evacuate is brought home by their visit to a school where they wistfully see the pictures that the children had been drawing. This contrasts with the reality that Mark and Dylan are disaster tourists, wallowing in “a kind of apocalyptic kitsch,” consuming a product, which to some degree, has been staged for them.

Finally, back home, O’Connell becomes father again, to a daughter this time, and his summing up a becomes a discussion about the world that we are leaving future generations. His vision is relatively balanced, I wouldn’t say optimistic, but not as fatalistic as I would have imagined at the outset of his journey. I found this book more uneven than To Be A Machine; with its writing-as-therapy style, it’s less even in tone, more introspective and ruminative. O’Connell does build in many interesting intertextual references alongside all the research materials he has to read.

To me the bookending chapters on prepping and Chernobyl were the most fascinating. As a devotee of post-pandemic fiction such as Louise Welsh’s Plague Times Trilogy and Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven plus zombie mayhem in television drama The Walking Dead, the notion that civilisation could end up like the preppers before coming to its senses is particularly scary.

Notes From An Apocalypse has been longlisted for the Wainright Prize for Global Conservation writing. Read more reviews of Wainright longlisted books here.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny editors.

Mark O’Connell, Notes From An Apocalypse (Granta, 2020). 978-1783784066, 252pp., hardback.

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  1. Sounds really interesting Annabel. My children loved The Lorax so I discovered it, and its wonderful ecological message, as an adult. I’m intrigued by this one, but afraid it might make my blood boil too much when I read about what the rich b******s are doing to our planet.

    1. The right-wing male prepper fantasists made my blood boil before we got to the billionaires. Profiting from adversity should be outlawed – those billionaires could do better to follow Bill Gates’ example.

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