“‘There’s a logic to what you’re saying,’ said Theophilus, ‘but, being insane, I cannot grasp it.'”
If you’ve read this blog before you may be aware that post-apocalyptic fiction is my genre of choice. The reason for the catastrophe is largely irrelevant: zombies; aliens; disease, even nanobots gone wild. Something about the notion of mankind reduced to a bare minimum and forced to adapt and survive just gets my gears going. How I’ve managed to miss this book so far is a mystery to me, it deserves to be a classic in the canon of post-apocalyptica. Why so special?
It’s 1995 and the threat of nuclear conflict looms large over the world. George Paxton, everyday man and tombstone engraver, dreams of buying SCOPA suits for his family, supposedly guaranteeing their safety in any such war, but they remain forever out of reach for a man of his means. Until, that is, an eccentric gentleman in the hat trade approaches him with an offer of a golden suit, specially made, better than any SCOPA. He just needs to sign the contract and his precious daughter will be assured protection. No sooner is the paper signed than the inevitable happens and humanity is reduced to ashes.
George, miraculously unharmed in the conflagration, wanders through the remnants of his quiet little town, passing through hordes of shambling casualties, their precious SCOPAs hanging in tatters. Searching for his family through the ashes of former homes, he is about to give up hope when a helicopter descends from nowhere, transporting to the safety of a US submarine bound for Antarctica and the last bastion of mankind. What seems like a rescue soon turns sour however, as George and five fellow survivors soon find themselves trapped in a nightmare. Their rescuers are no less than the manifestations of all the potential future humans whose existence has been denied by his generation’s folly. He and his acquaintances are to be put on trial for nothing less than the murder of the future and the squandering of all of human history.
Such is the set-up for This Is The Way The World Ends, both a powerful work of science fiction and a viciously sharp satire mocking the skewed logic which peppered the Cold War era. The book could easily have been written by Joseph Heller, being reminiscent of his classic Catch-22 both in the style of language and in the explorations of the ludicrous ends to which bureaucracy and government thought inevitably lead. James Morrow is a master at exposing the absurdities at the heart of the nuclear arms race and the justifications provided by the masters of war who push for its continuation.
In a truly novel twist, This Is The Way The World Ends borrows its form and main characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland, paying tribute to the paradoxes and logical puzzles found within. You’ll find the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, even Tweedledum and Tweedledee all making appearances and lending to the surreal, dreamlike appearance of the post-apocalyptic section of the novel.
Morrow has a wicked way with words and the entirety of This Is The Way The World Ends is endlessly quotable, as with the Mad Hatter’s line at the beginning of the review. In reference to his protagonist’s liberal religious leanings – Paxton is a Unitarian – he has him exclaim, “‘Find my family, God!'”, only to note immediately that “There are no Unitarians in thermonuclear holocausts”. This knack for turning a phrase goes into overdrive during the trial, with the Defense Secretary noting that in case of a first strike by enemy forces “‘We owe it to all those millions of dead people to make more millions of dead people.'” As amusing as it sounds at first, mirth soon turns to chills as you realise that those words could as easily have come from Reagan or Thatcher at the peak of their respective reigns. It’s the kind of warped worldview which Stanley Kubrick nailed in Dr. Strangelove.
This is The Way The World Ends is a wonderfully original, well-rounded and magical treatment of a horrible and plausible scenario. Unlike much of the genre it eschews the gore and grit of the aftermath to ask the question of how we got there in the first place. Morrow doesn’t shy away from any of the more unpleasant avenues down which his story leads, the discomfort being more intellectual than visceral and as such often even more unsettling. Perhaps it loses its way a little towards the ending, the post-trial segment seeming a little rushed and disjointed, but this is more than made up for by the remainder of the book.
One for fans of Heller, Carroll, Kubrick, post-apocalyptica and interesting political musings.