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Everything Must Go by Dorian Lynskey review – why is it always apocalypse now?

Everything Must Go by Dorian Lynskey review – why is it always apocalypse now?

Throughout the 500-plus pages of Dorian Lynskey’s overview of the art and literature of the end of the world, terrible things are done to the Earth. It is frozen, boiled, irradiated and desiccated. It is bombarded by asteroids, comets and rogue planets; volcanoes and earthquakes destroy it from within. The planet is depopulated, or overpopulated, then riven by pandemics, droughts and disease. The seas drain away or rise, drowning everything. And even if the Earth itself survives, its inhabitants are easy pickings for the genocidal zombies, aliens, robots and artificial intelligences that artists have imagined along the way.

In less skilled hands this 10-Armageddons-a-page pace might make for a depressing read, but Lynskey’s encyclopedic knowledge (we race from James Joyce to Joy Division, from Alan Turing to The Terminator), and his glee at the sheer inventiveness of the doomsayers’ creations, make this an unlikely page-turner.

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The stories we tell about the end of the world divide into two parts. The first half, before the advent of the nuclear bomb, is dominated by the biblical Book of Revelation, the ur-text for Armageddon. Revelation’s power is in its cataclysmic breadth: the four horsemen – war, famine, conquest and death – are a mere amuse bouche for a main course of falling stars, bottomless pits, earthquakes, hail and seas of blood. A whole new genre sprouts in its shadow and it’s a surprisingly highbrow crew who populate it. A chapter on Byron and Mary Shelley notes that at the same time they were inventing gothic horror they were also quietly setting the terms for the disaster tales to come. Byron’s poem Darkness and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man are revealed as the starting points for the likes of The Road and I Am Legend. Their era is the earliest precursor to today’s disaster movies: thrill-seekers queued for hours to see painter John Martin’s vast fiery canvases displayed with nerve-jangling sound and lighting effects.

Hiroshima changes everything. Pre-1945, the end of the world was usually the result of outside forces, either vengeful divinities or natural disasters. If us human beings were involved, it was as miserable sinners whom God might punish or forgive. The advent of the A-bomb wipes away this blamelessness; thereafter the end times are humankind’s responsibility. Now when the Earth is destroyed it’s through our own hubris (or, more terrifyingly, our own mistakes). Fiction and science feed off each other through this new nuclear age: a game of oneupmanship with weapons lifted from the pages of pulp sci-fi and movies such as Dr Strangelove taking the new rules of mutually assured destruction to their (il)logical conclusions. The classic image of postwar times is that of Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, finding the half-buried remains of the Statue of Liberty and realising he’s been on a ruined Earth all along: “We finally really did it… You maniacs. You blew it up.”

The second world war ushered in a golden age of apocalyptic entertainment where each new technological advance – robots, AI, bioengineering – was mined for its world-ending properties. There’s barely a single 20th-century technological advance that writers and film-makers haven’t found a cataclysmic use for. And despite today’s apocalyptic mood, Everything Must Go makes a case for the 1980s being the high-water mark for world-ending entertainments. The cold war, energy crises and a White House populated by a movie star with a taste for apocalyptic literature (and a belief that the Rapture would save the righteous) combine into a worldwide preoccupation with doomsday scenarios.

‘Encyclopedic knowledge’: Dorian LynskeyView image in fullscreen

What of today’s new challenges? Lynskey points out that there has been surprisingly little mainstream climate-related disaster content. Perhaps, he says, it’s because the slow boil of global heating doesn’t lend itself to the spectacle we expect from our on-screen disasters; slowly rising sea levels or single-figure temperature rises are no cinematic match for an asteroid impact. What a tragedy it will be if the climate crisis never gets the kind of blockbuster disaster movie that the A-bomb did. It needs its own Threads or The Day After: TV shows that did more to alert the general public to the horrors of nuclear war than politicians ever did.

Everything Must Go is a curiously entertaining read. Partly there’s the delicious, illicit thrill of imagining the world ending. We need not dread FOMO if everyone goes when we go. There’s also the realisation that despite the vast armoury of world-ending events that human beings have imagined, we’re somehow still here. The Earth may be punch-drunk and battered, but it survives. The biggest appeal of Everything Must Go is that it shows us that every generation from biblical times onward has thought it would be the one to witness Armaggedon. The 1980s, the millennium, the first world war: all saw huge swaths of the population expecting – and sometimes celebrating – the end times. And after each of these deadlines people woke, hungover and faintly embarrassed, to a brand new day. It might feel that in 2024 the ways in which we can wreck the Earth are more numerous and potent than ever, but it was ever thus; the world has always been just about to end.

The Ghost Theatre (Bloomsbury) by Mat Osman is out in paperback now

Source: theguardian.com