Science fiction, according to Frederick Kreuziger, is our secular apocalyptic literature. Though God and the devil usually don't make appearances, the nightmare futures, cataclysmic conflicts, and techno-utopias of science fiction easily compete with the more colorful sections of the Book of Revelation. Religion isn't necessary for a good story of end times anxiety and promise.
Anti-apocalyptic fiction's emergence into mainstream culture from precedents in science fiction and fantasy is therefore doubly surprising. Like its Christian apocalyptic contemporaries (e.g., the Left Behind books), anti-apocalyptic fiction accepts the premises and imagery of the biblical account of the end times. In particular, anti-apocalyptic fiction accepts the reality of a central element of the Christian apocalyptic account: an imminent conflict between non-human cosmic forces for the fate of humanity. But unlike Christian fiction and many science fiction works, anti-apocalyptic fiction uses Christian end times imagery to question the terms of the Christian end-of-the-world vision.
First, anti-apocalyptic fiction stresses the undesirability, avoidability or downright silliness of the apocalyptic conflict from a human perspective. The happy ending isn't winning the final battle, it's avoiding the final battle altogether. Second, the victor, or at least the protagonist, of the anti-apocalyptic genre is neither of the cosmic forces, but humanity, thus subverting the Christian idea of the triumph of Good without resorting to a simple inversion (the triumph of Evil).
Some works cloak this pattern in allegory, while others are quite explicit. The "cosmic forces" may be Good versus Evil, Heaven versus Hell or angels versus demons, or presented in a fairly obvious allegory to one of the above dualisms (aliens who look like angels and demons). "Humanity" may be expanded to include all sentient beings in the galaxy.
Examples of this anti-apocalyptic genre are found in all the major media. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens, the story of an Antichrist who goes native, is the best literary example. Good Omens takes the Christian apocalyptic script mostly at its word. The Antichrist is born, and both Good and Evil maneuver for the final showdown as the various signs of the apocalypse manifest themselves (for example, the four horsemen, who appear on motorcycles). Christian fiction often has the Antichrist raised by a politically powerful and satanically influenced family; here, a normal family raises the Antichrist (named, amusingly, Adam Young). The Antichrist becomes the incarnation of humanity instead of Good or Evil, much to the chagrin of both Heaven and Hell. When at last Armageddon is at hand, he refuses to participate, defying both the Heavenly hosts and his infernal father, but supported by the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, who've both been on Earth long enough to develop a sympathy for the natives.
One brief selection from Adam's final monologue sums up the position of this 11-year-old humanized Antichrist.
"'I just don't see why everyone and everything has to be burned up and everything,' Adam said. 'Millions of fish an' whales an,' an' sheep and stuff. An' not even for anything important. Jus' to see who's got the best gang. . . . But even if you win, you can't really beat the other side, because you don't really want to. I mean, not for good. You'll just start all over again. You'll just keep on sending people . . . to mess people around. It's hard enough bein' people as it is, without other people coming and messin' you around.'" (p. 322)
At the end of the novel, God gives implicit approval to the results of Adam's defiance and thereby to humankind's coming of age. Also implied is that any future conflict will be Heaven and Hell together against humanity. This is not a simple comic inversion of the apocalyptic story (the Antichrist does not become the Messiah), but a much more radical retelling.
Another example of anti-apocalyptic fiction is Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality series. The last two volumes, For Love of Evil and And Eternity, focus on Satan and God, who like the other Incarnations of timeless principles (Death, Time, War, etc.) are human in origin. Their offices are eternal, but the particular occupants of the position are not. Therefore, on the cusp of World War III, the current Christian God is booted out for incompetent narcissism and replaced with a woman.
The Incarnations would seem to represent absolute, uncompromising principles. The tension in the series, however, is how the Incarnations subvert the principles they represent to meet their own human needs, to meet the needs of humanity generally and to serve a higher morality than the unalterable rules of Good and Evil. The other Incarnations generally oppose Satan/Evil, but they all cooperate against Chaos. "Good" does not mean Christian, as Christian belief is just one of several valid frameworks for viewing reality. The person ultimately chosen for the job of God has herself experienced evil and can empathize with the problems facing humanity. On the other side, Satan is conscious of serving the greater good by representing Evil, and participates positively in the selection of the new God.
Philip Pullman's children's fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, fits within the anti-apocalyptic genre, though at times it appears to merely invert the usual apocalyptic scenario. The books, The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, follow the adventures of Lyra and Will, two children who become caught up in a second rebellion against God (or at least, the supreme angel who has been claiming to be God) and his oppressive church on Earth. This time, the rebellion is led by humans, with angels following our lead. Though there is an apocalyptic battle, the result of the battle is that both the leaders of the rebellion and God and his lieutenant are destroyed. This leaves the universe in a status quo ante in which humans will have the freedom to choose their own destiny. Instead of an apocalyptic resurrection of the dead, Lyra and Will help the dead escape to oblivion. Instead of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, Lyra and Will begin the establishment of a Republic of Heaven with a reenactment of the Fall of Man. Pullman has said that he views his trilogy as an alternative to the Christian allegory of C.S. Lewis1.
On television, the main story arc of the series Babylon 5, in which humanity tells alien angels and demons to get out of our galaxy, is a clear instance of the anti-apocalyptic. The members of one alien race, the Vorlons, have the forms of angels, while another race, the Shadows, are clearly the devils. At first, the plot seems biblical by way of Tolkien: the older Vorlon angels mentor the younger alien races in the fight against the Shadow demons. However, it soon becomes clear to the younger races that the older aliens are fighting for ideological control of the galaxy as representatives of the principles of order versus chaos, and have very little concern for the younger races except as tools in that fight. Humankind's responses to the appearances of the respective older alien races were conditioned in the infancy of our species, and do not necessarily reflect the good or evil of the Vorlons or the Shadows. In the final showdown (with all the nations of the galaxy gathered together), the younger races assert their independence of the conflict. The meta-humanity of the younger races informs the older races that we have outgrown their simplistic dualism and can make our own mistakes and progress.
If there is a character representing a transcendent God in this story, it is the First One, the first sentient being of our galaxy, who brings about the situation in which the conflict can come to a head. The First One mediates the exit of the older alien races, particularly the Vorlons and the Shadows, from the galaxy, leaving it for the younger species. There is also a Christ figure: Captain Sheridan must die in order to contact the First One, who brings him back to life. The First One is not divine, however, and Sheridan is only a "good man."
Babylon 5 contains sufficient apocalyptic lore that its subversion of the Christian apocalyptic story is not likely to be accidental. For example, the series uses a "three ages" scheme, which seems to correspond with the three ages of the medieval apocalyptic prophet Joachim of Fiore. Later interpreters of Joachim of Fiore set the onset of his third age and corresponding apocalyptic conflict at 1260. In Babylon 5, the apocalyptic conflict comes at the onset of the "third age of man," and the series is set in the period leading up to the Shadow War in the year 2260 (one thousand years after the prophetic year of 1260). The Shadows were locked in the pit of their home planet for a thousand years, meaning the previous war against them ended around 1260. Captain Sheridan describes the three ages in terms echoing Joachim of Fiore: "It's a new age. We began in chaos, too primitive to make our own decisions. Then we were manipulated from outside by forces that thought they knew what was best for us. . . . Now we're finally standing on our own."2
Other apocalyptic references abound. The very name "Babylon" echoes with Biblical significance -- besides the reference to the Tower of Babel, there is the apocalyptic reference to the Whore of Babylon from Revelation. The catchphrases for Babylon 5, the "last best hope for peace" and then later the "last best hope for victory" echoed both Reagan's "the last best hope of man on earth" and Lincoln's "last best hope of earth," both of which are imbued with the apocalyptic feeling of their speakers.
Joe Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5, put the climactic episode in a psychological context. "The episode is really about metaphorically killing your parents. . . . The infant has to become the adult and say, 'I have to go on without you from now on.' Very often the parent can forget that the job is to create a person, not just turn out someone who will obey you."3 This description would seem to apply equally to other anti-apocalyptic works.
In film, the examples are not as clear-cut, but the movie Dogma, the angelic Prophecy films, Hal Hartley's The Book of Life, and the South Park movie (with the South Park TV episode "Damien") contain the main ideas of the genre. But my personal favorite representatives of the genre are the DC Vertigo line of comic books (e.g., The Books of Magic, Hellblazer, The Invisibles, Preacher), which are at times downright militant in their anti-apocalyptic view and opposition to the hierarchies of Heaven and Hell.
The most outrageous example from the Vertigo line is the Preacher series. The main character, Jesse, the "preacher" of the title, finds that he shares his body with a being named Genesis, the child of a liaison between an angel and a demon. Upon the birth of Genesis, God leaves his post in Heaven and hides on Earth. Jesse and Genesis decide to hunt down God and make him answer for the evils of Creation. (The devil has been destroyed earlier by the Saint of Killers, a gunslinger who has become the Angel of Death). Along the way, they beat up angels and human apocalyptic conspirators. Jesse himself is no saint, but he embodies the cowboy virtues. The storyline ended in the fall of 2000 with Jesse and the Saint of Killers successfully conspiring to gun down God. Preacher writer Garth Ennis clearly feels that humans at their best are morally superior to our conceptions of God and the devil.
Why do we only see the emergence into the mainstream of anti-apocalyptic fiction within the last decade, alongside the emergence of fundamentalist Christian apocalyptic fiction? After all, science fiction writers have been using Christian imagery for subversive purposes for decades. Why is this form popular now?
The main block to anti-apocalyptic fiction entering mainstream culture may have been simply the blasphemous nature of the project. Telling Heaven and Hell to take a hike, whether literally as in the book Good Omens or allegorically as in Babylon 5, is still cultural dynamite. Another inhibition may have been that science fiction with its action-oriented audience is often more at home with all-out apocalyptic conflicts than anti-apocalyptic resolutions.
There are several possible reasons that authors and audiences overcame these inhibitions. First, the disintegration of the simple dualism of the Cold War may have helped to generate a societal distrust of all simple dualisms, even that of Good versus Evil. Second, in part in response to Christian apocalyptic speculation, there may have been a growing belief in the 1990s that taking the apocalypse too seriously was the real Y2K problem (hence, the frequent use of humor in the genre). Or conversely, one could argue that the vision of a mature humanity outgrowing the apocalypse is a redirection (and not a repression) of the millennial impulses and tensions existing prior to the years 2000 to 2001.
The form required some cultural groundwork. The most important element in creating anti-apocalyptic stories was the development of science fiction stories which treated Good and Evil as ideological forces such as order versus chaos rather than as strictly moral choices, and which treated Christianity as another set of myths to be retold. Authors such as Roger Zelazny had mined non-Christian religions (modern and ancient) in this fashion. But authors such as Harlan Ellison in "The Deathbird" and Arthur C. Clarke in Childhood's End boldly inverted the Christian end times story. Ellison, inspired in part by Twain, made his satanic alien the good guy; Clarke made his satanic aliens the reluctant servants of an all-absorbing god. Robert Heinlein's Job delightfully romps through the Christian end times, and would nearly fit my anti-apocalyptic model except that it does have an apocalypse and humanity remains subservient.
These developments within science fiction and fantasy were aided by cultural developments outside the genres: the popularization of the ideas of postmodernism, a demonstrated popular taste for blasphemy and the American "sympathy for the devil" -- that is, a fondness for antiheroes, an acceptance of alternative religious views of evil or a loss altogether of a sense of evil. Finally, several scholars and writers on apocalyptic beliefs such as Lee Quinby and Stephen O'Leary have called for new visions to supplant violent apocalypticism.
Anti-apocalyptic fiction offers us a vision of humanity's importance. It is only a new vision in the context of Christian end times belief. The Christian apocalyptic conflict may be viewed as a conflict among three spheres: Heaven, Hell, and humankind or Earth. In the Christian telling of the end times, a clear hierarchy emerges, in which angels and other Heavenly powers are superior to demons and humankind, and demons are superior to unsaved humans. Humankind is generally a passive participant.
In anti-apocalyptic fiction, on the other hand, humans are placed above both angels and demons. However, God (or his allegorical counterpart) is usually accepted as the master arbiter. This is either because the anti-apocalyptic resolution is about moving closer to God or because the mediation of God mitigates the blasphemous implications of the work by clarifying that humankind is not overthrowing God, just his angels. Also, the change in human importance does not mean that the anti-apocalyptic resolution is a pop Hegelian final synthesis of Good and Evil in a transcendent humanity; instead, the anti-apocalyptic work usually highlights a maturation of understanding, and the continued free interplay, of the contraries in human nature.
The change in humanity's cosmic position often comes about through the loyalty and respect of our fellow humans. Anti-apocalyptic fiction relates humanity's ability to come together in our diversity to our ability to morally transcend the ideological dispute between the cosmic hierarchies. It is our moral maturity towards each other that demonstrates that we have grown up.
The anti-apocalyptic story is an attractive one for humanists. But in the context of concerns about millennial and apocalyptic groups and themes, how effective is it as a vehicle for the humanist argument? We might on the one hand view these fictional works as healthy releases from or antidotes to millennial tension or, on the other hand, view the more extreme forms as contributors to such tension. Anti-apocalyptic fiction opposes the idea of an end times conflict, but its often blasphemous nature generates conflicts in the present with religious groups. Works such as the film Dogma and the comic book Preacher go out of their way to offend. Some Christians are likely to view the anti-apocalyptic genre as fulfillment of the end times prophecy of "mocking, sneering" people who ask "Where is the promise of his coming?" (II Peter 3:3-4)
However, anti-apocalyptic fiction may have reached a broader audience than any milder and less entertaining non-fiction expression of humanist belief. And the inherently blasphemous nature of the anti-apocalyptic works is mitigated by their fictional nature. One can argue that the transformation into this particular sort of pop culture object has both undermined and reinforced the humanist argument in anti-apocalyptic fiction.
Is the end nigh for anti-apocalyptic fiction? The surge in these fictional efforts in the late 1990s in part anticipated the years 2000 to 2001. With our country's mini-apocalyptic moment of September 11th, sales of Christian apocalyptic works surged, seemingly inviting an anti-apocalyptic response. But the ironic wit and blasphemy of the anti-apocalyptic form seem to be at least temporarily out of fashion. Has the positive, anti-apocalyptic vision of the future deflated with our economic and global prospects?
Personally, I would hope not. As long as American apocalypticism remains prevalent and aggressive, some form of anti-apocalyptic writing should continue as well. A genre that pricks the pretensions of our doomsayers and exalts our common humanity is a healthy thing to have around.
Tom Doyle is a full-time writer and a part-time millennial scholar. His article on "Christian Apocalyptic Fiction" recently appeared in Strange Horizons, and his two-part full-length paper on Christian apocalyptic fiction and anti-apocalyptic fiction can be found in the Journal for Millennial Studies.
1 Sarah Lyall, The Man Who Dared Make Religion the Villain. N.Y. Times, Nov. 7, 2000: B1, B7.
2 Babylon 5, "Into the Fire," as quoted by Jane Killick, Babylon 5 Season by Season: No Surrender, No Retreat. New York: Del Rey, 1998, 68.
3 Killick, Babylon 5 Season by Season: No Surrender, No Retreat, 72.
Some Anti-Apocalyptic Fiction and Related Works of Fiction
Anthony, Piers. The Incarnations of Immortality Series:
- On a Pale Horse. New York: Ballantine Books, 1983.
- Bearing an Hourglass. New York: Ballantine Books, 1984.
- With a Tangled Skein. New York: Ballantine Books, 1985.
- Wielding a Red Sword. New York, Ballantine Books, 1986.
- Being a Green Mother. New York: Ballantine Books, 1987.
- For Love of Evil. New York: Avon Books, 1988.
- And Eternity. New York: Avon Books, 1991.
- Bearing an Hourglass. New York: Ballantine Books, 1984.
Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood's End. New York, Ballantine Books, 1953.
Ellison, Harlan. "The Deathbird," Deathbird Stories. Bluejay Books, 1983.
Gaiman, Neil and Pratchett, Terry. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. New York: Workman Publishing 1990.
Heinlein, Robert. Job: A Comedy of Justice. New York: Ballantine Books, 1984.
Pullman, Philip. His Dark Materials:
- The Golden Compass. New York: Ballantine Books, 1997.
- The Subtle Knife. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.
- The Amber Spyglass. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
- The Subtle Knife. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.
Zelazny, Roger. Creatures of Light and Darkness. New York: Avon, 1969.
-- Lord of Light. New York: Avon, 1967.
Some Relevant Scholarship
Doyle, Thomas M. "Competing Fictions: The Uses of Christian Apocalyptic Imagery in Contemporary Popular Fictional Works. Part One: Premillennialist Apocalyptic Fictions," Journal for Millennial Studies, Winter 2001.
Fredericks, Casey. The Future of Eternity. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982.
Kreuziger, Frederick A. Apocalypse and Science Fiction: A Dialectic of Religious and Secular Soteriologies. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982.
-- The Religion of Science Fiction. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1986.
Loos, Amanda. "But That's Crazy!": The Apocalyptic Imagination in Recent Western Cinema. Thesis: University of South Florida, 1999.
O'Leary, Stephen D. Arguing the Apocalypse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Quinby, Lee. Millennial Seduction. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.