Post-apocalyptic stories have become a mainstay of popular culture, with many a screed lamenting our supposedly obsessive fantasizing about the fall of civilization. But the twenty-first century certainly did not invent the genre—Jules Verne and H. G. Wells were writing widely read examples in the late nineteenth century, and Mary Shelley’s The First Man was first published in 1826—to say nothing of the apocalyptic visions of the Abrahamic religions or the atomic scares of the Cold War. The truth is, we have always liked to contemplate the end of all we know, perhaps because the cognitive estrangement of imaginatively working through the Götterdämmerung—the twilight of the gods—allows us a safe space to metaphorically work through our own mortality. As the great science fiction author and critic Stanisław Lem argued, this is the role of science fiction: it creates a fictive space in which we may confront our anxieties, our fears, and our existential problems without experiencing the dissonance of the finger pointing directly at us. “What would you do if you knew the world was ending?” is really a coded, safe space in which to ask, “Have you come to accept your own mortality?”
Not all post-apocalypses are created equal, however. While Mad Max (1979) and I Am Legend (1954) may thrill us, they’re essentially survivalist stories about grit and determination. But what about when those aren’t enough? What if there’s nothing at all you can do to stop the end of the world? In the broader post-apocalyptic genre—littered as it is with so much individualistic, great-man hero worship (and occasionally great-woman; I see you, Katniss Everdeen)—is a sub-genre that holds greater potential to examine the human condition: the true apocalypse, the inescapable end of everything. My first encounter with this sub-genre was, like many people’s, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957), and what is particularly compelling about Shute’s novel is the utter helplessness of the characters in the larger ending of all life, and the various ways in which they attempt to come to terms with that knowledge. It’s a microcosm of our lives, for we, too, must all one day die—and while Shute’s fiction is most famous for warning of the dangers of nuclear weapons, it also asks us, momentarily, to confront the inevitability of our individual deaths.
Especially in film, there has recently been a seeming resurgence in entertainment dealing with such ticking-clock, end-of-the-world scenarios, from the emotionally intense (Melancholia ), to the comic yet moving (2012’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), to the darkly satiric (Don’t Look Up ). Marissa Levien’s novel The World Gives Way (2021) circumscribes this territory within the confines of a colony ship heading for a distant star. She starts the clock ticking right in the first chapter by telling both us and the protagonist, Myrra, that “something was wrong with the world. The ship. The world. […] There’s a crack in the hull [….] It’s growing. There is no way to fix it” (p. 22).
If you’re the kind of reader for whom strict adherence to science is necessary for your SF to be enjoyable, you will have some problems with this book. I was distracted in several places throughout: by the slowly widening, irreparable crack; by the particularities of where the land is in this massive vessel and how the gravity operates; by the electric cars with ignitions whose engines turn over loudly; by how rapidly the infant, Charlotte, develops; and so on. There are ways to make a failing starship into a ticking clock that will feel more “sciencey” to readers (Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora  is an excellent example), but what’s important to this story is not the plot device of how the ship will be destroyed—or how it is physically laid out, or how engines work—but rather the fact that one of the main characters knows time is running out, and the dramatic irony that occurs from everyone else not knowing. This latter group includes the novel’s other main character, Tobias, a detective assigned to locate Myrra after she absconds with Charlotte, the daughter of some wealthy suicides. In that sense, the story takes on the scope of a Greek tragedy rather than a hard SF novel. It’s the human level that Levien wants us to focus on, the distorted mirror that, when we peer closer, reveals ourselves.
The novel covers a range of landscapes: the financial and political center of New London; the rustic, cliffside stone city of Nabat; the underwater pleasure town of Palmer; the spiritual and artistic mountain town of Kittimer; a border desert that circles the habitable portions of the ship (like the ice in flat-Earther fantasies); and the space between the outer and inner hulls. For large portions of this journey everything seems to be just a little too conveniently segregated and apportioned. We can say that this makes sense in such a highly engineered space as a generation ship, but after seventy years of habitation it doesn’t quite feel like a believably human space. There’s something fantastically whimsical about many of the settings, too; for example, rather than merely dig up existing sand, the builders ground up glass bottles for their border desert, which self-assembled into differently colored dunes, boggling the logistical mind but presenting a lovely vista and leading us to commentary that is at once evocative and emblematic of what Levien is after in this text: “And that is the miracle of time, how a bottle of Rolling Rock can travel from a dive in Cincinnati through space, through light years, through forms and functions, to one day become a snowflake in a distant galaxy” (p. 222). It’s a lovely thought, and if we ignore again the practicalities (I’d assumed until this moment we were traveling to another solar system within our galaxy, for one thing) we’re left with a richly symbolic image of beauty, time, fragility, and the cold, hard sharpness of space.
There’s a similar thing happening with the characterization here. While Myrra is our initial and most complex protagonist, Tobias feels like more of a trope—the child of con artists raised by a cop who becomes a cop and is now on his first big case—and the infant, Charlotte, is more of a symbol of a baby than a real presence: she disappears from the page for large stretches as Myrra does things like drive through a desert on a scooter all day, and conveniently sleeps whenever Myrra needs to. The secondary characters are as one-dimensional as Charlotte, but without the symbolic power or the excuse of being a babe-in-arms who can’t do much. Tobias’s partner, Simpson, is the gruff veteran who plays by his own rules; the maître d’hotel in Nabat is the owner’s son, a jaded and disaffected youth who dreams of leaving the quaint life for the big city; there’s a wealthy elderly woman with dementia being preyed upon by her nurse/carer; and so on. Aside from Myrra, we’ve seen all of these people before, and I can’t help but wish that the back-and-forth shifts of perspective between Myrra and Tobias hadn’t been such a central organizing principle of the novel—so we could really focus on the former’s desperate yearning and the complicated relationship between her, the orphaned/kidnapped baby Charlotte, and Myrra’s absent mother.
There is, though, a larger theme in the novel of disabusing characters and readers of a belief in things larger than themselves (like society, religion, philosophy, and so on). The nurse/carer character, Rachel, makes the interesting choice to betray Myrra, for example: she imprisons her, and contacts the security forces who are looking for the kidnapper of Charlotte. In practice, this is more of a plot device to amp up the tension and bring Myrra and Tobias together, but it does present some interesting development for Myrra’s character, as she’s been sold out by a fellow indentured servant. It also emphasises, however, that the indentured class can’t even rely on class solidarity in the face of everyone looking out for themselves.
Elsewhere, however, the people Myrra connects with the most are the untouchables, the formerly indentured servants who were cast out and forced to work in dark and dangerous seclusion between the outer and inner hulls, maintaining the functions of the ship. And it’s mostly the rich and powerful who give in to the temptation to escape the end. It isn’t until Chapter Twenty-six that the government finally announces to everyone that the ship is failing and there is no way to save it or themselves. Everyone is going to die. For me, this is where the book really takes off. To be quite frank, until this point I had read the book with mostly idle pleasure, trying to ignore the questions it frequently asked. But when the knowledge of doom is shared across the ship, Levien’s central conceit for the story finally starts to bear its glorious fruit.
We see an entire civilization built on indentured servitude and massive inequality start to unravel, and we come back to that central question: “What would you do if you knew the world was ending?” Naturally, there are a lot of suicides; that’s where the book began, with Myrra’s employers killing themselves after living a year with this secret knowledge. Now that everyone knows, there are of course also the sort of hedonistic activities of people giving in to their basest desires that are familiar from other parts of the sub-genre (for example, in the Purge series of films). But for the most part, most people seem to be reaching out: to friends, to family, to love, to beauty, to joy. There’s a strong critique of wealth and power as well, for in the end these are utterly useless and the people with them are the most alone. In a scene very reminiscent of the dance party in Zion in The Matrix Reloaded (2003), the filthy, frightened people throw a giant rave in the face of annihilation, and Levien is going for a similar ethos here: you can give up, or you can feel alive in what time you have.
This is not to say that the book is hopeful, though. Disenchanting would be a more apt description of the tone: “The sky, as it turned out, was nothing more than a great sheet of metal with holes poked into it” (p. 282). Imagine Dorothy in Oz, pulling back the curtain, and not only is the wizard a fraud but so, too, are all the witches, all the magic, all the wonder of that world. This is what greets Myrra and Tobias as they clamber out onto the roof of the world, with a birds-eye view of all the lands, rivers, and sea above them: disenchantment. And yet there remains something magical as the mountains start to crumble and the city towers fall down. In my head I could hear that Pixies song, “Where Is My Mind?” as Myrra becomes Marla and Tobias becomes Tyler/Narrator at the end of the film version of Fight Club (1999). Levien is even less hopeful than David Fincher and Chuck Palahniuk, though, for there is no uplifting possibility of a promised future. She avoids the false promise of a sense of meaning, too: “She [Myrra] wanted to say so many things. She wanted to have epiphanies. She wanted to ask all life’s questions and feel the answers instinctively in her bones. At this point, after facing so much, she knew she was supposed to be wise and accepting of what came next, but she couldn’t be” (p. 320). There are no epiphanies, no answers, no wisdom, and no acceptance. There is only Myrra, Tobias, and baby Charlotte huddled together awaiting the end. We teeter on the edge of the abyss throughout the novel, but like existentialism pulling us back from the bring of nihilism, Levien offers a faint glimmer of positivity, Samuel Beckett’s single bare leaf budding on the seeming dead tree in Waiting for Godot (1952).
This sounds rather bleak, and it is to an extent, but it’s also a masterful, honest conclusion that focuses our attention on the human spirit and what we really live for, why we choose every day to continue on in what we might understandably conclude to be a meaningless existence. The answer for Myrra, and implicitly for us, is not out there in the technological diversions, the sensual distractions, or even the spiritual yearnings, but inside the human heart, inside that closing image of three people from three very different lives comforting each other as darkness descends. It reminds me of what I found so daring about the ending of Rogue One (2016): the creators of both stories deny audiences the easy temptation of a deus ex machina and force us to focus instead on the characters as they face the inevitable. It’s brave storytelling that uses the distorted mirror of science fiction to best effect, guiding us through the troubling shoals of metaphysics, ethics, and political philosophy in an easy-to-follow narrative. Despite a sagging middle and a number of distractions, the conclusion of The World Gives Way pleasantly surprises, ultimately fulfilling the compelling promise of its opening chapters.