I remember back in 1988 when many of my friends at one of the nation’s most liberal universities declared that the election of George H.W. Bush would bring the end of the world as we know it. And they didn’t feel fine about it.
The same was true when his son, George W. Bush was “elected” and re-elected in 2000 and 2004, respectively. If the teeth gnashing was more muted in 2008 it was because anybody was going to be better than No. 43.
This year, the doomsayers are back, loud and proud: if the other guy wins, it’s going to be the end of civilization as we know it. To be sure, there is a real choice to be made. But in the real world, neither candidate will be able to come close to implementing his version. (Unless one party controls Congress and the White House — then wait for the all but certain overreach and crushing backlash.)
Apocalypse is part of the unsettling zeitgeist these past four or five years, since the Great Recession began. Insecurity gnaws and despite an improving economy for the “haves” — business profits and the stock market are soaring, but unemployment is still in the horse latitudes — dark clouds of potential disaster seem to loom for most.
And whenever the public is feeling a prolonged sense of uneasiness, apocalyptic visions multiply. The pre-détente Cold War era produced some masterpieces of the literary subgenre, including “Alas, Babylon” by Pat Frank, Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach” and the lesser known “The Long Tomorrow” by Leigh Brackett. George R. Stewart’s “Earth Abides,” though less known, is perhaps the best of the lot.
The 1950s and ’60s brought a boom in movies about the dangers of all things nuclear, bringing us mutants from Godzilla to the literally impossible giant ants of “Them!” (look up “square-cube law” ) and the animated corpses in “Night of the Living Dead.” One of the best movies of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy “Dr. Strangelove,” brilliantly mocks humanity’s destructive bent and ends on the cheery note of a mushroom cloud.
Anxiety rules, and what better way to deal than to turn it into entertainment? Not surprisingly, these are salad days for the end of the world.
Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant contribution, the grim novel, “The Road,” arrived in 2006, two years before the collapse; what did he know that we didn’t? That made possible the well-timed appearance of the 2009 movie version — also pretty good — about a father and young son trying to survive and maintain love in a ruined world.
Likewise, young-adult writer Suzanne Collins benefited from fortuitous timing in 2008 with “The Hunger Games,” first in her entertaining trilogy set in a post-collapse America. Now the YA set can choose from a cluster of copycat future-doom scenarios.
Tom Perrotta’s 2011 “The Leftovers” posits a “rapture” that spirits away people without regard to religion, sexuality, age, race — a totally random event — exploring how the mass mystery affects those left behind. “The Age of Miracles” by Karen Thompson Walker has gotten a ton of publicity this summer (couldn’t be because she worked for a big New York publisher, could it?) and has a nifty central conceit: the rotation of the Earth is gradually slowing. It’s engaging enough, but at heart it’s a young-adult novel about the trials and tribulations of being 11, a Judy Blume apocalypse. The best, by far, is “The Dog Stars” by Denver’s Peter Heller, featuring a private pilot, his 1956 Cessna, his beloved dog Jasper and a cranky, gun-totin’ individualist set mostly at the Erie airport just east of Boulder. The story slips into Hollywood action at the end, but like “The Road,” it’s a powerful and complex meditation on love and survival.
At the movies: Steve Carell and Keira Knightly are “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” as a rogue asteroid heads for Earth. A subtler, darker treatment in “Take Shelter” follows a man who is either going insane, like his mother, or having true visions of a coming disaster. “Melancholia” is an almost unbearably bleak vision pairing the personal disaster of depression with the inexorable progress of a new planet about to collide with the Earth. And I can’t wait for “The End of the World,” Seth Rogen’s meta-disaster featuring a bevy of bankable stars partying at actor James Franco’s house when the end arrives, due in June.
An electric current of anxiety flows through every one of these works. But as with earlier waves of apocalyptic story telling, almost all remind us that whatever disasters betide us, the best tonic for life’s inherent uncertainty is connection — with friends, family, neighbors, strangers — think 9/11 — even pets. When the going gets rough, in other words, wise humans come together rather than tear each other apart.