The Bible was the first post-apocalyptic novel ever written. That’s what I used to say. But John Michael Greer’s book Apocalypse: A History of the End of Time (2012, Quercus) has shot me down. I was so wrong. Humans have been telling the story—maybe not in print because that is a relatively new thing—of the end of the world for much longer than that. When you look at the history of the end of the world, the Bible starts to look like fan fiction from a fandom that spans most of human history.
“A strong case could be made for the idea that storytelling is one of humanity’s oldest and most powerful technologies.” -John Michael Greer
— Book Punks (@bookpunks) November 12, 2014
Historians have traced the beginning of what Greer dubs “the apocalypse meme” to a religious prophet named Zarathustra and a time period somewhere between 1500 and 1200 BCE. It turns out that this Zarathustra also invented monotheism, so let’s all close our eyes and punch him in the knee. These are just two of the fascinating historical tidbits Greer relates in Apocalypse. You’ll also meet The Apocalyptic Brethren, learn about the devil’s biographers, and compile a reading list of post-apocalyptic lit dating back thousands of years. Apocalypse is a captivating book, the more so for someone as interested in the reasons why humans enjoy stories about the end of the world as they are in the stories themselves.
Reading, I had to wonder: what would a very religious person think of this book?
I can’t imagine that they’d like it. Not only does Greer’s tone veer from the objective quite a bit, particularly when describing the follies of years of religious movements repeating each other’s stories and mistakes like the most annoying broken record ever recorded, but the facts laid down here make absolute faith in the prophet or set of beliefs that happen to be in vogue in the world right now sound a little silly, if not downright moronic. Then again, the deeply religious have found a way to explain away the dinosaurs, so explaining away this collection of historical anecdotes probably wouldn’t pose much of an issue.
As you’ve by now noticed, I am not religious. This fact probably added to my glee in reading Apocalypse. Afterall: it proves my own viewpoint. It is hard not to like a book like that, though it is generally sound advice to be wary of praising a thing because it mirrors your own thoughts.
You could think of this book as the story of writers who have had a massive impact on the world. In chapter after chapter we hear about the storytellers whose versions of the apocalypse meme impacted their readers/listeners so deeply that they shaped their lives around them, mostly in the form of religious movements. This is likely to be the draw for the reader less interested in the history of the end of the world specifically; at its heart Apocalypse is a book about the power of stories and how telling an inherently incorrect and harmful story can impact the real world.
Fun aside: Every chapter title for this book would make an excellent song title. Just sayin’ songwriters, just sayin’…
Notably missing from Greer’s timeline of end times prophets are the scientists talking about climate change and environmental collapse today. Science could be considered a religion, of sorts, and it is not unthinkable that society 200 years from now will view our science the way we look back at the science and medicine of societies 200 years in our past. But in an illuminating afterward, Greer explains the difference between carriers of the apocalypse meme that he is discussing (and that is always, inherently, wrong) and those who offer inexact predictions based on facts—as we currently understand them.
The story of the apocalypse meme is one of redemption: the world ends, and everything starts anew. It is the fantasy of the clean slate, of the effortless reorganization of the world, with a payoff for the survivors, be it in heaven or as leaders of a new world order. Scienctists talking about climate change are offering informed opinions about likely events in the future: their story contains no salvation, no light at the end of the tunnel, and never includes an exact date around which people can focus their energy. As Greer so succinctly puts it: “…in the real world, everything eventually comes to an end.” But if somebody tries to tell you when, they’re probably selling something.
Ten out of twelve miscalculated comet trajectories.
Where I got it: Frankfurt Book Fair, 2013
Where you can get it: The Book Depository (free shipping to everywhere!)