I can’t remember ever reading a novel with such a serious message, presented in such a humorous way, and layered with so much satire you could cut it with a knife. This Is the Way the World Ends is James Morrow’s 1986 apocalyptic warning about the dangers of nuclear arsenals and the philosophy of “mutually assured destruction.” It’s one of the strangest books I’ve ever read; and if you ask me if I mean that in a positive or a negative way, I’ll probably say “both,” but definitely more to the positive side. Let’s just say this book was…. different.
The basic plot outline is that nuclear brinksmanship goes one step too far, and America and Russia unleash their nuclear weapons and the human species is destroyed. With the exception of six survivors who are put on trial for crimes against humanity. Put on trial by whom, you may ask? By the Unadmitted — the ghosts of people who would have existed in the future had there been no nuclear war. Much like Ebenezer Scrooge facing the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future, the six survivors must face the Unadmitted from the future, as well as representatives from the past, who are rather pissed off that all their work in building history was just a waste of time if the species was going to commit suicide. Given the presence of ghosts (as well as the inclusion of Nostradamus and his future-predicting ability), it might be better to use the term “speculative fiction” here. Although the novel has the biting social commentary of the best science fiction, it also has a foot (or several) in allegorical fantasy. It seems like the strangest books are always the ones that are hard to pin down to a single genre. But even if ghosts, spirits, or other supernatural elements aren’t your cup of tea (they certainly aren’t mine), I can still recommend this book as a worthy claim on your reading time. Even if absurdity abounds, there is also a great deal of serious reflection on the human condition, and Morrow’s writing style is first-class.
There is plenty of satirical roasting to go around, with targets such as nuclear strategy, the military mindset, the ability of diplomats to achieve nothing and then spin it as a victory, and the willingness of a population to accept the bad and dangerous decisions of its leaders. It is that last item which just may be the worst, Morrow seems to suggest. The core of the novel is the trial of the six survivors for humanity’s extinction. Four of them are politicians, scientists, or military men who had some actual relation to the design or deployment of nuclear weapons. The fifth is a famous television evangelist who supports a strong U.S. nuclear capability. But the sixth, a simple gravestone inscriber, is on trial for the complicity of average citizens in going along with the madness of their leaders. The prosecutor’s closing argument is very good, and this piece of it seems to go to the very heart of what Morrow wants the novel to say:
And then, one cold Christmas season, death came to an admirable species — a species that wrote symphonies and sired Leonardo da Vinci and would have gone to the stars. It did not have to be this way. Three virtues only were needed — creative diplomacy, technical ingenuity, and moral outrage. But the greatest of these is moral outrage.
And it is the world of George Paxton, citizen, perhaps the most guilty of all. Every night, this man went to bed knowing that the human race was pointing nuclear weapons at itself. Every morning, he woke up knowing that the weapons were still there. And yet he never took a single step to relieve the threat.
There are quite a few of these very serious, very moving passages throughout the book, illustrating the tragedy (or tragicomedy) of human nature. Another example that really struck me:
The human mind could accomodate anything. Some parents beat their children. Auschwitz. Sundeath. It’s just blood, the mind said. It’s only pain. It’s merely putting people into ovens. It’s simply the end of the world….
But the book is rich with humor too, sometimes enough to make you laugh out loud. For example:
“What else do you forsee?”
“Myself. Writing a large book.” Nostradamus wove his crow quill through the air. “One hundred prophecies, in ill-phrased and leaden verse. Gibberish, every last line, but the mob will love them.” [….]
“If your book will be gibberish, why write it?”
“Fun and profit.”
Morrow’s novel is definitely not gibberish, but is is fun, and also profitable in the social commentary department. Make sure you try it before the world ends.