Well, it is the last evening of 2011, so I will FINALLY post something new. This past month has been very busy, with less of that busyness being about writing than I would like. I wrote several columns at SF Signal to cap my first year of writing “The Bellowing Ogre” for them. I’ve finished reading for a review and for a longer reflective piece on some of Eric Basso’s work. I’m doing some re-reading for the first SF Signal column of the new year, which will be a discussion of some noteworthy fantastika of this year. And, in odd moments, I am grinding away at some fiction of my own.
More of my time, however, has been taken up with day-work and raising the kidlet, both very necessary things. I took on some consignment work and a side project at the bookstore and have put more time into online bookselling as well, which has been exhausting but is going well. I think that I will complete these endeavors in January and then I will have more time for the writing projects that have been put aside. In terms of upcoming writing, I am eagerly awaiting the publication of Bull Spec 7, which will feature my 3,400 word review of J. M. McDermott’s fiction. I’m looking forward to doing more writing for the magazine in the future. As soon as I am done wrestling with Basso I have Rudy Rucker’s Nested Scrolls to read for review at SF Signal. The column will be back by then, and I am planning a slate of topics and works to discuss for the rest of winter and the coming spring.
As I write this, we are approaching The End of another year. It is prosaic, inevitable, and ritually significant. Calendars are the story we tell ourselves about time, to encompass both its momentum and its undoings. We try to control it, to dole it out, to save it, and despite our efforts it continuously slips through our conniving fingers. Since it is continuous and refuses to obey us, we make it into stories, and most of the stories humans have told are about the effects of the passage of time and its End, to the point that stories may be more the by-product of our attempts to make sense of Time than any inherent capacity to narrativize. Stories are necessary because we are pulled along by time and trying to apprehend its currents.
I was reading Paul Goat Allen’s post on the year’s best apocalyptic fiction, when I was brought up short by two things: one, the very notion of a “best apocalyptic fiction of the year” list; and two, his observation that these stories, in essence, gave him hope:
“The specific reasons readers are attracted to apocalyptic fiction releases varies from person to person but for me at least, I think it’s all about comfort and hope. Reading these books and envisioning the nightmarish, end-of-days horrors described within makes me realize just how well off we have it.”
In discussing his choices, he points out the cultural-literary tradition of apocalypse in American fiction, drawing on his (and mine, as it turns out) love of older works in his youth. “I know it sounds paradoxical” he writes, ” but reading apocalyptic fiction generally leaves me with a sense of hope – hope that we can somehow avoid the mistakes made in these novels and right the wrongs before it is really too late.”
Apocalypse has been with humanity since there has been a humanity, although the term and its modern meaning are not as old as the impulse to create a Great Ending to the story of the human world. The word has a long and rich history, and its current application barely hints at that. From its original meaning to “uncover, disclose, reveal” it was fused with the early Christian idea of The End. But apocalypse is about more than The End; it is about revelation and a grasping of the greater story. As Marjorie Reeves noted in her introduction to Apocalyptic Spirituality, it is “the desire of the human soul to find a significant place for itself in the time process.” Apocalypse is not just about The End, it is about how we get there and what lessons that journey may have as we imagine a “final terminus” to all that we know. An apocalypse may not be some final, utter catastrophe or culmination, but an obstacle or event that forces us to rethink the stories we live with and within.
Apocalypse has defined my life. My parents and I staggered from one to the next (I went to thirteen different schools before the ninth grade), abandoning salted earth and flaming bridges behind us, always rebuilding and trying to create a better story with a happier ending, to the point of divesting ourselves of most material goods at each ending. This took place within a larger family dynamic of dysfunction and gradual self-annihilation that was directly contradictory to any efforts at a “happy ending.” New Year’s Eve was always a big deal, and the children, no matter how young, were encouraged to drink a glass of champagne and join in the revelry, just for a moment. And then we were back to the reality of living in a family of monsters and broken spirits, and before the next year came the world would end and need to be restarted. And thus my childhood was a string of small, sad apocalypses, with fortunes lost (never really gained, actually) and punishments inflicted on those who could not defend themselves. Then, as surely as the calendar turned, it would all start again. Apocalypse, I discovered, is never really The End, but something that requires you to start again.
When I was in what would be the fourth grade (but which I never really entered), my father found Jesus, and my mother followed him out of a devotion that I have never understood and that still haunts me. After a few months of going to a new church (at my father’s behest I attended seven different varieties of church as a child, including a dabble at Mormonism), I was brought into a room one day and for several hours the pastor and my parents battled to bring my soul to Jesus. Stories of eternal damnation, of being cut off from my parents, of being denied any chance of redemption either in this world or the next, eventually brought me to accept being born again. And thus began a new relationship to apocalypse and The End. I was now armored from The End and its effects, promised things I never dreamed possible, and thus apocalypse was a desired result that would remake the world for the chosen.
The result of this conversation was that close to two years of my life was spent as a child preacher and fervent evangelist, following my father’s lead. It seemed that this time we would not come to one those moments where the story unraveled and we were forced to flee the ruins of the world around us. But, inevitably, despite my own total devotion, another little apocalypse did come, and shattered me in a new way, dashing my faith and my desire for a neverending story into a powder that slipped through my hands and could never be reassembled.
Thus, I came to expect apocalypse as a regular occurrence in my life. When we relocated to Cape Cod and I discovered fantastic literature I was quickly drawn to post-apocalyptic fiction (and dystopia as well). I read the most cerebral stuff and the hackneyed pulp adventures too. I played Gamma World with my friends and we watched crappy movies about the end of the world in all-night film festivals usually fueled by Haffenreffer and junk food and then later Coke and No-Doze. We would talk about nuclear war and mutant uprisings and mole-men boiling out of holes in the ground to enslave us all. It was escape and distraction, but apocalypse by then was for me about more than that. It was about using these outlandish stories and conjectures to not just feel better about my life as it was, but to experience some power to change what I saw as the approaching apocalypse of adulthood in my own life.
It took many more years for me to realize that apocalypse is just a story, not fate. Apocalypse is ostensibly about The End, but those Ends are speculative or ephemeral or preposterous, and intentionally so. Apocalypse is not really about the end; it is about the moment before us and the one after that, a vantage point on creating the future with our actions and our stories. Apocalypse is not about where we may be headed, but about the ways we are not heading there. Even carefully researched and mimetically-convincing ends are not about The End, but are designed to serve us as refutations that we know the future. They are not mirrors, but overlaid images onto the rush of time. Sometimes they strive to make sense, sometimes they are calculatedly senseless. They strive for prediction but almost always fail to accomplish their auguring.
What they accomplish is reflection on the present, whether that is hopeful or despairing or ridiculous or morose. Thus, the small apocalypses of my childhood were failures because my family refused to examine them. They were apocalyptic, full of possible contemplation and reproach and reformulation, but their potential lessons were ignored, thus starting my family onto another saga that would come to a bad end. Apocalypses are not just stories of The End, but of traveling through time, trying to remind us that the calendar is a lie, certainty is limited, and reality is often not what we think it is.
The calendar says otherwise. New Year’s in our calendar is about another start. Another year survived, another year that has not ended in apocalypse. The story of the calendar begins anew, assuring us of a continued cycle of time ahead that will play out like the last. It creates hopes both false and genuine, lulls us into thinking that a new year might clean our slate or give us a fresh chance to change our lives. It argues against apocalypse even as it sometimes encourage reflection. What it does not do is reveal, uncover, question. It strives for moderation and sameness, for a sort of erasure created out of the calendar’s illusion of ongoing structure.
Apocalypses can remind us that the calendar is not all there is to time, that stories are not all linear, cumulative, sensible. Apocalypse can make you look around and appreciate the world you live in, or make you wonder if it could be better. They ask that you think about how you’re getting from one End to another, what the nature of beginning truly is. Because the world apocalypse has one other potential meaning as well, picked up in the Middle Ages, of “insight, vision; hallucination.” Their unrealness, their outrageous, excessive, and unlikely rivening of time and progress, are as much illusion as revelation, and I wonder if thinking of time like that rather than some sort of clockwork might help us begin to see the future in a way that helps us shape it more powerfully.