Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back, by Mark O’Connell, Granta, 272 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1783786374
As far as anxieties go, Mark O’Connell’s obsessing over the future has been remarkably productive. In just three years he has produced two compulsively readable works of nonfiction. His first book, To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death (2017), which was, as its title suggests, a jaunty foray into the world of transhumanism, won O’Connell two prestigious literary awards ‑ the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and the Wellcome Book Prize. O’Connell’s book-length, worthy and award-winning neuroses, I can safely say, have been my reading pleasure.
If his first book was about transhumanists obsessed with skirting corporeal quietus, his second is about those among us who have accepted death and who believe that it may be arriving, for everyone and everything, a lot sooner than we’d like it to. With Notes from an Apocalypse, O’Connell might, in a sense, have got even closer to the real subject of both books ‑ mortality.
It turns out that there is, in fact, a lot to consider about the end of the world. O’Connell’s quest to understand those obsessed with ‑ and meticulously preparing for ‑ the collapse of civilisation and the possibility that humankind might soon enter into history, takes him around the world to visit the underground survival bunkers in South Dakota, to conferences on Mars colonisation in Los Angeles, to investigate the land being bought up by tech billionaires in New Zealand, to a quasi-spiritual retreat in the Scottish highlands and to Ukraine, to visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
There is a convention within classical literature and epic poetry whereby the narrator, at the beginning of the story, invokes a muse or a god for inspiration. If Notes from an Apocalypse begins with an epic invocation, it is a sort of an inverse epic ‑ an anti-epic invocation, perhaps the only kind our century deserves. O’Connell, as both author and protagonist, is sitting on his couch, watching a cartoon about a young Russian girl and her best friend, a bear, with his young son, absentmindedly scrolling through Twitter, when he stumbles across a video of a real-life polar bear, distressed and emaciated-looking, eating rubbish from a bin. An on-screen caption reads: “This is what climate change looks like.”
The clip, which is set to cloying strings, leaves O’Connell darting between screens, trying to square the wretched image of this starved, and possibly dying, real-life polar bear with the sort of affable, avuncular bears which populate his son’s television shows. “It seemed to me,” writes O’Connell, “that I was being confronted with an impossible problem: the problem of reconciling the images on these two screens, or at least of living with the fact of their irreconcilability.”
This scene deftly sets up one of O’Connell’s central concerns in the book: how are we to explain to children the state of the world which we have left them? How are we to tell a child that the world, as Matthew Arnold once put it, which had once seemed so various and beautiful, hath really neither joy nor certitude? While O’Connell is certainly no anti-natalist, he is deeply concerned with the moral implications of continuing to have children in a century which, if climate change experts are to be believed (and, for the record, I think they should be), it is very possible that humanity might not live to see the end of.
Despite an admission that he himself has done little to reduce his own carbon footprint, O’Connell is painfully attuned to the fact that humanity remains too cynically permissive with regards to the earth’s future. The fact that his children’s generation will have to pay fully for the sins previously committed against the environment weighs heavily upon him throughout the book. I had the vague and absurd premonition whilst reading Notes from an Apocalypse that to future generations we will surely be remembered with the same mixture of befuddlement and disdain one might feel when they recall to mind the drunken and improvident relative who once came to dinner, got hammered, felt your neighbour up, pissed in a potted plant, and absconded off into the night, screaming ‘Up the ’RA,’ with your last bottle of Chateaneuf-du-Pape tucked under his arm.
The only thing more constant throughout the book than O’Connell’s concern for his six-year-old son are his attempts to understand his obsession with the apocalypse. With the help of his therapist, he manages to trace his fascination back to his childhood, where, in his grandmother’s house, an explanation was given him by his uncle about the possible annihilation of the island of Ireland were the United States and Russia actually to make good on their threats towards one another. To illustrate his point, the uncle lined up three apples in a row and said that the one in the middle was Ireland, pointing out that it was basically equidistant between the two superpowers. Beside the two outermost apples, the uncle placed clementines, (the most atomic of all fruit) to signify the arsenal of nuclear missiles of each power. If either country launched a missile, detection systems would almost certainly intercept, and the fallout could wipe entire countries of the map in seconds. “I remember what he said then, as he smashed the two clementines together above the middle apple, the grim satisfaction with which he said it: ‘Good night, Irene!’”
The first of O’Connell’s trips is to South Dakota, where he meets Robert Vicino, one of the main men behind American’s burgeoning underground survival shelter market. O’Connell visits Vicino’s latest development, Vivos xPoint, a series of converted underground military munitions bunkers which had been designed in the hope that the wealthy and discerning among us would want to lock themselves away from the impending apocalypse and all of its subsequent unpleasantness. Each bunker is equipped to comfortably house twenty-four people, along with a year’s supply of food and water. Additionally, each contains its own DNA vault, so that the chosen few might securely deposit their genetic code for safekeeping.
Though more affordable than your average underground survival shelter (a sentence I never thought I’d find myself writing), they are by no means affordable to the average American ‑ nor are they meant to be. Vicino, himself a product and paragon of the Boomer belief in laissez-faire capitalism, makes no bones about vowing to employ armed guards to protect the elite who will reside in his bunkers. The whole idea of Vivos xPoint is a “logical extension of the gated community … of capitalism itself.” More than that, O’Connell grimly notes, is that a “civilization that could accommodate a business like Vivos was a civilization that had in some sense already collapsed”.
One of the most intriguing chapters in the book focuses on Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, early investor in Facebook, and noted transhumanist. In addition to wanting to colonise virtual space as a place to go to when living in meatspace (the physical world) becomes no longer feasible, Thiel is also very much interested in colonising physical space, too. Several years ago, it emerged that he had been surreptitiously fast-tracked to New Zealand citizenship after having donated millions to local businesses. He then proceeded to buy a farm roughly the size of Lower Manhattan there before converting it into what is essentially a place to go when the shit hits the fan, or WTSHTF, as Doomsday Preppers like to call it.
According to The New York Times, Thiel wrote on his citizenship application, “I am happy to say categorically that I have found no other country that aligns more with my view of the future than New Zealand.” Taken alone, it’s a relatively innocuous statement. Considered alongside the quote “I no longer believe that democracy and freedom are compatible,” which O’Connell dug up from an essay that Thiel wrote some years earlier, it becomes a portentous sign of his designs for New Zealand. Thiel, however, is not alone. Quoting Reid Hoffmann, the founder of LinkedIn, O’Connell points out that buying property in New Zealand, “is kind of wink, wink, say no more” amongst the super-rich.
If any of this is beginning to sound, well, conspiratorial, it gets weirder. In 1997, William Rees-Mogg, father of Britiain’s most odious Victorianist, Jacob Rees-Mogg, wrote a book called The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State. O’Connell manages to trace the constellation of Thiel’s thinking back to this book, which is effectively the libertarian’s guide to surviving the apocalypse. Rees-Mogg argues that the rise of cryptocurrencies and internet-generated economies will render the democratic nation state obsolete, thus creating the possibility for corporate city states controlled by people with access to vast amounts of information. “It’s impossible,” O’Connell writes, “to overstate the darkness and extremity of the book’s projected future. To read it is to be continually reminded that the dystopia of your darkest insomniac imaginings is almost always someone else’s dream of a new utopian dawn.”
In the first line of Don DeLillo’s most recent novel, Zero K, the narrator announces that “Everybody wants to own the end of the world.” The extent to which this statement is true only became apparent to me after I’d finished reading Notes from an Apocalypse. I realised that if our civilisation does collapse, there won’t be any great break from this world; there won’t be any unimaginably new way of doing things on the other side. Capitalism thrives in times of crisis, etc, etc. If we do survive, we’ll almost certainly find ourselves saddled with the same overlords we have suffered under up until now, only they’ll be looking a little bit younger thanks to some cell-regenerating programme they’re having some underpaid intern beta-test for them.
O’Connell also pays a visit to the Mars Society’s 21st annual conference in Los Angeles. Let me confirm that this is exactly what you think it is. Over the course of the conference, O’Connell attends a number of talks by specialists in different aspects of Mars colonisation. In one such talk, given by a group of paediatricians, he learns about some of the potential difficulties of raising children on Mars. These are not the minor concerns of how to circumvent lack of sunlight, vitamin D deficiency, or boredom. They are also thinking about how ‑ when the first children are born there (because this has somehow become a reasonable thing to consider) ‑ we can ensure they develop properly in an atmosphere whose low gravity would impede cartilage and bone development, which would, in turn, cause adverse and unforeseen physiological reactions.
In another talk, given by Art Harman, founder of the Coalition to Save Manned Space Exploration and former adviser to the Trump presidential campaign, O’Connell perceptively notes how Harman speaks about colonising Mars as though it were a logical extension of the American Frontier ‑ except, crucially, with less regulation from the Environmental Protection Authority. Conjuring up vaguely jingoistic ideas about how great this new America will be, Harman even suggests, in an alarmingly tone-deaf manner, that, like some of the first settlers who came to the US, perhaps some poor and landless Americans could work for businesses for a number of years in exchange for their passage to Mars.
Finally, to get a sense of what life on Earth might look like after all of the humans had either perished, jetted off to Mars with their billions of dollars or uploaded their brains to Google Drive, O’Connell takes a sombre guided tour through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine, otherwise known as The Zone. His guide throughout the trip is Igor ‑ a dour Ukrainian whose mind often seems elsewhere, as though he knows that we are all perhaps living on borrowed time. His Slavic mixture of bluntness and dry, black humour seems befitting for a man who is quite aware that the after effects of a nuclear disaster pay his bills.
O’Connell is at his most self-conscious (and, arguably, most uncomfortable) in The Zone. He wonders on the page whether visiting it as a writer who hopes to write about it is any different from visiting it as a tourist, taking pictures, and uploading them onto Instagram with hashtags such as “#Chernobyl #amazing #melancholy #nucleardisaster”.
Astutely attuned to ironies, O’Connell also notes that, because so few people live there, nature has been allowed to flourish unrestrained, creating what is effectively “Europe’s largest nature preserve”. “It was astonishing,” O’Connell writes, “to behold how quickly we humans become irrelevant to the business of nature.” Conceived of as a place where scientists and researchers could design the future and find ways to harness the powers of a still-emergent nuclear energy, ambitions of the past and projections of a not-so-distant future coalesce sadly into the surreal, present-day Chernobyl. Quoting French theorist Paul Virilio, O’Connell reminds us that it was the birth of the ship that begot the shipwreck.
Despite the book’s heavy subject matter, O’Connell manages to bring a great deal of levity to consideration of the end of the world. He isn’t condescending to his readers or his subjects. He does of course, press his subjects and steer conversations with them towards things they’d rather not discuss, and, in doing so, gives them enough dialogic rope with which to hang themselves. The ironic tone throughout feels both protective and earned. With an academic’s rigour and a sprinkling of Hibernian scepticism, O’Connell is perhaps the ideal Virgil to lead us through this inferno of our own making.
There are times throughout the book, of course, when O’Connell’s anxiety boils over and reifies into an almost numinous panic. Sitting in a Yo! Sushi restaurant at Heathrow Airport, enjoying a Japanese beer and a seemingly endless flow of sushi brought to him on a conveyor belt, itself slunk around the internal perimeter of the restaurant like a children’s train set, O’Connell notices “the rapidity with which people were coming and going, racking up their own little stacks of dishes, before grabbing their briefcases, their flight bags, their backpacks, and hurrying for the gates,” and begins to experience a vague sense of dread.
I looked at the bright little plates of fish and rice and seaweed and meat as they sailed across my field of vision, cruising their way smoothly around the room to be plucked deftly now and then off the conveyor belt by mostly lone travelers, doughy and exhausted men in pinstripes, young couples in loose-fitting leisure attire, and I thought about the volume of animal and human flesh that was required to keep this system going, the raw tonnage of fuel needed to extract the fish from the sea and ship them to where they were processed, to get them to the gaping mouths of my fellow consumers. All these humans moving between all these places, all this ceaseless motion and consumption, all this hunger and money and flux: it was miraculous and terrible. And it simply couldn’t last, was the obvious thing, it simply could not be maintained. The sheer weight and velocity of the system, all of it precariously undergirded by God knew what shifting substructures of finance and power.
In the final and most stunningly meditative chapter of the book, these feelings intensify, but are ultimately somewhat mollified, by the welcoming of his daughter into the world. Amidst signs of the collapse of democracy, a return to bloodthirsty nationalism, a nuclear standoff between the US and North Korea, as well as countless other signs of the Earth’s imminent doom, a child is born. His daughter’s comparatively simple concerns ‑ nourishment, sleep, and affection ‑ walk O’Connell down from the precipice of eschatological and intellectual purgatory back to the visceral and optimistic realm of the domestic.
Writing in the mid-1920s, TS Eliot once famously proclaimed that the world would end “not with a bang but with a whimper”. Writing a century later, O’Connell adds to this by pointing out that, the world would end “neither with a bang nor with a whimper, but with a push notification ‑ a buzzing I wasn’t even sure I’d felt, but figured I’d better check anyway, to see if it was real, and what it might portend”. These lines took on an eerie significance in the weeks after I’d finished reading Notes from an Apocalypse. Covid-19, otherwise known as the Coronavirus, spread across the globe, reaching pandemic status, and, at the time of writing, had claimed the lives of almost 18,000 people in the space of a few weeks. At the time of the first draft of this essay, written not that long ago, fewer than 3,000 people had died. Any time I seemed to take a break from writing and go on Twitter or The Guardian, the virus seemed to have spread to a new country, infected countless others, or, like something out of an Albert Camus novel, had killed so many people in one city that the government was now using army trucks to transport the bodies of the dead to neighbouring towns for cremation.
A week into writing this review, I woke one morning and, as I am wont to do, spent those first few waking moments scrolling through The Guardian on my phone until my brain had adjusted to being awake. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a headline: “Super rich jet off to disaster bunkers amid coronavirus outbreak”.The picture below the headline was of one of the bunkers at Vivos xPoint, the very place which O’Connell had visited. They looked a lot less refined than I had imagined them to be. A day later, both of the schools I worked in were closed. While one was closing hopefully just for a few weeks until it managed to migrate its classes online, the other, unsure about its future because it relied almost completely on European students, told me that it would have to let me go with immediate effect. In light of recent developments, this is a very minor problem to have. In the weeks since then, thousands of companies have been closed, millions of jobs lost, stock markets continue to crash and entire countries have been brought to their knees.
I’m going to refrain from using that most ominous word from the book’s title and say, instead, that these past few weeks have felt a bit … biblical. What they continuously remind me of, is that the doomsday preppers who have been steadily accruing supplies and preparing for some ill-defined crisis ‑ and whom, I might remind you, I was delighted to laugh at when I encountered them in the book ‑ are in an undeniably much better position to reflect on the pandemonium that has been gripping the world since the outbreak of covid-19. Their own eccentric overpreparedness, which some might well deem “crazy”, seems a lot less crazy these days than, say, the mania for toilet roll, which, such as it is at the time of writing, borders on the kind of mass hysteria typified by the dancing plague which spread across Europe in the fourteenth century.
Reading and re-reading Notes from an Apocalypse during these past few weeks has been unsettling. It is not ‑ nor does it claim to be ‑ a book about the future. It is, of its own admission, very much a book about “our own time: its terrors, its neuroses, its strange fevers”. In previous ages, O’Connell points out, the apocalypse was to be thought of as a great, singular event. What marks our age out more than previous ones may be the realisation that what we had envisioned as one apocalyptically levelling event, might, indeed, come for us in a multitude of smaller waves. Notes from an Apocalypse does not attempt to provide any easy answers to the problem of humanity’s inexorable decline. And why should it? If, after all, one looks in the mirror and does not like what one sees, one mustn’t blame the mirror.
It seems fitting to end this review with an image O’Connell provides of himself midway through the book, sitting in a forest in Alladale, in the Scottish Highlands. He had ventured there to spend a few days on a climate change and quasi-mindfulness-themed retreat. Sitting out in the open forest one night, looking up at the calm night sky and trying, self-consciously, to feel present in nature, O’Connell hears a roaring noise overhead, “an actual physical force, a violence from the heavens”, which disappeared a few seconds later. It was a jet, taking off. He would learn, later on, that it was a Typhoon bomber which had just been dispatched from a nearby military base and was probably on its way to Cyprus, from where it would begin its bombing mission in Syria. He had tried, in his words, to “follow in the footsteps of Emerson”, but “had come face to face with Pynchon”:
In that moment the idea of the apocalypse came into sudden and violent focus. It was already the end of the world for the people that fighter jet was headed toward. They were experiencing all the things by which I, in my remote and abstract fashion, was preoccupied: the fragility of political orders, the collapse of civilisation. Five million of them, fleeing the terror and chaos of their ruined country, meeting the cruel machinery of Europe and its borders. It was always the end of the world for someone, somewhere.