Apocalypse All The Time, by David S. Atkinson
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
That’s probably because I have a copy of David S. Atkinson’s Apocalypse All The Time. If you will forgive the egregiously obvious quote, then I can explain. Apocalypse All The Time is an absurdist science fiction novel set in a future that is both ridiculous and alarmingly familiar. The protagonist, a man named Marshall, is living in an age where, as the title probably indicates, the world is repeatedly ending. Or almost ending. Catastrophes come and go like fashion trends, making the population collectively lose its mind again and again, only for the Apocalyptic Amelioration Agency to swoop in and save the day. Not a single chapter passes without an inconceivably dire threat rearing its devastating head, and yet we the reader, along with Marshall, stare somewhat bemused by the whole enterprise.
Apocalypse is a novel that wades out deep into the swollen river of post-apocalyptic fiction, plops itself down right in the middle, and demands that the river break around it. We see everything we might expect from this sub-genre, but presented in ways that are sardonically entertaining and cleverly utilized. The book borrows from literally every such tale I can think of, from the Book of Revelations to Cabin in the Woods to The Road, and, at its best, teases you with the threat of cliché before surprising you in a way that satisfies and relieves. The main way this is accomplished is through its protagonist, Marshall. He starts the novel about as boring as boring can get, resigned to his assembly line life with no ambition or even joy in what he does and a determined willingness to ignore the inconsistencies of his world that gnaw at him. The narration, though in third person, is in large part delivered from over Marshall’s shoulder and colored by his insisted upon apathy. This is juxtaposed with the fact that horrible catastrophes are happening all around him, and often to him directly. Floods, ice ages, volcanoes, giant lizards, and cosmic radiation seem to take turns threatening human existence, and while these cause understandable bouts of panic, Marshall’s passive ennui is both amusing and frustrating.
Great cracks would open and swallow up men without thought, without intention. Buildings would crumble. People would die. Continents would shift. Life would change forever.
Marshall yawned. He rubbed sleep from his eyes.
It is here that Apocalypse performs its most impressive feat. It teases you with the worry that its sequence of events might get too ridiculous, or that Marshall’s attitude might become grating, or one of several other pitfalls for this type of fiction is approaching. But the balancing act here is very impressive. The pacing and tone leave just enough urgency and suspense that, despite the otherwise sardonic approach, there is a very real sensation that something powerful and dangerous lurks around the bend.
Sure, people think they have thoughts. If they had time to finally focus on them and put them down somehow, that would surely be a wondrous thing. But, do they? Do they really? Is that what they would find when they finally try, or would they turn out to be empty, all that crowding in their brains apparently only having been the illusion of thought, perhaps merely a substitute for it?
So what then might be the point of delving into the story of this mundane man amidst the many ends of the world? In all honesty, the answer is whatever you might make of it. That is, of course, the case for any piece of art, but what I am specifically referring to here is that I don’t believe Atkinson is insisting upon a message or suggesting a meaning. This is surprisingly refreshing. Often this kind of fiction, even the kind that mocks its own sense of importance, can clearly be broken down into sections that push ideologies. Science fiction is inherently a commentary on the direction that human societies have taken and are taking. And in that sense, Atkinson is not attempting to be discrete with his depictions of mindless herd mentality or of blind faith in the preservation of the status quo. But the lens through which we witness these things comes from a flawed and, at times, frustrating protagonist. The value judgments he places on how people behave and how the social order is arranged don’t carry the insistence that we see in so many “heroes”.
Marshall backed away, as if the piles of humanity weren’t fornicating in all directions. It wasn’t really shocking, though it startled him at first. At least, it wasn’t any more shocking than any of the other times it happened.
In particular, the ending of the novel I find a fascinating anti-resolution, the kind that leaves you feeling satisfied in its challenging need for asymmetry. I won’t spoil it here, but the end is a surprise on multiple levels and I think even if you are looking for it, you will not predict the outcome. It is, in and of itself, a clever commentary on the whole endeavor, of surviving and of telling ourselves stories of survival. Apocalypse is a novel that has my mind routinely returning to, considering everything from the philosophical implications of a biblical flood to the physics of a man-made Ice Age. Given how in love our society seems to be with tales about the end of everything, I consider this mandatory reading for anyone taking hyperbole too seriously.
Apocalypse All the Time is available now through Literary Wanderlust.