Writers have long faced the apocalypse. The Epic of Gilgamesh, written approximately four thousand years ago, imagines Earth flooded by angry gods. Flash forward a few centuries, and Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells bring us their own visions of the end of the world. In more recent years, novelists like Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and Octavia Butler have carried on the tradition. Each of these writers shares the idea that the end will come quickly, sparked by an event that tumbles the pillars of civilization like dominoes. It takes little to understand why visions of sudden apocalypse—as opposed to a long, drawn-out one—are popular: a quick and dirty end to everything absolves us from having had anything to do with it. If we never saw the apocalypse coming, how could it have been our fault?
T.S. Eliot offers a different outlook. In 1925, the poet wrote in “The Hollow Men” that the world will end “not with a bang but a whimper.” It’s this idea of a slow death in which everyone is culpable that captures most accurately Roy Scranton’s thoughts on the end of civilization as we know it. The author, an Army veteran who holds a PhD in English from Princeton University, has written much about two of humanity’s biggest existential threats: climate change and war. In 2015’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Scranton combined memoir and science writing to express what it was like to return home from war-torn Iraq only to watch the world succumb to hazards even larger than Al Qaeda: hurricanes imperiling coastal cities; economic and political conflicts giving way to riots; plagues, droughts, and famine causing suffering in every corner of the planet. Global warming, writes Scranton, is at the heart of all of this, and we have long passed the point of being able to stop it. Two years later, he authored his debut novel, War Porn, which is told through the different perspectives of American and Iraqi soldiers and civilians and throws into question what it means to be ally or enemy, victor or victim.