The Age of Anxiety

July 21 2003 / New Statesman

Visions of apocalypse, once confined to science fiction, now dominate mainstream films and novels. They have become young, smart, even beautiful.

I was at school in the 1970s, a period I recall as one of deep social and political unease. In our old bipolar world, split between rival ideological blocs, we watched innumerable television plays about the nuclear threat or life after an atomic war; we discussed with our teachers, most of whom were anxious members of CND, the dangers of the bomb. In those days, we all lived with the threat of apocalypse. We knew that our world could end at any moment, destroyed not by natural disaster or by the intervention of a malevolent deity, but by man himself. For the first time in history, we knew that we had the capacity and the desire to enact our own mass destruction. The motif of those times was an acute watchfulness; narratives of spying and surveillance were what preoccupied us, and I remember pleading with my father to build a bunker in our garden.

Yet I also remember being told at school that once the Soviet threat was vanquished, we would enjoy the benefits of the leisure age: by the year 2000 we would be travelling around in space-age buggies, dressing in tracksuits or something equally hideous, and sitting back while a robot did most of the housework. When we were not holidaying on the moon, we would be travelling briskly across whole continents in supersonic aircraft.

The revolutions of 1989 in central and eastern Europe and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to offer the prospect of something like that better, safer world coming true. We were, according to Francis Fukuyama and other western triumphalists, at a period of rest—the end of history—when most of us, certainly those living in the democratic west, could enjoy sustained peace and prosperity. If history had taught us anything, it was that all schemes to remake the world were doomed to fail. We would have to learn to live with inequality and imperfection. Free-market liberal democracy was the only legitimate form of government, because it offered the greatest possibility of wealth, health and happiness to the greatest number of people, and, what was more, no two democracies had ever gone to war against each other. This was the founding myth of our new world order.

The internet and the cellphone, the growth of cheap air travel, the sustained stock market boom created a kind of euphoria that not even the genocide in Rwanda or the wars of secession in the former Yugoslavia could diminish. We had entered the age of globalisation when everyone, it seemed, just wanted to have fun and to become rich and in which everyone could speak the common languages of pop music and football.

Today we are once more living through what Don DeLillo, at the recent Hay-on-Wye literary festival, described as a “period of darkness”. The events of 11 September 2001, the collapse of the so-called new economy, the catastrophic spread of Aids throughout much of Africa, China, Asia and European Russia, the emergence of new wind-borne viruses such as Sars, the devastating potential of science and technology, the opaque and oppressive power of multinational corporations, the dominance of the media, the fear of bioterrorism, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the instability in the Middle East, and the hard truth of American power have all contributed to a souring of mood and vision.

Some may see hope in a new era of liberal imperialism but, in truth, there is a terrible tension in the world. Fewer and fewer people believe in the benefits of progress or in grand schemes to remake the world for the better. It is rare to meet anyone, especially scientists or philosophers, who believe that the future will be better than the past. It will be different, for sure, but better? Instead, there is a new quietism, a resignation even. Influential figures such as Martin Rees, one of our most distinguished astronomers and a former president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, are convinced that we may have entered our final century on the planet. Through the website, Rees is waging $1,000 that more than one million people will be killed in a single act of bioterrorism, or bio-error, by 2020. Is this claim no more than an elaborate stunt to advertise his latest book, Our Final Century? Or is he deadly serious about the threat posed by the new mobile terrorist kill ing squads of the 21st century?

In Our Final Century, Rees shows how science has developed its own momentum and it is as if we are no longer able to control it. Rather, science controls us, challenging our most fundamental sense, as J G Ballard has written, of who we are and what we might become. If we once thought that science would liberate us from all mundane constraint—making our lives freer, happier and less complicated—we now believe the opposite: that we are, in some way, prisoners of science, powerless to prevent its hold over our lives. For science increasingly alters the way we think about the world and about ourselves: we know that it can be a source of both liberation and destruction. Once you have invented anew technology—such as e-mail, or a precision-guided missile—the temptation to use it becomes irresistible, which may partly explain the American enthusiasm for war. Just look at our toys, boys!

What does the left have to say about all of this? Chastened by Thatcherism and a long cycle of defeat and internal dispute, the British left has long ceased to believe that History was moving in its direction, or that there was, in the classic Hegelian sense, a clear purpose and pattern to events. In retreat from the economic imperatives of the free market, the left, throughout much of the 1980s, concentrated less on macro than on micro issues—issues of race, gender and sexuality. Eschatology was supplanted by pragmatism. Evolutionary biology and advances in genetic science further conspired to undermine traditional liberal humanism: there is, after all, something called human nature, and we are all driven by impulses and forces that we can never fully understand. This, together with the general acceptance that we are no longer in control of, but subject to, the random drift of events, has resulted in a new pessimism about government and its influence over our lives.

In The Sense of an Ending (1967), Frank Kermode reminded us that there was nothing new about apocalyptic thinking. “It is commonplace,” he wrote, “to talk about our historical situation as uniquely terrible and in a way privileged, a cardinal point in time. But can it really be so? It seems doubtful that our crisis, our relation to the future and to the past, is one of the important differences between us and our predecessors. Many of them felt as we do… Perhaps if we have a terrible privilege it is merely that we are alive and are going to die, all at once or one at a time. Other people have noticed this, and expressed their feelings about it in images different from ours, armies in the sky, for example, or a palpable Antichrist; and these we have discarded.”

Kermode was broadly right, I think, to point out how prone we are to exaggerate the monumentality of our own particular moment, and our tendency to distort and embellish each crisis so that it must become a pre-eminent crisis, distinct from what has gone before. And yet I cannot help feeling that our world-historic moment is, in one important sense, different. The generation that grew up after the Second World War and experienced the onset of a consumer society and the freedoms of the 1 960s was perhaps the most optimistic in history. Everything around them seemed to be changing so rapidly and, on the whole, for the better. These children of the space age believed in progress, in the liberating potential of science and technology, and in the promise of the future, even if that future was shadowed by the bomb nobody dared use. They believed all this because science was such a progressive force in their own lives; it was the means through which they were able to escape the domestic drudgery and social immobilit y of the recent past.

It doesn’t really feel like that today. The imminent end of Concorde and the experiment in supersonic travel, as well as the recent space shuttle disaster, have served to reinforce the conviction that we are marooned on this earth. If there is life out there in distant galaxies, it is, humanly, unreachable. Our ambition may be infinite but its expression will remain a slave to limit. This planet earth is, in effect, all we have and shall ever know. Our natural condition is therefore one of ontological shipwreck: we can send messages out into deepest space but they will never be received.

Yet the unease of the present makes this a rather good moment to be a writer or artist. Art at its best should reflect the times in which we live. It is a representative medium—nature’s mirror. The purpose of an ambitious novel or film is to document the present, to offer a sense of the defining particulars of the age—its tensions and preoccupations, its corruptions and opportunities. It should carry an imprint of the culture in which we live. If nothing else, it should bring us news of what it means to be here, now.

This year both Don DeLillo, in Cosmopolis, a study of the last hours of a young, jaded billionaire bond dealer in New York, and Margaret Atwood, in Oryx and Crake, her portrayal of a world destroyed by war and scientific irresponsibility, published novels shadowed by a sense of an ending. Both writers had begun their novels before the events of 11 September 2001, but found that, in the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, their vision had darkened and that they were writing not about the near future, but parables of the present.

In Oryx and Crake and, indeed, in Michel Houellebecq’s great novel Atomised, genetically engineered clones have replaced the flawed and deluded Homo sapiens as the dominant creatures on the planet. Humans, we understand, were simultaneously so intelligent and so foolish that they were able to invent the means of their own destruction—namely, in the case of Atwood’s novel, a super-Ebola GM virus.

Visions of apocalypse have long been the preoccupation of science fiction. But through the novels of Atwood, DeLillo and Douglas Coupland (his latest, Hey Nostradamus!, is about a spree killing at a school in Vancouver), through current films such as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, and through television dramas such as the BBC’s recent The Day Britain Stopped, which convincingly imagined the complete collapse of the British transport infrastructure, the themes of so much science fiction—solitary survivors on a contaminated planet, catastrophe, genetic modification, superbugs, post-apocalyptic landscapes, bioterrorism—are becoming part of our mainstream entertainment culture. These works offer artistic expression of what, for many of us in the age of al-Qaeda and nanotechnology; are our most subterranean fears and anxieties.

Directed by Boyle from a script by Alex Garland, 28 Days Later is set in a recognisable England in which all but a few people have been killed by a virus, which escaped into the general population following a raid by animal rights activists on a Cambridge laboratory. Those that have been “infected” by the virus but are yet to die roam a decaying urban landscape, driven only by vulgar motivation. One scene early in the film shows a young man waking from a coma to find himself completely alone in a London that, 28 days earlier and before he was injured in a road accident, was vibrant and boisterous with people. There is a stunned, dreamlike quality to his wanderings through these empty city streets.

The hero of the film is an emblematic last man, familiar from the fictions of J G Ballard. He meets up with a young black woman and, accompanied by an orphaned girl, they travel north in search of a fortified settlement where, it is believed, a group of soldiers—who, like them, are uninfected—are living in frightened isolation. 28 Days Later dares to imagine what the world might be like without any people in it; it is a cautionary film, which, as with the dramas of the 1970s about the bomb, is concerned with strategies of human survival in a desolated world, where the future has been put on permanent hold. There is, however, nothing implausible about this film. How can there be, when President Bush goes on national television to deny that he has been infected by anthrax?

In the remarkable Donnie Darko, a disaffected adolescent living in small-town suburban America is visited by a giant rabbit, which may or may not exist. The rabbit warns him that the world will end in—yes, you guessed it—28 days. The film—as, before it, did Coupland’s hallucinatory novel Girlfriend in a Coma—combines a zany pop-cultural sensibility with a stranger and more sombre realisation that the world is somehow out of joint and that something has gone drastically, irreversibly, wrong. The disturbed student spends much of the film dreaming of destruction. He longs for a single apocalyptic event that will cleanse the world and allow him and everyone he knows to redeem the mistakes of the past and to start all over again. When that event eventually arrives, the agent of change in his life and those around him is far more frightening and mysterious than even he could have imagined.

The pop soundtrack of Donnie Darko is from the 1980s—gloomy British bands such as Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division and Tears for Fears—but the new Radiohead album, Hail to the Thief, would have been just as appropriate. Radiohead are, by some distance, our brainiest and most consistently experimental rock band, and Hail to the Thief—enraged, despairing, ironic, visionary—is, in mood and attitude, at one with the apocalyptic turn in our contemporary culture. What is significant about so much of the new apocalyptic thinking is that it is largely an expression of youthful perplexity rather than of late-middle-age reaction. The new apocalyptists are young, smart, fashionable and, above all, driven by eschatological anxiety. They are also Romantics: their fantasies of the end often have a peculiar beauty—Donnie Darko and 28 Days Later are among the most visually sumptuous films of recent times.

The result of all this experimentation is that the boundaries between science fiction and literary fiction are collapsing. Soon none of us will be able to distinguish between realism and science fiction, between the plausible and the implausible in art—because, after the events of 11 September 2001 and what has happened since, nothing in the world seems implausible any more. Anything is possible—including the Big End.