Doom from Above: When the End Arrives, Will Anyone See It Coming?
The Extinction Papers – Chapter Three
So few humans look to the sky these days, engrossed as they are with the glowing box on the wall, the interconnected device held in their hand, and the cracks in the pavement in front of them as they count each step to the grave. Add to this the contemporary obsession with navel gazing, and the vista above doesn’t stand a chance. Downward the eyes are cast. Ever downward, searching for salvation
But I still look up, because that’s where the mysteries still exist, and that’s where the end will come.
Armageddon will come from above as we scuttle like ants in a Petri dish. This has always been a part of human lore, but we seem to have forgotten, as our vision becomes more nearsighted and internalized. In version of The End preached by the modern, literalist Christian tradition, the returning Jesus will descend from the clouds during the Rapture and take up all the properly saved believers, leaving the rest to the Tribulation slaughter under the hideous reign of the Antichrist. In the cosmic horror writing of Lovecraft and other devoted Mythosists, the Outer Gods might someday decide to pass blindly through our neighborhood, bulldozing our reality and raining down destruction born in a reality not our own and certainly over our heads. The cinema has filled seats with flickering tales of duplicitous aliens who arrive on earth to suck the planet dry. Asteroids and meteorites pose a constant threat to both the continued existence of our species and the quality of American filmmaking. Solar flares could one day decide to burn our watery marble to an orbiting cinder. Once again and over and over, death comes from the stars, or even from our star, and even from those places closer to home yet still firmly elevated.
Don’t wake me for the end of the world unless it has very good special effects.
— Roger Zelazny
More current events and geopolitical maneuvers also support this long-held human fear of demise from on high. This blitzkrieg of colossal proportions and stratospheric sources. From the frosty dawn of the Cold War, Americans have been told that our total annihilation could occur on any given day at the hands of the snarling, nuclear-armed Soviets. But of course the populace of the USSR was told the exact same thing about us baby-eating Yanks, and so the two newly minted Superpowers were locked in a perpetual horror of sudden, atomizing death, thus keeping everybody in both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres locked in perpetual fear. When the apocalyptic MOW The Day After was shown on network television in 1983, ABC had to warn viewers about the movie’s brutality, not because it was necessarily or even remotely graphic., but because what they were showing COULD REALLY HAPPEN should a nuclear war erupt, and this almost inborn knowledge scared the shit out of us all, both young and old. Most recently, unmanned America drone aircraft aptly named Predator and Reaper routinely rain down similarly well-monikered Hellfire rockets on unsuspecting insurgents, terrorists, and scurrilous agitators of various sorts all across the Middle East. A glint in sky is usually all one sees before a compound or pickup is reduced to smoking rubble.
I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.
— Albert Einstein
Today, from my vantage point in the United States, the Cold War is more or less over (an admittedly debatable statement), and until some Saudi-funded Salafist group gets ahold of a drone and points that machine west, I’m not in any imminent danger of being bombed in my living room. I don’t believe the Outer Gods are real, nor that Jesus will come back to pluck out the Christian glue apparently holding all of our reality together to hasten the End of the World.
But I still watch the skies with trepidation, and will forever do so after that one morning in early September, 2001, eleven years and two days ago as of this writing. As I stood slack-jawed and pacing, barely processing the live news feed as the second plane slammed into a piece of the mighty New York City skyline, and then as the first tower collapsed, then the second — destroying something that seemed indestructible, like ageless bones inside of me — it truly felt like the world was ending. On that day, I finally knew true horror, TRUE TERROR, and it has never totally left me, like a brand on my soul. Being born into white, male, middle class privilege, there was very little in this world to terrify me. Horror was imagined, and thus an interest, a hobby. Much like we hunt animals for sport because we don’t have to for survival, I pursued the idea of horror as a hobbyist. But on September 11, 2001, it felt like the walls of total security were caving in and the barbarians were already inside the gates, ready to grind me up and salt the earth beneath my remains. Commercial airliners that carve our sky and transport our loved ones had now become deadly missiles, destroying titan symbols of American wealth, power, and commerce like the one in which I work. In the immediate aftermath, our smirking Vice President was telling us to stock up on duct tape to avoid poison gas attacks. Animated mock-ups of where terrorists would likely strike in Los Angeles usually centered around downtown, which was about a five-minute freeway march due south from me. How fast could radiation from a suitcase nuke or dirty bomb travel in the other direction to my doorstep?
As a country, I think we’ve become more focused on what is important and on the challenges we face. Focused on our national identity. And focused on the world beyond our borders. After years of looking ever-inward, Americans are once again looking outward, in a way I haven’t seen since the height of the Cold War. While no one would ever say that September 11 was in any way a good thing, these developments may ultimately prove to be healthy for a democratic nation such as ours, one that wields such great influence and power on the world stage but one that is, as we have learned in such a hard way, still vulnerable to those who hate us.
— Dan Rather
We like to say, “Don’t do [insert (in)activity here], or the terrorists have won.” That might make for a cheery sound bite on cable news or effective fodder for stump speeches, but no matter what we do, in my mind, the terrorists have won. Or at the very least they’ve scared the living shit out of me, which amounts to the same thing. Think about it: if a terrorist’s goal is to spread terror, to give one pause, to cause the extinction of total and complete security, then they succeeded in spades. Terror — real, slavering horror — has found a home in ours.
If inciting people to do that [9/11] is terrorism, and if killing those who kill our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists.
— Osama bin Laden, from an interview given to Al-Jazeera, October 2001
I don’t think it’s an admission of cowardice to state that the terrorist acts of 9/11 have terrorized me, and that the gashes they left will never fully heal. Indeed, for years afterward, and even to this day, I watch the skies for low-flying airplanes. When a 747 banks over downtown as it leaves LAX, I often wonder if it isn’t flying just a bit too low, and if its turn aren’t just a bit too sharp. I’ll suspiciously eye a nondescript box truck parked too long in front of a high-rise. I’m ashamed to admit that bearded, pious-looking Middle Eastern men make me nervous when they board the same flight as me. And my nightmares, which have always featured immense scenes of destruction, are not just cosmic or proto-religious these days. They are now more visceral and closer to the ground, yet they still originate from the sky.
If I’m more serious about horror today, much of that can be traced back to the events of 9/11. Some of my readers will undoubtedly insist that for this fact alone, the terrorists have won. For every new tale of terror I pen, chalk one up for the Bad Guys.
For me and my family personally, September 11 was a reminder that life is fleeting, impermanent, and uncertain. Therefore, we must make use of every moment and nurture it with affection, tenderness, beauty, creativity, and laughter.
Despite all of this skyward dread, it is of course possible that extinction will take us from below, that we’ll just slump to the earth, dying under the weight of our own ennui and physical disconnectedness. But it continues to be my opinion that it will all end from above, albeit not in the way that so many have foreseen throughout the ages. 9/11 reminded me that so much of what is above us can easily harm us or even snuff us from existence with very little effort. We send 50 tons into the sky on metal wings and expect no blowback. We corkscrew through a cosmos that is filled with chaos and massive objects and incomprehensible power, and whistle our happy asses past the waiting graveyard. Yes, friends, I’m convinced beyond doubt that our undoing will come from Out There, in a way that we cannot even comprehend with our flabby, underdeveloped minds.
“I refuse to turn my eyes from the horizon, from that window into the universe that opens up to us each and every unclouded night. There is mystery up there, there is undiscovered truth, and there is a special kind of horror.”
Either way, when it does eventually happen, and if I’m still alive for the Grand Curtain, I’ll see it coming, because even with all of the distractions and beckoning pixels at arm’s length, I refuse to turn my eyes from the horizon, from that window into the universe that opens up to us each and every unclouded night. There is mystery up there, there is undiscovered truth, and there is a special kind of horror. Just like what was merely glimpsed 11 years and two days ago. Toy soldiers pantomiming the Panzer division to come.
So, sit back and enjoy the view. The free fireworks, as it were. As the Star Hustler Jack Horkheimer always advised: “Keep looking up.”
(Then again, on second though, I reckon it’s not too late to buy an iPhone, right? The older, simpler models must go for a song. I don’t know how to use one, but if my daughter can do it, I sure as shit can play a mean round of Angry Birds.)
And now, for a dose of expanded context, please enjoy this gentlemanly debate about the End Times — an obsession of mine from an early age, raised as I was in a very Evangelical household — that never took place between two writers of fiction geared mostly toward children:
Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. I do not suppose you and I would have though much of a Frenchman who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side. God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realise what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else — something it never entered your head to conceive — comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing: it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realised it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it.
— C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
I think this is irresponsible preaching and very dangerous, and especially when it is slanted toward children, I think it’s totally irresponsible, because I see nothing biblical that points up to our being in the last days, and I just think it’s an outrageous thing to do, and a lot of people are making a living — they’ve been making a living for 2,000 years — preaching that we’re in the last days.
— Charles M. Schulz, Charles M. Schulz: Conversations