Brace yourself. Try to imagine a world in which the violin has become “nearly obsolete.” I know, right?! You’ve nearly fallen to your knees, begging for mercy, asking yourself why. Why, great creator, did humanity ever get to this point?
I am a big fan of the violin. I am learning to play it at almost 40 years old because I feel that it is the most beautiful instrument on the planet. Yet, when Trollope kicks off his futuristic dystopia novella The Fixed Period (British, 1882) with this absolutely chilling vision, it signals that although Trollope is one of the most skilled Victorian Realist writers, the man had next to no imagination.
Timelessness is the cure for a 10 year drought in Ballard’s novel The Drought (British, 1964), in which Dr. Charles Ransom learns how to navigate the desolate new landscape that surrounds him. Around him people change into picaresque, circus-like versions of their previous selves: they morph into who they truly are. For some characters, such as the “grotesque Caliban” Quilter and the wealthy, wayward Lomax siblings, the metamorphosis between presenting a façade and allowing their true natures to appear is like blinking an eye. For other characters, such as zoologist Catherine Austin, the change takes some extreme close-reading to identify. The world ravaged by a lack of rainfall has pressed humanity to expose itself for what it is. If humans seemed to exist in a world “like a disaster area” before, then they are pressed to tap into their survival reserves here. In the case of the main character Ransom, being human means that he needs to surrender to the inevitable realization that “time” — especially time past — holds no truth worth remembering. He must learn to let go of who he believed he was and adapt into what the world demands that he become.
One overlooked end-of-the-world text is Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man (British, 1826) in which a plague invades Europe and, eventually, the world. This repetitive, cyclical text feels even longer than Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and yet less events occur to move the plot forward. Shelley’s vision of the end of times is vastly different from any other apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic text I have read as the doom takes years (nearly forever) to come to fruition. Humanity’s demise is not immediate here. It involves prolonged suffering and gives characters almost an eternity to reflect and take action. Taking action is precisely what characters in this novel do not do…unless, of course, running for office and trying to fight the plague with soap-box preaching and parliamentary antics can save the world.