Having considered the possibilities and occasional hazards of time travel, artificial intelligence and monsters both from within and beyond in his earlier anthologies for the Science Fiction Classics range of the British Library, editor Mike Ashley turns his attention a more existential threat with the thirteen stories ranging from 1896 to 1956 gathered in The End of the World and Other Catastrophes.
Appropriately opening the collection is Helen Sutherland’s 1930 fugue dream of the nightmare within an unasked-for feminist utopia which is unable to sustain itself as the few remaining males die out leading to The End of the World before Ashley offers a trio of tales under the sub-heading The Three Dooms of London.
The first of these, in London’s Danger of 1896 by C J Cutliffe Hyne is apparently the cold, yet the frozen water supply becomes a secondary concern as the more immediate peril of fire takes hold in the capital; descriptive and dramatic, beyond this the narrative is lacking but the closing commentary rings true 125 years on: “Shameful treaties are thrust upon us… trade has been reft…we are a nation with a glorious history, but no future.”
Set in 2022 as the events of 1972 are recalled, The Freezing of London by Herbert C Ridout was published in 1909, yet he made little attempt to envisage any detail in the future he intended to destroy by release of a chemical fog which causes the instantaneous and total freezing of anything with which it comes into contact, and again the tale is superficial.
The first example where there is more to the story than the singular threat, Days of Darkness sees (or rather, doesn’t) the inhabitants of London and the world beyond plunged into darkness as, it is presumed, the solar system passes through an area of space where the aether required to allow the transmission of light is absent, a belief overturned long before 1927, though with the return of light bringing also the illumination of love, Owen Oliver feels his way to the shape of many of the following stories.
Within an Ace of the End of the World, Robert Barr’s 1900 quest across a dead world to find his betrothed is more scientifically based, if not exactly plausible, as a process to enhance crop production has an unintended runaway side-effect, but it is interesting in that it anticipates the mass-media mockery and dismissal of those who call for caution when there is profit to be made in unrestrained industrial progress.
In the extended tale of The Last American, first published in 1889 and accompanied by the author’s own illustrations, John Ames Mitchell balances the seriousness of his vision of the United States of America as ephemeral with the playfulness of the names of his characters, looking back on the mighty empire as a fallen civilisation in an eastern-influenced critique of western cultural and artistic values whose images echo into Planet of the Apes and Logan’s Run.
From 1903, Simon Newcomb also offered a version of The End of the World, termed a “dark star” whose description is less a black hole and more a wandering brown dwarf despite the name, the foresight of his idea giving way to more disaster porn as the impact occurs with the Sun with predictably disastrous results, but offering the empty comfort of the implication that this may be part of the cosmic plan.
It was in 1897 that George Griffith chronicled the coming of The Great Crellin Comet, with references to Wells and Verne and awareness of the public perception of science and the role of journalists, as well as a trite subplot of romance across the class divide which attempts to add human interest to a story which stands adequately without it.
Jumping forward to 1956, Two by Two is not the tale of the catastrophe but of the survivor, as the first man on the Moon is witness to a stellar phenomenon which is initially inconvenient, interfering with communication with Earth, but is only a prelude to the forthcoming devastation which John Brunner views with philosophical detachment.
Boy meets girl at the end of the world in Frank Lillie Pollock’s Finis which even by the standards of 1906 is scientifically illiterate, though the melodrama would please Donald Trump with the suggestion that artillery shells are fired into an approaching weather front to dissipate it, but at least the disaster is only reported by the physicists, not precipitated; it is not so with The Madness of Professor Pye.
As the title suggests, Warwick Deeping’s extended 1934 adventure presents a mad scientist, a resentful genius who creates a death ray and tests it over greater distances. Initially displaying wit in the eccentric characters of Alfred Pye and his servant, it is too long and flounders as it progresses, but is one of the few stories included where the crisis is not natural but the malicious action of an arrogant sociopath; curiously, it also features a guest appearance by Benito Mussolini, yet it is of scientists that the tale warns, not politicians.
Shorter and considerably sharper is Alice Eleanor Jones’ Created He Them, written in 1955, in the long nights of the cold war a decade after the bomb had dropped, and set in the aftermath of nuclear disaster rather than the prelude. Not about the dying but the living, that life is bitter and little comfort can be gleaned by the reader, and as the antithesis to the hollow declarations of love elsewhere it is possibly the best story included.
Closing the collection, There Will Come Soft Rains is a counterpart by Ray Bradbury dating to 1950, the world ended and some of what was built persisting in the ruins, but the people do not, the routines of the programmed mechanisms repeating without purpose in a void, serving the shadows of their former masters.
Unlike the recently published Beyond Time where the journeys were different, leading to a divergence of outcomes, The End of the World is inevitably bound by an eventual destination regardless of the route by which it is arrived at, and while the particulars may vary the factors which they have in common make the collection one of the less essential offerings from the series, though some of the rarities included are of value.