Cataclysm, natural or manmade, is one of the most popular themes in sf. Tales of Future War and Invasion theoretically belong here, but for convenience are dealt with under those separate headings; see also Climate Change, End of the World, Holocaust, World War One, World War Two and World War Three. Stories which emphasize the nature of the societies which spring up after a great disaster are dealt with under Post-Holocaust and – when the disaster is long past – Ruined Earth.
Central to the disaster tradition are stories of vast biospheric changes which drastically affect human life. Tales of universal floods are at least as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2000 BCE), and other motifs, such as plagues, fires and famines, have an obvious source in the Bible, particularly the Revelation of St John (also known as the Apocalypse, whence the adjective "apocalyptic", frequently applied to this form of sf). Disaster stories appeal because they represent everything we most fear and at the same time, perhaps, secretly desire: a depopulated world, escape from the constraints of a highly organized industrial society, the opportunity to prove one's ability as a survivor. Perhaps because they represent a punishment meted out for the hubris of technological Man, such stories have not been particularly popular in the US sf magazines. The ideology of disaster stories ran counter to the optimistic and expansionist attitudes associated with Astounding Science-Fiction and its long-time editor, John W Campbell Jr. In fact, most examples of the type are from the UK, and it has been suggested that this may be associated with the UK's decline as a world power throughout the twentieth century.
However, some of the earliest examples were written at the height of Empire. H G Wells's "The Star" (December 1897 The Graphic) and M P Shiel's The Purple Cloud (1901; rev 1929) are both tales of cataclysm. In the first a runaway star collides with the Earth, and in the second a mysterious gas kills all but two people, a new Adam and Eve. Arthur Conan Doyle's The Poison Belt (1913) also features a gas-like effect (described as a contamination of the luminiferous ether rather than of the actual atmosphere), but in this case it turns out not to be fatal. After World War One the disaster theme became more common. J J Connington's Nordenholt's Million (1923) portrays the social chaos following an agricultural blight caused by a mutation in nitrogen-fixing bacteria. S Fowler Wright's Deluge (1928) and Dawn (1929) depict the destruction of civilization by earthquakes and floods, and subsequent attempts to build a new society. John Collier's Tom's A-Cold (1933; vt Full Circle) and Alun Llewellyn's The Strange Invaders (1934) both deal effectively with survival in a Post-Holocaust world. R C Sherriff's The Hopkins Manuscript (1939; rev vt The Cataclysm) depicts the Moon's collision with Earth, and is a Satire on UK complacency in the face of impending war.
After World War Two there was a resurgence, to an even higher level, of the disaster theme. John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (6 January-3 February 1951 Collier's Weekly; as "Revolt of the Triffids"; 1951; rev 1951; orig version vt Revolt of the Triffids 1952) is an enjoyable tale of a world in which all but a few have been blinded and everyone is menaced by huge, poisonous plants, the titular Triffids. His The Kraken Wakes (1953; vt Out of the Deeps) is also a successful blend of invasion and catastrophe themes: sea-dwelling aliens melt Earth's icecaps and cause the inundation of the civilized world. The success of Wyndham's novels inspired many emulators. The most distinguished was John Christopher, whose The Death of Grass (1956; vt No Blade of Grass) is a fine study of the breakdown of civilized values when a virus kills all crops. The same author's The World in Winter (1962; vt The Long Winter) and A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965; vt The Ragged Edge) are also above-average works: one concerns a new Ice Age and the other features earthquakes. Many other UK novelists have dealt in similar catastrophes; e.g., J T McIntosh in One in Three Hundred (February 1953 F&SF; exp 1954), John Boland in White August (1955), Charles Eric Maine in The Tide Went Out (1958; rev vt Thirst! 1977), Edmund Cooper in All Fools' Day (1966), D F Jones in Don't Pick the Flowers (1971; vt Denver is Missing) and Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis in Mutant 59: The Plastic-Eater (1972). Keith Roberts's The Furies (1966), D G Compton's The Silent Multitude (1966) and Richard Cowper's The Twilight of Briareus (1974) combine disaster and invasion themes in the Wyndham manner. Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle's The Inferno (1973) deals with humanity's attempts to survive devastating cosmic radiation.
There have been several more personal uses of the disaster theme by UK writers – studies in character and psychology rather than adventure stories. An early example was John Bowen's After the Rain (1958). More impressive are J G Ballard's examinations of human "collaborations" with natural disasters: The Drowned World (January 1962 Science Fiction Adventures; exp 1962), The Burning World (1964; rev vt The Drought) and The Crystal World (1966), which concern the psychological attractions of flooded, arid and crystalline landscapes. Brian W Aldiss's Greybeard (1964) is a well-written tale of universal sterility and the impending death of the human race. Several younger UK writers, influenced by Aldiss and Ballard, have produced variations on the cataclysmic theme: Charles Platt in "The Disaster Story" (March 1966 New Worlds) and The City Dwellers (1970), M John Harrison in The Committed Men (1971) and Christopher Priest in Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972). John Brunner made strong admonitory use of the form in his novel of ecological catastrophe, The Sheep Look Up (1972). Angela Carter's Heroes and Villains (1969) is a powerful love story set in the aftermath of a disaster, and Doris Lessing's Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) is about a passive woman who observes society's collapse from her window.
US disaster novels are fewer in number. Oddly enough, where UK writers reveal an obsession with the weather, US writers show a strong concern for disease. Disastrous epidemics feature in Jack London's The Scarlet Plague (1915), George R Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954), Algis Budrys's Some Will Not Die (1961), Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain (1969), Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Time of the Fourth Horseman (1976), Stephen King's The Stand (cut from manuscript 1978; text largely restored and rev 1990), Frank Herbert's The White Plague (1982), Greg Bear's Blood Music (June 1983 Analog; exp 1985) – though here the biological immolation of the USA is ultimately argued as a blessing in disguise – and on into the new century with such works as Alex Adams's White Horse (2012). Of these, Stewart's Earth Abides is perhaps the outstanding work, containing much sensitive description of landscape and of the moral problems of the survivors. A notable short-story treatment of the theme, with a man-made plague as in several of the above-cited novels, is James Tiptree Jr's "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain" (March 1969 Galaxy; rev in SF: Authors' Choice 4, anth 1974, ed Harry Harrison).
Other notable disaster stories by US writers include The Second Deluge (1912) by Garrett P Serviss, Darkness and Dawn (1914) by George Allan England, When Worlds Collide (September 1932-February 1933 Blue Book; 1933) by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie, Greener Than You Think (1947) by Ward Moore, "The Xi Effect" (January 1950 Astounding) by Philip Latham, Cat's Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut Jr, The Genocides (1965) by Thomas M Disch, "And Us, Too, I Guess" (in Chains of the Sea, anth 1973, ed Robert Silverberg) by George Alec Effinger, The Swarm (1974) by Arthur Herzog and Lucifer's Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.
Japanese sf seems to have a leaning towards disaster themes. Two notable examples are Kōbō Abe's Dai-Yon Kampyoki (1959; trans as Inter Ice Age 4 1970) and Sakyo Komatsu's Nippon Chinbotsu (1973; cut trans as Japan Sinks 1976). The latter was filmed in 1973 as Nippon Chinbotsu (vt The Submersion of Japan; vt Tidal Wave).
Disaster is a popular motif in sf in the Cinema and on Television. Examples are the US film Earthquake (1975) and the UK television series Survivors (1975-1977). The original disaster-movie boom in the US took place in the 1960s and 1970s, and featured disasters both domestic and science-fictional; a producer associated with films of both kinds was Irwin Allen. Post-1960 examples range from Earth falling into the Sun in The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) to the only partially prevented Comet strike of Deep Impact (1998). Occasional disaster-themed films continue to appear in the twenty-first century, such as the almost comical overstatement of rapid Climate Change in The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and the more personal/psychological handling of a coming planetary collision in Melancholia (2011). Another form is the Monster Movie (which see).
Curiously enough, although the 1980s were generally regarded as a pessimistic decade, the disaster theme in sf seemed temporarily played out, with only occasional books of any consequence. Among them were The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica (1983) by John Calvin Batchelor, which is an ironic account of civilization's collapse; James Morrow's This Is the Way the World Ends (1986), which puts survivors of a World War Three Holocaust on trial; Greg Bear's The Forge of God (1987), which has Earth destroyed by Alien machines, and David Brin's Earth (1990), which has Earth in danger of being swallowed up by a small Black Hole at its core.
Similarly exotic and far-fetched disaster scenarios from British authors appear in Stephen Baxter's Moonseed (1998), where the Earth's crust is devoured by alien Nanotechnology, releasing internal magma in increasingly cataclysmic volcanic eruptions as a preliminary to the total dissolution of the planet; Paul J McAuley's The Secret of Life (2001), with adapted microbes from Mars forming a vast Pacific bloom or slick whose growth threatens global meltdown of Ecology; Adam Roberts's On (2001), turning Gravity sideways to make most of Earth's surface a vertiginous, precarious cliff, and The Snow (2004), in which a snowfall of unfeasible and unexplained vastness buries the world three miles deep; and Stephen Baxter's similarly impossible Flood (2008), drowning Earth first with rain and then in ever-rising waters from imagined subcrustal reservoirs.
But the default mode of disaster for the twenty-first century, spreading even into works by Mainstream Writers of SF and such films as The Day After Tomorrow (2004), is human-caused or human-exacerbated Climate Change (which see). [DP/PN/DRL]
see also: Command & Conquer; Cosy Catastrophe; Dystopias; End of Time; Entropy; Mutants; Nuclear Energy; Optimism and Pessimism.
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