Book Club – ‘Notes from an Apocalypse’

Welcome to the first entry into the inertia book club, a platform to discuss some of the most interesting features in our bookshelves. In said discussions we are not aiming to review our chosen literature, but give more of an overview of the themes of each piece and to interject with our own interpretations and understandings of the text. As well as this we will aim to convey any lasting affect the books have had on us, as we believe that this is the sign of a truly good book. It is safe to say that any book featured in the ‘club’ has our collective endorsement and we hope to build a library of recommendations for the readers of our blog, as it can sometimes be hard to know where to start in the search for your next read. In regard to this relatively minor problem; we are here to help, but we also would like help from you. Any recommendations can be sent to us via social media and we hope to build a little community with this. Now on to Ewan with the first book to feature in the series.

Debuting this new feature on the site I will be looking at Notes From an Apocalypse, a new release from earlier this year that, in essence, looks at the world imploding and the human fascination with the end. As long as humans have been around there has been a looming sense of ephemerality, that one day we will no longer be here. This extends beyond the people that we know and our wider civilization, it concerns the very existence of humans on Earth. Long before existentialism and philosophers, people have wondered what fate we will eventually meet. Humans have been around long enough to witness mass extinctions of other species and have even assisted in the demise of many due our innate desire to progress and dominate the planet. In this newest book released by Irish author Mark O’Connell these themes are outlined in a very contemporary and detached way.

Between climate change, an underlying cold war comedown and the rapid advancement of some pretty terrifying technology it seems pretty reasonable to be worried about the world right now. Apocalypse may seem like a heavy or premature word but I suppose you wouldn’t be aware that the world was ending until it was too late to save.

I can relate to the modern nature of the writer’s anxieties of the world coming to an end. Although sometimes it may seem that it would be best for the planet if humans were to become extinct, it is only natural to seek the survival of your species and worry about the fate of future humans to some extent. This feeling of tenderness and concern for your fellow man does dwindle in our advanced capitalist setting, with individualism taking a front seat it can be hard to sympathise with people that you share very little with. This is something that O’Connell highlights in his writing whilst looking at the mega-rich and travelling the globe in pursuit of those who are already planning for the end of days. The irony of researching the end of the world and discussing climate change whilst simultaneously jet-setting to every corner of the planet is not lost on the author, as it only adds to his apocalyptic anxieties.

The author describes a world of capitalist individualism that has created a more pronounced feeling of survival of the few amongst these extreme cases. Whilst speaking to millionaire doomsday preppers in South Dakota it becomes clear to O’Connell that this elite class usually have very little interest in providing safety for the wider population. Rather, these groups look at saving the ‘worthy’ and it does not take much conversation before they begin to fantasise about an apocalyptic world riddled with groups of bandits and complete anarchy. The fanatic speculation here is very reminiscent of a Hollywood blockbuster such as Mad Max or The Road. The American point of view that is examined for much of the book shows a certain cockiness that we will witness the end.

When in Los Angeles O’Connell visits an exhibition on the future of humanity and, more specifically, the colonisation of Mars. After the vastly destructive colonisations across our own planet it does raise the question of why we would want to subject another planet to this pain, inhabited or not. The relationship that America shares with its colonial past and how in the case of the USA it could be viewed as somewhat of a success is brilliantly emphasised by the writer during this part of the book. It only seems right that the most viscously capitalist nation in human existence will be leading the way for this new intergalactic crusade.

In the quest for apocalyptic info O’Connell travels to New Zealand, where Silicon Valley billionaires have been buying up land at a rate that raised alarm with the locals. This seems to be an insurance policy for the ultra-rich, a kind of trans-Pacific bomb shelter to be used at the first indication that the world as we know it is ending. This further exasperates the individualism in life which results in self-protection under the threat of death, with little concern for anyone other than yourself. It is worrying that these people at the top of Western civilisation have such pronounced fears and exit strategies. Unlike the doomsday preppers mentioned earlier in the novel these techy billionaires are viewed as intelligent, do they know something we don’t? The kind of primal fear of running away from this threat shows that our society is held together by tenuous links that can quickly deteriorate when new problems arise.

In the most personal segment of the book O’Connell travels to our native Scotland to go on a retreat with like minded doomsday obsessionists. This trip seems to be in equal parts therapy and research for the book. To try and get into other people’s heads and to understand their deepest darkest fears is always going to be tricky but O’Connell gives it a go. Speaking to these people and relaying their opinions to the reader the writer has a great deadpan delivery that was also present in his previous novel, To Be a Machine.

After this retreat and looking back on his research for the book O’Connell doesn’t necessarily seem to have a clearer picture of whether he should be worried or not. At his home in Dublin he wonders endlessly of the fate of his children and what world they will grow up in. The blunt and accidentally existential questions coming from his son probably only add to this anxiety, but the exchanges are always a highlight of O’Connell’s writing in my opinion. As the book ends it feels only right to sit and reflect, but it can be hard to shake any of the worries that I had going into the book. The book neither settled nor antagonised any of my concerns but it did explore them in a way that I found to be a funny and touching way. Hearing of O’Connell’s personal journey to the apocalypse and back gave me some good insights and was a thoroughly entertaining read.

Reading this during a pandemic felt aptly fitting and I recommend this book to anyone seeking some additional apocalyptic dread if the recent pandemic just wasn’t enough. The thoughts described in the book are most prevalent in times of change, like right now, where people cannot see beyond the horizon and fear what may be on the other side. The virus that shook the world and is still devastating countless lives is only the most recent incident in a history full of these glimpses of the horizon. Perhaps we are coming close to a catastrophic event to end all humanity, or perhaps we’re just slowly edging towards extinction, destined to be at the hands of our own demise.

Words by Ewan Blacklaw

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