Death from the Skies!: The science behind the end of the world...

Death from the Skies!   - Plait, Philip This is a book by Philip Plait. You might know him as the Bad Astronomer, which doesn't mean that his astronomy is substandard of course. I liked his writing before, so I was happy to finally get around to reading Death from the Skies.

It's a wonderful book, and seriously scary. Especially in the beginning.

Each chapter treats a threat to our little blue and green world from the universe around us. It starts small, with asteroids in the first chapter, and escalates through flares from the sun, effects of nearby supernova explosions, gamma ray bursts, black holes and possible threats from alien civilizations. The three final chapters take the really big perspective, and deal with the death of the sun, the collision of our galaxy with the Andromeda, and finally the slow death of the universe itself.

There are two tricks Phil Plait uses to make me not want to put the book down. What makes the book so charmingly readable is the conversational style with lots of little exclamations and parenthetical remarks. This makes it easy to follow along, but it never dumbs down the explanations of the science. The second trick is the dramatic openings to each chapter, a fictional account of how an ordinary person would experience the particular disaster of that chapter.

After reading about the horrors following a really big solar flare coming in our direction I want to know everything of course. How big is the risk? What could we do about it? And so I'm caught.

The part of the book dealing with things that will not happen in our lifetime never feels as urgently relevant, but still interesting. I'm sure even those who never had an interest in astronomy could enjoy this book, especially those who like speculation.

I sense stories in these scenarios, partly stories I recognise but also those that could still be written. The final chapter of Death from the Skies puts pictures in my head from Olaf Stapledon's The Star Maker, and of course I cannot read about supernovae destroying planets without remembering Arthur C. Clarke's story "The Star". Something written by Jack McDevitt echoes in my head in the chapter about alien attack. I search my memory for stories about civilisations struggling to escape from an impending gamma ray burst or a near collision with another star system or something like that, but nothing comes to mind immediately. Surely there are plenty of stories about living under a cosmic threat, it's just that I haven't yet read every disaster story.

Star Maker (SF Masterworks #21) - Stapledon, Olaf  Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present - Doctorow, Cory Engines Of God; McDevitt, Jack Olaf Stapledon; The Star Maker - The Other Side of the Sky

So I started thinking about end of the world, and about why we seem to love reading about disasters (and what comes after). Actually, I got sort of carried away, pulling out one book after the other from my shelves.

Postapocalyptic stories are on the rise, nowadays often spiced with some version of zombies. Why do we like stories about the end of the world? More to the point, how can we enjoy reading about worlds that build on the death of the majority and ruined lives for the rest? We can get a guilty pleasure from the suffering of others, that's well known. In fiction it's at least not immediately exploiting our unfortunate neighbours, like in the tabloids.

"No humans or other animals were harmed in the writing of this story," we could say.

Maybe we just want to be scared, in a safe way. Or maybe we just want to be safe, to feel that it could be worse, so my life is OK, really. But I don't think this is the main attraction of the postapocalyptic setting. Strangely, disaster stories are at the core very optimistic. They are usually stories are about survivors, and how they deal with the situation and try to do their best in spite of everything. At least for me, that's usually the most interesting aspect.

Cormac McCarthy; The RoadOne example is Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006), which brought the tropes of the post-nuclear-destruction story to a broader audience. It takes place just a few years after the Catastrophe, which is never explained but seems to me very much like a nuclear attack or perhaps a huge meteor impact. This background is used to explore the struggle to keep humanity in an extreme situation. For the sake of his boy, the father really tries to be strong and bring some kind of normality to their daily life. They ought to be the good guys. Sometimes that's just very difficult.

My general quibble with this type of story is nevertheless that despite showing us heroes, it is generally overly pessimistic about human nature. Seriously: what we know about how humans react in a real crisis tells us that they would huddle together, helping rather than hunting and fighting (or eating) each other. People are social, at the core. Cory Doctorow (author of for example For the Win) has mentioned something about wanting to write a disaster story where people are. I would like to read that one. I liked his When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth, which is a story where people don't fight and kill each other after the fall of civilization.

A weird thing about The Road is also that the topic seems almost dated. One of the scenes that has stayed with me is when the man finds a private bomb shelter. It's of a kind people used to build during the period when we lived under the threat of The Bomb. It had not been used, and is still stocked with food and water and everything you could want to survive on your own for a time. At the same time as it saves the father and his son, it seems to tell us something about the futility of our efforts to stay safe. Perhaps this scene particularly resonates with us who grew up under the threat of nuclear war.

Adams; WastelandsBut nuclear holocaust is not what we primarily feel threatened by today. Reading the anthology Wastelands (2008), edited by John Joseph Adams, I noted that the current generation of disasters in fiction indeed seem to lack one common fear, but start from various ugly visions of epidemics, environmental destruction or terrorism. It's a way of dealing with our fears, and making sense of them.

By imagining all the ways things could go wrong -- seriously wrong -- we learn something about our world, what we mean in it and what it means to us. That's the beautiful starting point for Phil Plait in Death from the Skies.

Alan Weisman; The World Without UsYou could do like the journalist Alan Weisman with The World Without Us (2007), and study what we do with our planet by trying to figure out what would happen with it if we just disappeared altogether. This book was a bestseller and inspired several tv shows and articles in major news magazines. The author has visited various parts of the globe and studied the effects of human activity and talked to various experts about what would happen to these things if we didn't maintain them. It tells us a lot about our place on this planet, what effect humans have on the world at this stage of our civilization. Polymers are forever.

Nonfiction like these two books is probably very good background reading for science fiction authors who want to create plausible scenarios for their stories. It's also almost as good as fiction for those of us who like to read about the end of the world as we know it.