Some American evangelicals have welcomed the coronavirus pandemic as signalling the end times, and Donald Trump as an improbable messiah. US citizens have been stocking up on guns and ammo, just as countless films about the zombie apocalypse have taught them to. It might therefore look like bad timing to publish a book that gently mocks those who have for years been preparing for the collapse of normal society. At the same time, Mark O’Connell understands the hunger for change, and the fear that it might actually be upon us. Apocalyptic fiction is as old as storytelling, he notes. “But what if now it’s especially the end of the world, by which I mean even more the end of the world: really and truly and at long last the end (or something like it)?”
In this essay-cum-travelogue, the author visits an old army facility in South Dakota that has been repurposed by an apocalypse entrepreneur as a city of hundreds of modern luxury bunkers, to which the well-heeled might retreat in case of nuclear attack or other disaster. “All of this was a logical extension of the gated community,” O’Connell observes. “I have some sympathy for the builders of bunkers, the hoarders of freeze-dried foodstuffs. I understand the fear, the desire for it to be assuaged. But more than I want my fear assuaged, I want to resist the urge to climb into a hole.”
Since those words went to press, however, things have changed, and a bunker full of preserved food (not to mention toilet roll) is more or less what we have all turned our homes into, thanks to peer pressure. Do those who planned ahead look quite so silly now? On this subject, it is perhaps a piquantly relevant footnote that Dominic Cummings, the government adviser whom it is alleged encouraged the British government’s early “herd immunity” virus-response strategy, spent quite a lot of time burnishing his maverick genius in a bunker he and his father built on his parents’ farm.
In another trip the intrepid writer goes to New Zealand to learn about how tech billionaires are buying up vast tracts of land to build retreats and super-bunkers for Armageddon. One of them is Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and the surveillance-technology company Palantir. Like most of the Silicon Valley wealthy he is a libertarian, and O’Connell reads an apocalyptic 1997 text that has deeply influenced him and his ilk, called The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State, by the investor James Dale Davidson and the journalist William Rees-Mogg, father of Jacob. When the thieving state collapses thanks to the rise of cryptocurrencies, it prophesies, a new “cognitive elite” will emerge who can redesign the world to their own liking. “The new Sovereign Individual,” the book declares, “will operate like the gods of myth in the same physical environment as the ordinary, subject citizen, but in a separate realm politically.”
Of course this is already true, since people such as Thiel, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and the rest wield outsized political and social power without having to worry much about tax – a problem for the little people – and it must be an added comfort that they are encouraged to consider themselves as a “cognitive elite”. Still they yearn for a future that places even fewer restrictions on their actions. To read The Sovereign Individual, O’Connell comments darkly, “is to be continually reminded that the dystopia of your darkest insomniac imaginings is almost always someone else’s dream of a new utopian dawn.”
You don’t have to be rich, though, to be a devotee, in the US especially, of “prepping”: a subculture made up “pretty well exclusively of white American men who were convinced that the entire world was on the verge of a vast systemic rupture and were obsessively invested in making sufficient preparations (‘preps’) for such scenarios”. As O’Connell points out, for these men, with their wraparound sunglasses and survival kits, the apocalypse is really just an excuse for what they dream of: a return to old-fashioned gender roles where a woman is a helpmeet and a man shoots varmints and other men. “Preppers are not preparing for their fears,” O’Connell insists; “they are preparing for their fantasies.”
People in this culture tend also to be conspiracy nuts: the bunker entrepreneur “believed in the existence of a rogue planet the size of Jupiter called Nibiru, [which] was on a collision course with our world”. Of course, the government knows about this planet but is keeping it a secret, a notion entirely in keeping with the present racist conspiracy theory that Covid-19 is a Chinese bioweapon that accidentally escaped containment.
Even if we are not like these guys, some part of us, perhaps, has always yearned for the end of things. As O’Connell describes a friend: “She was aware… of a desire for final knowledge. To think that it might be to us, in our time, that the end of the story would be revealed.” It would, in a way, constitute an aesthetic satisfaction. Otherwise the history of humanity is a long-running TV soap that keeps getting renewed for no good reason, and moves towards no cathartic resolution.
Elon Musk’s dream of colonising Mars would at least make for a good season-ending cliffhanger, or even a whole spin-off series. O’Connell finds himself admiring Musk’s “nostalgia for the future”, but argues persuasively that the idea of colonising Mars is really about “reinventing America itself” – America itself being an idea, so that a plan that involves a lot of machinery, tubing, computers and rocket fuel is at the same time unbearably meta: an idea about reinventing the idea of an idea.
Living in space is a plan to avoid the end of the world – as in, literally, the destruction of Earth as a habitat by an asteroid strike, nuclear war, or interstellar radiation burst – by making sure we have spare habitats. But other apocalyptic thinkers are sure we must go through the end of the world here, if only to come out the other side, where things will be magically better. You might, after all, have not an aesthetic but a nihilistically moral reason for welcoming the end: as O’Connell says of one cult eco-manifesto, it was “animated by the desire for the immolation of a corrupted world, and the hope of witnessing a new dawn rising above its ashes”. In this sense the misanthropic deep-greens are the ideological comrades of the “Sovereign Individual” libertarians; the differences in outlook really only cosmetic.
Near the end of the book, O’Connell travels to “the Zone”, the area of the Chernobyl accident that has become a literal hotspot for disaster tourism. He laments how the place is now a fairground resort of “apocalyptic kitsch” for Instagramming tourists while, he freely admits, doing exactly the same thing himself – albeit at a more rarefied literary level. He is amused at how his fellow visitors avoided getting in each other’s photos: “There seemed to be a general implicit agreement that nobody would appear in anyone else’s shots, due to a mutual interest in the photographic representation of Pripyat as a maximally desolate place.”
O’Connell’s virtue and great skill here and elsewhere is to create an appealing rhythm of conceptual depth and self-deprecating bathos. There is a very funny section near the end relating a conversation with his therapist where she mentions a book arguing that things aren’t really all going to pot. He recognises it as The Better Angels of Our Nature by the psychologist Steven Pinker, which gets him to thinking about Pinker’s hair, those steely ringlets. “I decided that it was resolutely the hair of an optimist, but that in spite of this – or perhaps because of it – it was in fact very bad hair.” And, he adds, don’t the great pessimists, like Samuel Beckett, actually have the best hair? It is a theory that demands further investigation. To his therapist, rather wonderfully, he explains none of it at all.
O’Connell also travels to Scotland to go, as his wife puts it with perfect sarcasm, “camping about the apocalypse” with a motley gang of eco-warriors. At one point they begin a ritual of striking out alone for 24 hours. Our author channels the non- fiction of Geoff Dyer in complaining about the pressure he feels to experience some kind of wilderness epiphany, which naturally prevents any such epiphany occurring. When he is at last buzzed by an RAF bomber on exercises, he is as grateful as any author would be for the perfect irony. “It was always the end of the world for someone, somewhere,” he writes. That conclusion, at least, has not been overtaken by events.
Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas” (Scribner)
Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back
Granta, 272pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 22 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb