Awe and Imminent Doom
Over the course of this semester, I have been continually fascinated with the concept of the sublime. The terms index on the course website describes this concept as “beauty mixed with terror, danger, threat -- usually on a grand or elevated scale.” Since being introduced to it, I have begun seeing it in almost all of the novels, games, and movies I consume. I am inexplicably drawn to the sense of awe and terror that accompanies Apocalyptic narratives, such as Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle series, Final Fantasy XV, and Avengers: Infinity War. Although these titles are not strictly science fiction, they each deal with an impending threat to the universe. There’s something both exciting and terrifying about the end of all life as we know it—we would never wish for such a tragedy to occur, but maybe, just maybe, everything might turn out alright in the end. Whether it does or not, a truly sublime story leaves its mark on a person.
In his 2017 essay Comparative Futures, Tanner House writes, “When discussing the ‘literature of the future,’ it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge the fears, concerns, and anxieties of both the past and present. Without the context of where we are and where we have been, speculating about the future of humanity becomes a pointless exercise in futility, grounded in nothing but the fantastical.” I agree wholeheartedly with this wise assertion. Often in apocalyptic stories, the threat that exists in the unknown future stems from an anxiety toward the present. Something is going terribly wrong, -- be it climate change, alien invasion, or the zombie disease -- and the future of humanity or the whole universe is at stake. This narrative search for a solution to present-day fears sometimes turns into an ironic or satirical portrayal, villainizing the person or group supposedly at fault and justifying any actions the hero may take in order to save the day. Ultimately, though, a hero to some is a villain to others. Who is worthy to decide what actions will be taken to stave off impending doom?
Whether an apocalypse actually happens or is miraculously averted, the fears portrayed as it looms ever closer arise in response to a threat. In the 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow, much of the Northern Hemisphere experiences a rapid succession of debilitating natural disasters, ushering in a new Ice Age. The elements are a frequent source of sublime terror, especially in light of our own ticking time-bomb of climate change. Blizzards, hurricanes, and fires all spark that primal anxiety that inspires so many of the stories we tell ourselves. On this subject, Nina Shaver writes in her 2015 essay Beautiful Destruction, “In a literary sense, sublime is this idea that incorporates beauty with terror and destruction. … Fire is symbolic of new life, new beginnings. It is also symbolic of destruction. … [In Parable of the Sower] They admired the fire when it was far in the distance, but as it closed in on them, it took everything in its path and, had it caught up with Lauren and her group, it would have consumed them as well.” Anyone who has ever been camping knows how mesmerizing it is to stare into the heart of a burning blaze. This element, which can level whole forests and destroy countless human lives, contains such beauty that one finds it hard to look away. I imagine the scene in Parable, where Lauren and company are almost overtaken by the great fire, to have that same element of both terror and awe. Shaver impactfully describes the concise truth surrounding fire as a sublime destroyer.
Not all of these apocalypses deal with catastrophic climate change, however. Sometimes, the scariest thing is our own dehumanization. In The Time Machine, the Time Traveler gets up close and personal to the two races descended from humanity. The scary thing is that they (and the giant crabs and black blob) bear very few actual resemblances to humans. What happened to all our achievements, all our hard work? Is it all for nothing? Fariha Khalil writes, in her 2015 essay The Possible Fates of the Human Race, “This particular novel [Parable] describes a dystopian existence of a future set in a situation within a very fanatical, scary and overall crazy society, which is the complete opposite of a utopia. In the novel the characters are minimized to their basic human instincts and needs. Fire, as one of four classical elements, is used in this book as a sort of drug equivalent to sex in its ability to inflict human passion (111). We see that people are brought back to such natural elements as fire in order to receive gratification and pleasure, and ultimately wreak havoc (246).” We see that same concept of the sublime here, where fire -- that wondrous and deadly element -- becomes twisted through the use of the “pyro” drug, further affecting its “ability to inflict human passion.” Khalil sets a striking reminder that Parable sets dehumanized junkies and street poor against the apparent last hope for a better world. Indeed, what is more frightening than losing our own humanity?Sublime catastrophes, especially apocalyptic tragedies, inspire us with beauty while subsequently stealing our lives. Is not the terror and wonder that comes before certain death part of what brings meaning to life? A story doesn’t exist just to end, just as a life doesn’t exist just to die. Human emotions, relationships, and legacy bring meaning to any apocalypse narrative. The looming threat of the destruction of life as we know it scares the hell out of us, but that might just be all the motivation we need to save ourselves.