John Stuart Mill first coined the word dystopia in a speech to Parliament in the 1880s. But it would only come to be a unique literary genre in the 20th century—a largely pessimistic version of the future, as if Dante had written the Inferno and stopped.
Works like George Orwell’s 1984, H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange all express a profound sense of discomfort with narratives of hope—whether religious, Enlightenment, or otherwise secular. There’s good evidence that this was reflected in the films of the mid–20th century—particularly intriguing (though usually overstated) is the presence of alien-invasion narratives as Cold War anxieties increased.
And that brings us to today’s apocalyptic stories. They rarely refer to God, or gods, or shared beliefs—except as a way to tell a better story, without the weighty religious meaning they once held.
The promise of traditional tales of apocalypse, writes Elizabeth Rosen in Apocalyptic Transformation, “is unequivocal: God has a plan, the disruption is part of it, and in the end all will be made right. Thus is suffering made meaningful and hope restored to those who are traumatized or bewildered by historic events.” Apocalypse isn’t unmitigated catastrophe—not exactly. You could even call it optimistic.
In apocalypse, the suffering and pain we encounter in this life finally gains meaning. How many of us, in fact, yearn for apocalypse—for Revelation—to make the deep pain and difficulties of our lives meaningful and finished?
Traditional Christian liturgy even regularly calls forth apocalypse: Come, Lord Jesus, it pleads. Come quickly. Nowhere is this more marked than in funeral and burial liturgies, where faiths of all kinds taste the promise that the seemingly senseless tragedy of death is not the end. Revelation, that apocalypse, awaits.
It’s Not All Bad
But we tend to think of apocalypse not as comfort or as consummation, but as senseless brutality and punishing anger. Rosen explains,
Where the underlying message of the original narrative was optimistic, anticipating God’s intervening hand to make things right, the altered version has more in common with the jeremiad, a lamentation over the degeneracy of the world, and when God intervenes in this newer version of the story, it is not to restore order to a disordered world and reward the faithful, but rather to express a literally all-consuming, punishing anger.
She calls this the neo-apocalyptic. This sort of literature, she argues, is fundamentally pessimistic; “it functions largely as cautionary tale, positing means of extinction and predicting the gloomy probabilities of such ends. If these tales exhibit judgment, it is of the sort that assumes that no one deserves saving and that everyone should be punished.”
Like apocalypse, tales of neo-apocalypse involve the collapse of the social order, punishing human sin and error. Like apocalypse, neo-apocalypse is pessimistic about humanity’s capacity to rehabilitate itself.
But unlike apocalypse, neo-apocalypse doesn’t restrain that pessimism. There’s no Deus ex machina, no hope for the renovation of humankind: “This degeneracy is so complete that the Ending can only be so, too. There is nothing beyond this Ending, no hope of a New Heaven on Earth, precisely because there is nothing worth saving,” writes Rosen.