Friday, November 10, 2006

The End of the End of the World

Children of Men is a film about the end of the world. People have lost their ability to reproduce: humanity has, literally, no future. The people that are left are the ageing remnants of the human race in it's million-odd-year existence: they are mentally and morally exhausted, subscribing to any number of outdated ideologies (we see ferals, hippies, and Hizbollahs in the film). They begin to tear into one another with unremitting savagery, perhaps because there is nothing else to do; as the film ends, London is being bombed.

Children of Men is a fine film; you can read reviews of it here and here and here. It's a pity, though, that such a well-made film should put across such a comprehensively nihilist view: that when humans are faced with this future, they will turn to savagery and crime, and destroy their own way of life, maybe out of no other reason than boredom.

Apocalypse and end-of-the-world fantasies have been written about by SF writers for centuries; H G Wells did it in War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, Byron did it in his poem Darkness, and Mary Shelley did it in The Last Man. But it's worth remembering that there are other, gentler fantasies that have been written about time, fantasies that see mankind (or other races) cheerfully adapting to different circumstances; fantasies about the construction of new ways of life rather than the destruction of old ways of life. I reckon it's time we read some of these again ...


"How beautifully clear the water is!" said Lucy to herself, as she leant over the port side early in the afternoon of the second day.
And it was. The first thing that she noticed was a little black object, about the size of a shoe, travelling along at the same speed as the ship. For a moment she thought it was something floating on the surface. But then there came floating past a bit of stale bread which the cook had just thrown out of the galley. And the bit of bread looked as if it were going to collide with the black thing, but it didn't. It passed above, and Lucy now saw ythat the black thing could not be on the surface... "It's our shadow! The shadow of the
Dawn Treader," said Lucy. "Our shadow running along on the bottom of the sea ..."
They had passed the city and the sea-bed was still rising. It was only a few hundred feet below the ship now. The road had disappeared. They were sailing above an open, park-like country, dotted with little groves of brightly-coloured vegetation. And then - Lucy nearly squealed aloud with excitement - she had seen People.
There were between fifteen and twenty of them, and all mounted on sea-horses - not the tiny little sea-horses which you may have seen in museums but horses rather bigger than themselves. They must be noble and lordly people, Lucy thought, for she could catch the gleam of gold on some of their foreheads, and streamers of emerald- or orange-coloured stuff fluttered from their shoulders in the current.

- C S Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader


Here we saw huge figures riding upon vultures of a prodigous size, and each of them having three heads. To form some idea of the magnitude of these birds, I must inform you, that each of their wings is as wide, and six times the length of our vessel, which was about six hundred tons burthen. Thus, instead of riding upon horses, as we do in this world, the inhabitants of
the Moon (for we now found we were in madam Luna) fly about on these birds. The king, we found, was engaged in a war with the SUN, and he offered me a commission, but I declined the honour his majesty intended me.
Everything in this world is of extraordinary magnitude; a common flea being much larger than one of our sheep: in making war, their principal weapons are radishes, which are used as darts; those who are wounded by them, die immediately...
As to the natives of the Moon, none of them are less in stature than thirty-six feet; they are not called the human species, but 'the cooking animals', for they all dress their food by the fire, as we do, but 'the cooking animals', for they all dress their food by fire, as we do, but lose no time at their meals, as they open their left side, and place the whole quantity at once in their stomach, then shut it again till the same day in the next month ...
Their eyes they can take in and out of their places when they please, and they can see as well with them in their hand as in their head! and if by any accident they lose or damagbe one, they can borrow or purchase another, and see as clearly with it as their own. Dealers in eyes are on that account very numerous in most parts of the world, and in this article alone, all the inhabitants are whimsical: sometimes green and sometimes yellow eyes are the fashion ...

- Baron Munchausen


Whether Armilla is like this because it is unfinished or because it has been demolished, whether the cause is some enchantment or only a whim, I do not know. The fact remains that it has no walls, no ceilings, no floors: it has nothing that makes it seem a city except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be: a forest of pipes that end in taps, shouwers, spouts, overflows. Against the sky a lavabo's white stands out, or a bathtub, or some other porcelain, like late fruit still hanging from the boughs. You would think that the plumbers had finished their job and gone away before the bricklayers arrived; or else their hydraulic systems, indestructable, had survived a catastrophe, an earthquake, or the corrosion of termites.
Abandoned before or after it was inhabited, Armilla cannot be called deserted. At any hour, raising your eyes among the pipes, you are likely to glimpse a young woman, or many young women, slender, not tall of stature, luxuriating in the bathtubs or arching their backs under the showers suspended in the void, washing or drying or perfuming themselves, or combing their long hair at a mirror. In the sun, the threads of water fanning from the showers glisten, the jets of the taps, the spurts, the splases, the sponges' suds.

- Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Then I drew over me a rich, heavy, purple cloth that was beside me; and, lying still, knew, by the sound of the waters, that my little bark was fleeting rapidly onwards. Finding, however, none of that stormy motion which the sea had manifested when I beheld it from the shore, I opened my eyes; and, looking first up, saw above me the deep violet sky of a warm southern night; and then, lifting my head, saw that I was sailing fast upon a summer sea, in the last border of a southern twilight. The aureole of the sun yet shot the extreme faint tips of its longest rays above the horizon- waves, and withdrew them not. It was a perpetual twilight. The stars, great and earnest, like children's eyes, bent down lovingly towards the waters; and the reflected stars within seemed to float up, as if longing to meet their embraces. But when I looked down, a new wonder met my view. For, vaguely revealed beneath the wave, I floated above my whole Past. The fields of my childhood flitted by; the halls of my youthful labours; the streets of great cities where I had dwelt; and the assemblies of men and women wherein I had wearied myself seeking for rest. But so indistinct were the visions, that sometimes I thought I was sailing on a shallow sea, and that strange rocks and forests of sea-plants beguiled my eye, sufficiently to be transformed, by the magic of the phantasy, into well-known objects and regions. Yet, at times, a beloved form seemed to lie close beneath me in sleep; and the eyelids would tremble as if about to forsake the conscious eye; and the arms would heave upwards, as if in dreams they sought for a satisfying presence. But these motions might come only from the heaving of the waters between those forms and me. Soon I fell asleep, overcome with fatigue and delight. In dreams of unspeakable joy--of restored friendships; of revived embraces; of love which said it had never died; of faces that had vanished long ago, yet said with smiling lips that they knew nothing of the grave; of pardons implored, and granted with such bursting floods of love, that I was almost glad I had sinned--thus I passed through this wondrous twilight. I awoke with the feeling that I had been kissed and loved to my heart's content; and found that my boat was floating motionless by the grassy shore of a little island.

- George MacDonald, Phantastes


Near the Cimmerian country is a cave, deeply recessed, a hollow mountainside, the secret dwelling-place of languid Sleep, where the sun's rays can never reach, whether at his rising or at noon or at his setting. Dark mists are breathed out from the ground, and the half-light of evening's gloom. No crested cock summons the dawn with wakeful crowings, no anxious dogs break the silence, or geese, shrewder still than dogs. No wild beasts are head, no cattle, nor is there any sound of branches swaying in the wind, or harsh quarrelling of human tongues. Voiceless quiet dwells there: but from the depths of the rocky cave flows the river of Lethe whose waters invite slumber as they glide, murmuring over whispering pebbles. Before the doors of the house poppies bloom in abundance and countless herbs from whose juices dewy Night gathers drowsiness and sprinkles it over the dark earth. There is not a door in the whole house, lest some turning hinge should creak, nor is there any watchman at the threshold. In the midst of the cavern stands a lofty couch of ebon wood, dark in colour, covered with black draperies, feather-soft, where the god himself lies, his limbs relaxed in weariness. Around him lie empty dreams, made to resemble different shapes, as many as the corn ears in the harvest, as leaves on the woodland trees, or sands scattered on the shore.

- Ovid, Metamorphoses


Feel free to add some of your own favourite quotes in comments.


Don Quixote said...

I found the lack of explanation for humanity's demise rather frustrating - surely the writer could come up with a plausible reason for civilization's collapse? All we saw was an awkward ten second television reel that showed NY under nuclear attack and the rioting of various other cities. COM had some amazingly bone shaking battle scenes, and Clive Owen managed to exude an effective aura of understated menace, but the vague hints at faith annoyed the hell (excuse the pun) out of me.

I was particularly impressed with the decor of his brother's [?] apartment; there were a million and one pop cultural/artistic relics to be noted (Pink Floyd's inflatable pig could be seen floating on the rooftop outside!).

TimT said...

I reckon the director was more interested in what a war-torn Britain looked and felt like than how it got that way. Lots of things in the film aren't really explained; it looks realistic, but the logic behind a lot of it isn't necessarily realistic.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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