Rebecca's Reviews > Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back

Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O'Connell
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really liked it
bookshelves: 2020-release, current-events, travel-books, wellcome-prize-2021-hopeful, memoirs, science-tech

(3.5) In 2018 O’Connell won the Wellcome Book Prize (as well as our shadow panel’s prize) for To Be a Machine, a zany travelogue through the world of transhumanism, which is about using technology to help overcome human limitations and radically extend our lifespan. The same skeptical, satirical outlook that made his first book so funny applies perfectly to approaches to the end of the world, especially in the early chapter about preppers. This movement, like transhumanism, is very American, and very masculine. O’Connell pulls no punches in describing survivalism as a white male fantasy, which, coincidentally, will involve an unequivocal return to traditional Christianity (but no empathy for the suffering, e.g. refugees) and gender roles.

Preparing for the apocalypse, for many, means escaping from the world, so O’Connell travels to a set of bunkers in South Dakota, the New Zealand sites where billionaires plan to seek refuge, and a Mars Society Conference in Los Angeles. The troubling language of frontiers and colonization recurs as he explores how those with money and influence will trample over the doomed masses to save themselves. The pace picks up in later chapters about a wilderness experience in the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the Scottish Highlands and a spot of “catastrophe tourism” via a trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

The ‘personal’ part of the subtitle has to do with the fact that O’Connell is a parent; as Sian Cain noted in her recent Guardian feature on the child-free future (which indeed mentions this book), most of those who are currently writing about our existential state and moral responsibility during climate breakdown have children.* O’Connell asks himself whether, in protecting his son from knowledge of how bad a world he has born into, he’s perpetuating a cycle of denial. While pessimism strikes him as the only rational attitude to take given the facts, he decides that constant anxiety is no way to live and that he does have hope insomuch as he has, through his children, a stake in the future. A glimpse of youth climate protesters is heartening for him, showing that there are people out there who care.

(*To state the (I hope) bleedin’ obvious, you don’t have to have children to care about the fate of the human race, and having children can in some cases lead not to greater humanitarian concern but instead to an insular focus on the survival of one’s own family.)

This was one of my lockdown treats, ordered from Belgravia Books. It has undeniable relevance, now more than ever – though, as O’Connell, acknowledges, people have pretty much always thought the end of the world was nigh, such that the apocalypse has become “profoundly dull.” But I had a few problems with the book as a whole. For one thing, many of his subjects – preppers, Elon Musk, Donald Trump, whoever – are easy targets. So even if he does skewer them in amusing fashion, is he telling us anything we don’t already know? Or is he just entrenching existing prejudice?

Also, his ultimate conclusions, perhaps inevitably, feel like a copout. This is not a situation about which we can feel detachment. I never felt O’Connell was holding himself, as an individual, responsible and committing to any kind of lifestyle change. Okay, I agree that it’s pointless for him to regret having had children, or having flown across the world to research his books, but awareness and repentance mean changing direction. And in a book like this, I think you do have an obligation to model correct ways of thinking and acting, rather than stand back as an observer and cultural commentator.

Favorite passages:

“Trump is only the most visible symptom of a disease that has long been sickening the country’s blood—a rapidly metastasizing tumor of inequality, hyper-militarism, racism, surveillance, and fear that we might as well go ahead and diagnose as terminal-stage capitalism.”

“There is no way of contemplating the catastrophe of our way of life from the outside. There is no outside. Here, too, I myself am the contaminant. I myself am the apocalypse of which I speak.”


[A few novels that take up the same themes or have the same tone: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (the Chernobyl trip, anyway), Weather by Jenny Offill, Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson (the South Dakota entrepreneur he meets reminds me a lot of one of the characters)]
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Reading Progress

November 19, 2019 – Shelved
November 19, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
November 19, 2019 – Shelved as: 2020-release
November 19, 2019 – Shelved as: current-events
November 19, 2019 – Shelved as: travel-books
May 13, 2020 – Shelved as: wellcome-prize-2021-hopeful
May 30, 2020 – Shelved as: memoirs
June 3, 2020 – Started Reading
July 21, 2020 – Shelved as: science-tech
July 28, 2020 – Finished Reading

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