“After a last great interval, a seventh sun will appear and the Earth will blaze with fire until it becomes one mass of flame. The mountains will be consumed, a spark will be carried on the wind and go as far as the worlds of God. Therefore, monks, even the monarch of mountains will be burnt and perish and exist no more—excepting those who have seen the path.” – Pāli Canon (29 BCE)
As much as we may want a favorite book or television series to go on forever, there comes a time it will end. It is an inevitability. We do not resist this, nor are we shocked by it. It’s a format we learn from the first stories we hear—just as every tale begins with “Once Upon a Time,” so must it eventually conclude with “The End.” This is universal to any culture, and is it any wonder, for if something has a beginning, there must be an end. We expect it. No story can go on forever; even Scheherazade ran out of things to say after 1,001 nights. But in fact, we are comforted by this, the knowledge of the bounds of the story’s shape. Even if we don’t like the particular way a story ends, the ending is nevertheless an opportunity to exhale, to rest at the closure.
Should we be surprised, then, when we reflect, in this age of pandemics and threats of world war, on the fact that when we tell the story of the earth and human civilization, just as every world tradition has a creation story—each one also has a destruction story? It’s not just the Bible, with its unmistakable formula in the first words of Genesis, “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God” (perhaps a reference itself to the telling of a story?), to the last chapter in Revelations, “Behold I come quickly,” a reference to the coming of a messianic god at the end of the world. What is fascinating is how these formulations vary so little from one another. Islamism, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, native religions that don’t neatly fall into any -isms—they would all seem to call for some future, cataclysmic end. So universal is this paradigm that there is even a name for it: eschatology—the study of the end of the world, or the ultimate destruction of humanity. It begs the question of what this says about humanity’s expectations of itself, and causes us to wonder: are we hard-wired for destruction by our stories of the apocalypse? And if so, why—in this age of reinvention of stories—do we still tell them?
When I embarked on the journey of writing Karma of the Sun, a novel about a Sherpa boy searching for his father on the eve of the apocalypse, I had never seen a post-apocalyptic story set in Asia, much less in Tibet. It always seemed to me that if there were to be survivors of a world-ending cataclysm, they would be as unlikely to be found in the kind of dystopian western city so typically favored as a setting for such stories as they would be likely in the isolated and remote reaches of the Himalayas, protected by the imposing mountain range. As the backdrop for the world of the novel, I drew directly from the Pāli Canon and the Lotus Sutra, last century BCE and first century CE Buddhist texts that describe seven apocalyptic suns (unavoidably echoing Revelations, with its seven seals and seven angels pouring out seven bowls of plagues after the sounding of seven trumpets). To me, descriptions of the seven suns in the eastern text unmistakably resembled nuclear blasts. I pictured a point in time where the first six blasts had already occurred, destroying the majority of the world, leaving only the novel’s setting of Tibet, and a boy growing up in the pall of the looming seventh and final blast—bearing the consequence of the karma of the past generations. This idea, combined with the evocative image of the snows of Kailash tinged with the ash of a nuclear winter, and the story was born.
But when my agent, then at literary powerhouse ICM, went out on submission to publishers with the novel, we found ourselves stymied. This was the time of COVID, unrest following George Floyd’s death, and January 6th. It appeared as if the post-pandemic world might have ended post-apocalyptic fiction. If timing is everything, this was a bad time, was what the editors were telling us. Comments ranged from, “I really liked the writing, but we can’t touch a post-apocalyptic book now,” to, “It was beautiful, but our readers really need something light these days—how about a romantic comedy, preferably something nostalgic??”
“The market has spoken,” my agent told me solemnly. “We may have to hang this up for a while.”
I couldn’t blame them. Thinking back to those months, I remember feeling sheepish about making editors read something from such a bleak genre, never mind the book’s redemptive theme of individual action as a force for change despite the odds of the world’s collective karma. I would not disagree that going out with an apocalyptic book in such a climate was ill-timed. But then something happened. And that something was the launch of the HBO adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s much-celebrated novel, Station Eleven, about—in case you didn’t already know—the end of the world.[W]hy do apocalypse stories endure in bleak times with a staying power that would make even the vampire genre green with envy?
Everything changed then—or rather, went back to normal. We were still facing a pandemic. There was still civil unrest. If anything, the world was in even more of an apocalyptic state with the invasion of Ukraine raising the specter of nuclear war to the highest point since the Cuban missile crisis. But like a bad penny that keeps turning up, the market was showing that post-apocalyptic stories still had a place. In fact, there has been no slowdown at all. Following in the footsteps of Station Eleven, there have followed no shortage of other literary, elegiac tellings of the end-of-the-world story, from Mandel’s own Sea of Tranquility, to climate-oriented fiction like Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go in the Dark and Lily Brooks-Dalton’s The Light Pirate, to more political fare like Christina Sweeney-Baird’s The End of Men. It has evolved to become a sub-genre of its own—call it literary post-apocalypticism—exploring in equal measure not just the horrors of the end but also the wistful profoundness of it. To put the shift in cinematic terms, contrast the high-octane meteor impact in the movie 2012 (directed by Roland Emmerich that drew inspiration from Mayan eschatology and the end-date of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar) which features three minutes of John Cusack speeding through Los Angeles while the city crumbles dramatically all around him, with the meteor impact scene in the movie Melancholia (directed by Lars von Trier) instead showing three minutes of Kirsten Dunst gazing regretfully at her family before the meteor’s collision which we see only as a wash of white.
Whether Hollywood or highbrow, we return to the original question: why do apocalypse stories endure in bleak times with a staying power that would make even the vampire genre green with envy? The conclusion, perhaps, is summed up in the young protagonist’s epiphany in Karma of the Sun, when he recognizes that “apocalypses, great and small, come for them all.” We all will face mortality—an end—and we know it. What we need is to remember to live like it: to be reminded that every moment matters. It is an epiphany about the catharsis of the apocalyptic story, which is that in the chaos and confusion of the world, deep down we long for rest and reality, and—to borrow from the Buddhist origins of this Tibetan novel—to shed the illusions that plague us through life. Like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in (Adam McKay’s COVID-era black comedy) Don’t Look Up, when he ruefully realizes all too late that “We really did have everything, didn’t we?”, we too wish to experience our own awakening. Moments after this utterance, as he is gathered with family and friends (played by Jennifer Lawrence and Timothée Chalamet) for their version of the last supper to await the extinction-level comet impact, we watch their dining room disintegrate into slow-motion oblivion to the forlorn melody of a child’s music-box. The message is as clear as any warning—to cherish what we have before it is too late.
This, perhaps, is why apocalyptic stories resonate. We know that the end is coming for us sooner or later, so we hope for inspiration in the stories of those who face it, that we might change the way we live. As Nima, one of the characters in Karma of the Sun states, “We’re not dead yet. So, choose. And if it be that we die, at least we die facing the sun.”
Apocalyptic stories—books, movies, even the news—sober our minds, but the best post-apocalyptic fiction wakes us up as much as an invigorating ice bath. Or perhaps, it is just our wiring. Either way, as history has shown us, we can be sure that the apocalypse is not going away anytime soon.