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Apocalypse always: Fiction abounds with tales of the Earth’s demise

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NASA is busy guiding a probe on Mars, but not too busy to post a detailed FAQ and other articles about why the world won't end next Friday. There's no point trying to top the space agency's summary of the supposed endgame: "The ancient Maya of Mexico and Guatemala kept a calendar that is about to roll up the red carpet of time, swing the solar system into transcendental alignment with the heart of the Milky Way, and turn Earth into a bowling pin for a rogue planet heading down our alley for a strike."

While we prepare scorecards for this cosmic event, it may be worth asking why our appointment with the end of the world keeps coming around. It's a story that never seems to go stale, though it resonates differently as it moves from one time and place to another, and from sacred scenarios to fictional or historical ones.

No doubt the gist of the Bible's grand finale still glimmers in our collective mind. It certainly shaped Columbus's first experience of the New World, which he believed must be the paradise where Adam met God and where, possibly, the Second Coming would occur. Back then, the apocalypse meant not just the end of things, but a new beginning.

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Centuries later, the recovered Eden was still showing up in speeches by the likes of D'Arcy McGee, a Father of Confederation. In 1848, McGee delivered a powerful tirade about the "famine and pestilence" that were destroying the Old Country and driving God himself to the New World: "Nothing but our own folly and discord can keep Him from our shores."

It's unlikely that McGee actually believed that the world's end and the New Jerusalem were at hand. His comments were rhetorical proof that the apocalypse idea could be applied to societies.

Northrop Frye's hugely influential Anatomy of Criticism placed apocalyptic imagery among his three basic symbolic categories. But Frye's Methodist faith in divine renewal wasn't passed on to the many contemporary Canadian novelists and filmmakers who have focused on Armageddon or the time after.

The end times aren't joyous in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, Timothy Findlay's Not Wanted on the Voyage, David Cronenberg's Videodrome, Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend in a Coma or William Gibson's postapocalyptic sci-fi novels. When God drops out of the picture, only suffering and confusion are left, along with the question of who's to blame – usually ourselves. If you want some bliss with your apocalypse, you're better off with Richard Condie's animated NFB short The Big Snit, in which a couple pass through nuclear war into paradise without even noticing.

We Canadians have our own distinctive strains of apocalyptic fiction, according to Marlene Goldman, professor of English at University of Toronto. In her book Rewriting Apocalypse in Canadian Fiction, Goldman writes that Canadians tend to look at the end of days from the point of view of the disenfranchised outsider who won't get into the paradise reserved for the elect.

"Canadian modernist writers tend to treat apocalyptic thinking as a really dangerous ideology," she says. Often, as in Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, the force driving the narrative is an overbearing Promethean order of tyranny and technological control.

That, too, got rolling the day Columbus stepped off his ship and started dreaming about Eden. For the native peoples of the Americas, the arrival of Europeans marked the start of a cultural apocalypse that destroyed their world order. Goldman cites an interview with playwright Tomson Highway, in which he said that the native concept of time, as "a never-ending circle," was "shattered and got stretched out" into the line representative of European time – "what I call the Genesis to Revelation line."

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As in Atwood's fictions, there was nothing positive about the native experience of apocalypse, no reason to believe that, as Goldman writes, "the emergence of a better world is necessarily predicated on a passage through an interval of violence and death."

That kind of purgative trial is often projected onto Canada's experience in the two World Wars, especially at Vimy Ridge, where it's conventionally said our nation came of age. In this view, our soldiers' horrific battlefield experience was valorized as an essential step in building our national identity.

As for big, Earth-ending events, Goldman thinks they may offer a way of orienting ourselves in our historical moment. "Maybe the anxiety to have these absolutely cataclysmic markers comes from a real human need to mark our passage through time," she says.

Apocalyptic scenarios aren't always solemn, or as drastic as the Armageddons filmed by Hollywood. Canadian artist John Scott's Trans-Am Apocalypse No. 2, in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, is a muscle car painted black, with text from the Book of Revelation inscribed on its surface, and fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror.

While some people may actually be preparing themselves for Mayan doomsday, others have made it an Internet meme and running joke. If there's a world left next Saturday, you can even play a new made-in-Canada 3-D game about the zombie apocalypse, called The Bowling Dead, in which the ghouls are dispatched with "weaponized" bowling balls. More fun, perhaps, than NASA's vision of Earth as a bowling pin in the path of a rogue planet.

An unkillable theme

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The Road, Cormac McCarthy

In a world stripped of the capacity to provide food, a man and his son attempt to make it to the coast.

Oryx and Crake,

Margaret Atwood

A genetic engineer decides to scrap humanity and start over with his own improved brand of humanoid.

The Time Machine, H.G. Wells

A man travels into the future, where he finds two different forms of endtime.

A Canticle for Liebowitz,

Walter M. Miller

Nuclear war has wiped out much of humankind, leaving the survivors to shun learning and embrace the relative safety of a new Dark Ages.

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