Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society - Bill Bryson (2010)

18. MAGGIE GEE

BEYOND ENDING: LOOKING INTO THE VOID

Maggie Gee has written eleven novels, a short story collection and a memoir, My Animal Life. Her novels include The Burning Book, Light Years, Where Are the Snows, The Ice People, The White Family, The Flood, My Cleaner and most recently My Driver. She was chair of the Royal Society of Literature from 2004–2008 and is now a vice-president.

SCIENCE REVEALS NEW WORLDS, BUT MAY ALSO BRING NEWS OF THE END OF THE WORLD. THE IDEA HAS A CURIOUS APPEAL, FOR SCIENTISTS AND WRITERS ALIKE, AS MAGGIE GEE EXPLORES.

Entire nations are uninhabitable. Entire nations have been wiped out. And land cracks and peels in some areas of the globe. In others, deluges of flood water ravage the earth. Welcome to a world six degrees warmer. Welcome to our future. – From the jacket copy of Mark Lynas’ Six Degrees, 2007

I

Human beings fear endings, but also crave them. The forbidden thrill of the death-wish stalks many imagined apocalypses, literary, Christian, scientific and filmic; disaster movies do good box office because, in the safety of the present, we can look at the unimaginably terrifying future, and experience the excitement without being annihilated. But our current perils are not just imaginary. Martin Rees’ book, Our Final Century, suggests that we really are living in dangerous times. In addition to the usual risks to life on Earth, like asteroid impacts, volcanic eruptions and epidemics, twenty-first-century humans have to live with the incidental risks of new technologies – for example, ‘bioerror or bioterror’, rogue nanoreplicators, mishaps to nuclear power stations – and with the threat of rapidly rising global temperatures due to carbon emissions. So how do twentieth- and twenty-first-century writers and scientists address their sense of an ending?

Of course each generation is assailed by different collective fears and convictions, some validated by events, others not, some with a strong scientific basis, others religious or political. In his two brilliant studies The Pursuit of the Millennium and Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come, Norman Cohn traced the recurrence of ‘millenarian’ cults from the ancient world to the sixteenth century. More recently John Gray in Black Mass echoed Cohn’s observation that mid-twentieth-century movements like Communism and Nazism also counted on the coming death of the old order. A 1704 letter by Isaac Newton predicting, on skimpy biblical ‘evidence’, that the world would end in 2060, made news in the twenty-first century partly because it was put on show in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem during the February 2003 run-up to the invasion of Iraq when, as Stephen D. Snoblen has pointed out, apocalyptic fears were already rife. In the nineteenth century, British people’s fears of progress often focused on the building of the railways, seen as heralding social revolution, horrifying accidents, ‘pollution, destruction, disaster and danger’, as Ralph Harrington puts it in his article ‘The Neuroses of the Railway’; writers from Elizabeth Gaskell to Charles Dickens were excited by railway terrors; yet in the twenty-first century, we tend to see trains as a low-stress, less polluting alternative to planes and cars. Medical doomsday scenarios have proved equally hard to call: AIDS caused, and still causes, a terrible toll of deaths, but has not quite become the all-consuming plague that at one time seemed to threaten us, and nor, so far, have BSE or ‘Bird Flu’.

Some collective fears, though, have proved well founded. The 1930s in Europe were marked by fear of totalitarianism; in September 1939, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia invaded Poland. Other fears continue to stalk us. The cold war and the nuclear arms race brought the shadow of atomic Armageddon. The collapse of the Soviet Union moved it further away, but nuclear proliferation has continued and the famous clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is still, in 2009, set at five minutes to midnight. In the 1980s and 1990s, laymen got their first glimmer of the global warming that has grown into the pervasive dread of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the thing that most enduringly gives a shape to that vague terror of the end of the world that each generation carries with it from childhood. (‘Is it the end of the world?’ I asked my mother, aged seven, after the head teacher of our tiny village school told us, during the Suez Crisis, that ‘the next few days will decide whether or not the world will go to war’. ‘Is it the end of the world?’ my teenage daughter asked me, after the Twin Towers fell on 11 September 2001.)

We have just crossed the bar between two millennia and seen a swell of apocalyptic thinking, with the ‘Year 2K Bug’ cresting the wave. Nick Davies’ book Flat Earth News points up the discrepancy between the chaos predicted to follow the digit-change in computers – ‘A date with disaster’, Washington Post, ‘The day the world crashes’, Newsweek – and the actual events: a tide gauge failed in Portsmouth harbour, and a Swansea businessman thought his computer had blown up, only to discover that a mouse had spread droppings on his circuit board. Book titles of the 1990s and early 2000s predicted The End of Faith, The End of Certainty and The End of History; The End of Food (two books within two years, in 2006 by F. Pawlick, in 2008 by Paul Roberts), The End of Oil and The End of Fashion, followed by The End of the Alphabet, The End of America and The End of Science, and finally The End of Days and The End of Time.

But texts are more complex than titles. Though Paul Roberts’ The End of Food raises the frightening prospect of ‘a perfect storm of food-related calamities’ in a globally warmed world, he also suggests practical ways of holding it off: humans might successfully change industrial-scale production, stop demanding ultra-cheap food, use natural fertilisers and practise water conservation. Mark Lynas’ book Six Degrees, whose colourful blurb prefaces this essay and whose paperback cover shows Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament being neatly toppled by a tidal wave, in fact examines a range of scenarios for global warming, between one degree and six degrees Celsius, and ends with a chapter of suggestions about how his readers can best avoid the worst of them. Fears examined often become less fearful.

Literary writers trying to make sense of our place in history tend to be drawn back constantly to the experience of the present and the physical textures and details we know and love. Stuck in the blank and almost unendurable elevator of time in Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, cult novelist Haruki Murakami metaphorically opens the doors into two alternative universes, both threatened, both situated on the other side of a puzzling schism in history, both marked by a recurrent Arcadian longing for a lost daylight world of physical beauty. More recently acclaimed memoirist Diana Athill published Towards the End, her lucid account of why life, however diminished, is still worth living at ninety. Her chosen title both alludes to the end and pushes it away, suspending us in a short but valuable present, the time she has left. She buys and plants a tiny tree-fern even though she knows she will never see it become a tree: the experience of watching it grow is enough.

Regular science fiction and mainstream writers from Mary Shelley onwards have been attracted to the end of the world; it offers drama, heightened emotions and vivid imagery. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Brian Aldiss, Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard, Ray Bradbury, Jim Crace, Arthur C. Clarke, Russell Hoban, Anna Kavan, Doris Lessing, Cormac McCarthy, Walter M. Miller, Tim O’Brien, Will Self and Marcel Theroux, among many other novelists, have imagined human life surviving (or sometimes dying) in the grip of great disasters. The final effect of most of these narratives is to make the reader lay down the book with a sense of relief that human civilisation outside its pages still endures. Whether intentionally or not, these books refresh our love of life. But Dr Lee Marsden at the University of East Anglia has drawn my attention to a diametrically opposed trend in the work of Tim Peretti, Tim La Haye, Jerry Jenkins and other figures from the Christian evangelical Right in the USA who are writing an extraordinary sub-genre of apocalyptic fiction that sells in hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions, and is read as literal truth by many of the faithful. These books are based on the premise that we are already living in the ‘end times’ and can expect ‘tribulation, war, famine and pestilence’ as a necessary prelude to the ecstasy of the second coming and establishment of Christ’s rule on Earth.

Some of my own novels have been described as apocalyptic: my second, The Burning Book, written at the apogee of nuclear fears in 1981, ended with nuclear war; two others, Where Are the Snows and The Ice People, featured runaway climate change; and The Flood contains an asteroid strike and a tsunami. But at a conscious level, my strategy is to use the threat of apocalypse to re-focus attention on the short-term miracle of what we have, this relatively peaceful and temperate present where the acts of reading and writing are possible. So in The Burning Book and The Flood there are, essentially, ‘double endings’. I want to offer my readers an active choice. The Burning Book ends with all-out nuclear war between America and Russia – but then the narrator steps back, and reminds us that at the time of reading nuclear war is still a fiction. ‘Waking again from the book you look out of the window at stillness. The sunlight on the table lying pale and still as peace.’ The last section of the book is called ‘Against ending’, and its final phrases are ‘always beginning again, beginning against ending’. The Flood uses a similar strategy to The Burning Book. The first draft was completed in December 2002, in the long run-up to the 2003 war on Iraq. The people of a city in an imaginary universe are trying to go about their business as usual even though it has been raining for months and the streets are slowly disappearing under the flood waters. President Bare is preoccupied with planning a war against an Islamic country: apocalyptic religion flourishes at home, especially among the poor. The narrative ends with a final tsunami that people have done nothing to prevent. But there’s also an epilogue set in the book’s first real, named place, Kew Gardens, where the flood has not yet happened. Everyone is there, alive, dancing in their moment, together with the foxes and starlings who are also part of the cast of my dreamed city. The Flood’s relationship to subsequent real-life history turned out to be quite unlike The Burning Book’s. Britain and America did wage war against an Islamic country, six weeks after I finished the second draft of the novel: a great tsunami did strike Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India the Christmas after The Flood was published. Kew Gardens does survive, in real life as it does in metaphor, protecting genetic diversity from all over the world against ending, a vivid botanical carnival of the living moment. I think I wanted to say ‘Don’t take it all for granted.’

Yet that can’t be the whole story. Something in me must be drawn towards disaster. Standing on the cliff edge at Beachy Head in late golden afternoon sunlight, the green of the grass at my feet is glorious, the rocks very far below are white and small as crumbs, the tiny lighthouse is a red-and-white painted toy in front of the sea’s crawling glitter, my stomach feels hollow at the brief mile of empty air ahead – yet I like to look, and I am definitely pulled forward towards nothingness before I resolutely pull back and head home across the golden-green slope with its fathers and children flying kites, its jumping dogs, its beautiful restored everydayness.

II

Why do people (or some part of their psyches) long for an ending? Perhaps because continuing down the same path, struggling always to do better, is exhausting and sometimes discouraging, though it is the normal lot of most human beings. Imagining instead a change of state, an abrupt cut-off, offers at least an end to suffering. The great Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser expressed this longing beautifully in The Faerie Queen:

Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas,
Ease after war, death after life doth greatly please.

Perhaps also, in stressful times, people start to crave an ending because its arrival would spare them from the fear of it, and fear, a dynamic emotion alerting us that things are about to get worse, is something human beings find peculiarly hard to tolerate. When fear is at its worst, death can start to beckon, slyly whispering that it would be a relief. Readers of thrillers and crime novels, unable to bear the waiting, sometimes skip to the end to know the worst. 

I think some individuals, whether artists or scientists or neither, feel the pull of the void more than others. Why should this be? In my own case, I could choose as a defining moment the one in my village school when the head, Mr Norris, perhaps feeling afraid himself or lonely in the midst of us runny-nosed, inarticulate children of all ages from six to eleven, lumped together in one class, said those words about the world going to war that terrified me for months and years afterwards, so that every plane that flew overhead seemed to me the beginning of the end. Yet so far as I know, none of the other children at Watersfield village school became apocalyptic novelists. I would probably have to go back beyond that day to some prior experience of fear to say why I listened to Mr Norris’ words with such a painful sense of attunement and recognition: I might also posit some quirk in my own particular neurochemical makeup. Be that as it may, twenty-five years later I did not agree with the two eager psycho-analysts, one of them, as it happened, a dear friend of mine, who turned an agreeable dinner into a battle-ground by trying to convince me that I had written The Burning Book as an expression of my infantile desire to destroy the whole world: this helpful interpretation was never going to persuade a card-carrying CND member. But perhaps they were on to something.

I do see some analogy between how I deal with the fear of destruction and how some victims of violence become violent themselves, in order at any rate to play an active rather than a passive role in what is unbearable. It’s an attempt to regain a measure of control. When I am writing a story it is I who decide whether the war happens or the tsunami strikes; facing up to these possibilities is arduous and disturbing, yet it is a livelier experience than just waiting in anxiety on the margins of life. Using my role as writer to produce The Flood was definitely my way of dealing with my fear and anger about the impending war on Iraq. I wonder if it is the same for scientists working on one facet or other of global warming, or writing about it? Are they putting superficially negative emotions like worry and apprehension to practical use, and so experiencing a kind of victory over circumstance? At the beginning of this chapter I talked about the changing communal fears of human societies and said that only some of them were validated by subsequent events, but I did not add that this is sometimes because fear is a force for good, inspiring effective action. Many computer scientists would argue, contra Paul Davies, that the non-materialising of the Y2K Bug was in fact a validation of the updates they designed. The traits of intellectuals and activists who speculate about disaster – far-sightedess, susceptibility to fear and willingness to tolerate unpalatable facts and the sadness they produce – have not been selected out by evolution, so perhaps they have often enough been thought useful by human beings living in difficult times.

And yet it doesn’t make for popularity. I work in these galleys and have dreamed these dreams yet my own heart sinks when I see a title like Lynas’ Six Degrees or even the great James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia, with the almost comic-book salaciousness of the disaster scene on its front cover. Part of me is repelled by what can seem like gloating. Part of me starts to mutter, ‘You don’t know the living world is going to be wrecked. It isn’t yet. You’re not certain. All this is just extrapolation. Don’t wish what we have away.’ Despite the ambiguities I have just confessed to, most of me wants very badly not to die just yet, and I am sure the majority of writers and scientists working in this area agree. We too prefer to have fun in the present: we prefer, most of the time, not to think about danger. And yet we cannot for long suppress our half-fearful, half-excited knowledge that we are living at this peculiar and possibly critical point in human history, when, as Martin Rees reminds us, ‘within fifty years, little more than one hundredth of a millionth of Earth’s age, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere … [has begun] to rise anomalously fast’, an ‘unprecedented spasm … seemingly occurring with runaway speed’. How are we to live in such anxious times? How to strike a balance between, on the one hand, paying attention to scientific or literary models of possible futures that can draw us ever deeper into possible disaster, and on the other respecting and learning from the quieter practice of, say, a naturalist and ecologist like C.S. Elton, who spent twenty years watching and recording the rhythms and cycles of Wytham Wood? Or a writer like Diana Athill, who, like Elton, focuses her intelligence on what is? Can we learn from Buddhists and lyric poets how to live joyfully in the present at the same time as listening to climate scientists modelling disaster? How often can we afford to stare over the edge of the cliff?

III

Some aspects of ending have a special meaning for the act of writing, perhaps in fiction most of all. A novel is nothing without an ending. In some respects, the end is the most important part. It is vital that the ending should be the right one though; that it satisfies and resolves, and is planned and prepared for. Most ends of human lives, by contrast, are messy, a chapter of missed connections and unwished for accidents, as Julian Barnes’ account of his mother’s and father’s deaths in Nothing to be Frightened of elegantly shows. Endings in real life never really end. There are always aftermaths and unintended consequences. But books are places of intended consequences. Fictional ends rest safe in the knowledge that they are final. 

Unlike endings in real life, the endings of books can be borne. It is part of the author’s job to make the ending bearable for the reader: to help them say goodbye. And in that act, in an ending properly brought off, we help the reader return to life. The end of a good book may make a reader sad, but it is very far from being a death. Whether sad or happy, the ending of a book should be a complex form of consolation. In this world, the invented one, things can end as they were meant to, and in that sense, well. That is one reason why mortal human animals tell stories.

There is another sense of ‘end’ in the OED on which Paul Muldoon plays in his collected Oxford Lectures on Poetry, The End of the Poem: ‘the object for which a thing exists; the purpose for which it is designed or instigated’. The narratives in novels do progress inexorably towards the ending. Once arrived there, the reader should be able to look back and see the novel’s ‘end’ in Muldoon’s sense: its meaning, or meanings, its purpose. From that viewpoint, everything in the novel should seem both necessary and inevitable. In one sense the ending is also the point of the book.

And this is where life is so very different. Much of Julian Barnes’ book about his fear of death centres on his desire not to be caught off guard and outflanked by the unexpected, at the wrong time, with a book unfinished. Nothing to be Frightened of reads like his extended attempt in turn to out-think and anticipate death, ‘the ruffian on the stair’, finally winning at least the aesthetic battle by weaving the unpredictable terror into the smooth texture of his own self-penned story.

There is a ruffianly quality to climate change, too. If and when it comes, it will not be exactly like any of the models. It will catch out governments and individuals. It may be brutal. If we do not do everything we can to lessen its effects, it will cause unprecedented wars and movements of population. We will lose the illusion of control we crave. We may have to give up many of the things we think we cannot do without. We will probably start to value what we have not valued enough only when much of it is already lost. However well prepared we are, we will have to learn very fast and react from day to day. Yet even if governments and electorates are not listening, some scientists are doing their best to inform us. (And so they should: the children of science are technology and industry, whose restless desire to adapt the world to human advantage has helped create this mess in the first place.) 

IV

The Royal Society has been active in the climate change debate. As early as 1988, Margaret Thatcher used a Prime Ministerial address to the UK’s national scientific academy to acknowledge the dangers of global warming. From 1999 to the present, the Royal Society has produced a steady flow of policy statements, letters to government, workshops, events and guides for the lay reader on energy policy and global warming. Its policy reports on environmental issues range from the 1999 Nuclear Energy: The future climate, issued jointly with the Royal Academy of Engineering, to the 2008 Sustainable biofuels. In 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 the Royal Society initiated joint statements by the science academies of the G8 +5 countries calling world leaders to urgent action on global warming and saying that ‘G8 countries bear a special responsibility for the current high level of energy consumption and the associated climate change.’

A little further down the Thames, in Somerset House, another Royal Society, the Royal Society of Literature, holds its meetings and events. From 2004 to 2008 I was the RSL’s Chair of Council, and now I am one of its Vice-Presidents. What did we, as a body, do to show our concern about climate change during those years?

Er – nothing.

Many things could be said in our defence. True, the RSL is very much smaller, and over 150 years younger, than its scientific sibling the Royal Society. We have little money, few staff, the whole of literature to defend and support, and no expertise in meteorology or energy. Nevertheless, that’s not really the point. I think we writers as a group are just like my characters in The Flood, still walking through the streets of the drowned city, undeterred by the water rising up to our armpits from trying to get on with our lives as usual. Polls show that a majority of people in the UK believe global warming is a fact, and yet somehow they don’t believe it will really affect their lives, and they certainly don’t intend to change their own lives radically to help stop it happening. ‘Global warming is a problem – but not yet, o Lord, please’ is their unconscious prayer. Folk who DO take global warming seriously are thought slightly mad, or over-intense, unlike the sensible majority who just somehow know things will always go on as they do today. ‘It’s always been like this, so it always will be. Yes, we have had the odd over-hot summer, and springs come earlier, and maybe it seems cloudier and duller than before, but nothing’s really going to alter.’ And so, out of British politeness, climate change believers keep quiet. It’s like religion: don’t bring it up. Belief seems like a claim to virtue, a holier-than-thou-ness which will annoy others. Thus some of us, myself included, become cowards, or lazy. Easier to carry on as usual for us too. I am braver in my books, and yet I don’t expect to be loved for them. Perhaps climate change scientists have the same problem. None of us want to be bores. None of us want to be laughed at, or groaned over. And writers have a special vanity: we don’t want to be thought of as obvious, or preachy, because the subtlety and indirection of contemporary literary language is a cause of pride. In fiction, drama and poetry irony is over-valued, and consequently informativeness, moral depth and emotional truth become qualities not to be assessed, embarrassing to talk about, just as global warming is.

V

I don’t blame people for not wanting to peer over the cliff edge. It makes sound sense, in terms of immediate personal survival. Staying happy and optimistic helps people to be healthy. Becoming obsessional about the dangerous future does not help you to navigate the ordinary challenge of each day. Sometimes I myself see young people at global warming conferences almost driven mad by their attempts to live correctly, with a semi-religious belief that they can thus fend off catastrophe, thin and exhausted from taking their bikes on implausible journeys, unable to attend events that are genuinely essential for their work because they refuse to fly, hardly able to eat communally or even shop for food because everything they look at has an environmental cost they feel they cannot pay. I want to stop them and say, ‘Be kinder to yourself.’ I feel both admiration and pity for their terrible striving. In the end it seems to me we are only animals, and we can only be expected to do our best, not to be angels constantly stretched on the rack. Everyone born surely deserves a little happiness, a little bodily ease and pleasure. The choices always involve benefits and costs, but some of the young are already assuming all the costs and allowing themselves none of the benefits of life on this planet, whereas others, older and much, much richer, have taken all the benefits and paid none of the costs. How are we to strike a balance between self-indulgence and self-flagellation?

In our individual private lives, we will all have to answer that question. If rapid global warming does come, peer pressure will help us make up our minds quite quickly. Already there are the obvious things that everyone can do: walk more, talk about the issue more, drive less, buy less, fly less. In public life, though, scientists and artists play very different roles. To an artist, the scientist’s looks harder. Apart from everything else, when scientists make statements to the world, they are vouching, within defined limits, for the truth and solidity of what they say. Artists, on the other hand, are protected by the worn trench-coat of irony. We can place everything we say in distancing quotations; we have a thousand alibis. ‘This is fiction: this is a joke: this is a game: this is a confession I am half-ashamed of: this is just personal, take no notice if you don’t want to. It’s not me, it’s just a character. Don’t ask me, I’m an entertainer.’ It’s rather a cushy life we artists have made for ourselves, morally speaking. Scientists have never had the same exemptions.

On the plus side, though, climate scientists at least know clearly what they are doing, and what they can contribute. However many frustrations they have to cope with – financial constraints, deaf or dishonest governments, flawed climate models, inaccurate media reports – they do have a clear part to play. They are useful. Writers very often do not feel useful.

But are we, in fact, useful, and could we be more so? I think the answer is ‘Yes’ in both cases. Irony, humour and a distancing sense of history can be useful when we apply it critically where it is needed, in this case to the statements of both scientists and politicians. Science means ‘knowledge’, and it’s what writers very often lack. But with great knowledge can come an underestimation of what is still in doubt. Writers are good at casting doubt, and scepticism, in its place, is no bad thing. Great knowledge also brings a degree of power, another thing that writers lack. But again, power can bring with it a blindness to the limits of what it can achieve, a lack of humility. Some of the metaphors used by scientists to express the relationship between human beings and the world they live in are not good metaphors. Some, used so regularly they are barely noticed, in fact embody dangerous untruths. ‘Stewardship’ is a ubiquitous example. To call human beings ‘stewards’ of this planet is like accepting that Jack the Ripper is the right man to start a Home for the Care and Protection of Fallen Women. (James Lovelock once said in an interview that it was like putting a goat in charge of a garden.) In 2008, Wallace S. Broecker and that excellent writer Robert Kunzig, author of Mapping the Deep, published a survey of climate science called Fixing Climate. ‘Fix’ is a dangerous verb, short, glib and easy. Can human beings really ‘fix’ the climate they are currently busy breaking? Do we understand enough even now to do it as easily as Kunzig’s peroration – ‘the planet is ours to run, and it is up to us to run it wisely’ – suggests? These are linguistic quibbles, but perhaps non-scientists can apply their critical intelligence also to the content of some of the remedies suggested by scientists for a globally warmed world. The history of science tells us that once radiation was used as a general tonic, and heroin recommended as a non-addictive alternative to oral morphine. We need a Jonathan Swift to ask sharp questions about the desirability of geothermal engineering along the lines some climate scientists have suggested. Is it really a good idea to seed the ocean with iron to increase the numbers of plankton? Would installing giant mirrors in the sky to reflect sunlight back make sense? 

I think writers do have a few special talents we can hope to offer as we look apprehensively into our human future. We can try to defamiliarise the present, make our readers realise afresh how marvellous our living planet is. We can look at scientists’ discourse for evidence of solipsism or over-confidence. We suffer from both those traits ourselves, so we should recognise them in others. But in more important ways, both artists and scientists have a similar role to play. Both castes are fortunate to live lives that are not totally taken up with grubbing what we need from the texture of each day as it happens. We are not trying to survive in coalmines, or struggling to feed livestock. We have the great luxury of being able to look outside this immediate place and time. We can look beyond our own species, too, at the wide web of life which contains us. Unchained from the contingencies of the moment, our imaginations are free to scan the horizon and see the future coming in its many possible forms, and reach out towards it. If we tremble, it is because we are, as Shelley said, ‘the antennae of the race’. And if we do not make the attempt, if we sit blindly immured in what we have, we may lose everything. The laboratories and libraries that we need and love to pursue our crafts are some of the first things that would be lost with the collapse of civilisation. Doris Lessing’s novel Mara and Dann, set tens of thousands of years in the future after a time of great climatic change, imagines the rudimentary survival of only a few broken scraps of writing: a few lines of Shakespeare, though his name is lost. Planes no longer fly; museums have been ransacked and broken long ago. By imagining a darker future, Lessing imparts the golden light of imminent loss to the present. It is just one of the ways in which writers, by daring to look into the void, can help us both to appreciate and evaluate the complex human society that scientists are trying to shore up against ending.