How to Keep Smiling After the End of the World as We Know It

Existence by David Brin

Written by David Brin

Most of literature and storytelling boils down to one basic issue, how to balance our hopes and our fears. Within a novel we adopt the characters’ yearnings—briefly—as our own, trying them on for size. And when those dreams, those ambitions, are threatened? That drives both empathy and a gripping plot-line. The hopes can be as small-scale as getting invited to a dance and the threat might just be a teen rival…

…or the issues at stake may ramp up to include absolutely everything we value. Our families, nations, civilization, and continuing survival. Our chance to continue existing as a species. Perhaps even the flourishing of life itself in our galaxy?

Is that topic too both broad and heavy for a summer novel? Maybe so! And yet, I found the experience of writing Existence both fun and—at times—even humorous. As they say, nothing quite focuses the mind better than the approaching possibility of the end of the world. While characters hurry about discovering secrets and peeling back layers, with some of my trademark action, there are many breaks between the chapters that offer readers brief, detailed glimpses of the world in 2050.

Here’s one, dealing with that central theme:

Martin Ramer (for the BBC): We’re here with Jonamine Bat Amittai, compiler of Pandora’s Cornucopia—the epibook that’s been scaring and depressing so many of us ever since Awfulday, conveying all the myriad ways that the universe might have it in for us, bringing an end to human existence. Or perhaps only our dreams.

Either way, it’s been a heady ride through the valley of potential failure and plausible death. Jonamine, how do you explain the popularity of your series?

Jonamine Bat Amittai: Men and women have always been attracted to stories about ultimate doom, from the Books of Daniel and Revelation to Ragnarok, from Mayan cycles to Nostradamus, from Doctor Strangelove to Life After People. Perhaps there is an element of schadenfreude, or deriving abstract pleasure from the troubles of others—even if those others will be your own descendants. Or else, some may feel stimulated to relish what they have in the precious here-and-now, especially if our lives and comforts appear to be on temporary loan from a capricious universe. For billions of people, nostalgia fascinates with the notion that the past is always better and preferable to the future.

I like to think that much of our fascination with this topic arises from our heritage as practical problem-solvers. The curiosity that drew our ancestors toward danger, in order to begin puzzling ways around it.

Martin Ramer: But your list is so lengthy, so extensive, so depressingly thorough. Even supposing that we do manage to discover some pitfalls in time, and act prudently to avoid them –

Jonamine Bat Amittai: And we have already. Some of them

Martin Ramer: But dodging one bullet seems always to put us in front of another.

Jonamine Bat Amittai: Is that a question, Mr. Ramer? Or were you merely stating the obvious?

Cheery stuff! And this from an author who is known far and wide for his general optimism. Oh, there is plenty to cheer you up within the pages of Existence. And the main characters never give up.

But for now, let’s conclude with another of those between-chapter interludes. This one is about an online contest in the near future, challenging bright folks all over the planet to compete to come up with the best and most likely way it all might come crashing down.

Cheers!

Okay. All right. Is that enough grist for the old brain-mill, boys and girls and AIs? It should suffice to get you started. Form teams, build your projections, and convince us that you know how it all will end!

We’ll be offering all sorts of intermediate prizes for those of you who come up with the top ten doom scenarios. Those that offer the best combo of scariness and plausibility!

Extra points if your model seems so disturbing and real that it generates action by public officials, politicians, movers n’ shakers! Do that well enough and your forecast might become that rarest of blessings, a self-preventing prophecy! A warning so vivid and persuasive that your fellow citizens all act to make sure it never actually plays out. A pitfall avoided. If so, good for you.

Hey, it could happen. It has happened… now and then. George Orwell did it. Ray Bradbury did.

What’s the grand prize in this gloomy contest?

Why, proving to be right, of course. You’ll have that ironic satisfaction if humanity ever stumbles into the quicksand pit or land-mine that you predicted, in detail.

Only this time, as the ultimate tragedy plays-out, you’ll know that not enough people listened.

As brief as that moment lasts—and it may only be an instant—you’ll have the satisfaction of muttering those most-voluptuously consoling words:

“You fools! I TOLD you – ”

– TRANSMISSION CUT-OFF… REASON UNKNOWN –

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