The Crack of Doom

by Nancy

I’ve heard that phrase, “the crack of doom,” all my life. Learning from context, I figured it meant the end of the universe but didn’t give it much thought. It recently popped into my head again, probably because I’ve been reading post-apocalyptic novels, and I decided to find the derivation and specific meaning of the phrase. Since I didn’t feel like going to the library, where a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary resides, I went on a quest via the internet. This was a tactical error. Many, many, many people apparently think the phrase originated with Tolkien’s discussion of the Ring of Power and Mount Doom. Uh, no.

I found other references citing Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which seems likelier, though it also seems probable the phrase was around before Shakespeare and he just gave it power, as with so many other expressions. The specific meaning of it–thunderclap “crack” of sound, “crack” into the fabric of existence, “crack” between this world and the next–remains elusive, however. A friend who has the OED looked up the crack of doom for me and could not find a specific meaning, so I decided just to go with “the end of everything” and not worry about whether the specific wording “crack of doom” has a particular meaning.

In the weird way of associational thinking, this search led me back to the book I was reading at the time, S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire, the first in a series (naturally, given that it’s alternate history and I was reading it!), Emberverse I, about life after a mysterious event much like an EM pulse, but also different in key ways, destroys all technology–and apparently changes certain laws of physics as well. I liked this book enough to read the next one, and I’ve now read the third, which I just happened to have, completing the first trilogy, because I didn’t send back the “no, thanks” slip to the SF Book Club in time. That turns out to be a good thing, since having that book, which looked interesting, did eventually push me to find the first one.

The good guys in Dies the Fire include an ex-Marine turned bush pilot, a Celtic folksinger who’s also a Wicca priestess, various ex-military (including SAS) personnel and medieval re-enactors (SCA –Society for Creative Anachronism–and others), and geeks. The bad guys are an assortment, but the one who rises to the top is a professor of medieval history (as a former history major, I give this one a bwahhahaha salute!) who loves William the Conqueror and is a former SCA heavyweight. This was the first of Stirling’s many books I’ve read, and I look forward to seeing him at DragonCon.

Archery plays a big role, which appeals to the longtime Robin Hood fan in me. The series also has certain Arthurian overtones, and I’m always a sucker for that. One of the characters has a severe case of Tolkien-itis, which creeps into the story in many ways, some of them humorous, and I love Tolkien anyway. References to other books and genre conventions add fun little zings here and there.

Continuing the train of associational hops led me to Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon, which I used to say was the first post-apocalyptic novel I read, though I’ve recently realized this is not right. The story of survivors trying to rebuild society after a nuclear war, it seems somewhat dated now, but the characters remain engaging, and I liked it enough to buy a copy when (way back when) I had to return my high school-issued one. I’ve read it several times since. Alas Babylon fits well with Neville Shute’s On the Beach, about survivors of nuclear war, though the Shute is less positive since people are basically sitting around waiting to die. I never read On the Beach again. Once around with a serious downer is enough.

I recently discovered a book on a library sale table that I remembered reading in junior high, Robert Silverberg’s Time of the Great Freeze, a YA about people surviving an ice age, and that truly was the first post-apocalyptic novel I read. I remembered liking the Silverberg, even after many, many years, so I bought it–for 50¢ or something like that. I’d forgotten about it until recently, when I was looking over the bookshelves for something else and spotted it.

Thinking about this reminded me that I used to read, many years ago, a Gold Key comic book called Mighty Sampson, which was set in post-apocalypse New York City. I tracked down the title and bought an issue at our local comic book convention this summer, but I haven’t taken it out of the protective sleeve. I probably won’t. Looking at the art on the cover, I think it’s one of those things that, as the boy says, you shouldn’t look at now because you wouldn’t like it as much and that would take away from that earlier pleasure in it. Still, I’m glad to have it for old times’ sake.

I’ve taught Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which is set in California after an unspecified ecological disaster leads to lack of rain, with chronic water shortages and societal breakdown. After an escalating series of troubles destroys the heroine’s family and neighborhood, she and her two surviving friends strike out for the north–Oregon or Washington, where rumors say water remains available. If you can get past the armed guards at the border. Along the way, they meet other people and must decide whom to trust and whom to turn aside as they struggle to survive. It’s a terrific book and has sequels, though I haven’t gotten to them yet.

What all of these books have in common is a struggle to create a society or social group with morals and ethics and honor, to keep back the tides of darkness when the worst in human nature comes forth. A friend of mine is more interested in the social structures and technological issues. I care more about what happens to the people and how they interact.

My favorite character dies at the end of the third book in the Stirling series. Despite this rather annoying conclusion, which at least had a big story payoff, I liked the other characters and the world enough to read the next series, Emberverse II, as well. I already have the first book, The Sunrise Lands. The ending of the first trilogy is not the HEA we expect for romance, but it is a triumphant ending, as befits the end of a trilogy’s story arc, albeit at a high price for the heroes. I think that’s a key genre difference.

In science fiction and fantasy, victorious endings tend to have a higher personal price than in romance. They may not be happy, necessarily. The ending of LOTR is not happy but bittersweet, at least for Frodo and the elves, as the Age of Men begins in Middle Earth. One could argue that LOTR also is apocalyptic, just in a different setting than the term usually evokes. When romance characters die, they tend to have been either unsympathetic anyway or else minor. Getting the reader to care about a character who then dies tends to spoil the HEA nature of the reading experience. It’s not what we expect in a book that says “Romance” on the spine.

Romance has recently acquired more books with apocalyptic themes, as thinking about all this reminded me. Our popular guest Jessica Andersen writes of the Nightkeepers, Mayan magi trying to avert the 2012 apocalypse. Lori Handeland’s Elizabeth Phoenix series features a psychic trying to avert Doomsday. The Phoenix series involves vampires–but they’re icky ones, not heroes, mostly, and the books include other types of magic or psi skills.

I like the character progression in a series, such as the Nightkeepers and Elizabeth Phoenix books have. That’s much more common in science fiction, fantasy and mystery than in romance, but I’m glad to see it getting a toehold in romance. It certainly hasn’t hurt Eve Dallas and her Roarke. Come to think of it, their stories are set after a devastating conflict, the Urban Wars. Gena Showalter’s Alien Huntress series is set in the aftermath of a human/alien conflict.

I’ve also noticed other books appearing in the Romance section that have apocalyptic events of some sort in their backstories. Maybe this and steampunk are the new rising wave, but that’s a subject for a different blog.

Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, which is usually shelved in Horror, maybe because the vampires are seriously and grotesquely evil, except for the hero, is one of the few vampire romance stories I like, and it occurs after a magical apocalypse. The hero and heroine are trying to stop one of the oldest and most evil vampires from not only killing them but destroying lots of other people.

Hmm. I appear to have read some very gloomy books–but they all had satisfying endings. Sort of like when the Battlestar Galactica crowd (speaking of apocalypses) reached Earth. Other TV series with post-apocalyptic settings include Jeremiah, starring Luke Perry and Malcolm-Jamal Warner (years prior to the series’ opening, a virus killed all the adults on the planet, leading to social breakdown) and Dark Angel (an EM pulse killed all the tech and wiped all the bank accounts, and people are struggling back). There’s also Jericho, not to be confused with Jeremiah though I sometimes do confuse them, about the aftermath of nuclear war in a small midwestern town. All three of these latter ones turn up on SyFy from time to time, usually on days when I have to go teach, alas.

There’s a whole spate of movies, of course, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the Planet of the Apes saga and The Omega Man to Will Smith’s I Am Legend and Independence Day. Just out or about to come out on DVD are The Book of Eli with Denzel Washington and The Road with Lair favorite Viggo Mortenson. The Road is based on a Cormac MacCarthy novel, which I pulled off the shelf at the store to check out. Skimming through it, I decided it probably wasn’t for me, and I didn’t like the ending. But having two such movies come out recently also encourages me to think this may be a rising wave.

In a way, the Terminator series fits here. Last summer’s Terminator Salvation (Sam Worthington, anyone?) definitely did. I tend to prefer movies without flesh-eating zombie-like creatures or spewing blood, as a rule, though I did make it through 28 Days Later, which the dh endured with me. We used the fast-forward button a lot. We both were more impressed with Children of Men, based on the P.D. James novel and starring another Lair favorite, Clive Owen, in a non-action-hero role, and I liked Vin Diesel’s Babylon A.D. The latter two may be more dystopian (lacking a cataclysmic upheaveal) than post-apocalyptic, though I’d say a virus destroying humanity’s ability to procreate, as in Children of Men, qualifies as an apocalypse.

I’d almost forgotten how much I enjoyed the arc about the threat of Ragnarok, the end of everything in Norse mythology, in the Marvel Comics Thor series. I read Thor (now in production as a movie with a stellar cast) for several years, though I’ve drifted away from it now, and I think that storyline helped pull me into it. So did Sif, the warrior goddess who’s married to Thor in mythology but who pined for him while he adored mortal nurse Jane Foster in the comic book–though an interesting twist resolved that particular conflict. At that time Sif wore a really cool silver skinsuit and fought with a sword. She still has the sword, but the costume (see below) has changed. Regrettably, imho.

(Just FYI, I didn’t see what Thor liked so much in Jane when he could’ve had Sif, who’s not nearly so dynamic in the mythology as in the comic, but that’s also a whole different blog topic). I read the Ragnarok arc about the time I discovered Wagner. I had an album of excerpts from Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and I love “Ride of the Valkyries” and “Gotterdamerung,” the Twilight of the Gods, though I prefer the orchestral part without the choral overlay. Very dramatic. Lots of brass and tympani.

Anyway, all this mental meandering led me to wonder why I like stories with these themes. I think it’s partly the heroic struggle to maintain not just life but decency, but it’s also that the stakes are so very high. When failure means the end of all things good and true, as we deem them, the stakes can’t go much farther up. High stakes ratchet up the conflict and the risk and give a good, affirming ending, in whatever genre, that much more punch.

As befits the meandering nature of this blog, I have varied questions, so feel free to answer any, all, or none, as usual: If all the tech ended tomorrow, what would you do first to cope? Do you like apocalyptic novels or films, or do you prefer a more settled story environment with more personally focused stakes? What’s the most intense, gut-wrenching book or movie you can recall? Who’re your favorite romantic couple in a high-stakes situation?

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