This is the Way the World Ends
by Carol Kean
THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE know it is a theme that is prevalent in science fiction, a never-ending reminder that we must not take for granted the splendors of our little blue planet. But the end of the world as we know it doesn’t meant the end for all life on Earth. Times change, people evolve, and climates change, too, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well, for some of us, at least. Hey. Dame Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) heard the “all shall be well” thing from God himself, the very same God who gave us the rainbow as his assurance that the world will never again be flooded as it was in Noah’s day.
Not very reassuring? Well, the cockroach is indestructible. Life will rise again.
Humanity has only around a thousand years left on Earth, Stephen Hawking warns, and the only thing that could save us from certain extinction is setting up colonies elsewhere in the solar system. Hawking already set the Chicken Littles loose with an AI scare. Our robots are submissive now, but what happens when we remove one too many restrictions?
But never mind the AIs: we must “continue to go into space for the future of humanity,” Hawking said in a lecture at the University of Cambridge. While he admits that 2016 is a “glorious time to be alive and doing research into theoretical physics,” he fears self-sustaining human colonies on Mars may not happen for another 100 years or so, which means we need to be “very careful” in the coming decades. Never mind the ominous threats of climate change, global pandemics brought on by antibiotic resistance, and nuclear capabilities of warring nations. In his new online film, “Stephen Hawking’s Favourite Places,” he says he’s “more convinced than ever that we are not alone,” and if the aliens find us, “they will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.”
Perhaps aliens can exterminate the last human on Earth, but can they destroy the Earth itself?
“The Earth was built to last,” science writer Sam Hughes tells us, and I love hearing it. Our planet “is a 4,550,000,000-year-old, 5,973,600,000,000,000,000,000-tonne ball of iron. It has taken more devastating asteroid hits in its lifetime than you’ve had hot dinners, and lo, it still orbits merrily.”
Granted, much remains to be done in anticipation of a possible electromagnetic pulse (EMP) or near-Earth object (NEO) hurling into us from outer space, but for the most part, I’m more conscious than I care to be of all the dangers threatening us with instant annihilation. Fiction is where I go to escape, not to be reminded, of suffering, injustice, cancer, migraines, war, famine, pestilence, floods, babies born with Zika-shrunken brains, and politicians.
It could be fun to imagine ways to destroy our planet, though. That’s what speculative fiction is about, right? On that note, “Perihelion” invited several authors and a cartoonist to weigh in on how, exactly, they would like to see the Earth destroyed. Plausibility, but not absolute accuracy, was a requirement, but most of all, we wanted to see fun, darkly humorous, and gloriously masochistic ways for the Earth to meet its end.
Revenge of the Saurians
Milo James Fowler of “Captain Quasar” fame (lucky the children who have Fowler as a school teacher), points out “the likelihood of any popular scenarios coming to pass is infinitesimal to nil. Not to mention difficult to wrap one’s mind around.”
Fowler speculates that “the 65-million-year-old enemy of Earth has been lurking patiently somewhere beyond Hubble’s reach and plotting their revenge. That’s right: the dinosaurs.
“These intrepid dinos who managed to survive extinction and reverse-engineered asteroids to take them into deep space will, someday, when the time is right, return with a fleet of asteroid-ships, each the size of Texas. They will then kamikaze these massive vessels into the Earth from all sides, like a plague of locusts, as a way of getting back at humankind for taking over the planet. The diplodocuses, being the least favorite among their own kind (and also among dino-enthusiasts), will volunteer for said kamikaze missions and will not be missed. But their sacrifice will never be forgotten.
“Who will be spared? Paleontologists, of course. And perhaps a few fans of the Jurassic Park franchise. As well as every kid who ever fell asleep with a plush triceratops, brachiosaurus, or T-rex under one chubby little arm. The dino-armada will communicate telepathically with these chosen ones, informing them of pre-impact extraction sites. The Earth will be destroyed, but dinosaurs and their adoring fans will endure.”
Oh diplodocus! Could anything top that poignant yet adorable scenario?
Push Comes to Shove
“Adorable” may not describe military veteran Ken Lizzi’s stories, but dark, wry humor and a penchant for destruction are his trademarks. Lizzi wasted half the Earth’s population in his first novel, “Reunion.” He took out Washington, D.C., in “Under Strange Suns.” Demolishing the entire planet seems the natural progression, and the following flash fiction, “Gentle Nudge,” is Ken’s wicked way to end the world:
The asteroid-prospecting ship Sisyphus sat in lunar parking orbit. Asteroid 9007, which was supposed to be settled into a larger orbit awaiting the arrival of miners, picked up speed as it plunged into Earth’s gravity well.
The Captain reached for the remote thruster-override controls.
“Hands off, Captain,” said Jeff, the Exogeologist, brandishing a pistol. “Into the airlock. And the rest of you.”
“Where did you get a gun?” the Captain asked, preceding the crew into the airlock.
“It’s tough to smuggle a pistol on board a spaceship, but hiding the pieces of one is easy on a ship this size. And assembling the components isn’t difficult during a four-year voyage,” Jeff said.
“But what the hell, Jeff? What are you doing?” asked the Captain.
“Obviously,” Jeff, replied, securing the outer hatch of the airlock, “I’m killing Earth.”
“Bullshit, Jeff,” said the Captain,” his voice tinny through the intercom. “One asteroid won’t destroy Earth. You may kill a few million people, but the Earth will survive. Even a crazy bastard like you ought to know that much.”
“Of course, Captain. Over the last two years we’ve prospected hundreds of asteroids. Do you think during each EVA I limited myself to drilling ore samples? I was installing thrusters. On all of them.”
Jeff held a tablet computer to the airlock portal, the screen displaying a traffic jam of telemetry, mass, speed, and location in relation to Earth.
“One asteroid won’t do it,” Jeff said. “But more than a hundred? Even if they aren’t enough to smash the Earth to rubble, they’ll nudge it out of orbit, send it spiraling in. Earth, meet sun.” The Exogeologist’s voice dropped to an angry snarl. “Cancel Firefly will they? Never again. Burn that land. Boil that sea.”
An End of Time
Erin Lale is Acquisitions Editor at Eternal Press Publishing and Damnation Books. Her writing and publishing career began in 1985. She is also an anthologist and short story writer. Her last story for “Perihelion” was “Virus Smugglers” and appeared in the 12-JAN-2016 issue. Her many anthologies that she has edited include: “No Horns on These Helmets,” "Cat’s Cradle Time Yarns” and “Anarchy Zone Time Yarns.”
It appears that her favorite genre is time travel. “So I’d like to see alien time travelers from a future in which humans have become extinct go back in time and blow up the world in our past, when we didn’t know about the aliens yet and didn’t know how to fight them.” Sounds confusing? Time travel usually is.
Lale continues: “I’d like to see alien time travelers who are like the alien-lizard-men-wearing-human-suits that people say are currently controlling the world. They would know a lot about human culture and Earth’s history. The aliens would carefully research human history to find a time when humanity didn’t know about them but had already developed weapons of mass destruction, so that when the aliens went to the past they could obtain the means to destroy the world already existing in that time period.
“The alien-lizard-men put on human masks, and swathe themselves in bulky, flowing robes and big hats. That way the profile of their bodies are disguised. You see, they’d have trouble wearing human clothes that are normally tight or revealing because they have tails and their bodies are not quite shaped like ours. They go to a time and place where they can simply buy the weapons they need, with gold and diamonds that they steal from mines. Then they take the minerals to market.”
Lale finishes her scenario with a bit of flash fiction.
It is 1991. Vilnius, Lithuania. Old buildings made of stone line the street, while above flies the old flag, the national flag, not the hated flag of the conqueror. The lizard-man’s contact is attempting to buy street food from a vendor’s cart, but the vendor will not speak to him. The contact is wearing a dark, badly-tailored suit, and a khaki trench coat. His face is darker than the vendor’s, his facial features clearly those of a Russian, not a Lithuanian, and he cannot get service here. He spots the alien-lizard-man, in the white robe, and turns away from the silent food vendor.
[Right, Cartoonist Betsy Streeter takes a more ironic look at the end of the world.]
“It is good to see you, Ahmed,” says the man in the trench coat. They speak ritual phrases of greeting, and walk together down the street. In this time period, walking and talking in the open on a city street is relatively safe from surveillance. Even so, they go somewhere more private before making their deal. Sergei and Ahmed get in the back of a big black Zil limousine and Sergei’s driver takes them far outside the city. They relax in the shade of a tree, drinking red currant vodka.
“It time to talk specifics,” Sergei says. “I can deliver to any port accessible by land without crossing west or south into NATO or east past the Don.”
“The port of Sozopol meets my needs,” the lizard-man says. He does not need the weapons delivered to a port. He does not care where he sets them off. But if the human thought he meant to take them across the Black Sea and ultimately to points east or south of Turkey, so much the better. It fit his disguise.
“I can deliver you fourteen ICBM trucks.”
“That is adequate. Name your price.”
Nukes for Rent
Nick Cole is a former soldier and working actor living in Southern California. When he is not auditioning for commercials, going out for sitcoms or being shot, kicked, stabbed, or beaten by the students of various film schools for their projects, he can be found writing books. In 2016, Cole’s book “CTRL ALT Revolt” won the Dragon Award for Best Apocalyptic novel.
Every book has got to begin somewhere. Often the circumstances, though seemingly fantastic, as found in a space opera, are still pastoral. Setting is the way life is, and the characters within have only ever known it that way. But in the world of Post-Apocalyptic (PA) fiction, the change from pastoral to doomsday is part of the tale.
And that’s where readers of PA find the sweet spot ...
They want the world turned upside down, shaken not stirred, and served into a cracked martini glass at a roadside fortress gas station where everyone wears leather, drives souped-up Dodge Chargers, and carries a shotgun. Maybe. Or at least some of them do.
But first we’ve got to depart the regular gas station, and that 44 oz. Big Gulp we can have any time we want. Or, life as we currently know it. To do that, the PA writer needs to set the stage. The opening act is the final act. Or simply put, the world’s got to go.
We start with a new 9/11.
A terrorist cell manages to poison most of lower Manhattan with a dirty bomb and then a Mumbai-style ambush against first responders. After a week, the last of the terrorists have been killed and the casualties are enormous and mounting, due to radiation sickness. Manhattan is finished and a global capital is effectively terminated.
An American President, politically moderate before the attack, shifts wildly to the militant-right as the nation calls for a bloodletting. American forces airstrike three middle-eastern capitals. Let’s go with Damascus, Tripoli, and Tehran. An American expeditionary force lands in North Africa with the intent of a Sherman’s March to the Sea-style invasion in an effort to devastate the Muslim world.
Mid-invasion, a charter airliner flashing the correct Homeland Security transponder codes, explodes at high altitude over the Northern Hemisphere of the U.S. The powerful EMP disables most everything from cell phones to toasters to early warning radar detection systems (unless they happened to be switched off at the time of the pulse). Within hours, the city of Dallas experiences a high yield, low altitude nuclear explosion delivered by terrorist cells operating out of Mexico and piloting drone aircraft.
The next day, it’s Seattle.
For the next two weeks, a city a day is destroyed by drone-piloted, nuclear weapon carrying aircraft. The bombs are mostly low yield but there are some medium-yield bombs.
Emergency services are strained and collapse.
American citizens abandon their cities en masse.
A coalition of Muslim countries announce that the drone strikes, funded and powered by Chinese technology stolen from U.S. developers, will continue until the U.S. armed forces, currently driving toward Saudi Arabia, surrenders completely.
The President authorizes a full scale nuclear strike by bomber aircraft against all the major capitals of the Middle East. Bombers receive their codes and commence their attack.
A Chinese fleet preemptively strikes the Northwestern U.S. The President authorizes the use of Tomahawk Missile, Land Attack, Nuclear (T-LAN) ordinance to repel the invasion.
China launches her entire nuclear arsenal in response to the loss of her fleet.
America retaliates with all her silo-based nuclear weapons.
Russia invades Central and Western Europe. Nuclear weapons are exchanged by France, England, and Germany against targets on their own soil and in Russia.
Pakistan and India exchange nuclear weapons.
News and information, accurate facts, a clear winner in any conflict is beyond determination. The world is beset by raging wildfires, disease, and starvation at heretofore unimagined levels. Within months, months of darkness due to the ash cloud that surrounds the Earth, a mini ice age descends across much of the planet. A two-year nuclear winter ensues.
Pictured from space by the few remaining satellites that still circle the planet, the Earth is much the same. Except that it is completely dark on the sunless side of the terminator. Gone are the lights of cities and civilization that once burned in the night. Only the occasional large-acreage forest fire, burning out of control, can be seen in the night.
Make Mine Meteorites
Rhett Bruno graduated cum laude from the Syracuse University School of Architecture and works for an Architecture firm in New York, but that hasn’t stopped him from writing science fiction (“Titanborn,” was recently published by Random House. He has also written for “Perihelion.” Bruno studies screenwriting at the New School with hopes of writing for TV or Video Games.
Bruno’s favorite way to destroy the Earth is the method he used in “Titanborn.” Explains Bruno: “That’s an extinction-level meteorite wiping out most of life on Earth such as it did the dinosaurs. Whereas a weapon or a virus usually stems from something, a meteorite is completely unbiased. Of course, most natural disasters would be, but then there’s the simplicity. The majority of people wouldn’t requuire a scientist to explain to them what’s happening. It’s essentially the grander equivalent of a line drive being directly at your head in little league. You see it coming, but it’s too fast to stop.
“There would be absolutely nothing to blame except for being cosmically unlucky, but naturally any survivors would blame something. That’s the most interesting part to me. Since we’re a space-faring civilization, some people would inevitably survive and they would crave answers like humans tend to do. Why did we deserve it? Why us? It’s the same as when our ancestors looked at lightning in the sky and decided it was Zeus. Whether it’s the god of their own religion or another’s, survivors would cast blame.
“At least on the long list of what could kill us, it would also be a quick death. The way I would want to go. No Zombie Apocalypse or sicknesses to deal with. No heavy doses of gamma radiation or horrific war. Just lights out for most of us, and let the lucky few, or unlucky, survivors sort things out and give a reason for Earth’s end when there really is none.”
And now, for something really scientific:
Peter Cawdron is an Australian science fiction author whose name is often linked with Samuel Peralta’s “Chronicles” series. Cawdron’s debut novel “Anomaly” sold more than 75,000 copies around the world. “Destroying a planet is far more complicated than Star Wars depicts,” Cawdron writes. “Although it’s technically not feasible, the most efficient means of destroying Earth would be to use an antimatter bomb.”
Coninues Cawdron: “For all their destructive power, nuclear weapons are not that efficient. Most people are familiar with Einstein’s equation E=mc2 but don’t realize that the E (energy) released in a nuclear explosion is miniscule relative to the actual energy latent within the mass of the bomb.
“Instead of converting mass into energy, nuclear weapons release the binding energy between particles in the nucleus. The particles themselves escape relatively unharmed. Imagine chocolate chips in cookie dough. In nukes, it’s the cookie dough that provides the action. The energy efficiency of fission bombs like the one that fell on Hiroshima is only around 0.089 percent of mass to energy, while even the mighty thermonuclear weapons only convert 0.41 percent of their deuterium hydrogen fuel into energy.
“A bomb made out of antimatter is 100 percent efficient. Any collision between regular matter and antimatter will release 100 percent of the energy latent within the combined mass. Somewhere deep underground, an evil scientist is cackling and drumming his fingers together with mad delight as his scheme comes into focus. Fortunately (or unfortunately for the mad scientist), making antimatter is absurdly difficult. At the current rate of production, it would take CERN around a billion years to make a single gram.
“Destroying Earth with an antimatter bomb is plausible, but the sheer amount of antimatter needed is ridiculous because Earth is so massive. Even with 100 percent efficiency, you would need a cube of antimatter that was roughly ten km (six miles) on a side.
“What about something like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs? Life is incredibly persistent. As devastating as the Chicxulub impact was, it’s didn’t come close to wiping out life. That impact didn’t even kill all of the dinosaurs, as one major branch survived to become modern day birds.
“There have been numerous mass extinction events on Earth that have wiped out upwards of 90 percent of life, but life has survived and repopulated the planet time and again.
“If we’re going to destroy Earth with asteroids, we’re going to have to be a little more creative.
“Gravity is persistent and clingy. To disrupt the gravitational binding energy of Earth would take an astonishing amount of energy, somewhere in the order of 332 Joules. This is more than all the energy Earth has received from the Sun in the past 4.5 billion years.
“Making Earth uninhabitable is easier than destroying Earth, but if your mad scientist wants to go for utter destruction so life never rebounds, then the planet will need to be sterilized, and that means busting through the mantle. Beyond throwing a planet like Mars at Earth, the only option is to hurl Trojan asteroids at the Moon—not Earth.
“There are an estimated 90,000 Trojan asteroids with a diameter of more than two km orbiting near Jupiter, with some of these being as large as 200 km. Eventually, the Moon would become a molten, seething mass, but it will take some time. Imagine 90,000 bb pellets striking a large watermelon. It would take an absolute mastery of orbital dynamics to pull off, but by pummeling Trojan asteroids into the Moon with sufficient speed, and against the direction of motion, the Moon’s orbit could be slowed and made more elliptical.
“Even something as large as the Moon, though, only has 1.2 percent the mass of Earth, so a direct impact isn’t going to destroy the planet as a whole. Once the Moon moves inside the Roche limit for Earth, it’ll break up under gravitational tidal stresses. Whereas the impact that killed off the dinosaurs can be thought of as a bullet striking the planet, the fragmented mass of the Moon would collide like a shotgun blast, with each pellet as devastating as the Chicxulub impact. Earth would be horribly disfigured and disrupted for hundreds of millions of years, with seas boiling and molten lava in place of continental plates. Eventually the planet would recover, but it would be devoid of life.”
Take Me to Your Leader
But the End of the World might not be self-imposed, according to Holly Schofield. She is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Her fiction has appeared in “Lightspeed,” “AE: the Canadian Science Fiction Review,” “Unlikely Stories,” and other publications. Her latest story for “Perihelion” was in the 12-MAY-2016 issue.
Schofield explains: “I think it would most enjoyably come about by that delightful and tropiest of tropes: Alien Invasion.
“We live on a jewel of a planet. If the Milky Way is a desert, and if our sweet little solar system were Dubai, the Earth would be like the penthouse of the Burj Al Arab. They don’t call it the Goldilocks Zone for nothing. So, if we like it here, wouldn’t other intelligent life forms want to live here too? Harvard biologist and philosopher of science Edward O. Wilson believes aliens may be biologically similar to us and just as inherently messy, self-contradictory, and internally conflicted.
“And what are we doing, in our complancy? Calling the aliens to us, with various SETI programs. Drawing attention to ourselves, broadcasting our zip code.
“So, picture it: First, the fastest-travelling aliens arrive here, maybe by an Alcubierre drive or something equally awesome. Then the slower, persistent ones. Other aliens follow. Soon, they’re all clamoring for our green hills. One alien ship fires an antimatter missile, another retaliates, it escalates. Suddenly, there goes the neighborhood. The Earth becomes a desolate stretch of rock, a cockroach-infested junkyard at the end of the block, the kind of property that realtors refuse to list.
“Don’t worry, though. We clever hairy apes, we’ll have developed space travel, colony ships, and stasis pods long before the first alien ray gun sizzles. We’ll just find ourselves another planet; we won’t wait around to see what happens here.
“We’re smarter than that, right?”
Our Staff Weighs In
Could be. But not smart enough to outwit planetary demolition via gamma ray burst, Editor Sam Bellotto Jr’s favorite disaster. “I think this is so cool because once you’ve detected a pulse of radiation on target toward Earth, there isn’t a lot you can do about it because it has already happened, perhaps long before anyone currently alive was born! Best simply strip down (if it isn’t a cold day), paint a red target on your chest, and lie spread-eagle on the lawn patiently waiting for the inevitable.”
On the other hand, “Perihelion” Book Critic Carol Kean shrugs at this “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” game, digs in her heels, and holds on tight to her rosy “Star Trek” blinders and cites a more hopeful prediction by William Shatner:
“There will be a future. Technology will get us out of whatever hole it gets us into. The future will be bright and the Earth will still be here. And that’s the future people want to embrace. Star Trek offers a look into that future. It’s what makes Star Trek endearing, and enduring.”
Rise of Dystopia
Although not new, the sub-genre of science fiction/dystopian fiction has gotten more prominent recently. Movies and books seem to have taken a long hiatus from utopian ideas, even in, or especially in, science fiction. There is no escaping it. The most talented authors, people whose writing I sincerely love, are forcing me into the murk and gloom of a ruined Earth, a sky that will never again be blue, a Sun that will never struggle through the polluted gray.
“Science fiction/dystopian fiction,” says NASA engineer and speculative fiction author Terry Hill, “provides the ability to define a universe that extrapolates an idea or situation in our world to logical, and not so glamorous, conclusions. It helps us as a society conceptualize why we might not want to pursue a particular course of action, or more importantly, the consequences of ignoring some aspect of our current lives.”
Mr. Hill, we are all sufficiently aware of nuclear weapons, genetic engineering, global warming, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and artificial intelligence evolving on us, unless we live under a rock and don’t read books.
“Star Trek!” Come back! And bring Shane with you, and while we’re at it, let’s get Old Yeller vaccinated before he tackles any rabid animals, and let’s change the wolf to something less noble, like a rabid rabbit, and—
OK. But I’ll shut up only when there’s a way of immunizing us from this rabid science fiction/dystopian fiction sub-genre that’s running wild in our science fiction.
Carol Kean is the Book Critic for “Perihelion Science Fiction.” She has a degree in English and was a tech writer for Chamberlain Manufacturing Corporation and Rockwell Collins. She has written two novels and published a few short stories.