Note: Join us on Monday, October 19, at Powell's Books on Hawthorne for a reading with Roy Scranton.
A pilgrim arrives on a devastated planet. The destruction has been extreme, the planet's transformation almost complete. Once a gentle, temperate environment in which intelligent, tool-using, bipedal primates thrived, it has become a choking sauna, wet and hot and seething with methane. Vast cities lie in ruin. Plastic filaments thicken the seas, flowing through underwater catacombs of dead coral, while toxic sludge and radioactive detritus mark dead zones the size of large islands. Plains once lush with forests and crowded with great herds and flocks are now desolate and monotonous wastes.
The few primates that survived the collapse of their sophisticated, complex societies have formed ruthless scavenger bands. Their societies had once been highly centralized, and when the large-scale systems of food production and distribution, water treatment, waste management, health care, power generation, and security they depended on started to break down, the billions of primates who'd spent their lives honing intricate, highly specialized skills now found themselves totally incapable of reconstructing any stable social order beyond the level of the band or pack. Farms and freeholds that tried to restart small-scale agriculture were raided by scavengers, and those few that could defend themselves had become isolated fortresses. It remained to be seen whether these forts would survive even a generation, or whether the packs of scavengers driven wild by hunger would band into hordes big enough to overrun even the most well-defended walls.
The pilgrim had known this world awaited her, but she couldn't have anticipated the overwhelming scope of the damage, the harshness of the climate, or the sense of futility that washed through her. Why even go on? What would be the point? She couldn't hope to build anything lasting, because the future was only going to get worse, and life today was already an endless struggle for survival, waged in constant fear. There was little time and less reason for anything like art, commerce, science, or contemplation. Every waking moment was devoted to getting by, and every encounter with others a brush with potential domination, death, or worse. She knew how the scavenger bands treated their females. Life in this world was poor, nasty, brutish, and short: What reason could anyone possibly have to wish for more of it?
At the same time, a being doesn't need a reason to live. You just go on doing it. Despite the awfulness of her situation, her anguish, and the likelihood that her least horrific death would be a quick and bloody murder, she could not have forced herself to lie down and die, or to walk off the edge of a cliff and sail into nothing. Some power in her stronger than every sorrow insisted that she go on, whether it made sense or not. She couldn't let herself give up, even though the only reward for enduring her arduous, bleak, and precarious existence was more of the same.
The world this pilgrim came from was one of plenty. She lived in a dazzlingly advanced urbanized society, and had learned growing up that meaning was relative, belief was culturally dependent, and life was a series of choices you made as a consumer: which college you go to, what music you listen to, your lifestyle, your sexual orientation, your children's schools, the kind of food you eat. One's work was important in the pilgrim's world, but the specific career itself mattered less than the status it conferred and the compensation it offered. The harder one worked, the more options for consumption one deserved, and the higher quality those options were. If the pilgrim thought about God or karma or higher metaphysical truths, this too was in the sense of exercising an option, a lifestyle choice: she understood that different people thought about God and the universe in different ways, and she never took religion all that seriously. Her rewards were in this world, in a nice meal, a comfortable house, or the envy of her friends, not in some imagined heaven or reincarnated ascension.
She had left all that behind, but not because she wanted to. Because, to be honest, the pilgrim hadn't arrived on a new planet — she'd survived the catastrophe that had transformed her old one. She wasn't an alien observer, watching a strange primate culture that had collapsed into fragments and tatters — she was a primate herself, a member of their highly developed carbon-fueled society, a homo sapiens sapiens, and she had lived through their fall. She was a young woman when the catastrophe began to unfold in earnest, when the ice sheets started collapsing, the oceans began to rise, tropical storms moved into the temperate belts, the northern permafrost melted and released tons of poisonous methane into the air, and the world erupted into a conflagration of wars, wars over energy, wars over religion, wars over land, wars over water, and finally just wars, anarchy, famine, plague, and death.
She had been lucky, this pilgrim: early in the catastrophe, she and her partner had fled to a cabin in the mountains, an inheritance become a lifeboat, and they had eked out a subsistence existence farming and hunting, having to adapt their practices every year to new weather patterns, new animal migrations, new plants. They were far from population centers, and when the gas ran out those distances took on new significance: 60 miles now meant a strenuous hike of three days, not a ride in a car for an hour. They survived forest fires, sickness, a raid or two, and several dangerous accidents.
At last, though, the pilgrim found herself alone. Her partner had died: a fall, a broken leg, which had then become infected. They'd used up their small store of antibiotics long ago. They'd been talking about leaving anyway, since the mountains were drying up, the icepack on the peaks gone, the streams evaporating, the trees parching and dying, wildlife growing increasingly scarce.
Yes. It had come time for her to go. But where, and why, and what for? She had just buried the one thing she'd lived for under a cairn of stones, after a long, harrowing death, and the world beyond the mountains seemed to offer little but more suffering and sorrow. Still, suicide, which she had contemplated intellectually, as you might watch ants escaping a burning log, would have felt like a betrayal of her partner, who had loved her for her tenacity. It was also, she knew, impossible. She would go on living till the bitter end, until her body or mind gave out, simply out of dumb animal persistence. She couldn't help herself.
So the pilgrim packs her few belongings in a well-patched pack. She opens the doors and windows of the cabin, leaving her home vulnerable to the vagaries of nature, and turns her back on it for the last time. She hikes up out of the secluded valley that had been her solace and across the ridge toward the remains of the world she left behind, which wasn't in fact the same world at all, but a wholly new one, and it wasn't some other world at all; it was this one. It is this one. Our world. Our future.
Everyone dies. All civilizations come to an end. All the stars will burn and fade. There's no escaping it. The only real question the pilgrim faces, the only real question we all face, is how to die.