I found Dan Carlin’s The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses in December 2019 at the book fair at my kids’ school, and I picked it up because of the great title and also because in my speculative historical novel characters live under constant fear of “the end of time.” What an opportunity, I thought, to revisit this aspect of history and make sure my world building was realistic, so I bought the book but didn’t get to it right away.
Then COVID-19 happened. Soon enough I was looking for something to read that would help me gain some perspective on our imminent “end of time” and I remembered Dan Carlin’s book. Could our current crisis grow worse than the collapse of the Roman Empire? More terrible than the Black Death in the Middle Ages? More atrocious than the carnage of World War II? While I’m familiar with the history in Carlin’s book, I needed this collection of detailed stories about terrible times to remind me that my diminished life in nowadays Seattle is not that bad.
Compared to fighting for my life on a ventilator or fighting eviction because I can’t afford rent, my discomfort is insignificant. But in my shrunken world it’s sometimes hard to keep things in perspective. I only get out of the house to go to the grocery store once a week, and on some days my husband and I take our kids on a walk close to home. We’re now experts at avoiding other human beings by crossing the street or taking a sharp turn before they can invade our 6-foot-radius invisible bubble. Before the pandemic, I used to meet human beings in coffee shops and libraries. I used to walk for two miles as the crow flies almost every day, enjoying the view of Lake Washington and Mount Rainier in the distance. Now every walk approaches three miles as the drunk crow flies in a weird zigzag through a grid of streets that grows more suffocating with each outing. The lake reminds me of all the beaches I’m not taking my kids to this summer and the mountains of the hikes my family will miss. Small discomforts that tell me nonetheless that we live in crappy times. My closest comparison is communist Romania in the eighties, but even that’s a stretch.
That’s why I was looking for a little insight into what really bad times looked like. As I started reading the Preface of Carlin’s book, I found this paragraph:
“Will we ever again have the type of pandemics that rapidly kill large percentages of the population? This was a feature of normal human existence until relatively recently, but seems almost like science fiction to imagine today.” – p. xiii
Now that’s a good opening. I settled in with the book and went on reading. Dan Carlin is the creator of the podcast Hardcore History, an in-depth and unflinching survey of history, yet his heartwarming sentence showed an implicit confidence in humankind, even as the author posed a question about our competence in dealing with a pandemic. And it reminded me of how solid the world felt back in 2019, when this book was published, even as we here in the United States grappled with an incompetent and vicious administration. As an immigrant, since 2016 I’ve found people like me blamed for everything that bothers the “Make America Great Again” crowd, and still, from 2019’s vantage point the future looked promising because of the upcoming elections.
Then the coronavirus came to us. Now I’m always worried of what would happen to my kids if I make a mistake and get them infected. We’re still learning how deadly this disease is for some people; how the virus is mutating to become more infectious; how it affects the brain, not just the lungs; how it can leave some people disabled for life.
“A pandemic could easily arise and if bad enough could remind us what life was like for human beings before modern medicine.” – p. xiv
We don’t yet have a treatment or a vaccine so we stare at our new virus with the same dread our ancestors once stared at theirs. The End Is Always Near makes the point that most of our ancestors lived with anxiety if not full-blown panic about tomorrow. Trauma was always present in their lives from very early ages, starting with corporal punishment for children, who then grew up thinking that was the right way to raise their own. Separating newborns from their mothers to be cared for by wet nurses, drugging teething babies, taking children to witness public executions, selling young ones for labor were all experiences that formed adults with built-in trauma. No wonder our ancestors kept thinking the end of the world was coming soon. Now we are getting a taste of that.
While I hope the end of the world is not likely to come soon—barring an asteroid impact or a gamma-ray blast from deep space—for every one of us this pandemic could be the end of our short lives on earth. And I’m not talking just about one person’s life, but the responsibility we have for our children and grandparents and the people at the grocery store who risk their health every day to keep our society going.
These are my worries and my anxieties and as much as I look at history for lessons and precedent, I don’t always find good answers for how to navigate our weird times. Sure, the stubborn refusal by the World Health Organization to accept that the coronavirus spread asymptomatically sounded a lot like the incompetence of the Chernobyl managers who refused to admit that their nuclear reactor had a fatal flaw. Discouraging people from wearing masks at the beginning of the pandemic was based on our leaders’ flawed assumption that people in masks wouldn’t be scared enough to wash their hands. It was the same kind of condescending thinking that led to embracing “strategic bombing” during World War II in hopes it would sap morale and shorten wars, which it didn’t.
In The End Is Always Near I found stories about the end of the Assyrian Empire and the development of the “Super” bomb after the war. But I didn’t find anything to explain the absurd controversy we’re now having in the United States about wearing masks to stop the spread of the virus. I understand this “controversy” comes from the tribalism of our president’s supporters and the fact that he thinks a mask would ruin his fake hair and his bronze makeup, so he’s telling the world not to use them, but the best illustration of this Darwin Awards behavior (which puts everyone at risk, not just the award-winners) didn’t come to me from a history book but from a scene in Avenue 5, an HBO show about a cruise ship in space. In this scene, someone comes up with the bright idea that the ship is not in space at all but in a movie studio, so the frenzied crowd decides to use the airlock to access “the green room” and go home. You’d think the first person being pulverized by the void would scare the rest from trying to get out? Take a look and tell me if this doesn’t remind you of the asinine insistence of our states to reopen their economies while the virus is still spreading?
Maybe we do live in unprecedented times. I’ve gained some perspective from reading this history book, but not as much as I’d hoped. The first problem, as identified by Dan Carlin himself, is that:
“History is akin to traveling to a distant planet, but one inhabited by human beings. Biologically the same, but culturally alien—and a major reason is that they were raised differently.” – p. 15
As much as we read about other times in hopes of learning how to navigate ours, we’re still living through our own specific crises and experiencing our particular version of the end of the world as we know it. Referring to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and after, Dan Carlin writes:
“What began in Philadelphia—at least in its most dangerous form—quickly advanced. There was still an international war on, and modern transportation had made great strides, so the virus could get from place to place at a far greater pace than any previous pandemic could. The collision of this outbreak with this first period of true globalization was devastating. [Footnote: Imagine this epidemic in our modern twenty-first-century international travel environment.]” – p. 139
Yeah, imagine that!