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Descent by Ken MacLeod


Author of 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award-nominated Intrusion tells a science fiction story for the twenty-first century – what happens when conspiracy theorists meet Big Brother?
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Will McIntosh

Will McIntsosh is the Hugo Award-winning science fiction author of SOFT APOCALYPSE and HITCHERS (both released as digital editions this Thursday in UK and ANZ), as well as the up-and-coming LOVE MINUS EIGHTY (released worldwide in June 2013). Will tells us below about exactly what kind of apocalypse he envisages . . .

Soft Apoclaypse, an apocalyptic science fiction novel from Hugo award-winning author whose other novels include HITCHERS and the up-and-coming LOVE MINUS EIGHTY

I’ve had a longstanding interest in the end of the world. I’m not a True Believer – I don’t have a six month supply of freeze-dried food and a ten year supply of ammo stored in a bunker under my house – but I do believe the likelihood of an apocalypse is greater than most people think.

In most apocalyptic literature, the apocalypses are caused by sudden, surprising, cataclysmic events, like nuclear weapons, meteors, or killer viruses. I wrote a novel about a “soft apocalypse”, where things unravel slowly, over the course of decades. Rather than one event, a series of events cause a long, slow decline, and the world population dies off gradually. If there is an apocalypse, I think this is how it will happen. Here’s why.

A social psychologist named Dan Gilbert pointed out that the human mind has evolved to react primarily to immediate threats, especially if those threats have a clearly identifiable cause, and especially if that cause is an identifiable person or group of people. In other words, we’ve evolved to react to immediate threats perpetrated by human villains. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were exactly that kind of threat. During the cold war, the threat was nuclear annihilation, and the villains were the leaders of the Soviet Union or the United States, depending on where you lived. These sorts of threats scare the hell out of us. We sit up, pay attention, and take action if we can.

If a threat is gradual, especially if we can’t link it to specific villains whose faces can be shown on TV, we don’t have the same reaction. As I mentioned in SOFT APOCALYPSE, climate scientists have been screaming about climate change since the 1970s, and it is unfolding pretty much as they predicted. That’s impressive. If they can predict such an event accurately, my inclination is to go to those same people for information about how things are likely to unfold from here. From what I’ve read, things are going to get pretty bad. Rising oceans may cover low-lying coasts, extreme weather may become the norm. The trade winds could abruptly stall due to melting icebergs de-salinizing the oceans. If this happens, the U.K. will suddenly have a climate similar to Siberia.

No one seems all that concerned about this. Truth be told, I have difficulty mustering much fear over climate change. If an evil scientist or aliens were using a machine to change the climate, I’m guessing we’d all be terrified.

This is not the only slow-moving threat we may be facing. Less certain, but I think still very possible, is the depletion of energy sources. Depending on who you listen to, we’ve either passed our “peak oil” year–the year when the world produces the most oil it will ever produce–or it is coming soon. In The Long Emergency, author James Howard Kunsler argued that we will not be able to replace all of that cheap, easy to transport energy, even if we get our act together and develop nuclear, wind, solar, and biofuel sources in earnest. Of course, we’re not doing that, so we may well face dwindling energy supplies as the supply of oil diminishes.

There’s one other clearly-identifiable threat, and this one is a near-lock: world population growth. The world population is slated to rise from seven billion to an estimated nine billion by 2050, before beginning a gradual decline. If the experts are to be believed, this rise is already locked in. We will have thirty percent more people on Earth in 2050 (unless some cataclysmic event takes the lives of a large number of people), and thus escalated resource depletion and emission of greenhouse gases.

You know what really scares me, though? The threats we haven’t identified. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out that one of the greatest flaws in human thinking and planning is our failure to anticipate unexpected events. When we work out the numbers in our business model to predict how much money our pretzel cart is going to earn, we always assume that nothing unexpected will happen. But unexpected things happen–you can count on it, even though we don’t. Living in a world as complex as ours, it seems as if there are many unexpected events that could jump into the known mix of climate change, energy depletion, and population growth to create some truly apocalyptic situation.

All of these factors are playing out right now. Just this morning, I heard a BBC report on this year’s record world temperatures and record glacial melting. Climatologists say things are accelerating faster than their models predicted. Energy prices are climbing steadily, as is population growth. The Great Recession gave us a taste of what an unexpected event might look like. That was how I kicked off the soft apocalypse in my novel, with a severe economic decline. An epidemic might also do it, or a large-scale war, or… something truly unexpected.

I imagine one of the reasons we don’t get too alarmed by the prospect of an apocalypse is that we’ve never experienced one (unless you count the Black Death in the Middle Ages, or the extinction of the dinosaurs). If we haven’t had one yet, why should we expect one in the future? This is another area where the way we reason may leave us short-sighted. We’ve lived a relatively short existence as a species, and the amount of time we’ve lived in a complex, technological age has been an eyeblink. It’s a very new thing, what we’re doing to the planet, and we have no idea what the results of this experiment will be.

Soft Apoclaypse, an apocalyptic science fiction novel from Hugo award-winning author whose other novels include HITCHERS and the up-and-coming LOVE MINUS EIGHTYFrom the perspective of a soft apocalypse, the “good” news is that such an apocalypse is likely to cause a die-back in the human population, not a die-off. In SOFT APOCALYPSE, I depict a die-back of fifty to sixty percent of the population as civilization collapses. I don’t think anyone assumes we could lose ninety or ninety-five percent of the population via a soft apocalypse.

One of the other things psychologists have learned is that people have a tendency to take complex issues, simplify them to an absurd degree, and confidently express what is a mostly uninformed opinion. Admittedly, that’s what I’ve done here. And, as statistical prognosticator Nate Silver points out, if you claim to know a future outcome with anything like certainty, you’re a fool. The best you can do is estimate the likelihood that a particular outcome will occur. When it comes to an apocalypse, no one can put a number on it the way Silver does with an election. But, based on what we know, the odds are far from zero, aren’t they? That should scare us more than it does.


You can read an extract of Will’s novel SOFT APOCALYPSE here, and his second novel HITCHERS here. Both will be available as digital-only titles in UK and ANZ from 6th December 2012. His short story THE PERIMETER is also available now.


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Will McIntosh

Will McIntosh

All Orbit books by Will McIntosh

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