Columns > Published on April 27th, 2012

Bangs, Whimpers, and Apes: The Top 10 World-Ending Events In Science Fiction

The world ends all the time in science fiction. And, depending on which conspiracy sites you've been reading, it might be Doomsday for real this year. After all, it's not often that the Mayans and Roland Emmerich agree on something.

So, in honor of 2012 possibly (probably?) being the last year of history, it only seems right to count down my top ten favorite world-ending events in sci-fi. So go grab some dehydrated water and a grip of shotgun shells. I'll meet you in the storm cellar.

10. Truckpocalypse

Stephen King's memorable short story Trucks was first published in 1973. In it, King wove the surprisingly chilling tale of a world overrun by sentient, murderous vehicles, from bulldozers and pickups to the semis of the title. In a bit of not-to-subtle political commentary, the vestiges of humanity are to be enslaved by the trucks, forced to pump gas for all time. Picture Convoy with Decepticons - then remember that King has admitted being high on everything from cocaine to cough syrup during the '70s - and you start to get the picture.

Speaking of which, Maximum Overdrive anyone?


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9. The Flame Deluge

There are many, many instances of cataclysmic nuclear war in sci-fi, but the one in Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle For Leibowitz is my favorite for many reasons. First of all, this is just an incredibly rad name. (A quick internet search proves my point: behold "The Flame Deluge" by Thrice, a metal band with good taste in books.)

Moreover, the aftermath of The Flame Deluge is one of the best post-apocalyptic scenarios ever. The majority of the survivors turn away from science, technology, and even reading. It falls upon a new order of monks to protect the "Memorabilia," as the last vestiges of pre-Flame Deluge knowledge are known. And Miller's scope is truly epic, as the book tracks the redevelopment of society over a thousand years.

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8. Demolished By Vogons

This just couldn't be a proper list of fictional endings to the world without including Douglas Adams' version from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Earth, you see, is in the way of a proposed hyperspace bypass. The Vogons, a race of detestable interstellar bureaucrats, see the demolition of Earth as nothing more than a infrastructure project. This has to be simultaneously the funniest and most mundane reasoning that any alien race intent on destroying our planet has ever given. Most of them just sort of appear and start blowing up monuments in ways that look cool on movie posters.

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7. Zombie-Vampire Pandemic

While kickass zombie apocalypses are as numerous as they are awesome, it's worth highlighting what many think is the origin of the genre: Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. This book describes one man's attempts to survive after the collapse of society due to an infection that turns humans into bloodthirsty monsters. Matheson himself refers to his influences by having his main character read Bram Stoker's Dracula at one point. Remarkably, this novel was published all the way back in 1954, 14 years before George Romero's film Night of the Living Dead hit theaters and 53 years before we were introduced to the musical titan that is Willow Smith.

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Over a decade before Tippi Hedren was getting dive-bombed by sparrows, author Daphne Du Maurier released a novelette imagining a decidedly feathered end of the world. Set in stormy Cornwall, instead of the bucolic Sonoma of Hitchcock's film, the story follows a farmhand who notices the local seagulls are getting rowdier with each high tide. Soon all of Britain is under attack as the birds kill humans and fight back against an aerial assault. The story is actually much more chilling then the film, which veers into unintentional silliness at times. Neither, though, can touch the intentional silliness of our century's addition to the genre: Birdemic.

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5. Monks With Computers

No, this isn't another reference to the Flame Deluge, but rather a nod towards Arthur C. Clarke's awesome short story The Nine Billion Names of God. These monks are charged with writing out the billions of names of God, a task that will take about 15,000 years if they do it by hand. Looking to finish their task quicker, the monks employ a computer, a printer, and some programmers to cut their time to a mere three months. The good news is that the project comes in on time. The bad news? As they finish, stars start disappearing from the sky in what must be a prelude to the end of the world. See what comes from messing with computers?

Clarke has written several memorable apocalypses, including the rightly-beloved Childhood's End. But I had to include this scenario, if only for its sheer originality.

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4. The Red Death

Full disclosure: it wasn't until I was putting this list together that I learned about The Scarlet Plague, which is none other than Jack London's take on the end of the world. Luckily for me - and you! - this short novella is available in its entirety online for free. Set in 2072, the book recounts the fall of humanity after the titular pandemic killed the majority of the population in, wait for it, 2012. (The Mayans, Roland Emmerich, AND Jack London? Gulp.) And since London was writing in 1912, the future he describes has a decidedly steampunk vibe, including airships! SPOILER ALERT - White Fang does not make an appearance.

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3. Triffids

How could I compile a list of the best ends to the world and not include one that revolves around killer plants? John Wyndham's novel, The Day of the Triffids, actually combines the eponymous trees, which both can walk and are poisonous, with a meteor shower than renders anyone who watches it blind. Not surprisingly, civilization collapses and soon some of the few remaining sighted people are being chained to blind ones while others escape to the country to start polygamous communities. So this is the way the world ends: in a cross between José Saramago's Blindness and M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening. Which, if it had to happen, would at least be super interesting.

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2. Planet Smashing

You have to give Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer credit for both the sheer high-concept insanity of their Doomsday scenario and the great title they came up with for it: When Worlds Collide. Astronomer Sven Bronson discovers two 'rogue' planets, which he names 'Bronson Alpha' and 'Broson Beta', somewhat disappointingly. (At least call one 'Sven', right? Not to mention 'Bronson Pinchot.') What makes these planets rogue is not a predisposition for 'straight talk' and shooting animals from helicopters, but rather the fact that Alpha is on track to slam into the Earth, then Beta will slide into our orbit and replace it. Is this even possible, astrophysically? Would that even make them planets? There's no time for debate - we have to relocate to Beta!

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1. Super Monkeys

Let us now praise famous apes. Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel is the book that launched what has to be one of the weirdest franchise of films ever.  Titled La Planète des Singes in French, which directly translates to The Planet of the Apes, it was originally released in the US as Monkey Planet. Can you imagine if that had stuck? Escape From The Monkey Planet, starring Sal Mineo, Ricardo Montalban, and Roddy MacDowell!

Anyway, Boulle's book establishes the familiar plot of time-travelling astronauts visiting a future Earth where Ape has evolved from Man. It's insane, it's amazing, and it's my favorite world-ending event in science fiction.

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Did I miss an apocalypse you adore? Let me know if the comments. And be quick! The end is near, after all.

About the author

Originally from Concord, Massachusetts, Jon Korn spent a decade in Los Angeles trying to get warm. He now lives in Oakland, where he works as a writer and film festival programmer. Over the past 10 years, Jon has watched tens of thousands of movies for the Sundance Film Festival, AFI FEST, Outfest, and CineVegas, among others. Not all of them were good, but it is still a wonderful job. Jon is the co-creator of the Echo Park Time Travel Mart and a Jeopardy! champion. His hobbies include cooking, being sad about baseball, and not answering the phone.

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