This book, Bangs & Whimpers: Stories About the End of the World is a collection of short stories by different authors. Most of these stories were written some fifty to sixty years ago. It includes passages from all the greats – from Arthur C. Clarke to Robert Heinlein, Neil Gaiman to Isaac Asimov. I’ve owned it for many years now, but have somehow never gotten around to reading it, until now.
I started it several nights ago, longing for the feel of a paper book in my hands after nearly a year of nothing but audio and electronic books. I just finished it. And let me tell you: if you are in the mood to be depressed, pick up a copy of this volume and give a go. Dear Lord.
I think I’ve actually started it many times. Several, at least. But for some reason, I was never in the right frame of mind to read it. But now that my two big kids are away for the summer and my red-haired wife is away on a business trip, I’ve been feeling melancholy. Things happen like that when I’m alone for a while. My four-year-old is great company, don’t get me wrong. But conversation tends to lean a little toward the not-very-deep after a while. Though I will admit, she is full of wonder and amazes me constantly with the things she is able to conceive and comprehend.
The last installment in the book – the one by Asimov – is perhaps the richest, in that it really stirred some emotion in me. It’s called The Last Question, and ends with quite a neat little twist. The others stirred my emotions as well, but not like this. He goes so far beyond the limits of what we can conceive of as time that we cannot even conceive of the number itself. Trillions of years into the future, when the last star is finally going out. Very humbling as a man sitting here in a brief eternity of perhaps (and hopefully) seventy or eighty years.
One of the most fascinating concepts Mr. Asimov put forth in his book, which was first published in 1956, was the construction of these insanely intelligent computers. He mentions their shrinking size, having come from something that took up a city block. And I got to thinking – even he, as far-fetched and forward-thinking as he was, couldn’t imagine what computers would be today. Back then they did indeed take up large chunks of real estate. And now we carry them around in our pockets.
I’m just floored by this. I know I’ve said it before, but the fact that all of us who have smartphones literally carry computers around in our pockets that are far more powerful than those first city-block computers. The smartphone can tell you where you are on a map, how to get somewhere else, give you the phone number of the place you’re going, and furthermore let you call that place to make a reservation. And that’s only scraping the tip of the iceberg with the ridiculous abilities these things possess.
I know, I know, this is supposed to be a book review. But seriously, the computer he imagines in his short story is a thing that eventually comes to exist not in space or time, and not even as matter or energy. It’s a collective consciousness of sorts that exists and links to others like it all over the universe. And at the present rate of passage, we are well on our way to this notion of a singularity in technology. Will computers take over the world? Well, simply put, have they not already?
Back to the book. These stories of the end of the world are touching and poignant. Each of them enables you to realize where we stand as a human race. And most of them are critical of the path we’ve taken. More than half even say that implicitly: where is intelligence without the folly of humankind? The insane notion that as soon as we’ve enough intelligence, the reason vanishes from our minds. All we want to do is destroy ourselves. It’s like the old saying, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” As soon as we gain intellect, we muff it up and use it to destroy our neighbors.
This is not a political rant. I’m not saying I’m for or against war. I just think it’s well spoken of these authors who mention that the end of mankind will be brought about by our own fallible hand. These stories put you well in touch with that. Some of them mention other methods of our extinction, like The Nine Billion Names of God. But the really sobering ones are the ones where we are likened to a bunch of lemmings running off the edge of sanity into the ocean of extinction because, and only because we are smart enough to.
This is well worth a read if you have a couple of free hours. It’s right around 220 pages, so it can be done in one sitting by some of you pros out there. I’d highly recommend it. But remember, like I said, it’s not really a pick-me-up. Be prepared to be depressed. Make the best of it. Pour yourself a tall scotch and go out with a bang.