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Boyd Tonkin: Apocalypse now – and again, and again

The week in books

Catastrophic climate change has rendered much of the planet unfit for human life. From the lawless wilderness of Britain, survivors drift south in search of a kindlier habitat. For the drastic global cooling of this new ice age has wrecked the industrial world. In Nigeria, far from the big freeze, penniless refugees from a ruined North test the tolerance of the authorities. But with sub-Saharan Africa a place of safety, will the Europeans' past actions help to save or scupper them?

Scary, savage or silly, apocalyptic fictions come in every lurid shade. We owe this choice scenario to SF veteran Sam Youd, who as "John Christopher" wrote a series of end-of-civilisation novels after the success of the self-explanatory The Death of Grass in 1956. The World in Winter (1962) reminds us that climatic calamity, forced migration and historic inequality could fire the engines of invention almost half a century ago. In the same year, JG Ballard published his vision of London after the deluge, The Drowned World.

Everything changes, Gore Vidal drolly remarked long ago, except the avant-garde. To which we might add that all things come to a close except the end of the world. Next week, the release of John Hillcoat's film of The Road by Cormac McCarthy will have doom-mongers reaching for fresh thunderbolts as they wield the novelist's (and director's) post-catastrophe wasteland as a weapon in the carbon wars.

The Road staggers in hard on the heels of the BBC's smartypants update of The Day of the Triffids, in which John Wyndham's lethal walking weeds from 1951 became the surprise downside of a planet-rescuing non-fossil fuel. Someone felt pleased as punch about that little twist: so un-PC, darlings. I tend to think that doomsday nears when the BBC has to change a heroine's profession from novelist (as Jo Playton is in the book) to chat-show presenter.

Writers have long known that they can do what they damn well choose with apocalypse. Those endless smoking terrains littered with the debris of flattened cities, where lonely drifters fight for food, offer an open field of fire. They may amplify any warning, underscore any moral, and highlight any crisis that the author – or reader - opts to invoke. Because these millennial landscapes change so little, and endure so consistently, to call them down in aid of any hot topic will prove a risky gambit. It could be that our apocalyptic scenery began to take on a familiar shape in the Western imagination as early as 393AD, when the Synod of Hippo decided that the grandaddy of all disaster plots - the Revelation of St John the Divine – should stay as a canonical book of the New Testament.

Since then, the flesh-creeping delights of dire prophecy have moved into the mainstream of high and popular culture alike. In 1816, Byron's poem "Darkness" fixed the grim coordinates of the modern apocalyptic nightmare: "The world was void... Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless - /A lump of death - a chaos of hard clay." Ten years later, his friend Mary Shelley followed Frankenstein with the original single-survivor romance, The Last Man – her second extraordinary myth.

For two centuries, hardly a decade has passed without tales of doom that capture all the terrors of the age. From industrialised warfare (HG Wells above all) to the aftermath of nuclear armageddon (Nevil Shute, Russell Hoban, Raymond Briggs et al) to ecological breakdown (50 years of drowning, freezing and parching earths, from Ballard to Atwood), the end of the world has meant the start of the story. These dark dreams recur, and reverberate. As fiction, they have a huge explosive power. But because they draw from such a deep well of archetypes, to divert them into a narrow channel of admonition or advocacy – as some green activists now try with The Road – does neither work nor cause much good. We should separate the science of risk from the timeless pleasures of the scare.

P.S.First, the bad news: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown did hang on to become the book trade's festive Number One. Now for some rather better news: after the immovable Guinness World Records and Eclipse and Twilight from Stephenie Meyer's bloody teen franchise, the nation's next bestselling Christmas book was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. The late Swede's final hardback, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, also rode high in the fiction Top 10. And last, a deeply auspicious sign: in Waterstone's own fiction charts, the three leading paperback places were occupied by Dragon Tattoo, Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire and Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Angel's Game. Three top-sellers in our only real book chain; three translated novels: for anyone who loves to read around the world, this year starts with a big bang of hope.