There was a line in Terminator Salvation that went something like, "Hunt down and eradicate the entire human race". While watching extremely large and vicious cyborgs stomping on human skulls, I realised that the irony is that we are the ones who invented these great killing machines in the first place. And I don't mean that we created "Skynet", which attained consciousness, and then set about exterminating humanity.
The fact is that we keep on imagining new and ingenious ways to remove ourselves from the face of the planet like we were hoovering an old carpet. It is as if we can't bear to wait for global warming to toast us slowly, we have to have apocalypse now.
1984 was notable for (1) Orwell's Ministry of Truth, (2) the first Terminator film, and (3) Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election. Reagan was convinced Armageddon was "near". No wonder that the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzanegger, despite massacring anyone who even slightly got in his way, became a folk hero, and seemed like a kind of solution. In the sequel, Arnie was rebranded as an android god who has to be sacrificed at the end of the film. An Old Testament avenger become New Testament saviour.
From Jules Verne and HG Wells through to Arthur C Clarke's (and Kubrick's) 2001: A Space Odyssey, the greatest works of sci-fi have been a meditation on our origins or our fate, drawing not just on science but a vast philosophical and theological tradition.
Plato sketched out the theory that our souls occupy some idyllic supersensory realm before birth and only finally recover the True, the Beautiful, and the Good after death. He thought that true philosophers – like Socrates – must be ready and willing and perhaps even a little impatient to die. Most religions, in a similar way, have made the end out to be so attractive – somewhere between Dante's eternal hosannas and the Hugh Hefner mansion with pool and starlets – that we have been in a great hurry to anticipate "judgement day".
All great physics, from Newton through to Einstein, has had more than a hint of metaphysics about it. It is not surprising that it was a Belgian priest, Georges Lemaître, who came up with the concept of the "primeval atom" that evolved into Big Bang theory. Cosmologists have taken over the role of the old "natural philosophers", with visions of everything and aspirations to the "mind of God". The Hadron Collider promises to reproduce the Genesis moment, which is clearly a mirror-image of finality.
Why are we so bewitched by narratives of the beginning and the end? A black hole "has no hair", the physicists like to say. That is to say, a black hole can be readily and exhaustively defined in a way that human beings, for example, cannot. Reality as we know it is generally ambiguous and chaotic and much harder to describe mathematically than the origin of the universe, for example.
There are only two significant moments in history, the philosopher Jean Baudrillard once said: the Big Bang and the Apocalypse. The beginning and the end are simple, beautiful, and annihilating. The bit in the middle – the part we have immediate experience of – is, let's face it, a bit of a mess: screwed-up, conflictual, doomed. We need to learn to embrace the middle, and not dream incessantly of fast-forwarding or rewinding, in search of heaven or hell.
Andy Martin's 'Beware Invisible Cows: My Search for the Soul of the Universe' is published on Thursday by Simon and SchusterReuse content