Deborah Orr: Amid this latest apocalypse, the prophets of doom are all peddling their own agendas

Each generation feels its own fears about the future are more urgent than any that have gone before
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The Independent Online

One of the oddest tributes to the imaginative ingenuity of the human mind is its capacity to take the facts and manufacture from them, regardless of what they are, a narrative that corresponds with whatever our own view of the world happens to be. There's a great deal of that sort of thing going on at the moment, and while the process is nothing new, each generation, no doubt, feels that its own set of fears and worries about the future is more real and more urgent than any that has gone before.

Those of us lucky enough to be consuming the spectacle of Britain in flood from the comfort of warm, dry homes are now, broadly, of the opinion that this is a consequence of man-made climate change. My friend Charles, a farmer in the Vale of Evesham, is not one of the fortunate majority for whom the floods are something to maintain a mere watching brief on. His home is flooded with backed-up sewage, the crops in his fields are ruined, and what's left of last year's harvest, stored in his barn, is wrecked as well.

Of all he has witnessed in the last few days, he says that the most surreal scenario came about when he went to rescue a recalcitrant elderly man who was refusing to leave his flood-threatened home, only to find him sitting in a state of single-minded concentration, watching news of the deluge on television, while the water in his own living room advanced smartly towards him. Sometimes the ability to persuade ourselves that disaster is what happens to other people is powerful indeed.

Charles has been convinced of the reality of climate change for some years now. Those few among us who remain loath to join the apocalyptic throng do so for political reasons. The left, the deniers suspect, disappointed by the failure of socialism, have switched to a politics-of-envy meta-narrative. The downside of capitalism is no longer as local a difficulty as violent revolution. The downside is the destruction of the planet itself. Interestingly, their messianic defence of capitalism has backed them into a corner more dystopian than that of the most miserablist of lefties. The end of the world may well be nigh, they now grudgingly admit, but this is nothing a reordering of human priorities can have any bearing upon.

In his latest book, Black Mass, the philosopher John Gray traces the history of Western millenarianism, and suggests that the war in Iraq is no more or less than the latest in a long line of apocalyptic fantasies, rooted in religion and embarked upon under the misapprehension that a world-changing event can bring history, with all its conflicts, to an end. This particular fantasy, of course, was the neo-conservative enthusiasm for the idea that liberal democracy is an irresistible force in and of itself. Such projects, Gray wearily counsels, will always end in tears.

For Gray, it is utopianism itself that is the problem. He suggests that "it is dystopian thinking we most need." We must, if we seek to understand our present condition, he says, "turn to Huxley's Brave New World or Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Wells's Island of Dr Moreau or Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Zamiatin's We or Nabokov's Bend Sinister, Burroughs' Naked Lunch or Ballard's Super-Cannes - prescient glimpses of the ugly reality that results from pursuing unrealisable dreams."

Actually, there's not even a need to trawl back five or so years to the publication of Super-Cannes, stunning a read though it is. Dystopian futures have of late become a staple of mainstream contemporary literature. While Ballard is for me quite possibly the pre-eminent living English novelist, he has long been considered as foremost a sci-fi writer rather than a proper literary type, with only his naturalistic memoirs Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women awarded the unequivocal reverence all his work deserves. Suddenly, though, sci-fi has acquired literary credibility. We are now so comfortable with the idea of a post-apocalyptic future that such subject matter has seamlessly become part of the until-now unyieldingly naturalistic mainstream English literary scene.

Most garlanded and most widely read is Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which achieved the satisfying double whammy of intellectual and populist top marks by winning this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and being featured on Oprah's book club. His story is of the struggle of a man and his son for survival in a US made desperately savage by climate catastrophe, and offers the sobering message that under such circumstances it would be foolhardy to expect anything more than the tiniest minority to behave with any decency at all.

Sarah Hall, whose first novel, Haweswater, won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and whose second, The Electric Michelangelo, was shortlisted for the Booker, is poised to publish The Carhullan Army, a futuristic fantasy in which a group of radical feminists make a stand against a Britain in repressive, authoritarian economic collapse. She joins a modest tradition, since Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing, to name but two, have each offered similarly cautionary tales. The big shift from genre, though, is that her book is not being marketed as either "sci-fi" or "feminist", any more than McCarthy's is as "sci-fi" or "masculinist".

Even children's literature, dominated as it is by the über-fantasy of Harry Potter, has offered up a naturalistic post-apocalyptic classic, in the form of Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now, shortlisted for the Orange Prize for new writers. It has echoes of Iain Seraillier's wonderful Second World War story The Silver Sword, since it involves a group of children separated from adults in a time of war, but of course distinguishes itself by being set during a war that is yet to come.

So, Gray can rest assured that cultural workers of the highest order are all indulging like mad in dystopian thinking, and that no one is turning a hair. In these novels we are offered three very distinct future dystopias, one triggered by environmental collapse, another by economic meltdown, and a third by a new world war. So far so good (in a way).

But what's touchingly obtuse about all three of these books is that, even as they square up unflinchingly to a grim new world, they each indulge in their different ways in a type of wish-fulfilment that can be described, if not as utopian, at least as hopelessly romantic. McCarthy posits a future in which fathers and sons will reconnect at a manly and silent spiritual level through their travels in the not-so-great outdoors. Hall grasps the hope that women will prove themselves as warriors far pluckier than rubbishy men, while Rosoff sticks with the lovely notion that human love can survive all pain and suffering.

Each of these is an arrogant dystopia, in which everything changes except the beliefs that their creators and their protagonists hold dearest. The end of the world may be nigh. But somehow, we'll all survive it, integrity and value-systems reassuringly intact. As if that, of course, is not the very reason why humans might just find themselves quite, quite unable to change the unpromising course of their future.