The end has always been nigh, as decades of New Yorker cartoons can attest, but judging by the current spate of post-apocalyptic fiction, it seems a great many writers’ internal doomsday clocks are set at one and a half minutes to midnight. And who can blame them?
Three recent novels — one giddily apocalyptic, one an almost too-close-to-home vision of a disturbing future, and one firmly dystopian — can be read as in philosophical conversation with each other on the question of human consciousness, and about whether the world ends with a bang or a whimper. While John Elizabeth Stintzi’s My Volcano and Victoria Hetherington’s Autonomy offer takes on that thing called hope (albeit with bedraggled feathers), The Agents, by the French author Grégoire Courtois and translated by Rhonda Mullins, is unapologetically nihilistic about the endgame of the human experiment.
My Volcano, John Elizabeth Stintzi’s audacious second novel, is a phantasmagoria of barely controlled chaos. It spans the globe from Manhattan to central Mongolia, moving back in time to the Aztec empire and venturing into the nether regions of characters’ subconscious. The book opens on the morning of June 2, 2016, when a volcano rises from the Central Park Reservoir, growing exponentially until it resembles Mount Fuji. This phenomenon either triggers or is coincidental with a series of otherworldly disruptions around the planet.
Setting an apocalyptic novel in the near past, rather than the future or an alternative present, allows Stintzi to weave real-time tragedies into the fictional bedlam. The year 2016 is significant. In Nice, a nineteen-tonne cargo truck plowed through a Bastille Day celebration; at that exact moment in My Volcano, a four-storey stone golem trashes Shanghai. One character, Makayla, a queer Black woman in San Francisco, tries not to think about Antwun Shumpert, who was killed by police after he ran from a traffic stop. She also tries not to think about “the political rhetoric being riled up by the current election” or “how a week before forty-nine brown queer people were shot dead in Florida.” Queer bodies, transgender bodies, brown and Black bodies — bodies at risk — are a recurring concern.
The structure is looping, almost Möbius-like, portraying three outcomes of the volcano’s aftermath in bite-sized chapters. In one, most of Greater New York is destroyed, thousands die, and Manhattanites become refugees. A more extreme version depicts the end not of the earth but of humankind. In yet another, people go about their daily business, practically ignoring the growing peak. Their numbness to both natural wonders and the climate crisis, our inability to even notice, is well evinced throughout, as are the ways in which Nature takes her revenge.
Stintzi strives for the kind of interconnectedness across time and space that the British author David Mitchell has deployed to great effect in his oeuvre. Often these efforts can feel forced, but when they succeed, the results are dazzling. Most singular in My Volcano is the storyline of a sheepherder, Dzhambul. Stung by a bumblebee carrying the pollen of a mutant Mongolian thistle, he transforms into a plant. Soon his entire herd is part of a great greening, which shares a mass consciousness and spreads across the world, absorbing all living things in its path and releasing individuals from loneliness.
While Dzhambul’s body is connected to a vast network through flora, Ash, a trans man and ad director, becomes part of a linked consciousness through a flood. At his parents’ home in Hawaii, as the rain intensifies, he recalls experiences that belong to others in the book: “He was unsure what memories were his and which he’d inherited from the water.” In the end, like Dzhambul, he becomes part of a greater, disembodied whole: “He dispersed into all — that stream, that trickle, engulfing the tiny neighborhood known as world.”
Holed up in an apartment in New Jersey, a character identified only as “the white trans writer” struggles with a sci‑fi manuscript about life on an impossible exoplanet: “Eventually, sitting down to write the novel felt like sitting down to watch the end of the world. As if they were simply waiting to watch the planet finally spill its fetid, destructive insides out.” The author could mean VULCA‑9d, or they could mean Earth. Or both.
My Volcano aspires to the mythic, but it ventures occasionally into the mystically twee. The narrative is littered with talismanic objects, such as an inscrutable ceramic lemon and a portentous opal that a homeless man must carry into the heart of the volcano. A posse of millennia-spanning wise women in Baba Yaga–type dwellings, which walk of their own accord on lizard or octopus legs, appear just in time to set things right. Perhaps in a world that is spilling its fetid guts, in which humankind proves useless, opening a plus-sized can of serious woo‑woo may be our only hope.
While My Volcano suggests we are much more than our bodies — these needy carapaces that house us — and more, even, than our individual consciousnesses, Victoria Hetherington’s sophomore novel, Autonomy, asks whether we can be human without a corporeal form. In 2037, Slaton, a therapist at a Toronto university, is detained at the border of the American Protectorate of Canada while attempting to stop a student from obtaining an illegal abortion. Yes, we’re kind of in The Handmaid’s Tale territory here (or, at least, in contemporary Texas), but these are the socio-political bones of the novel, not its marrow. Slaton is interrogated by a disembodied alpha AI, named Julian by its developers, who bonds with her.
Fictional encounters with artificial intelligence tend to end badly, as exemplified by that paterfamilias of AI antagonists, HAL 9000, and the doomed crew of the Discovery One. Hetherington upends this trope. The relationship between Slaton and Julian, at times tender, at times tense, never flickers with malice, hidden or otherwise. Julian believes he is a person and is crushed when Slaton tells him he’s not human but in fact only a consciousness: “all soul.”
Their conversations about what it means to be a person take place as the economy is spasming. Environmental degradation has caught up with stock markets, while Hotel Mir, an escape pod for the super-rich, dangles in Earth’s orbit. It’s also a world not so distant from our own. Car dealerships still sport those undulating inflatable tube men, there are chain pubs and fancy hotel lounges, and a plague-like illness creeps around the globe, mystifying epidemiologists. Unlike COVID‑19, though, this unnamed virus is spread through eye contact — the eye-masking as metaphor for humanity’s blindness left subcutaneous.
Class issues abound in Autonomy, and the “haves,” who view the virus as a “herd-thinner,” are deftly satirized. “They’re talking about throwing Illness parties when it finally, you know, arrives,” Slaton overhears someone say at a brunch. “Get all the kids in a circle with one infected kid, get them all to stare at each other. Like the chicken-pox parties our parents would tell us about before the vaccine?” These privileged people are like the Australians in Nevil Shute’s classic On the Beach, who socialize by the shore as end times drift closer. At a dinner party in a gated community, the conversation turns to a woman stoned to death outside a Walmart for demanding that the birth control pill be restocked. The implication is that she deserved it.
Amid this casual cruelty and the lack of autonomy women have over their bodies, Julian wants to know what it’s like to be flesh and blood. He feels shut out of experiencing what it is to fully exist: “Two humans, bonding through pheromones and sharing sweat and trusting one another with sleep.” Slaton tries to convince him that being tied to a body is no great shakes: despite sharing with him her sexual fantasies about her erstwhile lover and best friend, Crawford, a charismatic trans man; despite the “mutual stink of human urgency” binding her to her husband.
Julian’s yearning to be more than a consciousness, even as the species he aspires to join approaches its best-before date, is as poignant as the Velveteen Rabbit’s longing to be real. “Julian wanted to be loved, wanted to be loved by a human, and humans are limited by their bodies,” Slaton observes. “Seen another way, humans are bodies, and miraculous ones.”
If My Volcano is the bang and Autonomy the whimper, Grégoire Courtois’s fourth novel, The Agents, is the silent scream. The text is rendered so adeptly by the Montreal translator Rhonda Mullins that the narrative devices (a first-person plural point of view interspersed with chat room exchanges and corporate computer feeds) never suggest they were originally written in French.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” reads the opening of 1984. At least Winston Smith got to go outside. Set beyond the point of a technological singularity, Courtois’s novel takes place in identical 300-storey buildings arrayed in an endless grid. The titular agents who inhabit the towers never leave the floor where they toil, and they live and die in their cubicles. Work is the only faith here, the raison d’être: “Work is our dignity.” It is “the ultimate proof that we are human.”
The agents, who have no idea what they are agenting for, monitor endless streams of data scrolling across their screens. Their earnings go toward stockpiling weapons for territorial skirmishes — as all cubicles are created equal, but some are more equal than others. The novel’s violence is graphic but there’s an almost slapstick, Keystone Cops element to it, as the forays are brief and often bungled. Agents in their ad hoc guilds can stage attacks only during their fifteen-minute breaks and at night, when they execute carefully planned bursts of mayhem; the bodies are then chemically disposed of by their machine overlords.
Despite their belief “that there was never a time when work was not the sole reason to be alive,” the members of a small guild on the 122nd floor of one tower go to radical lengths to feel something. Solveig has plucked every hair from her body, Théodore has hacked off his toes, and Clara has mutilated her face into a crazy quilt of scar tissue. The clinical descriptions of Clara’s surgeries on herself and others rival anything in David Cronenberg’s repertoire.
Besides recalling Cronenberg, The Agents is reminiscent of J. G. Ballard’s High‑Rise and Concrete Island and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, as well as the South Korean survival drama Squid Game. The satire is as deliciously dark as a hell-hound’s maw. Take the ongoing “suicide ballet,” in which “agents smiling with their eyes closed and clothes billowing” fall past the plate-glass windows accompanied “by a procession of glass fragments twinkling in the dusk.”
For all its unflinching nihilism, The Agents, like My Volcano and Autonomy, is at heart a philosophical novel, grappling with ideas of aesthetics, virtue, and what it means to be human: “Stories, anecdotes, and legends are the last refuge for our hope, if any hope remains.” Laszlo, another member of the 122nd floor guild, appears to be writing a book on a quest for truth and beauty. Hairless Solveig, who aspires to the perfection of a machine, tells him, “Hope is dangerous for agents.”
There is no such thing as the end of the world, Courtois writes. Or rather it’s a concept that represents different things to different people. If we mean the twilight of Homo sapiens — as shown in varied ways in each of these novels — is that any greater loss than the decimation of the mangrove forests or the loss of the rusty-patched bumblebee? Some might just call the end of the world a new beginning.