An around-the-end-of-the-world tour in the company of a smart, funny, and thoughtful guide.
Near the beginning, O’Connell (To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, 2016) describes watching a video of an “emaciated polar bear” struggling to find food. “It occurred to me then that the disgust I felt was a symptom of a kind of moral vertigo,” he writes, “resulting from the fact that the very technology that allowed me to witness the final pathetic tribulations of this emaciated beast was in fact a cause of the animal’s suffering in the first place.” To live in the modern world is to be complicit in its decline; nothing new there. But what can/should/will we do about it? The author makes no attempt to persuade us to drive electric cars and sequester carbon. Whether visiting underground shelters in South Dakota, billionaire refuges in New Zealand, or the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, he studies the end of the world from a decidedly detached perspective. About a retreat he attended in Scotland, he writes, “this was not the sort of explicitly romantic endeavor I would ordinarily involve myself in, what with the unwieldy carapace of cynicism I had allowed to grow around me over the course of my adult life.” This kind of self-awareness around his project enables the humor O’Connell uses to cope with horror. His wry tone is effective in exposing the ridiculousness of many of the survivalists and technolibertarians he encountered. “If my portrayal of him [the owner of a luxury underground shelter] seems to be verging on the mode of caricature, even of outright grotesquerie, it is only because this was how he presented himself to me in fact.” It might be a bit much if O’Connell weren’t able to offer a sincere and life-affirming response to all the grimness: Things have always been bad and about to get worse. Nihilism can follow from that, but it doesn’t have to.
A contribution to the doom-and-gloom genre that might actually cheer you up.