David Seed, Imagining Apocalypse: Studies in Cultural Crisis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000. Cloth $54.40

515VpoM0ozLIt is easy to imagine, if only for a flash, the possibility of an apocalypse. For those of us that have contemplated the countless branches that make up an apocalyptical tree, David Seed’s collection of 15 analytical essays Imagining Apocalypse: Studies in Cultural Crisis is a deserving place to begin the climb. With the help of several contributors of which mainly hail from the occupational salt mines of higher education, David Seed embarks on a retrospective journey through the ticking time bomb of apocalyptic thought and its cultural significance since the early ages.

Although significant portions of this book are saturated with modern science fiction references that may prove distracting to readers that are not sci-fi aficionados, the skeletal structure is firmly rooted in the history of apocalyptic stories and events that have sparked popular interest over the ages. Pulling from many angles of cultural artifacts, modern events and paralleled literature, the book makes for both a fascinating and educational read, whether you are on par with the sci-fi genre or not. It spans from Biblical times, through the literal ‘hell on earth’ atrocities spawning from war and conflict and natural disasters or “acts of God,” to the visionary literature of the 18th century onward.  Most of these literary works prove highly effective in painting a vivid picture of monumental disasters and sudden, conscious-shocking events, enabling a host of past, present and future readers to imagine the frontlines for themselves. Such literary giants as H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Jonathan Swift, G.K. Chesterton, Thornton Wilder and John Hersey are referenced throughout the book, and for good reason. The apocalyptic themes in many of their writings created a major influence to generations of audiences, and continue influencing in many other forms such as film, television and video games. For the most part, Seed and his crew of contributors give recognition where recognition is due, targeting the importance of literary influence and providing the reader with a balanced take on the themes at hand.

In spelling out the origins of apocalyptical ideas within the book, no ancient artifact is more frequently referenced than the Bible, of which comes as no surprise. From David Seed’s introduction on page 1, to essay number 13 by Val Gough, the Bible proves to be one of the most, if not the most driving factor in the development of apocalyptical thought. As Robert Crossley theologically points out in reference to the phrase “act of God” and its traditional function as a legal term: “Much of that rich tradition stems from the Biblical account of the first time the world ended: ‘The end of all flesh is come before me,’ says the God of Noah, ‘for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth’ (Genesis 6:13).” (77)

The writers also do a great job of zeroing in on H.G. Wells’ unequivocally hardcore influence on apocalyptical thought within the scope of science.  Contributor Patrick Parrinder promotes Wells as a visionary trailblazer in the introduction of his essay Edwardian Awakenings, H.G. Wells’ Apocalyptic Romances by stating “The early, Fin-de-siècle Wells needs no introduction as an apocalyptic writer.” Here again, the book rightly give credit where it is due. Ironically however, and inasmuch as Wells was inspired by Darwinian science, Parrinder’s essay opener quotes Revelation 21:1 “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away.” (62) Here is a blunt force example of the existence of an underlying struggle within the pages of Seed’s collection: Tension between religion and science, perhaps mirroring the gilded age in American history.

If the Bible provided the fuel of apocalyptical thought, the growth of science surely put the wheels into motion without a stop in sight, but lacking a fuel source… well, herein lays the debacle.  Although Seed and his crew may have inadvertently or purposefully created this tense struggle within the collection, it should have been more greatly amplified and expounded upon. After all, to the unknowing eye, religion and science appear as oil and water. But in reality, the two complement themselves harmoniously in the process of understanding every angle of apocalyptic ideas and their influence on culture. It would have been more convenient to readers if Seed had developed this argument further.

Just as science became a major influence during the gilded age, so did the ideology of utopia. If there is one major factor regarding the apocalypse that Seed and his crew failed to illuminate it is the idea of utopia. And although utopia and the apocalypse may seem to mesh about as well as religion and science (of which history determined to be important accomplices), it should really have been noted in several pages of detail that utopia is literally one of the major end results of many apocalyptical scenarios, and additionally, a pumping factor in the hearts of clusters of apocalyptical/Armageddon minded people.  

When reading this collection there does exist an impression that during transportation to the presses, Seed’s manuscript was possibly dropped, and the internal essays scattered out of order. It is also possible that there will be times during reading that you may find yourself a trifle lost. But know that this is merely a lack of chronological placement of the essays, and that as a whole, there is enough information regarding apocalyptical elements within the text to induce an entire research lab. It may just require a little organizational skill on the reader’s part, as at times, it may feel as if you are on the receiving end of a shotgun blast fired from afar.

In a grand scheme, Imagining Apocalypse is stalwartly and insightful. But prepare yourself for some wading and hunting, Imagining Apocalypse does not make for an easy read, and if you have an investigative bone in your body you may find yourself performing extracurricular research in between pages.  

About Hudson Saffell (36 Articles)
Freelance Writer / Editor
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