15 February 2003
The end begins this way:
Haddon Brooks, a poet, stood in the last city of the Earth, waiting for the word impact to come from space. He was being recorded. What he saw, how he felt, all the sounds and smells and smallest touches of the death of his world went up and out to the ships as they began the final journey to new homes somewhere in the stars. His vital signs were being monitored, thalamic taps carried his thoughts and transmitted all the colors of what lay around him, to be stored in memory cassettes aboard the ships. Someone to report the death of the Earth had been the short of it, and from that call for a volunteer he had been winnowed from the ten thousand applicants.
This is the opening paragraph from Harlan Ellison's 1972 short story Hindsight: 480 Seconds. A planetoid is approaching the solar system; it will not reach Earth, but will graze the Sun, ripping into its corona and spraying radiation for hundreds of millions of miles. As you'll remember from your grade-school science, the Earth lies just within the first hundred million.
And so the cities were melted down and the peoples gathered together and the ships built, and everyone on Earth would be moving to new homes in the galaxy except for Haddon Brooks, who offered to remain behind and chronicle the eight minutes between the collision with the Sun and the end of all life on Earth.
In Ellison's story, everyone knows that the end is coming they've had plenty of warning and the departure from Earth is orderly and organized. But suppose there wasn't plenty of warning. Dr Geoffrey Sommer of the Rand Corporation think-tank opines that it might be better that way, that it might be better if the world did not know what was to come:
When a problem arises with high uncertainty, there is an opportunity to spin the problem to avoid global panic. If you can't do anything about a warning, then there is no point in issuing a warning at all.
This might apply just as well to presumably more concrete threats or, in the wake of this past week's increased terror threshold, less concrete threats. Are we better off not knowing? I'm not entirely sure what I think about this. Given my standard anxiety levels, which are considerable, I'm inclined to believe that news of certain impending death within X time period (as distinguished from certain impending death, period, which is presumably unscheduled as of now) might be quite enough to push me over the edge, in which case it would be a kindness to put me out of my misery.
Or perhaps I may find the eloquence of Ellison's Haddon Brooks at the very end of his report:
"I'm afraid, up there. I'm afraid of my vanity to be the last one here. It was foolish, oh how I want to go with you now. Please forgive me my fear, but I want so much to live!"
If there only had been time. He was chagrined for just a moment that he had let them down, had failed to do what he had been left behind to do. But that lasted only a moment and he knew he had said as much as anyone could say, and it would be right for the children of the dark places, even if it took them a thousand years to find another home.
Then he turned, as the seconds withered, knowing the solar storm had drenched him and at any moment he would vaporize. He looked up into the water-blue sky, past the blinding sun that suddenly flared and consumed the heavens, and he shouted, "I'll always be with you" but the last word was never completed; he was gone.
(Muchas gracias: Susanna Cornett.)