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Tucson Weekly Apocalyptic Visions

One Has Text, The Other Has Pictures—What More Could You Ask From Textbook Views Of The End Of The World?

By James DiGiovanna

JANUARY 4, 1999: 

Countdown to Apocalypse, by Paul Halpern (Plenum Publishing). Cloth, $27.95.

The End Is Near, by Roger Manley, Adam Parfrey, and others (Dillettante Press). Large edition paperback, $34.95.

WHAT'S MORE FUN than the end of the world? Just imagine, all the people gone and you can spend all your time at the mall, like those girls in that Night of the Comet movie. Or maybe you can live in a luxury, penthouse apartment and taunt the night-dwelling mutants who roam the desiccated streets of the city, like Charlton Heston in Omega Man. Wait, even better, you can have all of Australia to yourself, like that chubby white guy in The Quiet Earth. Free Foster's Lager and a desolate outback to yourself, and it was even a good movie, to boot.

But there's always the two big questions: What's the best way to end the world, and how are things going to look afterwards?

Two new books cover all your end-of-the-world questions, and are nearly twice as entertaining as Waterworld. First off, science writer Paul Halpern, who's as good at research as he is bad at metaphors, brings us Countdown to Apocalypse, which covers virtually every way the world can end (except for coup d'état by intelligent apes, oddly). This is a great sourcebook for hack science fiction writers and those who don't have enough anxiety. Want to know what the odds are on a killer comet hitting the earth? How about how it would differ from a meteoroid blast? Which would be more fun? What happens after the enormous clouds of deadly dust, tidal waves and firestorms clear up? Would either of these really be a good way to wipe out all the damn liberals and gun nuts on the coasts? Halpern fills you in.

Better yet, there's info on how we, ourselves, by continuing to pollute and over-consume, can bring about the end of the world without help from any cosmic events whatsoever. Want to know how much the ozone level has depleted, and what its prognosis is? Countdown tells you, and cites hard, scientific references so that you can trounce one of those pollution-loving Rush Limbaugh ignoramuses in an argument. There's nothing like pointing out the work of Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius as you yell "in your face" to some ill-informed, talk-radio fan.

What sets Halpern apart from other science writers, though, is his grasp of history. Some of the more amusing chapters cite the end-of-the-world scares that happened in Medieval Europe around the time of the plagues. The stories of the religious reactions to these events segue nicely into a look at more modern apocalyptic movements like the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Branch Davidians and the Heaven's Gate group. Halpern has a nice feel for the religious and psychological motivations that tie together these disparate communities.

Of course, whether you believe that God will cause it or not, eventually, the world has to end; and after exhausting the possibilities for premature apocalypse, Halpern gets on to the inevitable extinction of the sun, which, lets face it, is pretty much last call at the history bar. All of the popular scenarios for solar extinction are laid out, and Halpern even looks at the possibility of escape, which leads only to the death of the universe, after which there'll be no chance of watching television or drinking malt liquor, and thus culture is pretty much over.

Still, given all this depressing news, one wants more: the pictures. That is, after all, what television (and, to a lesser extent, malt liquor) have given us a taste for. We want imagery to go with our verbiage, and Halpern's book only has a few diagrams and satellite photos. For a real look at what's going on in the mind of a God who would make a world with a built-in expiration date, we have to check out the artwork of visionaries.

That's where The End Is Near comes in.

This assortment of established and outsider art is so full of overwhelmingly complicated images that it will take more time to soak up the pictures than to read the interesting and explanatory text. Reproducing works from hipster artists, self-proclaimed prophets and schizophrenic visionaries, The End Is Near brings together the world of fine art and kitsch schlock in a way that neither demeans nor hyperbolizes either side. These rich images contain a massive amount of detail, and many of the artists find it necessary to include text in their works, creating an amalgam of high art and comic-book narrative. As the third millennium approaches, you'll definitely want to study these meticulously crafted paintings and drawings for clues to the new order in the coming end times.

Space is given to such well-known and over-exploited icons as Howard Finster and Joe Coleman, but the more interesting works are the incredibly naïve drawing of space ships and explosions made by outpatients and those who've only escaped the mental health system by luck or chance. In his clumsily rendered acrylic paintings, Stephen Powers asks, "Why is it that no blind person has ever been abducted by aliens?" Good question, Steve! Arnold Hendrickson's ballpoint-on-notebook-paper drawings look like the work of a 10th-grade doodler who was allowed to spend his high school and college years (as well as many years after that) pursuing his real interest instead of being forced to learn biology and political science. Then there's Grant Wallace, whose works on paper contain the multilayered diagrams and charts that mark the schizophrenic mind.

There's dozens more here, all gloriously reproduced on big, glossy pages with a highly saturated printing process that brings out the details in the fine work and the delicious cheesiness of the not-so-fine.

Together, Countdown to Apocalypse and The End is Near make perfect new year's reading as we prepare for the last days of this millennium. And they can fill your need for something to read while every damn radio station on earth plays the Prince song over, and over, and over again.

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