In Arc 1.3: Simon Ings strums a lyre over the future’s burning remains

4 Oct

Some civilisations fade and crumble. Others dance themselves to death. Simon Ings catches glimpses of the party at the end of the world: here, to whet your appetite, is one of them.

Evidences of riot are easy enough to obtain from the archaeological record. With patience, the outwardly similar spoors of pleasure and terror can be teased apart. This was killing of prisoners; that, a good night at the circus. But the third element of the coming apocalypse – the catalyst that fuses pleasure and terror and sets the Last Party in motion – is much harder to winkle out.

The thing that really fools us, maddens us, and kills us in the end, time and time again, is hope. Seemingly endemic to human societies, however peculiar, however exotic, is this idea – ingrained or introduced, slow or sudden – that out of the ashes of the old, something new is bound to be born. Tear it up, burn it down and something better will arise. 

Edward Gibbon:

“As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse, of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity.”

We are blessed, cursed – anyway, saddled – with spiritual optimism. It’s everywhere right now, like a rash. Like a time bomb: as deadly, as fearsome, as any excess of fructose in the bloodstream.

It’s not even real optimism: it’s just this yearning for the limitless futures of an obsessively rehearsed past. In Stratford, Danny Boyle forges the Olympic virtues of friendship, fair play, honour, peace and glory in the furnaces of the industrial revolution. In Eindhoven, Liam Young and the team at Under Tomorrow’s Sky strive for a vision of the urban future as magical and compelling as Henry Dreyfuss’s Democracity exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. And in Edinburgh, TED Global delights a self-declared elite with its exquisitely choreographed just-so stories of personal fulfilment through ambition, venture capital and technology.

These are the people who, in the fullness of time, will bring about the collapse of world civilisation. I hope I’m wrong. But I’ll bet you the farm that I’m not.   

Simon Ings edits Arc. In the gaps, he writes about the scientists who worked for Stalin. His latest novel is Dead Water, set mostly among the tramp lines and pirate syndicates of the Indian Ocean.

Read more in Arc 1.3, a digital quarterly about the future, made for e-readers, tablets, phones and computer screens; also available in a collectible print edition. Visit for details.

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