What Writers Need To Know About Mass Extinction

By Jason Boog Comment


The end of the world has become a popular theme over the last few years, spread by the popularity of vivid stories like The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games. If you want to write a book about our unhappy future, you should study the science and history of mass extinction.

io9 editor and author Annalee Newitz published a nonfiction book about the subject (Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction), giving writers some valuable insight into the different catastrophes that have wiped out life on planet Earth.

We asked Newitz three questions for writers over email, and she responded with a long list of new ideas and reading suggestions for all authors writing about our future on this planet. All her answers follow below…

Q: We’ve seen lots of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction over the last few years, but your book explores the actual science behind doomsday scenarios. What can speculative fiction writers learn from studying the science and history of mass extinction?

A: First of all, mass extinctions take a lot longer than you might think. These are events where 75% or more of all species on the planet die out over roughly a million years — so it really is the end of the world, but it happens in slow motion from our perspective as humans. Often mass extinctions are precipitated by a large disaster, like an enormous volcanic eruption or an asteroid hitting the planet. But in order for all those deaths to pile up, you need more than just a big explosion. You need climate change.

That’s another fascinating lesson for speculative fiction writers who want to offer a realistic portrait of the apocalypse. Climate change is the one common thread between all five of the mass extinction events we’ve found evidence for in Earth’s history. For example, the asteroid that drove most of the dinosaurs extinct was deadly over millennia, as it caused dramatic temperature shifts and ocean acidification. We have this idea that the apocalypse will be rapid and dramatic, but the bodies only really pile up over hundreds of thousands of years.

Finally, the lesson that I learned as I was writing this book is that there are always survivors in these catastrophes. And in fact, the most interesting stories turn out to be ones of survival. One of the most fascinating geological periods in history is the early Triassic, the period right after the worst mass extinction in history 250 million years ago. 95% of all species had died out from climate changes caused by a massive volcanic eruption in Siberia.

There were so few animals and plants left that ecosystems were extremely unstable. You’d see these crazy ecosystems rise and fall in rapid succession, full of weird crocodile-like creatures who were just eating the hell out of each other.

Still, there were survivors, and by the end of the Triassic you saw the first real evidence that the dinosaurs would come to dominate the world. So I think the really interesting part comes as the world rebuilds, and as we look at the stories of the creatures who survive — and how they did it.

Q: Your book concludes by exploring some fascinating ways the human race could survive a mass extinction event. What scenarios do you feel many writers and movies have overlooked in imagining the future of the human race and the threats we face?

A: I am still waiting for a really realistic depiction of how climate change would wreck the world. I think part of the problem has to do with timescales, which I mentioned earlier. But this could be solved by setting a story far enough in the future that we see the effects, or by telling a story that spans thousands of years. We should see changing coastlines and weather patterns, but also the effects of ocean acidification and wildfires.

Another threat that I’ve almost never seen depicted realistically is famine. One possible outcome of climate change, and the attendant extinctions and habitat changes, is that our food supplies will dwindle. What’s interesting about food webs, or the vast set of connections between animals and plants that eat each other, is that one extinction in that web can create knock-on extinctions.

Take bees, for example. If bees die out, we’ll see die-outs in plants like apple trees and onions that depend on bees for fertilization. Animals that eat the plants that bees fertilize might also go extinct. So famine isn’t just about humans going hungry for a season — it’s about food webs getting frayed, and the network effects of species loss.

In addition, we know that famine often accompanies pandemics for a variety of reasons. People’s immune systems are weakened by hunger, and large numbers of people are often migrating to escape famine conditions. Lots of people moving great distances with weakened immune systems? You’re ripe for a pandemic viral strain to take hold. We’ve seen plenty of stories about pandemics, but rarely are they linked to famine.

Q: In your opinion, what speculative fiction or movies show the most plausible vision of mass extinction threats in our future?

A: That’s a tough one. I think one of the best books about global warming I’ve read is Tobias Buckell‘s Arctic Rising, which deals with what happens politically in the wake of the melting of the Arctic Sea ice. I’m a fan of Maureen McHugh‘s After the Apocalypse because the stories in that book show us the unexpected social effects of living in a world of constant disease outbreaks, dirty bombs, and increasing poverty.

In Kim Stanley Robinson‘s 2312, we see a pretty realistic picture of what’s happened to Earth after years of unchecked climate change — Florida is underwater, wolves are extinct, etc. But even as early as the movie Blade Runner, we see a plausible vision of a planet that’s clearly being wracked by extinctions. Pollution has continued unchecked, many humans are diseased, and there are so few animals left that the rich have replicant animals instead of real ones.

I’m also going to give an answer here that sounds kind of weird, but hear me out. I think the Planet of the Apes movies, especially the new ones, are realistic in a way that you might not expect. What happens in a mass extinction is that many species die out, but new ones evolve to take their places.

The dinosaurs rose up from little dog-sized creatures during the Triassic to rule the Earth as giants in the Cretaceous; mammals evolved from furry shrews in the late Cretaceous to transform the planet and inaugurate the Anthropocene.

In the Apes movies, we’re seeing a fast-motion version of a process that’s happened again and again in geological history. We see the humans dying out from plague, and the apes evolving to be the new dominant animal.

I think Margaret Atwood plays with this idea a little bit in her recent apocalypse trilogy, too — especially in the final book, MaddAddam, where a new species of hominin is taking over as Homo sapiens dies out.

The fun question to ask with stories like these is whether their apocalypses really do represent a complete extinction for humans. After all, both the apes in Planet of the Apes and the Crakers in MaddAddam are human creations. They’re essentially hybrids, with some human in there. So maybe these are actually books about how humanity survives, by evolving into something else.