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This Is the Way the World Ends
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48 of 49 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 21, 2002
Sandwiched between vignettes of Nostradamus, "This is the Way the World Ends" is the tale of George Paxton, and the five other remaining humans on Earth. Unfortunately for George, he and the others are being tried for war crimes stemming from the nuclear destruction of the planet by the "unadmitted"; basically unborn generations that have willed themselves into existence for a brief time in order to inquire why their potential will never be realized. Compounding George's dilemma is the fact that unlike his fellow defendants, who are all wizards of nuclear strategy, George is just a simple everyman (with the ironic profession of tomb stone carver) whose only "guilt" was in not carefully reading a sales contract for a free nuclear survival suit for his daughter.
As one can tell from this brief synopsis of the plot, this is not your ordinary work of post-apocalyptic fiction. Or rather, it covers the same ground, but from a completely different angle. The Nostradamus bookends offer an air of inevitability to the narrative, and introduce a major plot device, and Morrow's description of a nuclear war's aftermath is highly engaging. Where this novel really shines, however, is in the trial.
One might expect Morrow to be a staunch proponent of disarmament given the theme of his book, but that assumption is not entirely true. Through the mechanism of the trial, he rails against both the naiveté of the doves, and the hawks' disconnect from reality. As another reviewer so eloquently stated, he demolishes the generally accepted duality of nuclear politics, and demands the reader consider a third path of their own making. That's where George comes in; his real guilt is not in his action, but in his inaction.
While much of "This is the Way the World Ends" is written in the language of 1980's Cold War rhetoric, and the threat of a massive nuclear exchange has, if not passed, certainly lessened immensely, the novel still offers great insight. First of all, Morrow's discussion of deterrence versus disarmament is fascinating; in fact (and I say this with the benefit of a degree in the subject) they would be more than adequate points of departure for any undergraduate course in international security. Particularly fascinating are his statements within ten pages that (paraphrased) 1. You can't have deterrence without strength and 2. Strength leads to escalation leads to instability. Morrow doesn't offer any answers, but he does frame some fascinating questions. Around those questions he has built a novel of intense emotion and beautiful characters; the last time a book's ending moved me so intensely was another classic of the genre, "On the Beach". And while I wouldn't place it in quite the same league as Nevil Shute's masterwork, it is nonetheless a remarkable book that is eminently worth reading.
Enjoy!
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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2002
"This is the Way the World Ends" is one of James Morrow's early works, and when comparing it (somewhat unfairly) with more recent novels, like the Towing Jehovah trilogy, it's easy to see his progression as a writer, both in terms of ideas and style. While remaining firmly in the `snooty intellectual' camp Morrow himself satirizes in his later books, "TITWTWE" is still a good read, and is a unique addition to the field of post-apocalyptic fiction.
Sandwiched between bookends of Nostradamus, the plot revolves around main character George Paxton, an everyman who carves tombstones for a living and worries about his family. When his neighbor invents something called a "scopas suit" that promises to be the device to change the nuclear balance of power, by allowing its wearer to survive and thrive after a nuclear exchange, George finds he cannot afford one - but makes a deal with a strange shopkeeper to get one on the cheap. On his way home, World War III erupts and George is caught almost at Ground Zero as he watches his family die from intense radiation poisoning.
That is just the setup for the meat of the book. George is rescued by a submarine and taken to Antarctica with five other survivors, to be put on trial for ending the human race. The judge, jury, and executioners? A race called "unadmitted humans," who came to be in the time-altering effects of the War. They bleed black blood and only live for a short time, but they nurse George to health so he can stand trial. Those familiar with "Blameless in Abaddon" will recognize the trial as a means for Morrow to tell his story, and the reader is intended to sympathize with those who created the nuclear conflict through lies like "mutual assured destruction," "deterrence," and so forth.
It may be an artifact of the Reagan years, but Morrow's "TITWTWE" remains a solid piece of literature, even if it tapers off (as another review put it, the middle is a part you have to force yourself to get through). Morrow's prose flows easily, and the trial is a clear indictment of both the no-nukes crowd and those who rely on nuclear weapons instead of human intelligence to solve problems. As usual, Morrow neatly destroys the traditional dualism inherent in the nuclear debate, leaving the reader to formulate new conclusions after the two most popular choices have been proven wrong. It may not be his best work, but it's worth checking out, and it belongs on any post-apocalyptic aficionado's shelf.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on October 7, 2005
As he does in his other books, Morrow here uses fantastical elements for maximum satirical effect. The question is whether these elements detract from the story's satirical force, which is what Beth Ann Mills' Library Journal review above suggests. This isn't just a question of the reader's ability to suspend disbelief, since the author obviously has some responsibility to make the story plausible. Mills, though, doesn't appreciate that far from conflicting with the book's satirical power, Morrow's satire depends on the novel's fantastic parts.

Morrow typically begins with a fantastic premise that provides the perfect setting in which to skewer his targets. Take his book, Towing Jehovah. God's gigantic body drops dead from the sky. God is clearly now dead, but this means he was once alive. This is a rich starting point for showing that both atheists and theists (but especially theists) are ridiculously wrong. In the case of his satire on nuclear war, TITWTWE, Morrow mixes realism with fantasy. The nuclear war itself is described in horrifying detail. The arguments for and against nuclear deterrence are examined in a concrete way. Contrary to Mills, the giant prehistoric bird is explained in ordinary biological terms and is therefore, strictly speaking, science fictional not fantastic. The flying tailor shop is also science fictional.

This isn't to say that a prehistoric bird and a flying tailor shop aren't fantastic in a less technical sense. Even if we put to one side its genuine fantastic themes, TITWTWE still wouldn't be a straightforward novel. This is to that even speculative science fictional ideas are fantastic in the sense that they're highly unusual. Perhaps the overall strangeness of Morrow's novel detracts from the serious points he may want to make. My point, though, is that Morrow's extreme kind of satire depends precisely on the plot's strangeness. I'll show this below in the spoiler alert paragraph.

The book's main fantastic idea has to do with the nature of the people who conduct the trial of the nuclear holocaust's survivors. The reason these people are genuinely fantastic is that Morrow doesn't even attempt to explain in realistic terms how they come to be or what rules govern their abilities. He says that they're a strange consequence of a species extinction event, and that they "gain the continent." But the explanation Morrow does give establishes the book's satirical thrust. Contrary to Mills, these people are not aliens. If they were simply aliens, they would be science fictional not fantastic. Indeed, Morrow has a character say at one point that aliens might be observing the trial, and I would have been satisfied if they had turned out to be aliens or the work of aliens.

***Spoiler alert. Don't read further in this paragraph if you haven't yet read TITWTWE. The "unadmitted" people are simply the humans from the future that would have lived had there been no nuclear war. They come from the possible world that would have been actualized. So they're not aliens; granted, they have some strange powers, such as their shape-changing black blood and their inability to live past a year, but these powers clearly support the satirical point Morrow wants to make. (Their blood is black because they're outraged that they won't be "admitted" and their lifespan is short because their anger brings them into existence briefly, but they can't escape the overriding damage done by the war. Incidentally, the reason the flying tailor shop isn't properly fantastic is that the shop comes from the future.) Morrow shows that a nuclear war wouldn't be a crime just against the peace or against present humanity, but would be a crime also against the future, because the whole species might be rendered extinct. So why not have the future (somehow) visit the present to rage against those who could have tried harder to stop the war but didn't? Morrow could have made their presence realistic by appealing to extraterrestrials, but he doesn't do so. Now my main point is that even if the novel's strangeness allows a reader to get distracted, there would be no way to engage in Morrow's extreme level of satire without having the survivors literally confront the worst consequence of their inaction, which is the extinction of the species. Morrow makes this confrontation literal by having the future humans arrive in the present to take their revenge. There simply is a level of satire that depends on a strange plot. End of spoiler alert.***

Besides allowing him to ridicule those who would justify a buildup of nuclear weapons, Morrow's fantastic premise allows for some tear-jerking, bittersweet moments, especially near the end. As I was reading the book, I found myself hoping that Morrow would eventually explain in realistic terms the people conducting the trial. What Morrow does instead is use the bluntness of the fantasy to focus on the gut wrenching consequences of the end of the world. The book's ending is very sad indeed and would have been diluted with a science fiction-style explanation having to do with aliens.

Another reviewer, Robert Beveridge thinks Morrow was going for comedy. The book isn't simply a comedy, but Morrow uses humour in two ways. There is gallows humour which makes the best of an untenable situation. More importantly, some of the humour is meant to ridicule and to shame the satire's targets. The humour is bitter not lighthearted, so it surely makes no sense to fault the book for burying the humour under the "political message." The book is primarily satirical, and the humour as well as the fantasy serve the purpose of satirizing, which is to say ridiculing certain targets. The targets aren't just political (George the hero is an everyman), so neither is the book's message. But the political arguments are hardly one-sided. Both sides have their say in the trial. Morrow does come down against a nuclear weapons buildup, but mainly because of a single argument, which is the arrogance of booby-trapping the planet despite the likelihood of unintended consequences, accidents, and human error. I mostly agree with the reviewer Michael Battaglia except I don't think inconsistency is a problem when Morrow switches from dark humour to honest emotion. The aftermath of a nuclear holocaust would be multifaceted, and the sad ending is so effectively handled--especially one particular chapter--that I think the reader can be absorbed by it without being distracted by the earlier amusing parts. At worst the book is inconsistent in some academic sense.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on September 20, 2001
It is rare to find a book that is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. James Morrow's vicious and honest indictment of human madness and the complicity of inaction acheives both. This is not an easy book, becuase it doesn't flinch or pull a single punch. Few writers have the courage to directly confront issues of morality and religon head on, but Morrow does. It is a testament to his skill that after reading three of his books, I still could not decide if he was a devout Christian or a devout Atheist. (I've since found out he is a devout skeptic, which is healthy enough, I guess). I haven't yet embarked on his "Godshead Trilogy," but after this book, "City of Truth," and "Only Begotten Daughter," I know the glass knife of his wit is no accident. In a way, it is a shame he gets shelved in science fiction, since his is every bit the literary child of Swift and Twain. Kids will read him in future High Schools, if he and his books aren't burned as heretical first...
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2002
"This Is the Way the World Ends" is a moving, surreal book dealing with the ultimate cost of World War Three - extinction. George Paxton is one of six survivors saved from the nuclear war. The evacuees are on a submarine heading for the Antarctic, where they will face trial by the "Unadmitted" - the would-have-been descendents of those killed by the holocaust. George had signed a sales contract for a survival suit that would have saved his four-year-old daughter. The contract indicated he would do nothing to stop any nuclear war that may take place in the near future.
A short time later George saw first-hand the results of a holocaust he did nothing to stop. The innocents mutilated by blast, fire and radiation; thousands of years of human progress literally gone within a flash. One of the unforeseen effects of the nuclear war is time distortion. While a day passes for George on the submarine, years elapse for the dwindling population trying to live in a post-holocaust world. A world devastated by the effects of nuclear winter, ultraviolet light, plague, mutation and sterility.
George and his fellow defendents then have to justify their motives for allowing the ultimate atrocity to occur. Guilty or not guilty?
There is a mountain of books out there dealing with the nuclear holocaust, but this novel still comes across as original, sad and witty. You do have to read the book with an open mind. It's like one of those weird French films. I can just imagine the French making a film of something like this, along the lines of "La Jetee" or "Le Dernier Combat". As a satire, this book is excellent. When you find out how the holocaust started, you won't know whether to laugh or cry.
It's ironic to think that our fates depend on the decisions we make. Our lives are in the hands of people we vote for. The decisions seem sensible at the time, but then they become regrettable. In the most harrowing way, this book deals with consequences that come from an abundance of bad decisions.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2006
This is the Way the World Ends is an apocolyptic piece of fiction written by James Morrow In this title the Russians and United States engage in a nuclear war all but annihilating the human race in the process. Tombstone carver, George Paxton loses his wife and daughter in the war, but survives and is rescued only it seems so he can be put on trial for the extinction of the human race.

This novel is dated in some respects as we are obviously no longer much concerned with a nuclear war with Russia. Reading it it was obviously written and published during the height of the cold war. Yet the themes still ring true today. Some of the writing I would argue is more relevent today than it was when published. Morrow has written a btilliant satire that although he often writes with the subtlety of Swift has its share of laugh out loud momwnts. In fact reading this tome I would not draw direct comparisions to Pratchett, but I detected a hint of the same type of humour and observations of the occassional absurdity of the human condition in this novel as I did in some of Pratchett's novels.

To conclude, if you are looking for an original tale with well drawn characters and an interesting plot I would recommend you do not let the age of this story put you off reading it. It was far from a perfec novel but much better than average with interesting ideas and the right balance of humour and seriousness attending its main subjects and as I stated earlier this book almost is more relevent now as when it was published.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 2005
A lot of writers, when trying to do the post-nuclear story thing, tend to go for stark realism, trying to make the situation as brutal and as tangible as possible, to give the reader the sense that this is What Nuclear War Is Actually Like. Stuff like On the Beach derives its quiet horror because it feels like it could be happening, that if the events that caused the end of the world actually transpired, this is how it would go down. Of course all of that is only our best guess, because the only real experience we have with nuclear war are the bombings in Japan and that's from the entire world deciding to annihilate itself in a storm of mushroom clouds. So here Morrow seems to be taking the opposite tactic and steering directly into absurdity. This is a book you take seriously and yet not take seriously. For every genuinely horrifying moment, Morrow seems to be undermining himself with another scene that seems to suggest that he sees it all as a big "who cares anyway?" joke. The plot is a many jointed thing, starting off when everyman George Paxton, worried over nuclear war, tries to get a survival suit for his young daughter. In the process he signs a paper saying he's complicit in the buildup to nuclear war. Shortly after, the war occurs and humankind is basically wiped out, except for six people who it turns out have been chosen for various reasons not to get wiped out. Morrow outdoes himself with the scenes of nuclear disaster which are legimately horrifying and certainly make the book feel grounded in reality. Alas, and this is where he loses most people who are reading the novel, the whole thing veers off very quickly into a very strange place. It turns out that the six people (including George) have been captured by the "unadmitteds", basically people who would have been born had the entire world not collapsed in fiery holocaust. They're mad, of course, that they don't get a chance to be born and thus want to take it out on the few people who are left and make them stand trial and try to get them to explain why they did nothing to stop any of it. Now, granted, the reader probably should have saw it coming, since the novel is bracketed by scenes of Nostradamus explaining the whole story to some boy several hundred years prior . . . that alone should have told you the book isn't going to be strictly realistic. Morrow does make the plight of the unadmitted rather poignant, although he doesn't get as much milage out of it as he probably should since the trial itself turns out to be rather flippant, devolving into semantic debates that nobody seems to take very seriously, even when people say they are. Morrow's forte here is bleak humor, the kind where someone's arm is chopped off and you're compelled to laugh at it. For all those folks who thought Slaughterhouse-Five was hilarious, this is along the same lines, it's funny but at the same time it's not, you only laugh because you're glad it's not happening to you. However, the shifts between dark, dark humor and honest emotion (and he has quite a few tearjerking moments) tend to lessen the book's impact and make it feel inconsistent and the end point seems to be "what does it matter anyway?" That, coupled with some other sideplots involving George's attempt to repopulate the race and a crazy guy making historical robots, make the book feel more scattershot than anything else at times. Still, Morrow gets credit for striking a different tone than anyone else and definitely for trying something different, there's only so many slow-moving novels one can take of people getting ready to die or watching civilization crumble. So while the novel isn't entirely successful, fans of Morrow may find it worthwhile (it's a quick read too, I finished it in maybe six or seven hours) and people looking for a novel of the endtimes that's a bit offbeat and fleetingly touching may find something to recommend here.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 29, 1998
In the same vein as the black comedy "Dr. Strangelove", "This Is The Way The World Ends" is a true achievement in cautionary satire. The men who helped launch the war and the civilian fighting for his life are held accountable for the world's destruction. Paxton's near-death and final reckoning with his family are among the most poignant work in any piece of fiction I've ever read.
To remember just how real the nuclear threat was not even so long ago, "This Is The Way The World Ends" is an absolute must-read.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on August 10, 1999
This book holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first James Morrow book I read. Others I have spoken to about Mr. Morrow, and reviews I have read here and elsewhere, appear to confirm that those touched once by his magical imagination remain lifelong converts. This book manages in turns to entertain with humour whilst simultaneously highlighting the madness surrounding military strategic thinking at the height of the Cold War. It also contains some of the most poignant imagery I have encountered in literature, especially the hero's attempts to come to terms with the loss of his young daughter. A number of excellent cameo appearances by Nostradamus round off a book for all serious-thinking literature fans.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2002
This book had the most wonderful, heart-wrenching beginning and ending I've ever read. If the whole book had been able to keep up that level of emotion and deft, then this book would deserve ten stars. However, between those two portions, the book lags and almost gets lost.
The reason for this is the passivity of the main character, George. <<SPOILERS AHEAD>> All George wanted at first was a Scopas suit for his daughter to protect her in case of a nuclear war. He finally finds a weird and almost unbelievable way to get her the suit, but he must sign a contract stating that he agrees with the nuclear arms race in order to get her the suit. He does, and on the way home to give it to her, the US is attacked by Russian nuclear weapons.
From this point on, George becomes a passive character. He's a prisoner on a submarine with a bunch of people that are not what they seem. Pages and chapters go by with George not taking any kind of action, he just sits back and allows himself to be lead around by others as events unfold. There is one chapter in the middle of the book where George becomes an active character, and that's when he gets off the submarine to try to get his fertility back. That chapter shines, it's vibrant and alive, but then he goes right back to being passive again.
The ending of the novel shines again, as George becomes active in taking care of his wife. What happens between them is written beautifully, sad but not melodramatic.
In conclusion, I'd say this book is definitely worth reading for that beginning and ending. And George's passivity might not bother most readers much because Morrow's style is very witty and funny, so the middle section may be enjoyable to most of you as well. The theme of the book may feel outdated to many readers, especially younger readers, in this age where terrorism is our main fear instead of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
As for other Morrow books, I'd recommend City of Truth, which although short, is a really great piece of writing. Maybe that's what This is the Way the World Ends needed...a little editing to cut down on the padded middle section. Also, Morrow's short stories are excellent, and you can find them in Bible Stories for Adults.
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