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Throughout most of human history, the end of the world was something that was brought about by God (or the gods, depending on who you were and where and when you were living), something determined by invisible forces that moved beyond the secular realm, something that was out of the hands of mortal man. The most commonly used word for the end of the world, "Armageddon," maintains this religious connotation to this day, although its use has been broadened to cover world-ending catastrophes in general as well as the specific event prophesied in the Christian Bible. So if you thought of the world coming to an end, you thought of it as something brought about by divine Powers—God sending a flood, or a pestilence, or plunging the world into cleansing fire.

It wasn't until the nineteenth century that the idea that the world could end by secular means—by random means related to the blind shuffling and interaction of cosmic forces, rather than by the direct will of God, began to penetrate into popular perception, spread by books and stories, such as H. G. Wells's "The Star," Mary Shelley's The Last Man, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Conversation of Eros and Charmion," and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Poison Belt. Wells also helped to establish in the popular mind two other ways that the world could end: by invasion, hostile aliens bent on exterminating the human race as casually as we would exterminate insects or vermin infesting a house (in The War of the Worlds); and by unending global warfare that would at least destroy much of civilization, even if it did not eradicate every human being on Earth (in The Time Machine, The Shape of Things to Come, and elsewhere).

This last idea was particularly potent, as it established the concept that we could bring about the end of the world (or at least the end of civilization) ourselves, by our own human efforts, without recourse either to blind cosmic accidents—such as a collision with a comet—or to the wrath of God (a lesson driven painfully home by the subsequent horrors of World War I).

By the time your editors came along, part of the post-World War II Baby Boom generation, the awesome shadow of the Atomic Bomb had risen over the world, and it was well understood that we humans could, if we chose, launch a war that would quite probably destroy not only civilization, but the human race as well, and possibly even all life on Earth.

Throughout the '50s, what most people worried about when they worried about the end of the world coming was the Bomb. Later, in the '60s and '70s, the idea of environmental destruction came along, a way that we could kill the human race (and perhaps all life on Earth) without even meaning to, as an accidental byproduct of the "progress" of our technological civilization. People then worried about pollution, overpopulation, DDT, as well as the Bomb. (But, if asked, most people would probably have been hard-pressed to come up with any other way that the world could end.)

What simple times those were! Now, from the perspective of the end of the '90s, just about to hurtle past the millennium and into the next century, we can think of dozens of new ways for the world to come to an end, for global Armageddon to come, ways that very few people would have even thought of twenty years ago, let alone worried about. Dozens of new ways that now are in the forefront of the public mind, and which probably cause as much dread and sleepless nights as worrying about the bomb ever did.

Few people twenty years ago, for instance, spent much time worrying that a giant asteroid might smash into the Earth and wipe us out at a stroke (although this was a scenario that scientists have known about for generations). But now, thanks in part to widespread and well-publicized speculation that such an asteroid strike might have been what killed off the dinosaurs, everyone knows (and worries) about this possibility; two separate big-budget movies about asteroids striking the Earth, Deep Impact and Armageddon were released in 1998—and now even people who didn't know about this scenario before are probably worrying about it! An increased sophistication in the earth sciences and a better understanding of geological forces has shown us that there's no place on Earth where you are safe from earthquakes and volcanic eruptions (this knowledge has been transferred to the public mind by films such as Volcano and Dante's Peak. One volcanic explosion that took place in New Mexico a million years ago, for instance, not only vaporized a 27,000-foot-tall mountain, but left behind a hole in the ground 12 miles across and 3,500 feet deep, and was powerful enough to throw debris as far away as Nebraska. A volcanic eruption of similar force taking place today, even in an area as relatively unpopulated as the American Southwest, would kill hundreds of thousands of people. Earthquakes on the scale of the one that struck the Mississippi Valley in the eighteenth century would kill millions, and we now know that tsunamis on a really massive scale, far greater than anything thought possible forty years ago (as vividly portrayed in Deep Impact), are not only possible but have happened with dismaying frequency over the millennia, leaving their marks on the geologic record.

In addition to the old worries about pollution, we now have to worry about global warming (the melting of the Antarctic icecap would flood large areas of the world) and the evergrowing hole in the ozone layer that is letting in ever more dangerous levels of ultraviolet radiation (and the latest issue of Discover magazine warns us that the atmosphere itself may be shrinking). Some stubborn scientists hold out against the idea of global warming and instead warn that a new Ice Age is possible, one that could reach full glaciation with frightening speed, dozens of years instead of hundreds of thousands, grinding much of our civilization to powder in the process.

But wait! There's more! We know now that a nearby (as stellar distances go) supernova could spray the Earth with enough hard radiation to endanger or destroy terrestrial life . . . and, in fact, a minor, low-intensity version of this happened in 1998, knocking out several communications satellites. For that matter, our own sun has been acting suspiciously, not conforming to current neutrino-emission models. Could this be a prelude to the sun going nova, or emitting an immensely powerful solar flare? And if none of those things gets us, recent evidence has shown that the center of our own Milky Way galaxy is dominated by a massive black hole that not only may periodically emit killing bursts of radiation, but which will eventually swallow up everything else in our galaxy, including us. That is, if another galaxy doesn't smash into ours first in a cosmic collision of unimaginable proportions, something that we can see happening elsewhere in the universe. And then there're the esoteric possibilities for doom, involving things such as the release of quantum energy from the structure of the vacuum itself . . .

Nor have any of the older possibilities gone away: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse remain always ready to ride; starvation on a global scale is an ever more plausible possibility, as population continues to climb and resources shrink; disease, the threat of some world-girdling pandemic or plague, is a specter we always have to live with, perhaps more potent than ever in these days of jet travel between continents, when someone exposed in Africa or South America to a rare virus that's never before made it out of the jungle can be in New York City or London a few hours later (to say nothing of deliberate biological warfare or terrorism, or the fact that overuse of antibiotics is quickly rendering most of them ineffective, or that the potential for a biological-research accident that could have devastating effects has never been greater). Nor has war vanished as a threat to the survival of the human race, in spite of the end of the Cold War. In fact, it seems likely that not only will there continue to be wars in the next century, but that they will be fought with horrifying high-tech weapons more strange than anything that is currently possible for us to imagine. (Nanomechanisms, for instance, that gobble everything they touch, turning the world to "gray goo," is only one of the possibilities, and probably less radical than many of the weapons that will be developed by the time the century turns again—if anyone survives to see it, that is!)

It's no wonder, with all these dooms (and scores of others) hanging over our heads, that we're all getting a little nervous as the dawn of the new millennium—a time-marker of great supernatural significance, historically always a time of panic about the end of the world—approaches.

Since you're worrying about all this anyway, as millennium fever grows more intense (wait! We didn't even mention the Y2K problem!), we thought you might be interested in reading about some of the ways the end of the world might come, perhaps giving you some new stuff to worry about (great for those conversations at the office the next day), or at the very least providing some entertainment and distraction for you as you wait for us all to check out. If you're going to worry about the end of the world anyway, then you might as well let the world's most imaginative dreamers and prognosticators, the science fiction writers you'll find in the pages that follow, show you some really imaginative (and frightening) scenarios for cosmic Armageddons that might happen . . . and also, some of the glimmerings of hope that may persist even if worse does come to worst.

If, as we suspect, the world doesn't come to an end with the turning of the millennium, then you'll have had the fun of reading some of the best science fiction stories our weary old world has yet produced.

Maybe you better read fast, though—just in case!

(Fans of end-of-the-world scenarios will find more, of varying sorts, in the Ace anthologies Future War; Nanotech, Hackers, Invaders!, Isaac Asimov's War, and Isaac Asimov's Earth.)

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