While researching his new book, Notes from an Apocalypse, about people who are preparing for doomsday, author Mark O'Connell undertook what he calls "a series of perverse pilgrimages."
Some stops on O'Connell's "end of the world" journey include a prairie in South Dakota, where a former munitions facility is being converted into a "survival shelter community," and the New Zealand apocalypse house owned by PayPal founder Peter Thiel. He also attended a Los Angeles conference, where he met people who hope to colonize Mars and use it as a "backup planet" if Earth becomes inhospitable.
Though it was written before the COVID-19 pandemic, O'Connell says the research he conducted for the book is heavy with "dramatic irony" now.
"I bought a lot of practical guides to surviving the end of the world — doomsday prepper guides and so on — when I was writing the book," he says. "And I read them at the time in a spirit of scholarly interest."
But as the pandemic spread, he says, "I found myself taking one or two down off the shelf in that first week and sort of flicking through the index with something other than scholarly interest, I think it's fair to say."
Despite spending so much time steeped in end-of-days scenarios, O'Connell doesn't despair. In fact, the book is peppered with humor.
"Laughter is obviously a kind of a release valve," he says. "The funny stuff [in the book] comes as a result of a buildup of like an accumulation of anxiety and seriousness. I'm often up at my funniest as a writer when I'm dealing with the most serious things."
On the demographic profile of the doomsday preppers he spoke with
So the doomsday preppers who I look at in the first section of the book tended to be overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly white, and often conservative Christian. And the ideology that they bring to it is often one of, I would say, quite right-wing, quite libertarian, a mistrust of the state and a kind of a fetishization of ideas of kind of rugged self-reliance and masculinity. And often fantasies of defensive violence, ... an idea of: You have to protect your family, you have to protect your home. Often that involves guns and so on — particularly in American context.
On visiting an apocalyptic real estate development in South Dakota
Part of the reason why I wanted to go there was that it just looked so otherworldly. It's a dairy farm, essentially in the prairies of South Dakota, which was used as a ... munitions facility. There's 500-something overground bunkers, reinforced concrete and steel kind of mounds coming out of the ground, covered in grass. And it just looks like something out of an alien landscape. So it's been bought by a ... guy named Robert Vicino. And he's bought the land and is selling off these bunkers for, I think, ... $35,000 is the figure that he quoted me. So the idea is that people buy these empty bunkers and convert them to their own sort of specifications. This is a place for people to retreat to in the event of certainly nuclear exchange ... [and] viral pandemics and any kind of situation that threatens civilizational collapse or civil unrest. The idea is that there would be ... a private army that would patrol the perimeter of this place to stop the war, to stop the rest of us getting in.
On why the Silicon Valley elite and other wealthy Americans are buying land in New Zealand
In a way, it didn't take you that long to figure out why New Zealand, because it is an insanely beautiful place, and if I had endless resources, I probably would want to buy a place in New Zealand. You could approach it as an apocalypse retreat or you could [approach it as] a nice holiday. ... New Zealand is a very politically stable place, a lot of clean air, an abundance of lakes, fresh water. It's far from everywhere else. So you don't have those kind of threats that you would have in Europe and America. It's quite distanced in various ways. So you can see the appeal. ...
To put it bluntly, I think a lot of New Zealand people, Māori in particular, see it as a kind of a return of the colonial mindset. So New Zealand as a country I think is unusual amongst kind of post-colonial nations of being absolutely open and absolutely resolute in having a strong but nuanced kind of understanding of what colonialism meant in the history of the country and how to sort of move beyond those mindsets. And I think there is a suspicion of people like [PayPal founder] Peter Thiel and wealthy Americans coming and buying up land — that it might be a kind of a modern version of that sort of tragic colonial moment in the state's history.
On how some doomsday preppers see Mars as a backup planet
Mars is almost like the next step up from New Zealand. If New Zealand is kind of the safest retreat on this planet, then, if — everything goes wrong here and the planet gets hit by an asteroid or whatever — the term that is used amongst Mars enthusiasts would be we need a "backup planet." So we need a backup planet for humanity in case something goes catastrophically wrong with Earth. [Tesla CEO] Elon Musk is always using this term. Elon Musk would be, I suppose, the most prominent kind of advocate of Mars exploration, obviously, with his space exploration company SpaceX.
On why he visited Chernobyl for the book
I wanted to see what the end of the world looked like, in a way. And I also wanted to see what a catastrophic event on the order of Chernobyl — what happens afterwards. I was fascinated by the ways in which life is kind of returning to this place in ways. Nature is thriving there. And not only nature, but people are living there. There's a relatively small number of people, in the dozens, generally older people who have returned there to live in their houses that they evacuated in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. ... But ultimately, what I was really interested in was catastrophe tourism. There are tour companies that have set up in and around Kiev who will bring you there and you can stay overnight, which is what I did on the tour. You get to explore Pripyat, which is the abandoned city that was purpose built for the workers and Chernobyl. It's a fascinating kind of insight into the sort of visual spectacle of the apocalypse. You get to wander around this kind of diorama of a sort of post-apocalyptic future. I think that's what attracts the people who are on this tour and to some extent myself.
Nature has reclaimed the place. Pripyat is full of nature just bursting forth out of concrete, and there is something sort of quietly beautiful about it. There's quite a large population of wolves there. So life is kind of going on without humanity. As bleak as it is, there's something slightly reassuring about that.
On whether he'd consider joining a doomsday community
Where I landed with it is that I would not want to be part of that community. I would not want to be part of a protected, sheltered, elite ... that was being protected by a private army. On some level, I think I'd rather be dead. I'd rather be outside and take my chances because it seems, from an ideological perspective, that is just too too bleak and too terrifying to me. ... If you're preparing for the collapse of civilization in that way, I think for you, civilization has already collapsed.
Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The coronavirus isn't the end of the world, but your anxiety may make you feel like it is. And your home may be feeling like a bunker. This makes my guest's new book, "Notes From An Apocalypse," strangely timely. It's about people who are preparing for a doomsday resulting from environmental catastrophe, nuclear war or a pandemic. The book is also about the reality of anxiety, like the anxiety you may be experiencing now.
Mark O'Connell is not preparing for the end of the world. But he is anxious about the future and what it holds for his two young children. And he's fascinated by people who've taken their doomsday and survival fantasies to extremes. As part of his research, he made a series of what he describes as perverse pilgrimages. He went to the prairies of South Dakota, where a former munitions facility is being converted into a, quote, "survival shelter community," and to New Zealand, where some Silicon Valley billionaires are planning on waiting out the collapse of civilization in a stable, remote retreat.
At a conference in LA, He met people who hoped to colonize Mars and use it as a backup planet for a doomed Earth. In Chernobyl, he saw what it looks like in a place where all life was eradicated. One of O'Connell's previous books, "To Be A Machine," is about transhumanism, the movement that believes new technologies implanted in human bodies will extend the cognitive and physical abilities of humans and extend life beyond our biological limitations. Mark O'Connell is speaking to us from his home in Dublin, Ireland. Mark O'Connell, welcome to FRESH AIR. How is the virus playing into your end-of-the-world anxieties?
MARK O'CONNELL: I guess, like everyone else, I've been on a bit of a trajectory with this thing for the last couple of months, for the last few weeks. You know, the first week here in Dublin - really, right before the lockdown happened, I was going through a pretty intense period of anxiety and sort of uncertainty. It really did seem kind of a little bit apocalyptic. And that coincided with the sort of ramp-up to my book coming out. So there was a lot of, I guess, dramatic irony surrounding my experience of it. You know, I'd written about all these kinds of scenarios. I'd written about people who were preparing for the end of the world in various ways. And there was just a lot of - yeah, a lot of dramatic irony.
At one point, I - you know, I bought a lot of sort of practical guides to surviving the end of the world - you know, doomsday-prepper guides and so on - when I was writing the book. And, you know, I read them at the time with, I guess, you know, in the spirit of scholarly interest and with a certain kind of arm's-length irony there. And I found myself taking one or two down off the shelf in that first week and sort of flicking through the index with something other than scholarly interests, I think it's fair to say.
But since then, you know, it's been interesting because so much of what I wrote about in the book has to do with not just kind of catastrophe scenarios or, you know, natural disasters or asteroids hitting or whatever. A lot of these people who I'm writing about, they're very focused on the prospect of civilizational collapse. So it's not necessarily the virus or the nuclear bomb that they're most focused on, it's civil unrest.
And it's - a lot of it is predicated on this notion that, you know, given a severe enough catastrophe, humanity is sort of bound to revert to savagery. And people will start looting and sort of, you know, stealing each other's stuff. And we'll sort of revert to an animalistic kind of original human nature. And I think - you know, with some sort of high-profile but relatively minor examples - certainly, where I am, what you're seeing is strengthening of community, a strengthening of civilization itself.
GROSS: So you write that your book is really also about the reality of anxiety and that everything in the pages of your book exists as a metaphor for a psychological state. I think it's the psychological state so many of us are experiencing now. So explain what you mean by that.
O'CONNELL: Yeah. Well, the book - I mean, the book didn't begin as a book about the apocalypse. It began, really, as me sort of trying to confront the sources of my anxiety. So, you know, I write in the first couple of pages of the book about a moment where I'm watching cartoons with my son. He's watching this cartoon about a bear and his sort of companion. And I'm sitting on the couch with him watching a polar bear starving to death and sort of trying to get some trash out of a trash can to eat.
And it began out of, like, a sense of the irreconcilable kind of energy of those - of these two kind of worlds, of the world of the outside - the news, things that are going on - and the kind of imperative of early parenthood, which, for me, has to do with trying to protect your kids, trying to instill in them the idea that the world is a beautiful and a good place. And I wanted to kind of explore the tension between those two things, which was a source of real anxiety for me. And it was only kind of a little bit later that the idea of the apocalypse kind of came into view as a way that I could give shape to those anxieties.
GROSS: Have you found that most of the people preparing for the end of the world are white and male?
O'CONNELL: Yeah. Certainly - so, you know, the doomsday preppers who I look at in the first sort of section of the book tended to be overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white and, you know, often conservative Christian. And the ideology that they bring to it is often one of, I would say, you know, quite right-wing, quite libertarian - a mistrust of the state and a kind of, I guess, a fetishization of ideas of kind of rugged self-reliance and masculinity and often, you know, fantasies of kind of defensive violence - so an idea of, you know, you have to protect your family. You have to protect your home. Often, that involves guns and so on, you know, particularly in American context. So yeah, it's not - it is something that I think appeals more to a particular kind of masculinity, a particular kind of man than it does to women. Although, there are, of course, female preppers.
GROSS: So let's talk about one of the places you went to to study the people who were really preparing for the collapse of civilization or the end of the world. You went to the Black Hills of South Dakota, where people planned to prepare for a nuclear war by living in a former Army munitions and maintenance facility that was built during World War II for the storage and testing of bombs. And you went there when tensions were really high between Trump and Kim Jong Un. And there really were fears about, you know, some kind of, like, nuclear weapon being used. So just describe this former storage and bomb testing site.
O'CONNELL: Yeah. It's a really extraordinary place. And part of it was - you know, part of the reason why I wanted to go there was that it just looked so otherworldly. It's a dairy farm, essentially, in the prairies of South Dakota, which, as you say, was used as a former munitions facility. So there are all these - I think it's 550 is the number. There's 500-and-something - anyway, sort of overground bunkers, reinforced concrete and steel kind of mounds coming out of the ground covered in grass. And it just looks like something out of an alien landscape.
But all of these are being converted into - so it's been bought by a kind of - I guess you would describe him as an apocalyptic real estate entrepreneur, a guy named Robert Vicino. And he bought the land and is selling off these bunkers for - I think it's $35,000 is the figure that he quoted me. And so the idea is that people buy these empty bunkers and convert them to their own sort of specifications. And this is a place for people to retreat to in the event of - I mean, yeah. Certainly, nuclear exchange is one of the big ones but, you know, also things like viral pandemics and any kind of situation that threatens civilizational collapse or, you know, civil unrest. And the idea is that there would be an army, like a private army, that would patrol the perimeter of this place to stop the - well, to stop the rest of us getting it, I suppose.
GROSS: So it's like a condo gated community, except you're living in bunkers and instead of a guard at the gate, you've got, like, a whole army (laughter) is...
O'CONNELL: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, it's...
GROSS: ...Protecting - it's quite a vision, yeah.
O'CONNELL: It is an extraordinary vision. And it seems like, I mean, it is a sort of a gated community. It's sort of I described in the book as, you know, a kind of a logical conclusion of the psychology of the gated community. Vicino, who started this survival community, is - he also makes kind of a luxury apocalyptic bunkers. So these are kind of, you know, pitched at the middle range of the market, the kind of the apocalyptic bourgeoisie, I suppose. But he sort of made his name building these very lavish luxury bunkers that are supposedly kitted out with, you know, private cinemas and wine sellers and all kinds of things.
GROSS: Living out the end of days in style.
O'CONNELL: Sure. Why not?
GROSS: You cite some pretty strange beliefs that he has including that there's a rogue planet called Nibiru that's heading toward Earth and might collide with it. What are some of his other beliefs that are motivating him?
O'CONNELL: Yeah. I mean, Vicino is an interesting character in that he doesn't seem to focus on any one particular apocalyptic scenario. So climate change interestingly is not a big issue with most of these people. So it's not that they're necessarily climate change deniers but just that climate change doesn't seem to offer the prospect of sort of total annihilation or total civilizational collapse. So things like asteroids hitting the planet, that's a big one. Viral pandemics as well, certainly, that's another one. But, yeah, I mean, this idea of Nibiru, which is, I guess it's - you know, it's a relatively sort of well-sort-of-subscribed conspiracy theory. There's zero evidence for it as far as I can tell and as far as most sort of scientists would tell you.
But I think the idea is that, you know, he's a salesman, and a lot of these people are salespeople. And so it makes sense to have a kind of a spread of apocalyptic scenarios. So if you don't subscribe to the Nibiru idea, which I certainly didn't, you know, someone like Robert Vicino has another apocalyptic scenario that he might be able to sort of hook you on. And a lot of our - I mean, it was a really interesting, kind of weirdly enjoyable, also quite antagonistic sort of exchange that we had because a lot of it had to do with him. You know, he approached me as he would anyone who was interested in his property, so he was trying to sell me the idea of the place. So a lot of it was him, you know, trying to sell me a bunker basically and giving me reasons why it might be sensible for me to have this for myself and my family.
GROSS: What's his sales pitch?
O'CONNELL: Something's going to get us. Something is going to come along eventually, whether it's an asteroid, whether it's a nuclear exchange, whether it's just sort of civilizational sort of atrophy, something will come along eventually that will make it unsafe. He's talking particularly in the United States context, but also, you know, he had sort of a pretty grim vision of global civilization.
But yeah, something is going to come eventually, and it will - you know, it will cause a civilizational collapse. And in a way what's happening now, although, as I've said, it's nowhere near any kind of civilizational collapse scenario, but, you know, you can imagine preppers and people like Vicino might be feeling somewhat vindicated and might be feeling even somewhat smug.
GROSS: Was there just a little bit of you that thought maybe I should invest in one just for safety?
O'CONNELL: You know, he's a really good salesman. He's like a really powerful persuasive salesman, and he's successful for a reason. So yeah. And I'm - you know, I quite enjoy people selling things to me. I'm fascinated by the kind of the psychology of salesmanship, and I like being sold to. So there were moments where I was open to it, yeah. But ultimately, I think what - where I landed with it is that I would not want to be part of that community. I would not want to be part of a protected sheltered elite or an elect that was being protected by a private army.
On some level, I think I'd rather be dead. I'd rather be outside and take my chances because it seems, you know, from an ideological perspective that is just too bleak and, yeah, too terrifying to me - the idea that that would be, you know, where I land with in the book is if you were preparing for the collapse of civilization in that way, I think, for you, civilization has already collapsed.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark O'Connell. He is the author of the new book "Notes From An Apocalypse." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mark O'Connell, author of the new book "Notes From An Apocalypse" about people who are preparing for a doomsday caused by environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, a pandemic, a comet crash, any number of things.
One of the places you went to research your new book was New Zealand. And there are wealthy people from the United States, maybe other places too, who are buying land in New Zealand because they see it as a safe, relatively isolated place not near major nuclear targets where they'd have a chance of not only living out a collapse in much of the world but also doing it in a land of great beauty and in comfort.
And several of the people - oh, oh, this is interesting. You write that two days after Trump's election, the number of Americans who visited New Zealand's Department of Internal Affairs to inquire about citizenship there increased by a factor of 15 compared to the same day in the previous month. Tell us more about New Zealand. Like, why New Zealand?
O'CONNELL: Well, I mean, that's why I went there I guess because I wanted to know why New Zealand. And, you know, in a way, it didn't take me that long to figure out why New Zealand because it is an insanely beautiful place, and if I had endless resources, I probably would want to buy a place in New Zealand, you know. You know, you could approach it as an apocalypse retreat or you could just - you know, it's a nice holiday. There's nice vineyards and so on.
So, you know, I guess if you have that kind of money, particularly, you know, Silicon Valley people tend to be quite rationalistic and, you know, there's a lot of interest in those circles in terms of, like, long-term forecasting of, you know, the future of civilization and so on, you can see the appeal because, you know, New Zealand is a very - it's a politically stable place, a lot of clean air, an abundance of lakes, fresh water. You know, it's far from everywhere else. So, you know, you don't have those kind of sort of threats that you would have in Europe and America. It's quite - you know, it's quite distanced in various ways. So you can see the appeal.
GROSS: Peter Thiel, who is the founder of PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook and is a billionaire, he has land in New Zealand. And you're right. One of the things that inspired him to think about New Zealand was a book called "The Sovereign Individual: How To Survive And Thrive During The Collapse Of The Welfare State." This was published in 1997. What is the vision this book offers?
O'CONNELL: "The Sovereign Individual" is - gives a very bleak and in some ways dystopian vision of a future in which the nation-state as a sort of a concept begins to fall away. And, you know, strong democratic governments are kind of on the way out. And what you get is the rise of what they call sovereign individuals, people who are very wealthy, have a lot of kind of intellectual capital, people like I suppose Peter Thiel who will sort of rise above democratic nation-states and become kind of more influential and more powerful than states themselves. And it predicts the rise of things like cryptocurrency and, you know, the future in which wealthy people will no longer be sort of beholden to the state by having to pay taxes and so on. It's just sort of a radically libertarian vision of the future. And it's a good thing from the point of view of the book that the state is on the way out.
GROSS: I'm wondering how the massacre at the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, where more than 50 people were murdered by someone with an assault rifle, what impact that had on people who see New Zealand as this safe space.
O'CONNELL: That came towards the end of when I was writing the book, and I'd already written the New Zealand chapter at that time. And I knew that I had to revisit it because, you know, it seemed to throw everything into a different light because, you know, the sort of premise of the idea of New Zealand as this sort of safe retreat from the rest of the world is that, you know, it's this fantasy, that it's not connected to these, you know, dynamics and vectors that are happening in the rest of the world. And, of course, that's not true. And this was, like, a really violent, tragic illustration of that fact. But what I saw was - you know, in the immediate aftermath, I remember watching - and I write about it in the book of course. I remember watching all these videos of, you know, Maori men doing the haka as a kind of a gesture of solidarity and grief.
And there's so much of this kind of communitarian response to this terrible act of, like, fascist violence that spoke to me, I think, of, like, the real heart of New Zealand and what makes New Zealand such a valuable place. It's not the - you know, obviously, it's a very beautiful country, but it's not the kind of - you know, what's valuable about New Zealand is not what people like Peter Thiel and so on value in the country. It's the kind of - it's the community aspects of the place.
GROSS: What is the reaction of people in New Zealand, particularly the Maori who are native to New Zealand, what is their reaction to New Zealand being seen as a safe space for people waiting out doomsday?
O'CONNELL: To put it sort of bluntly, I think a lot of New Zealand people, Maori in particular, see it as a kind of a return of the colonial mindset. So New Zealand as a country I think is unusual amongst kind of post-colonial nations of being absolutely open and absolutely resolute in having a kind of strong but nuanced kind of understanding of what colonialism meant in the history of the country and how to sort of move beyond those mindsets. And I think there is a suspicion of people like Peter Thiel and sort of wealthy Americans coming and buying up land that it might be a kind of a modern version of that sort of tragic colonial moment in the state's history.
GROSS: My guest is Mark O'Connell, author of the new book "Notes From An Apocalypse." We'll talk more after a break. And our critic at large John Powers will review two TV series he's become caught up in while social distancing. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Mark O'Connell, author of the new book "Notes From An Apocalypse." It's about people preparing for a doomsday caused by environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, a comet crash, a pandemic. He visited a former bomb-testing facility that's being turned into bunkers by a survivalist entrepreneur. He went to New Zealand, where some Silicon Valley billionaires have bought land to wait out doomsday in a beautiful, remote location. He went to a conference of people who believe Mars should be turned into a backup planet for our doomed Earth. He's speaking to us from his home in Dublin, Ireland.
So let's talk about Mars and people who hope to use Mars as a backup planet when Earth is destroyed. Tell us about the thinking behind this.
O'CONNELL: Yeah. Well, so Mars almost is like the next step up from New Zealand, you know? If New Zealand is kind of the safest retreat on this planet, then, you know, if everything goes wrong here and the planet gets hit by an asteroid or whatever, Mars is kind of the term that is used amongst Mars enthusiast - an enthusiasts would be, we need a backup planet. So we need a backup planet for humanity in case something goes catastrophically wrong with Earth. You know, Elon Musk is always using this term. Elon Musk would be, I suppose, the most prominent kind of advocate of Mars exploration, obviously, with his space exploration company, SpaceX.
But yeah, it's, you know, again, things like climate change, the prospect of, you know, an asteroid strike - anything that could sort of present an existential threat. The idea is that, you know, even on the long-term kind of scale, the sun is going to burn out eventually. And the idea is that we need to sort of ensure the future of humanity. And so we need a kind of a second place to sort of - to form a backup for it, for civilization and for the species. And I found this just a fascinating kind of emanation of the apocalyptic kind of mood of our time.
GROSS: So one of the things that kind of baffles me, in a way, about this Mars colonization premise is that - I mean, I don't know that much about space travel. But I would assume that if Mars was actually colonized and used as a backup planet, that would be far enough into the future that the people who are in this movement now would not be alive by the time it happened.
O'CONNELL: I think some of them certainly would hope that they will be around for it. I think, you know, Elon Musk, for instance, who is kind of the major advocate of Mars colonization at this point, I think, I think he's pretty explicit about the fact that he wants personally to get to Mars. So you know, these are optimistic people. And, you know, a lot of them do believe that they will get to Mars - or at least humans will get to Mars in our lifetimes.
But yeah, I mean, it is very much a long-term sort of long-scale project. And it's about, you know, as I say, having a backup planet for civilization. So it's not - you know, as much as certain individuals might want to see Mars in their time, it's not really about the individuals. It's about the idea of, you know, preserving the species. If, you know - if an asteroid hits Earth or if the sun explodes or whenever, you want to have a backup planet for humanity. And that's, you know, where Mars is - kind of comes into it.
GROSS: One of the places you went to was Chernobyl. Why did you want to go there? People are not building bunkers in Chernobyl (laughter). No one wants to live on the site...
O'CONNELL: No, no.
GROSS: ...Of a nuclear catastrophe.
O'CONNELL: Well, you know, I wanted to see what the end of the world looked like, in a way. And I also wanted to see what a kind of an - like, a catastrophic event on the order of Chernobyl, what happens afterwards? And I was fascinated by the ways in which life is kind of returning to this place in ways, you know? Nature is thriving there. And not only nature, but people are living there. There are, you know...
GROSS: They are, yeah?
O'CONNELL: Yeah. There's a relatively small number of people, you know, in the dozens. But there are - and, you know, generally older people who have returned there to live in their houses that they evacuated in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. And so there are people living there. But ultimately, what I was really interested in was, you know, catastrophe tourism. There are tour companies that have set up in and around Kyiv who will bring you there.
And you can stay overnight, which is what I did on the tour. And, you know, you get to explore Pripyat, which is the abandoned city that was purpose-built for the workers in Chernobyl. And there's a just - it's a fascinating kind of insight into the sort of visual spectacle of the apocalypse, you know? You get to wander around this kind of diorama of a sort of post-apocalyptic future. And I think that's what attracts the people who are on this tour and, you know, to some extent, myself.
GROSS: So what does it look like?
O'CONNELL: It's pretty grim (laughter). You know, I went - it was a beautiful day, you know, the two days I was there. So - you know, nature has reclaimed the place. Pripyat is full of, like, you know, nature just bursting forth out of concrete. And there is something sort of quietly beautiful about it. And there's, you know, wolves. It has quite a large population of wolves there. So life is kind of going on without humanity. So there's something - as bleak as it is, there's something slightly reassuring about that. I wouldn't recommend it as a honeymoon destination or a sort of weekend getaway...
O'CONNELL: ...But that's not what I was there for.
GROSS: How much did the tour cost?
O'CONNELL: The tour, it was - I think it was something around, maybe, 250 pounds, which is a lot of money in Ukraine. I think it's close to, like, you know, a monthly wage. So it's a huge amount of money. But they bring you on the tour from Kyiv. So you get on the tour bus outside of McDonald's in Maidan Square. And it's about a two-hour drive to the zone. And then, you know, it's heavily sort of controlled or patrolled by the army still at this point. So you need a passport to get in. And they check your passport. And you're sort of rigorously checked for radiation at various points along the way towards the power plant.
And, you know, they bring you in this place and show you what - you know, what it was like to live in this place and what it's like now. You know, it's a pretty - there are some, you know, threats of, you know, pockets of radiation that are quite high. But in general, the cleanup was very successful. And, you know, the guides know where they're taking you. So you don't stray into any particularly, you know, hotspot zones or whatever. The one thing they do tell you is don't eat the moss. I wasn't going to eat the moss anyway. But they're quite...
O'CONNELL: ...Quite sort of strict about eating anything from the ground, particularly moss. Moss soaks up a lot of radiation. So if you do go to Chernobyl, do not eat the moss.
GROSS: So you weren't worried about exposure to radiation on the tour?
O'CONNELL: Well, you know, you've read my book. So you know I'm quite an anxious. So I did find ways to be worried...
O'CONNELL: ...You know, mostly after the fact. Like, you know, I got back from the two-day tour and I was like, well, what did I do? Why did I stay overnight in Chernobyl? Why was I, you know - was it worth it? I'm still - you know, I'm OK.
But I think the thing that you realize pretty quickly is that almost everywhere you go, the levels of radiation are actually lower than they would be. You know, they measure the radiation with a dosimeter outside McDonald's in - the McDonald's in Kyiv. And it's quite a bit higher than it is in most of the places where you are in the zone. So any kind of built up urban area would probably have higher radiation levels than any of the places where you actually go on the tour in the zone. Now, there are places where you just don't want to be within the zone. The power plant itself, certain spots there are still incredibly high. But you don't go anywhere near those.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark O'Connell. His new book is called "Notes From An Apocalypse." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AWREEOH SONG, "CAN'T BRING ME DOWN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mark O'Connell, author of the new book, "Notes From An Apocalypse," about people who are preparing for a doomsday caused by environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, a pandemic, a comet crash - any number of things.
How old are your children now?
O'CONNELL: My son just turned 7 a couple of weeks ago - just after the lockdown started. And our daughter is about to turn 2.
GROSS: How has the virus affected your life as a father?
O'CONNELL: That's a really good question. I mean, we're still in the middle of it. So it's hard to have, like, real perspective on it. But, you know, in a way, like, our children's lives are very much in the home anyway, you know? Their sort of sense of the world is is quite small. So certainly, for her daughter, she has no idea anything is going on. And it's just, you know, she's at home. And her brother's at home. And that's great. My son misses his friends. And he misses school. And that's starting to become a thing. He's not upset about it. But it's just, you know, we're aware of it.
And when it started to happen first, when the lockdown happened first, I was basically OK with the day-to-day of my own experience. And, you know, I was getting through it. But the thing that made me most emotional, the thing that really sort of got to me was the idea that my son would be, you know, possibly quite a bit older when he got to spend time with his friends again. And I would think about, you know, what if they're - you know, how much taller are they going to be? How much older are they going to be? Will they recognize each other? Will they feel strange around each other?
And so thinking about those things made me quite emotional. And a sort of amazing thing happened on his birthday, actually. His little friend who lives across the street - she's a little bit older than him. But she dropped over a walkie-talkie in a bag with a birthday card for him. And, like, every day, more or less, since they've been talking to each other on walkie-talkies. And I think that's, like - that just makes me feel OK, you know?
I feel like they're finding ways to make contact with each other. They're finding ways to continue their relationships. You know, technology helps, you know? And kids are, you know, pretty resilient. And so I'm worried about the long-term future, for sure. And I don't want us to go on too long - no one does. But I think they'll be OK.
GROSS: Walkie-talkie and not cellphone?
O'CONNELL: No, walkie talkies, oddly enough. I mean, he talks to friends on his mom's and my cellphone as well. They use FaceTime a lot. But they really get a kick out of the walkie-talkie thing. There's a kind of just a fun aspect to the walkie-talkie that I would not have predicted. It's just beautiful to hear them talking to each other. The first time they had a conversation on the walkie-talkie, I was sitting in my room. And I could hear him shouting to his friend saying, do you miss your friends? Over. And I just thought, like...
O'CONNELL: ...That was the most beautiful, hilarious thing, you know, to hear from a 7-year-old. So yeah, the moments like that, you kind of think, you know, it's sad. And it's tough. But maybe they'll be OK.
GROSS: You know, end-of-the-world scenarios now tend to revolve around, you know, climate catastrophe, pandemics, ideas about, like, the sun burning out or a comet colliding, nuclear war. But the end of days goes back to, like, really early times, you know? There have always been visions, as far as we know, that say the end of the world is near. Certainly, like, people in Jesus' time, some people believed it. Some people prophesied it. My understanding is that, you know, Jesus believed that the end of days was near. So do you think, like, we're wired in some way to think about the end of the world, whether it's because of religion or man-made problems or, you know, cosmic interplanetary problems?
O'CONNELL: Yeah. I think we're not fully conscious or we, you know, we don't fully acknowledge enough how much of our culture and how much of our thinking is informed by religion. I mean, it's absolutely true. Like, you know, Christianity itself, which is, you know, it forms so much of the template of our culture. Christianity began as a kind of an apocalyptic sect of Judaism, you know? Christ believed that the end was near, that, you know, the last days of creation were at hand. And, you know, the apostles were kind of drawn to this idea and, you know, even Saint Paul. You know, the idea was that creation was near to an end.
And I quote a line early in the book from St. Augustine, who's writing in, I guess, the 5th century A.D. And he's talking about - you know, there was a trend at that time to - and there still is now, of course, in many ways - to predict when the end is going to come. And he's writing a letter to some bishop or other. And he's saying, you know, it's not for us to say when the end is going to come. We just have to have faith that, you know, it will come. Maybe it will come in our time, maybe it won't. But he's talking about this sort of apocalyptic fervor of those early Christians and their absolute conviction that they were living in the last days of creation. And he says, if those were the last days then, how much more so now? I just think that's such a beautiful, like, ironic kind of witty but true statement, you know? Maybe it was the end of the world then, but maybe it really is now, you know?
And I think we - you know, almost every generation has some version of that. And, you know, I was writing that at a time when, really, what was in my mind was climate change, you know, and the prospect of maybe this is the end of civilization as we know it. You know, it wasn't - didn't happen to be the end of civilization as we know it during the Cold War or the Cuban missile crisis or whatever, but maybe now it really is. And that, again, seems to sound a kind of an ironic note to me now given what's happened in between me writing those lines and what's happening now.
GROSS: I want to add something about your book - is that it's actually pretty entertaining in that you have a very nice sense of humor throughout it and a really interesting voice as a writer. So for anybody interested in it, I don't want to make it seem like it's this, like, terrifying book. It's a really interesting book and kind of, like, a travelogue through people's, you know, visions of life in an apocalyptic world but of surviving it, sometimes in luxury (laughter).
O'CONNELL: Yeah. Right.
O'CONNELL: No, and I hope it is a funny book. And, you know, I often - you know, I get into sort of serious stuff in interviews, and it can often kind of not be apparent that the book is funny. But for me, like, I don't actually set out to be funny. It's often the first thing that people say about my work, is that it is, you know, funny. But it's not - it's never part of, like, the concept of what I'm doing or part of my intention even when I'm writing, when I'm sitting down. Line by line, is this funny? Can I make this funnier? That's never part of it.
For me, I don't see any distinction between absolute seriousness and funniness. For me, like, being funny is often just an epiphenomenon in writing of being serious. So, you know, it's often the case that my intention is not - like, my intention is to be absolutely serious, and the result is funny because, for me, like, a lot of the world is just - you know, humor is everywhere. You don't have to go looking for it. You don't have to impose it sort of top down. You just - my job as a writer, I feel, is just to describe things as accurately as possible, to be kind of diligent in reporting reality. And reality is often just pretty hilarious.
GROSS: Yes. So reality is often pretty hilarious. You have an eye for the absurd. And those two things don't necessarily reduce anxiety.
O'CONNELL: No, in fact, sometimes they can increase it.
O'CONNELL: Although, you know, laughter is obviously a kind of a release valve. So - but sometimes, you know, I find in my work that, like, the funny stuff comes as a result of a buildup of, like, an accumulation of anxiety and seriousness. And, you know, I'm often, I guess, at my funniest as a writer when I'm dealing with the most serious things.
GROSS: Well, Mark O'Connell, it was great to talk with you. I wish you and your family well and good health and equanimity during this difficult period.
O'CONNELL: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Mark O'Connell is the author of the book "Notes From An Apocalypse." He spoke to us from Dublin.
After we take a short break, our critic at large John Powers will tell us about two TV crime series that have been a good form of escape while social distancing. This is FRESH AIR.
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