The End of the World News Summary
by Anthony Burgess

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The End of the World News Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The End of the World News, consists of three largely independent narratives. Apart from some clever verbal and thematical parallels, the three interwoven texts do not come together before the very end of the novel.

The science-fiction story begins in Australia, where, during a Nativity play in the winter of 1999, an amateur astronomer becomes the first ordinary citizen to spot Lynx, “a bloody new star in the bloody east.” In this story, which self-consciously alludes to Rudolph Mate’s 1951 disaster film When Worlds Collide, Lynx is discovered to be a runaway planet from a different solar system about to pass by and then to pulverize Earth on its rebound in the fall (a conscious pun) of the year 2000.

Only a few leading scientists, such as the American Dr. Hubert Frame, are aware of the full extent of the coming global catastrophe. After a discussion with his colleagues and family, in March, 2000, he proposes to the president of a united North America a plan to equip a large spaceship to save fifty members of the nation’s physical and scientific elite by sending them off on a generations-long journey through outer space. Among the future astronauts are his daughter, Dr. Vanessa Brodie, and, at her insistence, her estranged husband, Dr. Valentine Brodie, the only nonelite member of the project. Valentine is arrested, however, with his new pal Robert Courtland van Caulaert Willett outside the bars of Manhattan on the night the other crew members leave for a secret rendezvous in Kansas.

There, while Lynx’s first close bypass wreaks tidal and seismic havoc on an unprotected Earth, the project gets under way. Everybody is placed under the authority of Dr. Paul Maxwell Bartlett (who wears “black surrogate leather”); his dictatorial methods lead to the death of a homesick scientist.

In New York, Valentine and Willett survive a tidal onslaught on the city and participate in the clean-up afterward. Both escape from the metropolis before Earth’s second and fatal encounter with Lynx. After an apocalyptic odyssey through the devastated heartland of America aboard various stolen vehicles, the two friends finally arrive at the launch site in Kansas. Now a final battle for a place aboard the America erupts. Bartlett dies, and Valentine, reconciled with Vanessa, assumes command over the spaceship, which escapes the destruction of Earth and begins its long voyage.

The novel’s second story is a lighthearted but historically accurate biography of Dr. Sigmund Freud, opening with his forced emigration from Vienna to London in 1938. His life and work are narrated in a series of flashbacks, beginning with the violent opposition to Freud’s first publication on the Oedipus complex and his thesis that neuroses have their roots in infantile sexuality.

Recollections follow about Freud’s further early tribulations among the bourgeois Viennese, whose opposition stems from a vile mixture of sexual “obscurantism” and anti-Semitism. Also covered are his scientific discoveries, the slow gathering of followers, and a string of successes which climaxes in his relationship with the Swiss ascetic Dr. Carl Jung and the first psychoanalytical congress in Salzburg. Success, however, brings dissent. Freud’s followers begin to leave or turn against him. This trend is climactically encapsulated in his deteriorating relationship with Jung, whose propagation of a “sex-free” psychoanalysis dedicated to the mystic and collective unconsciousness inevitably puts him in fierce opposition to Freud. The biography ends with Freud slowly dying of a painful cancer of the mouth; finally unable to work, he chooses a morphine overdose in order to end his life gracefully.

Burgess’ “musical,” based on Leon Trotsky’s (historical) stay in New York City, opens with his imminent arrival in January, 1917. Rather than an all-out class struggle or an engagement in the then-European war, the American worker needs, as Trotsky’s secretary, Olga “Mooney” Lunacharskaya, insists, “a job with regular pay./ Peace to earn/ Dollars to burn:/ Peace for the USA.”

Falling in love complicates matters for Trotsky, a hitherto staunch believer in utter materialism, who has insisted that “There’s no mystery/ In physical causality.” Olga leaves him because he is a married man, only to reappear with a warning that his illegal arrest by the Imperial Russians is imminent. At the climax of his story, Trotsky is saved only by the outbreak of the February revolution in Russia. With his son Seryozha, he at last embarks on a ship bound for Petrograd.

It is only at the end of the science-fiction story that all three narratives are formally brought together. Videodiscs containing the Freud play and the Trotsky musical are taken along in the America, where their existence in the ships’ archives is mentioned in the epilogue by the omniscient narrator, who has all along been relating the tale of Earth’s last days to a skeptical audience consisting of the descendants of the early astronauts.