REVIEW: The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses (2020)

A Book by Dan Carlin

When I first started working at my current job I had a long commute and ten hours of time sitting at a desk that I needed to fill with something other than the noises of computer keys and staplers clicking throughout the night. I went hard into the world of Podcasts and especially became a fan of Dan Carlin and his podcast Hardcore History. I even attended a virtual reality experience at the National World War I Museum put on by Carlin, and mostly got interested because his name was attached. You could say that I’m a fan. When I saw that Carlin released a book a few years ago, it was definitely something I wanted to read, as anything he does is generally well done.

While I know stuffy academic historians hate on him for some reason (honestly, it’s jealousy), much in the way they whine about Ken Burns simply because he makes history easily consumable by the public en masse. Carlin’s popularity is no fluke. He takes historical subjects and explores them with a narrative structure where a listener actually comes out learning the how’s and why’s much better than a stuffy list of dates to memorize. Yes, he has opinions sometimes, but what historian does not? Actually, a comparison to Ken Burns is pretty accurate to me, as Carlin could be seen as the biggest name in pop history of the 21st century.

“The creator of the wildly popular award-winning podcast Hardcore History looks at some of the apocalyptic moments from the past as a way to frame the challenges of the future. Do tough times create tougher people? Can humanity handle the power of its weapons without destroying itself? Will human technology or capabilities ever peak or regress? No one knows the answers to such questions, but no one asks them in a more interesting way than Dan Carlin. In The End is Always Near, Dan Carlin looks at questions and historical events that force us to consider what sounds like fantasy; that we might suffer the same fate that all previous eras did. Will our world ever become a ruin for future archaeologists to dig up and explore? The questions themselves are both philosophical and like something out of The Twilight Zone.”

Dan Carlin

While I started reading this as a paper book, I ultimately opted to listen to this an an audiobook due to the spoken medium being something Carlin excels at. I honestly think his script works better this way since the long form discussion-style chapters can be pretty overbearing otherwise. That said, this book is abasically a paper version of some ideas that aren’t too dissimilar to things already covered in various installments of the Hardcore History podcast, although this is not merely a compilation. Carlin has instead opted to put together a series of chapters outlining how we have viewed “the end of the world” throughout history as a discussion of numerous times when it seemed as if societal collapse was imminent. There are chapters on foreign invasions of ancient cities (the infamous Sea Peoples), plagues, wars, catastrophes, and even nuclear annihilation.

While these topics go together somewhat, Carlin goes to great lengths to say that he doesn’t really have a central argument here, which in some ways is what keeps this book from being better than it is. While I enjoyed The End Is Always Near, it comes across like a season of podcast episodes more than a cohesive book. Some of his more specialized series, such as ones on World War I, Genghis Khan, or The Eastern Front in World War II, are far more cohesive and honestly could have been better as books. That said, this isn’t bad in any way whatsoever, I quite enjoyed it, but it could have been better.

Overall, as a book this will likely only be something for big fans of Dan Carlin to get into, as it lacks the central purpose that most history books need and have to catch the public. However, as an audiobook – this is basically a new series of Hardcore History episodes that any fan should listen to, or a great “jumping on” point to people unaware of Carlin’s style and content. The sections on plagues and wars are especially solid and had some information I don’t actually think he has covered before in older episodes, although I have not heard his entire back catalog. This is well worth a look, especially to listen to, but I am most interested to see what a follow-up book looks like. Will Carlin do another production like this, or a more specialized topic?

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