My latest Locus column is “Be the First One to Not Do Something that No One Else Has Ever Not Thought of Doing Before,” and it’s about science fiction’s addiction to certain harmful fallacies, like the idea that you can sideline the actual capabilities and constraints of computers in order to advance the plot of a thriller.
That’s the idea I turned on its head with my 2008 novel Little Brother, a book in which what computers can and can’t do were used to determine the plot, not the other way around.
With my latest novel Walkaway, I went after another convenient fiction: the idea that in disasters, people are at their very worst, neighbor turning on neighbor. In Walkaway, disaster is the moment at which the refrigerator hum of petty grievances stops and leaves behind a ringing moment of silent clarity, in which your shared destiny with other people trumps all other questions.
In this scenario — which hews much more closely to the truth of humanity under conditions of crisis — the fight isn’t between good guys and bad guys: it’s between people of goodwill who still can’t agree on what to do, and between people who are trying to help and people who are convinced that any attempt to help is a pretense covering up a bid to conquer and subjugate.
In its own way, man-vs-man-vs-nature is every bit as much a fantasy as the technothriller’s impossible, plot-expedient computers. As Rebecca Solnit documented in her must-read history book A Paradise Built in Hell, disaster is not typically attended by a breakdown in the social order that lays bare the true bestial nature of your fellow human. Instead, these are moments in which people rise brilliantly to the occasion, digging their neighbors out of the rubble, rushing to give blood, opening their homes to strangers.
Of course, it’s easy to juice a story by ignoring this fact, converting disaster to catastrophe by pitting neighbor against neighbor, and this approach has the added bonus of pandering to the reader’s lurking (or overt) racism and classism – just make the baddies poor and/or brown.
But what if a story made the fact of humanity’s essential goodness the center of its conflict? What if, after a disaster, everyone wanted to help, but no one could agree on how to do so? What if the argument was not between enemies, but friends – what if the fundamental, irreconcilable differences were with people you loved, not people you hated?
As anyone who’s ever had a difficult Christmas dinner with family can attest, fighting with people you love is a lot harder than fighting with people you hate.