Archive for the ‘Life As Science Fiction’ Category

Unless you sustained some sort of head injury last week, you’re likely well aware that we landed a probe on a comet for the first time in human history. If you missed it–or even if you didn’t–check out XKCD’s animated flipbook of the landing.

One of the crazy weird things about living in the Information Age is that we’re witnessing many of our ancestors’ wild imaginings becoming reality. (Still working on hoverboards, though.) Of course, it’s not just about creating new gadgets, but discovering more about our world and ourselves. So here’s some exciting (if sometimes alarming) and recent science news:


It feels strange (and possibly insensitive?) to start a series of posts about the end of the world on today of all days, but it’s also strangely appropriate, I think. It’d be overly simplistic and naïve to say that the 9/11 terrorist attacks are fully responsible for our current fascination with the apocalypse, but it would be equally simplistic and naïve to say that they had nothing to do with it. Bottom line: just about every culture in the world has an apocalypse myth, from the Seventh Day Adventists to the Vikings. It is an ingrained part of any religious system; most polytheistic pantheons have a deity just for destruction. Kali Durga. Sekhmet. The Cailleach. (Funny how all of these are goddesses . . .)

So, no, our obsession with armageddon is not new. Our ancestors saw stars fall and floods happen and they got it. Life is fragile. The world as we know it can be over real quick if that’s what nature/Jörmungandr decides.

By the same token, a lot of contemporary anxieties about the end of civilization have to do, I’d argue, with current events. We see a similar fascination with the destruction of our society during the Cold War, when nuclear holocaust seemed like a real possibility to many. (By the way, Cold War B-movies are the best at expressing our cultural anxieties. They’re beautifully awful and not the least bit subtle.) Post-9/11–in an era when we worry about running out of water or, conversely, having too much water or being hit by asteroids or choking death in car exhaust or simply being undone by our own political system–is it any wonder that the apocalyptic genre has blown open like a faulty nuclear reactor?*

What I find most interesting is how this obsession translates to the dystopian genre, which, while related, is quite different. If there’s anything that fascinates us more than the end of the world, it’s what happens after the end of the world. Or to quote the truly terrible 2012, “the end is just the beginning.” Which, yeah, any zombie movie worth its salt knows that the story is about the survivors, the people who have witnessed the horrors of a cataclysm and by some ill luck lived. But the dystopian fiction of today takes it beyond the stragglers of Beckett’s Endgame or Matheson’s last man standing in I am Legend. These stories allow us to rebuild, to create new societies in the wake of utter disaster.

The problem is, we still manage to bungle it pretty horribly. Hence the dys— in dystopia. I mean, the Capitol in The Hunger Games has not learned any lessons from the totalitarian regimes of yesteryear. Neither have the soulless agricultural corporations in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. Or the isolationist residents of the Dome in Julianna Baggott’s Pure.

What do we draw from this? I think, yes, one of the reasons we obsess over the apocalypse is that it is a strange opportunity for a blank slate. After all, the survivors can be whoever they want in the wake of it, leave their old lives and old mistakes behind. And on a large scale, we can also do that as a society–eventually rebuild civilization as we see fit. But to what end? Because the message behind post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction is that we always manage to mess it all up again–sometimes worse than before.

Do you read apocalyptic fiction? Dystopian fiction? What draws you to it? What trends have you noticed?

*I know, I know, they don’t usually blow up. They just eat through their containers and render the surrounding countryside completely toxic and uninhabitable for centuries.

Yesterday, I finally sat down and watched Contagion. The movie was so-so and not something I’d discuss here anyway, but it did contain that zinger of a line above. Possibly, the only moment of really decent writing in the whole film and it felt totally discordant, probably because it is so sharp.

And then, Lightspeed posted this brilliantly thorough interview with Mira Grant–aka Seanan McGuire–the lady responsible for the Newsflesh trilogy. (If you like zombies and political thrillers, you really, really ought to read them.) Of course, Grant deals with the development of blogging heavily in her novels. Bloggers are the new journalists, which isn’t quite true in Contagion yet, but it gets there. What’s interesting in both cases is that catastrophic events (basically, two epidemics) catapult blogging into the realm of “serious journalism.”

Now, you’ll probably argue, isn’t that already true? Huffington Post is basically one giant blog, and then there are the Gawker websites (Jezebel, io9, Lifehacker, etc). Don’t half of us already get most of our news from Twitter and Youtube?

Grant admits that when she wrote Feed, blogging hadn’t reached the level of ubiquity it has today. Regardless, I think her novels (and Contagion in its own ham-handed way) raise some interesting questions about the blogosphere and journalistic integrity.

After all, anyone with an internet connection (fast or slow) can be a blogger. Obviously, all you need is a wordpress account and enough time. Most blogs don’t have the mainstream appeal we see in these fictional accounts, but there are some people (including Grant/McGuire) who have quite an impressive following.

Now I’m not a huge fan of mainstream media, especially the 24-hour news cycle, but you can make the argument that among journalists there’s professional accountability for bad reporting. The different networks are constantly ragging on each other for misrepresentation, etc. You can usually say the same of news websites (although I’ve seen some unabashedly poorly reported stuff on Huffpost). But where does accountability in blogging come from?

It’s kind of exciting and terrifying, because accountability comes from the readership. If I find faulty information on a blog, information without sources, or just grossly biased material, I’m probably not going to go back to that blog. The internet is huge–there’s plenty else for me to read. So, you can make an argument for a truly democratic process. More successful blogs get more readers, more readers make the blogs more successful, ad infinitum.

But this doesn’t account for the kind of internet frenzy that happens around mimetic material. Kony 2012 is probably one of the most famous recent examples. Yes, the group’s misleading claims were eventually brought to light by several interested individuals, but a fair bit of damage had already been done. Thousands of young people had given money to support a group they didn’t actually know very much about.

And if the situation were even more serious, as it is in Contagion for example, how do we create accountability then? And how do we protect the online community from people who would mislead us for their own gain?

Just one of the many ways we’re living science fiction, folks.

What are your thoughts on the ethics of blogging? How do you verify what you read online?