Slate: Cory Doctorow: The Dangers of Cynical Sci-Fi Disaster Stories, subtitled, I’m changing how I write fiction—for the benefit of the real world.
The essay is on occasion of the publication of Doctorow’s latest novel, Attack Surface, a follow-up to his earlier YA novels Little Brother (2008) and Homeland (2013). It begins (I believe he lives in Burbank now):
When I moved to California from Toronto (by way of London), I was shocked by the prevalence of gun stores and, by their implication, that so many of my reasonable-seeming neighbors were doubtless in possession of lethal weapons. Gradually the shock wore off—until the plague struck. When the lockdown went into effect, the mysterious gun stores on the main street near my house sprouted around-the-block lines of poorly distanced people lining up to buy handguns. I used to joke that they were planning to shoot the virus and that their marksmanship was not likely to be up to the task, but I knew what it was all about. They were buying guns because they’d told themselves a story: As soon as things went wrong, order would collapse, and their neighbors would turn on them.
He goes on to discuss cliches of disaster stories, which assume that when disaster hits everyone will turn on each other—and thus prime people to expect the worst. Doctorow invokes Daniel Dennett’s notion of “intuition pumps,” after the title of his 2013 book that I blogged about here.
Made-up stories, even stories of impossible things, are ways for us to mentally rehearse our responses to different social outcomes. Philosopher Daniel Dennett’s conception of an intuition pump—“a thought experiment structured to allow the thinker to use their intuition to develop an answer to a problem”—suggests that fiction (which is, after all, an elaborate thought experiment) isn’t merely entertainment.
Then follow examples of mayhem when people turn brutal.
But according to Dennett, this isn’t just fiction—it is the stuff we’ve fueled our intuition pumps with. The problem is, it’s wrong. It makes for good stories, but those stories don’t reflect the truth of the world as I see it. Humanity is, on balance, good. We have done remarkable things. The fact that we remain here today, after so many disasters in our species’ history, is a reminder that we are a species of self-rescuing princesses—characters who save one another in crisis, rather than turning on ourselves.
This leads to the paradoxical usefulness and danger of stories. Stories are ways to “mentally rehearse our responses to different social outcomes” as Doctorow says, whether they are about social manners in Jane Austen novel, or how people respond when the plague strikes. Stories are also simplifications of the real world, in which the most popular stories “explain” things in basic terms of black and white, good and evil. Stories imagine that the complex world can be understood in simplex terms.
That’s why the most basic, simple (and most popular) stories are virtually always wrong, in some crucial way, and therefore potentially dangerous. The prime example, I would suggest, are superhero and superspy movies (like James Bond) in which a single evil force wreaks havoc across the world, and it’s up to our hero to save the day. Watch too many of these, and the idea that a single conniving person, or group of evil people working in conspiracy, can fool the world into doing their bidding (like Plandemic and QAnon) seem completely plausible.
They’re nonsense. There are no superheros, and there are no super-villains plotting against the world until Superman or James Bond takes them down.
There are very occasional verified conspiracies, but they tend to be along the lines of corporate conniving to hide evidence of malpractice, e.g. the scandal in recent years with auto-makers faking emissions data. And these conspiracies were uncovered by the mainstream media — not promoted by the fringe media. And such malpractice is what regulations are for, the kinds of regulations conservatives insist are hostile to business and are always trying to repeal.
What about stories, fiction, in general?
To simplify grossly, I’m sure: for the past century, or so, modern “mainstream” fiction has been about the individual experience. The prototypical story, one is taught in school, is about an individual who confronts a challenge, overcomes it (or not) and is changed by the experience. The personal change, the personal experience, is what matters. (This why most literary critics who read science fiction, in the 1950s and ’60s, disregarded it, even when well-written, as irrelevant.)
Centuries ago, such fiction would have been incomprehensible. Stories were epics about a hero who went out into the world, defeated the monster, challenged himself, and returned to tell the tale. (Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces [the basis for Star Wars].)
So what about science fiction? Well, SF stories are ways to “mentally rehearse” the human response to change, whether change is technological innovation or new revelations about the nature of reality. At their best. There are SF stories that reflect the simplistic good vs. evil narratives that are always the most popular. (Notes for the Book: Hierarchy of Science Fiction.) But the best, most ambitious, SF addresses issues bigger than personal concerns, issues about humanity’s place in the universe. This is the usefulness of the best SF: it challenges us to expand our perspectives, and it doesn’t pander to the simplistic dualistic take on the world that most people take for granted.