Thursday, October 15, 2020

Cory Doctorow Wonders about the Impact of his Fiction

Cory Doctorow made a lot of money writing bleak books about people turning on each other after a disaster:

The central crisis—a nuclear meltdown, a viral pandemic, a breakdown of our networks or computers—is turned into a catastrophe when the other people around your characters turn out to have been beasts all along, their vicious true natures barely kept in check all these years by the fragile veneer of civilization. Your character might be part of a team, but they’re still a small band of heroes fighting against a brutal and vicious world.

This is the thought experiment of a thousand sci-fi stories: When the chips are down, will your neighbors be your enemies or your saviors? When the ship sinks, should you take the lifeboat and row and row and row, because if you stop to fill the empty seats, someone’s gonna put a gun to your head, throw you in the sea, and give your seat to their pals? I’ve committed this sin myself. Right at the start of the first novel in my Little Brother series, a character gets stabbed in a crowded subway by someone who is apparently just knifing people at random in a crowd. That’s never explained, and no one has ever asked me about it. It’s just people being awful.

But now he wonders if books like his are part of the reason Americans have no faith in each other:

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.

I wonder about this, too. Our culture is saturated with stories about the Purge, a day on which the law is suspended and all our neighbors turn into murderous fiends, or scenarios like the Walking Dead, in which the zombies are a weak threat compared to the way our fellow humans act once the government is gone. Is that helping to make us paranoid? Or do we like those stories because we already have a streak of paranoia?

Or maybe it doesn't mean anything, any more than Dracula stories mean we want to be threatened by the Undead.

Personally I think the real-life crime surge of the 70s and 80s, and the way it was covered in the news, did a lot more to make Americans fear each other than zombie stories. But I have to wonder about the almost automatic assumption of our movies and television series that ungoverned people will turn into monsters. Why do we enjoy believing that about each other?


David said...

FWIW, I wonder if this isn't just a sort of cul-de-sac that entertainment writers and producers have written themselves into. They all assume the genre has to work this way, so they give respect and contracts to people who write this way. Personally, I'm not a huge fan. I started out liking The Walking Dead, but the interhuman psychodrama got so tiresome, and the zombies so few and far between, that I quit about halfway through the first season. Someone needs to write a hit post-apocalypse series in which everyone hangs together, and then the worm will turn.

John said...

I'm trying!

G. Verloren said...

While I think negativity in our media does have an effect, I'm a little unsure what to think about how much of an effect it might actually be.

"Is that helping to make us paranoid? Or do we like those stories because we already have a streak of paranoia?"

Look at the 20th century. It's absolutely brimming with things that would make any sensible person paranoid. World War I, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, World War II, and then roughly half a century of living under the threat of global nuclear annihilation. And that threat still exists even now, a quarter century later!

You lived through much more of the Cold War, you tell me how paranoid it made people!

The 50s were defined by attempts to forget the horrors of World War II, and get back to life as it was before. The 60s were defined by attempts to usher in a new sort of world, a better world, whether that be through peace and drugs and rock and roll, or through the march of progress and the space race, or whatever else. The 70s were defined by a sort of cynical despair, recognizing that the world around us was insane, but fixing it felt impossible. The 80s were defined by simply no longer caring, adopting an apocalyptic stance of total hedonism - might as well dance and drink and do cocaine and sleep around, since the bombs could drop at any moment!

And then the Cold War suddenly ended and stunned the world, and the 90s were full of awkward optimism where anything felt possible - the world seemed to collectively be embracing more cooperation, diplomacy, prosperity, technological progress, etc.

And then the paranoia came back in full force after we suffered some awful terrorist attacks, and then the economy crashed again, and global diplomacy has stalled, and Fascism has been resurgent, and racial tensions have been flaring, and the global climate crisis that scientists have been trying to warn us about since literally the 1950s finally started to gain mainstream acceptance, half a century too late...

I'm not sure it's our stories that are making us cynical and paranoid, so much as I think it's the daily news, and our corporate overlords, and our corrupt politicians, and all the rest of the chaotic mess that is modern life.

G. Verloren said...

"But I have to wonder about the almost automatic assumption of our movies and television series that ungoverned people will turn into monsters. Why do we enjoy believing that about each other?"

Perhaps because literally the basic foundation of our society is competing with others to deprive them of resources and amass them for ourselves, instead of cooperating and sharing resources fairly and reasonably?

Teach people to exploit each other, and then wonder why they don't trust each other.