Sci-Fi Has a Somber Lesson for This Crisis

As it happens, a lot of the books I was reading in the mid-2010s were touching on some version of this theme. The Expanse, a sprawling space adventure series in which the only enduring elements are people disagreeing to the point of apocalyptic war. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, in which disagreements over whether and how to colonize Mars end in catastrophic rebellions. That’s just as true of all the sci-fi that had come before, of course, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica and Ender’s Game and even Avatar (heaven help me); all the way to Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. In every one, dramatic interpersonal disagreements are at the core.

But there was something about reading Seveneves in 2015 that really got to me—depressed me, really. I had to turn to lighter fare because I’d become so frustrated from reading about all the ways that people would figure out to kill each other, and all the ways they’d fail to unite in the face of even the apocalypse. I rejected the narrative. (I believe the Great British Baking Show may have entered the picture at this point.)

Fast-forward to today, and we’re living in that narrative. It’s the most technologically advanced time in human history, when cars should fly and replicators should generate carbon-free foods for all. We’ve seen the incredible advances of artificial intelligence and personalized medicine and 3D printing and the internet, for crying out loud—a means of holding the entire repository of human history available for all to see and learn from … and yet we’re still doing heroes-and-villains, and neither side knows whether it’s one or the other.

There are no excuses for a failure to work together to figure out how to contain, treat, and eventually cure Covid-19. None. We have the technology and resources; and heaven knows we have the money—the richest people and the richest nations have the money to help the poorest ones, and so to help us all.

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Some of this technology and cooperative spirit has come to bear on the pandemic in incredible ways. Those 3D printers are churning out testing swabs and face shields and masks, on factory floors and in living rooms. Telemedicine is letting people get assessed for Covid-19 symptoms at home, without putting anyone at risk. Machine learning is sifting through potential therapies, analyzing millions of human cells looking for antibodies to help fight the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Bill Gates is popping up vaccine factories, prepared to jettison most of them once a promising path emerges. People are helping each other, individually and in neighborhoods and in communities.

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Yet discord persists (just look up the coordinated conspiracy theories about Gates himself), and it’s the kind that kills. At the end of March, the New Yorker published a piece about plague fiction, and boy howdy is it a dark one. Since the 1600s, as the stories would have it, leaders have failed to lead and people have witlessly failed to listen. Most works in this genre are about the inability of humans to prevent the worst. Most are, arguably, about humans’ being the worst.

I think it’s fair to say we’re witnessing that play out today, to a distressing degree, whether through politics, incompetence, profiteering, selfishness, conspiracy, racism, ageism, or the occasional outright malice.

Here’s what I want. I want my fiction to be fiction. William Gibson told me in a recent interview that a story would just be boring if it didn’t have a good guy and a bad guy. I can accept this in storytelling, but I’d like the real world to get a lot more boring, in a hurry. If the lesson of all the stories I’ve ever read is the people gonna people, even to the last, well. I guess I’m still hoping for a happy ending.

Photographs: Science Source; NASA; Forrest J. Ackerman/Corbis/Getty Images; Sylvia Bors/Getty Images; Jeff Kowalsky/Getty Images


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