Quotes: Almost None […] Depict a Successful Transformation of Society

Cara Buckley’s 2019 article in New York Times talks about how environmental concerns have been depicted in some recent superhero and sci-fi movies. Climate change may have been moved to the back burner in recent news; nevertheless, in the beginning of the article there is a very important, timely nugget:

“Humans ruined everything. They bred too much and choked the life out of the land, air and sea.

“And so they must be vaporized by half, or attacked by towering monsters, or vanquished by irate dwellers from the oceans’ polluted depths. Barring that, they face hardscrabble, desperate lives on a once verdant Earth now consumed by ice or drought.

“That is how many recent superhero and sci-fi movies — among them the latest Avengers and Godzilla pictures as well as ‘Aquaman,’ ‘Snowpiercer,’ ‘Blade Runner 2049,’ ‘Interstellar’ and ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ — have invoked the climate crisis. They imagine postapocalyptic futures or dystopias where ecological collapse is inevitable, environmentalists are criminals, and eco-mindedness is the driving force of villains.

“But these takes are defeatist, critics say, and a growing chorus of voices is urging the entertainment industry to tell more stories that show humans adapting and reforming to ward off the worst climate threats.

“’More than ever, they’re missing the mark, often in the same way,’ said Michael Svoboda, a writing professor at George Washington University and author at the multimedia site Yale Climate Connections. ‘Almost none of these films depict a successful transformation of society.’ [emphasis added]”

Even though a pandemic is a very different kind of beast compared to apocalyptic-level climate catastrophes, the current covid-19 epidemic can surely feel like a devastation. I’ve certainly seen my share of panicky social media messages.

We’ve recently started re-watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and this line veritably jumped out:

ST DS9 s3 ep18 Distant Voices

“It’s just that… this year is a little different.”

Indeed—this year is different. Unlike good Doctor Bashir’s, though, our situation is a little more dire than turning thirty years of age.

Right now there’s no long-term data available, so any estimates of the long-term effects are guesses—at best cautious, at worst wild—but every opinion I’ve seen says the world will change as a consequence. And as a nerd, that interest me.

I can’t think of many speculative stories off the top of my head where the society has adjusted in a way that focuses on our shared humanity. On the contrary, most of them cannot seem to be able to find much good in human behavior during crises. Since social collapse at the beginning of a disaster is a myth, I’d like to see more stories concentrating on people working together. (That is my favorite kind of story for a reason, after all.)

There is one thing I do know, though, limited in scope as it is: I will be most seriously displeased if writers and producers of the future fail to learn from witnessing the amount of cooperation and outpouring of help people are providing not only their own communities but also strangers.

Buckley, Cara. “Why Is Hollywood So Scared of Climate Change?” New York Times, August 14, 2019.

Image: screencap from season 3 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, episode “Distant Voices”.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: Society Works Better Than It Ever Had

Arkady Martine wrote at Tor.com on disaster stories and human behavior, noting a pattern on concentrating on the catastrophic and awful. That, however, has been proven a myth, at least initially:

“Humans do not, under the pressure of an emergency, socially collapse. Rather, they seem to display higher levels of social cohesion, despite what media or government agents might expect… or portray on TV. Humans, after the apocalypse, band together in collectives to help one another—and they do this spontaneously. […]

“Humans all over the world display this behavior after disasters. They display it consistently, no matter what kind of disaster is happening or what culture they come from.

“What really happens after an apocalypse? Society works better than it ever had, for a brief time.” [original emphases]

– Arkady Martine

Yay, us! We did evolve as and still are highly social creatures.

Now, how long this century’s phenomenal technological change takes to alter that and in which ways remains to be seen. I have high hopes of our curiosity and drive to engage with others, however. That may be a bit funny for a huge introvert to say, but there it is. 🙂

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Visual Inspiration: An Underground Fire from 1962 Is Still Burning

Apparently in Pennsylvania, there’s a town—Centralia—all but abandoned due to a coal mine fire that’s been burning underground since 1962.

Flickr t3hWIT Centralia PA Cracked Old Route 61

There is disagreement over the cause of the fire. It seems that one way or another a surface fire moved into the system of mining tunnels below the town.

The effects are indisputable and scary: unstable ground, sink holes, damaged roads, plumes of hot steam, vents of smoke and toxic gases (like lethal levels of carbon monoxide), and, finally, evictions plus abandoned and/or demolished buildings.

Flickr Kelly Michals Coal Fire in 2011

Flickr dfirecop AP Photo Sinkhole

Speculative fiction that takes place in a post-catastrophy world of some sort immediately comes to mind, and no wonder. Even the little that I read gave me a glimpse on the variety of reactions people can have to major environmental disruptions and their aftermath. Not to mention that photos of the abandoned parts of Centralia are stunning. They remind me of Pripyat after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which is the closest equivalent I can think of from my childhood in Finland.

Found via Paul Cooper on Twitter. (Visit his Twitter tread for additional photos & info.)

Images: Cracked old Route 61 by t3hWIT on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). Coal fire in 2011 by Kelly Michals on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). Sinkhole from Feb. 14, 1981, by AP Photo via dfirecop on Flickr.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Glimpse of Behind the Scenes Driving in Fury Road

A short video compilation of raw footage from director George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road has surfaced:

Fury Road – Crash & Smash via ESPORTS TV

Included are shots of practice runs of some of the vehicle stunts. The skill of those production designers, explosion experts, cinematographers, stunt people, and drivers is staggering.

Found via io9 / Gizmodo.

Elsewhere in the Fury Road related Internet, there’s this music video by violinist, dancer, and artist Lindsey Stirling:

The Arena – Lindsey Stirling

It comes from her third full-length album, Brave Enough. I know Stirling from her Star Wars mashup video with Peter Hollens.

Awesome, awesome, awesome.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Down with Dull Dystopias

The other day, Prof and I were at the library borrowing some light evening viewing. On my way to the circ desk my eye fell on the Just Returned cart and on a relatively recent SFF novel that I’ve heard good things about. (I always stop to check the cart. It’s often the best spot to pick up the popular new acquisitions.)

I picked it up and flipped over to the book description to remind myself what it was about. The novel is set in an apocalyptic or dystopic world with major environmental issues. And that made me promptly put it back down. I didn’t even finish reading the book description.

What my reaction made me realize is that, for now, I’ve reached my tolerance for dark storylines with brooding characters in dire situations.

Supermoon Lunar Eclipse Starting

My little episode at the library collided with two random online pieces.

I was reading Tor.com’s coverage on the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award. In his acceptance speech, winner Adrian Tchaikovsky praised the other five shortlisted nominees for a recurring theme:

“One of the things that struck me about the shortlist for this year is empathy as a theme that runs through a lot of these books. Empathy across races, across borders… One of the things [my] book is about is the ability of humanity to seize value in things that are different, and the danger when that doesn’t happen.”

Tchaikovsky’s comment made me conscious of not just how done I am with dystopia, but also how much I’ve been missing stories where the nicer aspects of humanity are clearly present. That doesn’t mean all feel-good stories all the time. It does mean that lifting the darker side of humanity up into the limelight is not enough if, at most, the positive universals get slapped on like a thin coat of paint on a dilapidated theater.

The next day, I ran into an article at Literary Hub by Brandon Taylor. “There is No Secret to Writing About People Who Do Not Look Like You” focuses on the importance of empathy as an aspect of the writing craft:

“Stories have many functions: entertainment, healing, education, illustration, explanation, misdirection, persuasion. Stories have the power to shape worlds and to change lives, and so there is a lot at stake when an author sits down to write. Many people fold stories like delicate paper ships and launch them from obscure corners of the world, hoping that their ships land on distant shores and spread some of the truth of their lives to strangers. It is an act of communion, an act of humanity, the sharing of your story with another person. We each contain within us a private cosmos, and when we write of ourselves, we make visible the constellations that constitute our experience and identity.

[…]

“There can be no story without empathy. Our stories begin because we are able to enter the lives of other people. We are able to imagine how a person might move through the world, how their family might operate, what their favorite foods might be, how their nation works, how their town works, and the smallest, most inconsequential aspects of their lives rise up to meet us at our desks. You can’t write if you can’t empathize. Solipsism is anathema to good writing.”

Taylor’s piece crystallized in my mind why dystopias drag me down. It’s because many dystopic stories ignore or trivialize humane acts or traits like cooperative labor or generosity, and in doing so, they omit crucial aspects of humanity. And that—unless extremely, extremely skillfully executed—makes dystopias unsatisfying for me, exactly as I tend to think many utopian stories boring.

Empathy

Just like darker traits, selfless characteristics exist today because in the past they helped us survive. They still do. We need them, and we’re better for it.

So much of my reading lately has included dystopic worldbuilding. I didn’t realize quite how much that’s been subconsciously bothering me. I’m full, thank you. No wonder books like The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers—one of the Clarke nominees, by the by—make such joyful reading experiences.

Images: Supermoon Lunar Eclipse Starting by Eppu Jensen; Empathy by Pierre Phaneuf (pphaneuf) on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.