Monday, February 11, 2019

Unsafe Spaces

by J.D. Popham

The world is trying to kill you.

Really. Not a joke. Just ask Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The universe in general, and the Earth in particular, are working very, very hard at your untimely demise. From your first breath until you shuffle off this mortal coil, you are on a cosmic hit list as the world conspires to lay you low.

Image Credit: NASA/Don Davis
The good news is it’s not personal. The universe has it in for every living thing. It’s all part of the vast celestial clockwork we inhabit. Think of the universe as an unthinkably massive threshing floor on which the evolutionary wheat is continually and repeatedly separated from the evolutionary chaff. Its fell machinery is relentless, implacable and it never stops. Not ever. Like all other organisms on Earth or in the universe at large, humans are never far from the shadow of the winnowing fan.

To readers for whom being fed, warm and safe is the baseline state, this may sound a tad alarmist. Even in a year rife with natural and human-made disasters, things probably seem far less…perilous than I’m making them sound. In fact, if one were to put together a Relative Peril Scale showing the degree of immediate threat to which individual humans and the overall species are exposed, we’d find that humans are relatively safe at the moment.

Relatively. At the moment.

As they say on financial prospectuses, past performance is not an indicator of future results. Humanity's track record for dodging the universe's efforts to knock that smug look off our collective face only goes back a few hundred years. That's slim to the point of being non-existent when held up against a geological (let alone a cosmological) time table. The universe has plenty of time on its hands. It plays a long game. 

Such a long game, in fact, that human thinking goes a bit wobbly when we try to play on the same temporal game board. It’s hard for humans to take seriously threats that haven’t occurred within living memory, or that come at us so slowly and incrementally that our short-game brains dismiss them. This is why, against all common sense and scientific evidence, we have anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and the 'raw water' craze.

Science fiction, of course, has been tossing around the apocalyptic football for well over a century. With little required by way of pesky science, one can remake the world pretty much as one pleases in order to deliver a cautionary tale, moral message or post-apocalyptic theme park. The end of modern civilization is prime real estate for issuing doleful cautions and commentaries on the shortcomings of modern society and its institutions. Or for positing better worlds that might bloom from the ruins were apocalyptic upheaval to hit the the civilization reset button.    
Still, for all our noodling over the end of the world as we know it, science fiction’s post-apocalyptic societies of late seem, more often than not, surprisingly familiar places. They tend to reflect mindsets and moralities that have emerged during humanity’s moment of relative security. It is ironic that we raze our civilization to the ground so often and so blithely in our flights of fancy these days, yet seem reluctant, even a bit squeamish, when it comes to acknowledging the degree to which such events would also remake who we are.

Rachel, the protagonist of Jeff Vandermeer's Borne, for example, is presented as a hardened scavenger under constant existential threat. She lives in a devastated city situated on the banks of a toxic river, and afflicted by a giant flying bear who gobbles humans by the pawful. The city is chockablock with lethal traps and pitfalls. Sudden death lurks around every corner. Yet Borne's violence tends to occur offstage or at a far distance, rendering the humans who suffer death and dismemberment comfortingly anonymous. As a result, Rachel's character renders more as a twenty-something liberal arts grad living in a transitional urban neighborhood than as the hard-bitten survivor of a cruelly dystopian city.

In part this is endemic to story-telling. Audiences enjoy a tale more when they can admire or sympathize with an author's characters as they confront mutants, zombies, and roving gangs of apocalyptians® with perfectly horrible table manners. That's difficult to do if the chords of reason or emotion struck by the characters don't resonate with the audience. Stories that reflect the target audience's cognative biases are much more likely be successful than those that challenge them. Authors who peddle safe, comforting stories rarely want for work.

However, social media seems to have exacerbated this tendency, narrowed the spectrum of character with which it's acceptable to engage. Genre fiction in particular has become prone to literary ethnocentrism, with authors and audiences self-selecting into isolated cultural pockets, each confident in its own superiority and speaking only to its own. We have become dabblers around the edges when it comes to cultural collapse. The deeper waters are murky and have an unwholesome look. They teem with dark, discomforting ideas about who we are, and why, and what we are capable of becoming. Authors who enter the deep, who dare stir up such dangerous creatures, are rarely loved by those whose social paradigms they ruffle.

Yet, science fiction at its best dares those darker waters. It trades in unsettling ideas, gives witness to dangerous visions. It seeks to divine our essential nature: to look beyond the zeitgeist of our current cultural moment, pull down the mask of ought-to-be and catch us up in an unsparing glimpse of our own true selves. It forces us to grapple with our mutable nature, which is both curse and gift.

The universe, meanwhile, cares not a fig for our social paradigms. It merely subjects them to the relentless binary test it applies to everything: Will a given tendency improve your odds of avoiding extinction? That's it. Yes or no. Pass or fail. It will continue to shape us. At the margins for the moment, and wholesale should the institutions that protect us fail. Truths we think universal and immutable will be scoured away, and scoffed at by futures that (as most futures do) imagine themselves superior to the past.

Assuming there's anyone left to remember us at all.