Sci-Fi Has a Somber Lesson for This Crisis
Preface: I read a lot. I always have. Take any picture of a teenager today, PhotoShop out their smartphone and replace it with a book, and you’ll have an image of my entire childhood. I read all day, all night; I read at dinner, sometimes sneaking a book to the table under my shirt. I read well past the point in school where reading time had ended and math had begun. I read while walking and even while crossing the street, despite threats more gruesome than the actual vehicular death they were intended to prevent.
In my later years, the bulk of that reading has been science fiction. So that’s the lens from which I tend to view life—and boy, have I been thinking about life a lot lately. For one thing, it seems like we should have had more than enough technology and knowledge to address this coronavirus crisis swiftly and effectively. Yet as we endure an utterly extraordinary stretch of history, the lessons of all that sci-fi have led me to a painful conclusion: there’s not enough tech in the universe to save humans from ourselves.
There were several things that struck me about Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves when it came out in 2015. As always, I found the sense of scale and perspective strangely comforting. Both Seveneves and Stephenson’s earlier Anathem cover timespans of thousands of years. In Anathem, a modern society similar to the one we live in today finds the ruins of a much older society that was also similar to the one we live in today.
That’s the comforting part: No matter what disaster befalls us—up to and including, in Seveneves, the moon disintegrating into trillions of tiny pieces that enter the atmosphere, burst into simultaneous flame, and boil the planet—there will still be some people around five thousand years later to tell the tale and be changed by their own history.
The less comforting parts, though, involve how people react in the face of calamity. Although human conflict is the central element of almost all -fi, sci or not, it’s the rare story that matter-of-factly plays out that conflict to the point where it almost obliterates the human race.
I am not going to apologize for Seveneves spoilers, because, well, it’s been five years. The novel recounts how a small fraction of the Earth’s population flees to space, and promptly proceeds to wage internecine war to such an extent that eventually only seven women are left (the seven “Eves”). And even those women still have disagreements so profound that they still resonate 5,000 years later, in the form of seven different species of humans.
Not for nothing, the way the last remaining people in the universe tear themselves apart is through social media. (Stephenson extends the same idea to terrifying extent in his newest book, The Fall, or, Dodge in Hell.) I asked him about his views on social media back in 2015, and he was cavalier: It was just a useful plot device, he said, a way for people to argue and provoke each other into existential conflict. Only later did he seem to realize how much of a plot point he’d really hit upon.
I bring this up because I remember being shocked, reading the book, at how nihilistic it was in its acceptance of this conflict. Stephenson doesn’t try to resolve it at all. His villainous characters are unapologetically villainous. They’re narcissistic and vain, fomenting discord on purpose even when the fate of humanity is at stake. To the end, they cling to their misguided and selfish purpose; and nothing, not even being one of the last seven human beings alive, will dissuade them. There is no heroic joining of hands. There is no happy ending. There is no miraculous moment of realization and profound personal change for the greater good. No one is redeemed. These villains truly are, as my mother used to tell me, the heroes of their own stories.