I haven’t posted a blog in a while because I’ve been in the process of moving from a small town home to an island cabin in a lake in Northern Ontario, Canada. It’s off the grid and as of this writing I still don’t have my solar power system up and running yet, so electricity is rationed!
I don’t think of my new home as all that isolated—I have neighbours and an all-season road just a few kilometers away—but while visiting my kids and their families in Toronto recently, the contrast struck me as pretty extreme. On the one hand, millions of people filling huge tracts of cookie-cutter housing and scores of high-rise condominiums, clogging eight-lane highways and a vast transit network. On the other hand, my wife and I using a snowmobile to get between house and car, and sometimes not seeing another soul for days at a time.
It often makes me think of those post-apocalyptic science fiction stories in which one lone man or woman faces a struggle to survive on their own resources. Stories like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend—a story of a lone survivor of a biological disaster amid a world of zombies. It’s been filmed numerous times under various names, starring Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, Will Smith and others. Why are such stories so popular? Is it because being left on our own is our greatest fear? Or our secret wish? Do we thrill with horror at the thought of being left to our own devices in a starkly hostile world, or is such a scenario a kind of wish fulfillment when the pressure of our crowded cities begins to get to us?
Scenarios like these aren’t impossible—if the human race is wiped out (absent the complete destruction of the planet) someone will be the last. And I accept it as a good way of telling a narrative that helps the reader fully identify with the protagonist. But such extraordinary solitude is usually anything but deliberate.
There are also space tales of lone humans being stranded on strange planets through accident or misfortune and thrust into a battle for survival. Andy Weir’s The Martian comes to mind. But it’s notable that, while astronaut Mark Watney manages to survive for a time on his own, ultimate safety requires a massive effort involving hundreds of people to bring him home.
That’s realistic. We need others to help us survive.
What I find hard to swallow are the stories that place a single human in space or on another planet as part of a deliberate plan, assigned to carry out some lonely duty. The reason they’re sent alone is rarely given. The Sam Rockwell movie Moon is one such. Yes, he has the ‘companionship’ of an AI, but no living human, and strange experiences ensue. Other SF short stories and novels also feature loner types assigned to some isolated outpost all on their own.
Why would anyone think that was a good idea?
There are, and maybe always have been, some people who choose to live a solitary life and manage to be self-sufficient—more or less—prospectors, lighthouse keepers, and fur trappers, for instance. But even most of them ultimately depend on others in some way, coming in from the wilderness to trade goods for food and other supplies produced by someone else. And that’s on the planet Earth, rich with sufficient air, water, energy, and food for our needs. Lone spacemen exploring the vast expanses between the stars in one-man ships doesn’t make a lot of sense (much as I love the Beowulf Shaeffer stories of Larry Niven’s Known Space series). The infrastructure required to support several people, or a dozen, isn’t that much greater than what’s required for a single pilot, yet offers so much more productivity, and sheer redundancy in the event of an accident or failure of some kind. And that’s not even considering the mental side-effects of prolonged and extreme solitude.
We’re social creatures—we evolved that way and we reject it only at great risk to our mental and physical health. We need others for company; we need others for the skills and labour they offer beyond our own; and we often need others to bail us out when we get in a jam. (My wife and I live on an island, but we’ve only managed to build our home and maintain it with the generous and all-too-frequent help of many friends and family members.)
So write your adventure yarn about the amazing outcast who braves the uncaring universe all alone. But please give me a darn good reason he or she isn’t doing it with a little help from their friends.