Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Japan. Maybe even more than most North Americans, because I have a wonderful Japanese daughter-in-law, I’ve visited the country, and I have a great affection and admiration for the people. The earthquake, tsunami, and the ongoing nuclear threat have tested Japan and its people in many ways.
Of course, this isn’t the only major disaster in recent years: a serious earthquake in New Zealand just last month, unimaginable flooding in Australia, the devastating earthquake in Haiti last year, even the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia are all vivid in our memories. And that’s a very short list, not including any manmade disasters.
It occurred to me that disaster stories have always been a mainstay of speculative fiction. My own story “Tartarus Rising” was recently published in the anthology Doomology: The Dawning Of Disasters, a collection of twenty-three examples of the form, all very different. I’ve also written a story called “The Cleansing” about a future consequence of genetic modification of crops. But why the fascination with disasters?
Apart from the fact that they’re naturally compelling, they also offer lots of narrative and dramatic potential. The moment a disaster strikes, any number of conflicts arise: man against nature, man against man, man against self, and nearly endless subcategories. There are always elements of a trial, ordeal, or quest—classic themes of fiction. Manmade, and even many natural disasters, provide the opportunity for the perennial SF strengths: allegory and cautionary prescience. But, perhaps most of all, disasters are the perfect means to reveal character.
I’ve heard it said that fiction isn’t about stories, it’s about the people the stories happen to. And a disaster scenario is guaranteed to reveal the best and the worst in a person, whether real or fictional.
In the media, much has been made of what the recent disasters have revealed about the character of the Japanese people. But these events, and even more so disasters like the earthquake in Haiti, reveal just as much about the character of the rest of the world community. Good and bad.
Maybe that’s why they’re so compelling—they teach us about ourselves as well as those with whom we share the planet. I think that’s reason to conclude that disaster stories in SF won’t be going out of fashion anytime soon.
On a completely different note, I was glad to see the newest issue of On Spec hit the stands. It includes my story "The Wind Man" about a born storyteller with a very unusual curse. I hope you'll get your hands on a copy. The whole issue is very good.