Sunday, April 4, 2010

The End of the World in Fiction - Obsessions and Responsibilities

The popularity of the movie '2012' is just one more indication of our collective obsession with the end of the world. As a SF/F/H writer, I believe this is all well and good.  But as a scientist, I have some concerns about how people view global disaster scenarios, and what that means for their overall perception of risk. After all, if people think the most likely cause of their personal demise will be an asteroid impact, they will think about it, vote around it, and change their lives because of it. Since I know it is far more likely that any individual human will die of cancer than an asteroid impact, I'd suggest they spend more time thinking about how much fiber is in their diet. But popular culture often wins out against common sense.

There are a vast host of scenarios for the end of the world, such as a solar flare, pandemic disease, climate change, and the old standby, massive impact. The art offered here is Solar Wrath illustrating the fate of two planets being cooked by an active star. The point isn't to try to say these events are impossible; of course they are possible, they are simply very, very unlikely. I love to read and write stories about various speculative ideas, disasters included, but I know where the fiction ends and science begins. You might want to take a look at a previous post (The Norway Spiral and the Difference Between Fiction, Lies, and Truth) for more of my ideas on that topic.

So what are the factors that cause us to be obsessed with global disaster scenarios? What inspires our sense of fear? I'd like to highlight four issues I think are important: perception of control, scale of event, religious overtones, and confronting the unknown.

Perception of Control.  The Fear - Some people have become almost hysterical when thinking about the plots of movies like '2012' and 'Deep Impact.' Yet the concept of a house fire, for example, does not generally cause this kind of reaction. People believe they have a measure of control over their fire risk. They can buy irons with an automatic shut off, they can stop smoking in the house, they can ensure matches are safely stored away from small hands.

The Reality - Yes of course, these actions will lower the risk of fire. But you can't control how your neighbors act, you can't see through your walls to the state of the wiring, and you can't keep people from pitching lit cigarettes out their car windows into your yard. In the end, it is still more likely you will have your house burn down than be killed by an asteroid, no matter what you do. Lifetime odds of dying by fire or smoke - 1 in 1,116; and for asteroid impact - 1 in 200,000. (source for data)

Scale of Event.  The Fear - Asteroid impacts are seen as more horrific than car accidents - one accident can only kill so many people. A big asteroid can take out the entire planet. So even though people are afraid of car accidents, they hold a more deep seating, horrified sort of fear for global disasters. Large scale disasters could destroy whole cultures, populations, and ways of life. These are the things people look to in the hopes of having a legacy beyond their own demise.  If these can be lost, then there is truly no hope for any kind of legacy, progeny included.

The Reality - Again, this has nothing to do with the real risk. We are more proportionately concerned with the bigger event, but it is that much less likely to happen. Odds of being killed in a car accident - 1 in 100. Now that's scary.

Spiritual Overtones.  The Fear - Many people had their first exposure to the idea of the end of the world in a religious or spiritual context. Several religions have writings describing the end of the world, and some have tried to predict it. There is a part of our psyche looking for a 'deeper meaning' to all events, and religion is how many of us express, investigate, and fulfill that need. On top of this is a current cultural idea that 'Mother Earth' is not pleased with how we have been taking care of the planet. There is an article in USA today which talks about people who are likely (and literally) to "buy" the plot of '2012'; those who believe "humanity is creating its own ecological disasters and desperately needs ancient indigenous wisdom." Of course this may be true. But we need to be careful about where we look for that wisdom.

The Reality - The issue with '2012' is that the plot is built from a misunderstanding of the ancient wisdom of the Maya, whose long count calendar comes full circle in 2012. It is a misunderstanding because the end of the world was not what the Maya predicted. They planned a big celebration to mark the end of one long cycle and the beginning of another. It is "a complete fabrication" that 2012 would be a "doomsday or moment of cosmic shifting." (from the USA today article). Apparently, the Maya would be rather surprised at our interpretation of their calendar.

Confronting the Unknown:  The Fear - As scary as a house fire might be, it is a much more known quantity than a solar flare. The unknown is a basic source of worry for all people, with a strong evolutionary driver. You can't predict or prepare for the unknown, by definition; you simply have to trust in your own resources and resilience. In a society as risk-avoidant as ours, where anything you own can be insured, unknown and unpredicted events and risks are abhorrent. Is your home insured against a solar flare? Most of us can't even get good flood insurance.

The Reality - We imagine something familiar or known as predictable, and therefore less scary. Let's consider cancer, something some of us know about all too well. Odds of dying from cancer - 1 in 7. This is far more worthy of getting hysterical over, in my opinion, than that 1 in 200,000 risk of asteroid impact death. Like I said, eat more fiber.

So what to do with this information?  I do not believe the answer is to stop writing stories or stop producing movies. There is certainly a function served by letting people consider their fears and issues in the context of entertainment. But I do think we need to keep an eye on our responsibility to impart correct information when the situation calls for it. Our fiction may take us anywhere, including doomsday type events of disaster and destruction. But that is the fiction. When dealing with people in public, in workshops, press events, book signings, and such, we should be up front about the truth. "So glad you liked my book. No it isn't reality, it is a science fiction story for entertainment. Here is the real deal (blah). Are you getting enough fiber?" (that last bit is a joke, in case you are a literalist) In the end, good education is what we need to rely on to be certain the general public knows the facts. And we have some responsibility to provide that education by representing our ideas in the correct context when the situation calls for it. I'm sure you'd agree that if we have to do actual fear mongering to sell our books, then our books just aren't very good.


Image Credit:  The above art "Solar Wrath" is used with generous permission from the artist, cilios, on deviantART.

My comments:  This work is simple and effective. While the scale is not true to life (for our solar system, say) the ejection of material from the star seems very realistic. The color of the primary grades from yellow to a searing, white hot. I like the way it imparts a sensation of movement and activity, and yes, the sense of doom. I do write horror, after all.


Cilios said...

Wonderful blog. What you say is true and that's exactly why people are stupid. Did you know that that we know more about planet Venus than we do about our oceans?

I enjoyed this blog a lot and I hope that we will collaborate again in the near future.

JA Grier (ee/em/eir) said...

Cilios - Thanks so much for coming to check out the blog. I'm glad you like it.

From my perspective, I don't see people as stupid, I just think many are poorly educated in science and/or have not developed good critical thinking skills. In the US, we do not place a proper emphasis on science in the public schools, and it is in science that people develop their ability to think critically. So the society has earned some of the burden of people who are easily taken in by hoaxes, urban legends, and portents of doom. That's one of the reasons why I mentioned that those of us who are writers in the genre have an opportunity to fill this gap a tiny bit.

Looking forward to sharing more of your art on the blog, thanks again!

Andy said...

I think there are some additional factors beyond fear that play into the popularity of end of the world stories: some people like to be scared. Extreme sports (and even more traditional ones like skiing) are the way that some get adrenaline rushes, other people, as far as I can tell, get them from imagining themselves in constant danger.

Similarly, I think some people like to imagine they are living in unique times. That naturally leads to somewhat apocalyptic attitudes.

I'm totally with you on this, of course. :) But I'm not sure how much these other attitudes affect things. If that makes any sense?

JA Grier (ee/em/eir) said...

Andy - Oh yes, my list was by no means comprehensive. You mention two others that are just as profound; that rush or desire for excitement, as well as the need to feel special or unique. Definitely more reasons that people obsess over apocalypse scenarios.