The Dangers of Cynical Sci-Fi Disaster Stories

New stories will help us understand the importance of seizing the means of computation and using it to build movements that break up monopolies, fight oligarchy, and demand pluralistic, shared power for a pluralistic, shared world.

Humanity is, on balance, good. We have done remarkable things. The fact that we remain here today, after so many disasters in our species’ history, is a reminder that we are a species of self-rescuing princesses—characters who save one another in crisis, rather than turning on ourselves.

The historical evidence supports this as well. As Rebecca Solnit’s essential 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, lavishly demonstrates, crises are when our species shines, moments of great personal and group sacrifice, marred not by barbaric opportunism but by the expectation of barbaric opportunism. “Elite panic” is the sociological term for it, when wealthy people are convinced that the peasants will dissolve into bestiality and preemptively start shooting anyone who wanders into their neighborhoods during a crisis.

I think that our pulp fiction has done us a disservice, creating a commonsense assumption that we are one power failure away from Mad Max: Fury Road. The reality is ever so much messier, full of people trying to do the right thing—which still causes high-stakes, serious conflicts, but they’re conflicts of good faith and sincere disagreement.

Not only does the red-of-tooth-and-claw storyline misprime our intuition pumps, it’s also lazy storytelling that squanders the opportunity to get more plot into the tale, as the gnarly, complicated stories of irreconcilable, good-faith conflicts are so much more fascinating than merely staving off the ravening hordes of bestial proles who show up as soon as the lights go out.

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