vol. 2, #43, June 6, 1997
You know, beneath everything we do in our day to day life is a set of assumptions about the world, assumptions so gut-level we don't even know we're making them, until they turn out to be suddenly, spectacularly wrong--even Californians assume the ground will stay beneath their feet, right up until the moment of the earthquake. We also make assumptions about human nature, about order and the rule of law. We assume that civilization is a given, solid and enduring.
One of the things speculative fiction does is show us that civilization is, in fact, a fragile, delicate thing. What these stories do is say, "What if...?" Now, that "if" may be a modest change, an altering of just one teeny little thing about our world. But that one little change destroys not only the world we have come to know, but the world we assume will always be.
One of our gut level assumptions is that most of us can see. What does this mean? That we can cross the street safely because we can see traffic coming--and cars are coming because drivers can see where they are going. We can repair engines and mix margaritas and figure people's taxes, catch baseballs and browse in bookstores, because we can see what we're doing. And we can care for the few who are blind, and train them to survive in a seeing world.
But in John Wyndham's book, Day of the Triffids, virtually everyone is simultaneously struck blind, without notice. They all assume that someone else will take care of them, but there is no someone else, because nearly everybody is in the same plight. People panic. And civilization vanishes. Wyndham makes us see that the simple basic human kindness we assume as normal cannot happen unless we know our own needs will be taken care of first. Nor does Wyndham give his characters time to restore civilization, because newly blinded, nearly helpless people are now on an even playing field with a powerful enemy, the triffids--intelligent mobile plants. (There's another assumption for you--plants don't move or think.)
Wyndham makes us see how much we depend on thousands of people we never met, people who day after day generate electricity, catch crooks, plant wheat, deliver truckloads of food to grocery stores. We assume they will do their work. What happens when nobody is able to work is the subject of this and many other science fiction and disaster novels.
Stephen King's The Stand is a particularly interesting example. He shows the spread of a deadly man-made plague. Just as in Wyndham's book, virtually everyone is stricken, with hardly anybody available to care for them, and again, people panic, and do desperate things. There is nobody left to enforce the law--which is just as well, because law assumes that basic human needs can be met in socially acceptable ways, and this is no longer the case.
But there are survivors, and they have a powerful need to re-establish government, though in two different places, and in two very different ways. Randall Flagg, the dark force, governs by terror--people do what he tells them to do because they prefer not to be crucified on a telephone pole. The heroes, on the other hand, re-create a democratic government, complete with bill of rights (though they stack the decks to get this government voted into place--they don't trust ordinary people all that much). King clearly believes that most of the human race is morally neutral, as good or evil as their surroundings encourage them to be. We cannot just assume good government. We have to create good government if we wish to have good people.
The assumption that government will help you in emergencies is a driving force in David Brin's The Postman, in which nuclear catastrophe has destroyed much of the United States. The protagonist, by wearing the coat of a dead postman, becomes an accidental hero to the struggling decent people trying to restore civilization, a symbol of the government they assume will protect them against the thugs. At first the hero protests that he is no such thing. But, as one person after another hands him a letter to carry, he comes to see how much they need to believe in that protective government, how much the assumption that someone will be along shortly to rescue them makes it possible for them to get on about the business of rescuing themselves.
Another assumption of western civilization is that the earth is there for us to use, and perhaps use up. But what if the earth refuses to let us strip it of its oil and gold and water? What if it destroys those who come to conquer, and yields itself to those who walk gently upon it? That is the planet Petaybee, in Powers That Be, by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Scarborough. And what if the animals stop living contentedly beside us, choose to attack us, as in Daphne Du Maurier's short story, "The Birds" (and the Alfred Hitchcock movie based upon it)? These are books that make us re-think our place in nature.
Most of us assume we are in control of our own decisions, our own destinies, an assumption challenged in Frederic Brown's powerful two page story, "Recessional." It tells a story of a kingdom at war, with countless lives lost on the field of battle, foot soldiers and knights alike. Even their advisor the bishop has fallen, and the queen has died. Slowly we realize that the desperate king and his few remaining defenders are...chess pieces.
And of course, I've already written a column, Computer Shy, about the assumption we on the net hold dear--that we are in control of our computers, and that they will always wor&%#zhbu80jkq0=]iu
Just a joke, guys. We hope.
There are those who think speculative fiction is a waste of time, cotton candy for the brain. But it has a unique ability to open our eyes to our assumptions, to show us how precarious and precious civilization is, how we are dancing on the edge of the world. Those who read such fiction can never fully trust the world. As Dorothy Gilman says, in her wonderful book, The Tightrope Walker,
Sometimes I think we're all tightrope walkers suspended on a wire two thousand feet in the air, and as long as we never look down we're okay, but some of us lose momentum and look down for a second and are never quite the same again: we know.
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