The Lazy Apocalypse

One of my usual rants is that science fiction writers are lazy. (And greedy, but that’s another story.) Of course, both accusations are not true when you look at the careers of specific writers and the fine work that most of them have produced. I’m speaking generally here about inventiveness. Given the brutal demands of both writing (the time out of a daily life it takes) and the ever-changing publishing world (shrinking markets, changing tastes, zombies, etc.) most writers sooner or later tend to reach for the low-hanging fruit in terms of inventiveness and creativity. After all, no one bats a thousand, not even in baseball to which the term mostly applies.

The first manifestation of this particularly kind of laziness shows itself in the recurring character story, especially as they appear in novels. Science fiction is rife with this phenomenon. It goes back to the penny-dreadfuls and dime novels of the late 19th century and became a staple in the career of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Today, nearly every writer has created a “universe” or a character (or set of characters) with their own series of stories. (Right now I’m reading the A. Bertram Chandler Commodor Grimes novels being reprinted by Baen Books.) Writers do this because fans love it first of all, but also because it’s easier for an author to conjure a story line with a familiar character than it is to make one out of whole cloth, especially when they have to do it month after month in order to pay rent. (This is not, by the way, a complaint: I’m a fan, too.) The Dune series, for example, has been extended into the past and future of the original Frank Herbert series by Brian Herbert (Herbert’s son) and Kevin J. Anderson and that series has met with some financial success because the readers (or enough of them, anyway) want to linger in that unique universe. Both Herbert and Anderson write well enough and the new Dune stories are entertaining. On those grounds alone they are of value as pure entertainments.

They’re still lazy.

And as often or not, these novels also follow familiar plots or action sequences. I mentioned Burroughs a moment ago. He mastered this formula this in almost every novel he wrote and became a millionaire because of it. The Burroughs novels followed a formula of separation, chase or flight, capture, followed by escape, then reunion. And the bad guys die. With an engaging writing style, this works, regardless the author. That’s why Burroughs’ novels are classics in the field, whether he’s writing about John Carter or Tarzan or Pellucidar.

A good writer, though, will hide the formulaic architecture and nobody really minds even if the structure of the novel is sometimes transparent: as long the reader has a good time. The lesson here is one of marketing: these stories and plot devices become just familiar enough to keep the reader hooked.

My complaint is about plotting here. It’s about the content of novels today that seem so unimaginative. This is especially true regarding the End of the World–or the Apocalypse.

Science fiction has always dealt with end-of-the-world stories from M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (or the final vision in Wells’ The Time Machine). The end of the world theme exists in all but the Asian cultures (China and Japan, not India) and Western Civilization seems to relish their end of the world tales from the end of Asgard to Richard Wagner’s massive Gotterdammerung operas. Of course, in a Christian culture we’ve got Revelations. We’ve also got the Mayan Calendar and 2012 (which was a bust).

What I’m seeing, though, in a lot of recent fiction is one of the most predictable (and as a consequence laziest) apocalypses: climate change. I think it most directly appeared first (at least recently) in Norman Spinrad’s Greenhouse Summer (2000), but I suspect that there were others before that novel. It’s just that quite a few stories seem to suggest that we’re going to suffer catastrophic disasters because of melting ice caps or droughts or whatever. The climate change trope is everywhere these days. Look to the stories in any of the “year’s best” anthologies, especially the Dozois collections, and you’ll find story after story dealing with some sort of environmental collapse. Rising seas. Clogged air above mega-cities. Fossil fuels being depleted, the death of whales. You even find stories talking about the “Amazon dunes” which imply that the Amazon will dry up and become a desert.

Is this the best we can come up with?

Look at the Masters: Yes, we had visions of hydrogen bombs coming at us over the horizon in the Cold War. But does anyone remember John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (1955) wherein the Chinese let loose (accidentally) a virus that killed grass? Something so simple as grass! Earlier we have comets coming near the earth (H.G. Wells and others). Childhood’s End (1953) is a great examples of humans being wiped out by an alien collective mind. Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud (1957) follows Childhood’s End but the black cloud (another massive intelligence) is indifferent to Earth and doesn’t much care that it’s blocking the sun’s rays until a human mind enters it and the cloud moves on. Greg Bear has a nice one in Blood Music and Michael Crichton in Prey.

But global warming? (Thank you already, Kim Stanley Robinson.) Cyber attacks? (Thank you everybody, from William Gibson onward.) And forget about Zombies. Richard Matheson got that first with I am Legend.

These days science fiction writers come up with the easy death. Ice age? Been there, done that. The death of women? Ditto. (Or the death of both men and women: Philip Wylie’s The Disappearance of 1951 has women going to another Earth while men, in their own parallel Earth reality, think the women have been abducted.) Purple clouds? Yellow clouds? Brown clouds? Yawn.

I do understand how hard it is to come up with something new or original every time, but I also hold writers to a high standard of inventiveness. I remember in the late Sixties and Seventies, writers such as Robert Silverberg came out with novel after novel that were each different and sometimes stylistically distinct. It was exciting to see. I learned as a writer not to repeat myself from these guys. And you’ll notice that Philip K. Dick did not repeat himself. (Nor did he write a series or a trilogy, nor did he write about climate change.)

I guess I’m saying that I’d like to see something different. I really miss the Good Old Days when you could find a novel that had something new instead of a re-mix or re-make or a re-hash of an older idea. You can look out your window and think of climate change. But it’s the job of the science fiction writer to invent to go where no one has gone before.

Sound familiar?

By the way, I don’t think climate change will be at all apocalyptic. We’ll adjust. But if I come across another story about climate change or melting ice caps or the Amazon Desert, I think I’ll donate my brain to the nearest Zombie University.

–Paul Cook

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  1. Your feeling is that climate change will not be at all apocalyptic? I'm going to guess that you haven't looked into the matter, and base your supposition on what you'd like to see. I'm assuming this because only people who don't understand the science of change talk this way.

    I'm going to paraphrase what is being said by a lot of other people who do base their outlook on the scientific method. When the average temperature of the world goes up and the climate shifts, the growing seasons change all across the world.

    We are growing slightly less food each year, and famine is becoming more and more of a recurring reality for more poor nation. In the United States, it's causing our food bills to slowly rise. This trend will continue. Some people think that hurricanes are the worst result of climate change, but they are wrong.

    Climate change is a problem that could be handled. The reason that it's likely to feel rather apocalyptic is not because the problem is impossible to handle; It's simply because we are incapable of controlling our appetites, and we allow what we wish to be true to become what we believe. This article is evidence of that.

    If you ever want to see what the apocalypse looks like, lock ten people in a room for a month, and give them enough food for only nine to survive. If you think that only one of the ten will be dead by the end of the month, then you do not understand human nature.

    It's a sad that the monster that is really breathing down our necks and threatening the lives and wellbeing of our children is found to be boring,, while readers demand more interesting, creative monsters. I guess we should send all those scientists who keep talking about the effects of climate change back home, with instructions to worry about something more interesting.

    We deserve what's coming.

    1. Michael,
      You misinterpreted my main claim here. I didn't say that climate change was a myth or that it wouldn't happen (or isn't happening). I believe that it is happening and that, over time, it could be apocalyptic. Perhaps not suddenly, but gradually, and about 80% of the world's population will be affected (those that live near the world's coastlines particularly). My main thesis was that it's an easy creative choice for authors to make and that's what bothers me. A sixth grader could think of that one. My claim is that sf writers should be more inventive. Is that the best they can do? I thought that John Varley's "Air Raid" was a classic–people in the future raiding the present for humans to help survive a toxic future environment. But it seems like almost every novel out now references some catastrophic climate change and I am constantly disappointed that they can't think of something else. But your comments are coming right at the choir. You won't get a complaint from me in that regard.

  2. Paul, my theory is that sfnal apocalypses generally reflect the moral panics current at the time of their writing. Right now climate change is hot (har har … clunk). It's a rare writer, as you accurately say, who can reach beyond the zeitgeist for original formulations of these age-old fears.

    One of my favorite recent apocalypses is the one portrayed in P.D. James's "Children of Men." Which is science fiction but, you know, didn't get published as sf because it's by a big-name mystery writer. It stands the zeitgeist on its head. Highly recommended.

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