Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

You Know, Science Fiction Got It Completely Wrong

About the Apocalypse, that is. Or the Great Disaster. Captain Trips. Whatever.

It’s not the first time, or even the tenth or the hundredth, that SF has blown it when it comes to predicting the future. In the thirties and forties, every writer in the field assumed we’d have television by the mid-sixties– but none of them predicted commercial network television, a medium almost completely given over to entertainment. A technology that would shape our entire culture to fit its needs.

Likewise, in the early pulps a great many SF writers were talking about supercomputers and various kinds of AI; none of them ever landed on the idea of linking a bunch of smaller computers into a global internet. They were all obsessed with the danger of BIG, SINGLE supercomputers.

Certainly no one predicted how the ease of access to information would make people dumber instead of smarter, with the internet evolving into a choose-your-own-facts culture of tribalistic factions tailoring their news to fit their prejudices– to say nothing of the various business concerns that sprung up to exploit that. And so on.

Most of the time, when science fiction attempts to be predictive, it tends to overestimate the nobility and decency of man, and underestimate his tendency to work against his own interests. In classic science fiction, the heroes are astronauts, engineers, and explorers. Educated men and women bringing the best they can to the challenge of the unknown. And these professions are aspirational, it’s understood that success in such fields is what people strive for.

God knows, when I was devouring SF paperbacks in the seventies, I never thought people would be marching in the streets trying to defend science as a necessary discipline… but the March for Science is an annual event now. In 2020. We were supposed to have hotels on the moon by now, not this.

Given all that, it’s no wonder a whole sub-genre of SF sprung up around the idea of after-the-disaster scenarios. Beginning in the fifties with atomic paranoia, and getting more and more prevalent through the sixties and seventies as our politics became more turbulent and societal norms went through a period of upheaval.

Because OF COURSE we’ll destroy ourselves, at this rate.

Our descendants will be trying to piece together how we could have done this to ourselves, staring in wonder at all the gifts we threw away.

Survivors will be left to scavenge what they can.

The rules of polite society will fall away. It’s going to be feral, dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest.

Humanity will fragment into suspicious, xenophobic tribes.

Cooperation will be derided as weak. It’s going to be all about strength and power and rule by the fist.

Even Star Trek‘s optimistic Gene Roddenberry went there.


And he was by no means alone.

Over and over, the two themes repeat– we are doomed to destroy ourselves

…and the greatest threat to the survivors will be internal, not external; not aliens or mutants or disease, but rather, each other.

No matter the instigating event– zombie invasion, atomic war, a deadly supergerm– the story invariably plays out the same way. In the face of global disaster, humanity is primitive and tribal and governed by fear.

Except, to my great delight and surprise, when I really look at what’s going on in our culture in the midst of an actual apocalypse scenario– the current global pandemic– it turns out that this is not so.

Under pressure, people reveal themselves. You see who they are at the core.

Well, the pressure’s on now. Yeah, there’s a lot of selfish stupid people doing selfish stupid things. Yeah, the federal government is screwing everything up royally.

But …they’re not the majority.

Bad actors are being artificially amplified by the mainstream media and the Twitter troll factory. I don’t think they’re a representative sample.

Both my wife and I are involved in health care, we’ve been designated as essential by the governor’s lockdown guidelines, and so we are out in the world as all of this unspools. And we are not seeing anything like the selfish feral meltdown SF had been telling us is inevitable.

What we’re seeing instead is that people will step up.

People who have nothing to gain. Who are, in fact, willingly putting themselves at risk so we can all get through this.

When traditional infrastructure fails us– and it’s failing us BIG time, don’t get me started– people aren’t panicking or freaking out or rioting and looting. They’re putting anger (completely justified anger, I might add) to the side for now, and grimly looking for ways to cover the gap.

It can be difficult to remember this, because the worst people are also the loudest. Especially on the internet. But they’re not the majority.

Seeing this basic human decency demonstrated over and over, more than anything else, is what’s getting us through the day.

Certainly the nerdlebrity contingent is rising to the challenge. I love this one.

Which led to this… in a matter of hours.

Just thinking about how fast that happened, a response so quick it was almost instinctive, makes me smile.

That’s what we’re hanging on to out here in the hot zone. I hope you all are hanging in there as well.

Back next week with something cool. Apocalypse or not. In the meantime…

And wash your hands. Seriously.


  1. I’ve had similar thoughts about X-Men. So many times the mutant books take the view that mutants can’t do anything to challenge discrimination other than suffer nobly in silence (or kill people a la Magneto) when the progress of equality in the real world, flawed and half-assed as it is, proves that’s not so.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    In my 50+ years, I have lived through an ice storm that cut off power to my hometown for a week, the destruction of Hurricane Hugo, 9/11 and this; plus seen tsunamis create wide destruction in the Pacific, famine in Africa and hunger in the 1t World. Every time a challenge seems to stymie government, average people pull together and remember they are a community and work to fix the problem, while the government disengages its head from its ass.

    My experience has been that people all over the globe are pretty much the same; good, decent, honest and caring people, who occasionally act out of fear; but usually rise to the challenge. The problem is, that when the challenge is over, too many people go their separate ways and forget the lessons of that challenge.

    This is an election year. Remember who acted to help and who showed poor leadership and made it worse. When things move back to some stability, remember the companies that acted selflessly and those who acted for profit. Mostly, though, remember those neighbors who lent a hand and maybe introduced themselves for the first time and keep those relationships. Remember that communities are always stronger than individuals, even when we must stay apart to keep people healthy. Also, remember those workers who had to stay on essential jobs and risk their health to aid others in whatever capacity. Remember to help those who lost work in this and may not get it back easily. Remember those who lack access to healthcare and were particularly vulnerable and demand change and keep demanding until it comes.

    Remember those who contributed moments of delight, in a sea of fear. remember the sounds of Italians, singing to one another from their homes, musicians sharing their gift, truckers, pilts, crews all working to bring supplies to people, healthcare workers tending to the ill. Remember every act of kindness and make it mean something more in the future.

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