A common plot device in science fiction and fantasy is undoubtably the “world changing” scenario or event. It could be anything from an invasion of magic wielding elf monkeys to one of the world elephants having a bum knee after an all night bender and needing to take two weeks off in order to rest up and feel better. Go figure out the size of that Ibuprofen. But more often than not, the world of our characters spins wildly out of control because of something pretty common.
I am, if not a “fan”, at least a careful observer of real life calamity. I regularly seek out news and information about these sorts of events. Tess describes these sorts of stories as “self flagellating”, meaning that I know from reading the headline, for instance, that I’m going to come away from this description of an earthquake or that one of anthropogenic climate change feeling worse than I did before consuming the information.
Yet, I continue to catalog these events as if they might go out of style and we’ll all pine nostalgically for the bad ol’ days when things just fell apart. I’ve got most of the world’s volcano observatories in my news feed for instance and I check the weather above the arctic circle about as often as I check the forecast for Boulder.
So perhaps its no surprise that when I need something to alter the situation irrevocably in a story I have plenty of material to reach for, perhaps I have too much. Stories, at least good ones in my opinion, need upset. There has to be a challenge to overcome. Some authors delve into the political and give us spy thrillers. Others are able to phrase existential questions very well and we get tales of personal growth that inspire independent revolution.
Still others have used the likely, the WAIS sliding off into the Southern Ocean or Yellowstone blowing its top. This is the barrel I reach for when I need something to shake up life for my characters. Partly, because you’re supposed to write what you know and I’m familiar with what happens after a land slide blocks a river drainage. But also because its easy.
There’s no slim pickings for options to end things, regardless of the scope of your story. Want to end an individual with a natural disaster, give him cancer. That’s sure to do him in. Want to whack a whole continent, that mega-volcano is going to blow for sure. Need a way to bring people together or rip them apart on a global basis? Welcome to the new virulent, air-borne pathogen N2H7.
As I reach in this bag of tricks, however, I am concerned. First, I wonder if I’m replicating someone else’s disaster. I think about how I might make a probable disaster, like the WAIS melting for instance, different from other authors and story tellers. The problem here is making it different enough. This is difficult, in particular because the facts might get in the way. If the WAIS melts or floats there are a number of things that will unavoidably happen. It does not take much imagination to foresee sea level rise. Complicating factors, such as disease outbreak the result of sea level rise, are where I tend to place my focus. KSR may have used the WAIS, but he didn’t think of this did he?
Second, comes the issue of “self flagellation”. There are stories out there, such as Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” or Larry Niven’s “Lucifer’s Hammer” that leave the reader feeling worse at the end of the story than they did at the beginning. There is obviously a market for this, but I have to read what I write, quite a few times. Things can just become hopelessly shitty quickly if you’re not careful. Often I find myself creating an instance of a calamity, writing for a while, and then realizing that I need to back out. Back way out, or risk being responsible for increased Prozac sales.
The difficulty here comes from the easy way as well. Calamities can cause cascades of events, when things cascade we’ve got lots to write about. But rarely does a calamity result in a cascade of good things.
Finally, there is the fact that the media today is chocked full of this kind of story. Take for instance, this story about potential methane clathrate release in the Guardian I found today (“Seven facts you need to know about the Arctic methane Time Bomb“). Its not difficult to spend time thinking about what might happen if there were to be a decade of 50 Gt release. I may not be able to predict with any precision what would happen, but that world is one undoubtedly filled with chaos and pain. Where is the opportunity in that world? How can you inspire a character to greatness when there is probably no more than miserable survival?
It wears on you too, there is a certain amount of fatigue I know I’ll incur when I decide to read or learn about this sort of thing. Periodically, I’ll need to take a break from it. Sit down and dwell on my blessings for a while.
In the short I started last night the main character starts at the bottom and has nowhere but up to go. I wanted to build a story around this sort of climb because I need it, the northern reaches of this planet are doing better than last year, but the melt is still significant. The arctic sea ice minimum is on target to be just about as extreme as last year and that means who knows how much more energy absorbed in Arctic ocean. Its not good news, and its real.