Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Fringe Benefits and Liabilities

Jay Ackroyd  over at Eschaton says:

By a couple orders of magnitude, the biggest national security threat to the United States is climate change. And while it is happening incredibly quickly in geological time, it is happening incredibly slowly in human lifespan time, not to mention election cycle or quarterly earnings time. It's really hard to convey to people living their daily lives that we're looking at a once in 60 million years event,  the equivalent of massive asteroid strike. 
It would help if our fiction writers and producers would help convey the magnitude of the threat.

But I'm not so sure I agree that this is how people grasp the fictional accounts of things.  I've become a devotee of Fringe and I've been wanting to write about why that is for a while.  Now is not the time but Fringe, it seems to me, speaks to these issues--issues of climate change, human agency, hubris, destruction on an epic scale. So how does it, or any fictionalized account of these thing,  affect its viewers--how does it enable us to recognize and deal with the threat of climate change? I'm not sure it can, or not necessarily in a good way.  I'm a huge fan of S.M. Stirling's dystopian alternate future (and past) work as well.  Both Fringe and S.M. Stirling's work are quintessentially American takes on disaster in which the reader is terrorized and, at the same time, reassured, by the fact that even in the midst of destruction a canonical hero and heroine survive, meet, and thrive.

In the case of Fringe while fictional millions or billions or so people die, or will die, horrible and tragic deaths in several alternate universes and our hero and heroine are cockblocked an epic dozens of times the viewer's angst is always assuaged by the overarching storyline: there are authorities who are working to fix things, science can help and will help, and our main characters will continue (sometimes even after death!) to be integral to the lives of the people they love.  Fan Service will continue despite open wormholes, grotesque biological harm, radiation poisoning, and mysterious dead zones swallowing up Harvard University and even coffee production.

In S.M. Stirling's "Emberverse" series, before it falls off into faux celtic woo, the actual consequences of something as simple as the disappearance of gunpowder and electrical energy is fully explored. What happens when a civilization loses the ability to power itself using fossil fuels and modern batteries and is thrown back on pre-modern forms? Inquiring minds want to know--the answer is that while, again, millions die in a population crash that takes out every city in a matter of days a few heroic people, people that we identify with, survive.  Our anxiety is assuaged by our identification with the heroes.

And it really needs to be that way since, of course, stories in which everyone dies including whoever the author allows the reader to identify with, are not exactly empowering.  Not that I'm all about things that are empowering but if the argument is that we need to know how bad things could get in order to start doing something about it I tend to think that even dystopias need to have a silver lining or else the readers simply crawl under the bed and refuse to come out.

Of course when you see the success the right has had with The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind (1) series you have to figure that any fictional pushback against fatalistic religiosity and anti-scientism is a good thing.

(1) In case you aren't familiar with Fred Clark's brilliant series of literary and moral critiques of the Left Behind books here is one of the introductions to his work at the Left Behind link under "Left Behind Is Evil." This is a rather alarming but merely factual pull quote. The series, which he began in 2003, is filled with the most astonishingly beautiful insights into the way agency, morality, love, and even mere genre writing is distorted and deformed in this pseudo Christian crank series.

Millions of your fellow citizens are reading these books. Millions. If you're wondering what that means for you, read the following, from Glenn Scherer in E magazine:In his book The Carbon Wars, Greenpeace activist Jeremy Leggett tells how he stumbled upon this otherworldly agenda. During the Kyoto climate change negotiations, Leggett candidly asked Ford Motor Company executive John Schiller how opponents of the pact could believe there is no problem with “a world of a billion cars intent on burning all the oil and gas available on the planet?” The executive asserted first that scientists get it wrong when they say fossil fuels have been sequestered underground for eons. The Earth, he said, is just 10,000, not 4.5 billion years old, the age widely accepted by scientists.Then Schiller confidently declared, “You know, the more I look, the more it is just as it says in the Bible.” The Book of Daniel, he told Leggett, predicts that increased earthly devastation will mark the “End Time” and return of Christ. Paradoxically, Leggett notes, many fundamentalists see dying coral reefs, melting ice caps and other environmental destruction not as an urgent call to action, but as God’s will. Within the religious right worldview, the wreck of the Earth can be seen as Good News!
Some true believers, interpreting biblical prophecy, are sure they will be saved from the horrific destruction brought by ecosystem collapse. They’ll be raptured: rescued from Earth by God, who will then rain down seven ghastly years of misery on unbelieving humanity. Jesus’ return will mark the Millennium, when the Lord restores the Earth to its green pristine condition, and the faithful enjoy a thousand years of peace and prosperity.

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