Weaponized narrative: the stories we tell change our theories about the world

My latest Locus Magazine column is Weaponized Narrative, about the pulp fiction convention of mashing up "man against nature" stories with "man against man" stories to tell "man against nature stories" (first the tornado smashes your house, then your neighbors come over to eat you).

These stories only work if you suspend your disbelief about what actually happens in times of crisis, what the evidence shows: that people rise to the occasion, cover themselves in glory, pitch in and help one another.

Years of pulp plotting about the supposed inhumanity of humans has given us an irrational belief that we should greet crisis with pre-emptive strikes on the teeming masses (it's similar to how we've also been taught that sharks are a danger to humans, rather than the other way around, and it has a similar consequence for humans as it's had for sharks).

This is the premise of my novel Walkaway, an "optimistic disaster novel" about the reverse of this old tired meme, in which humans are the solution to crisis, except for the paranoid super-rich, who have the power to turn their superstition about humanity's inhumanity into actual militarized strikes against people already reeling from disaster.

I'll be at Richmond's Fountain Books talking about this tonight, and in Chapel Hill, NC tomorrow with Mur Lafferty at Flyleaf Books — from there I go to many more US and Canadian cities (Cincinnati, Chicago, Winnipeg, Denver, Austin, Houston, Scottsdale, San Diego, Portland, Seattle, Bellingham, Vancouver, Burbank) and then to the UK for dates in London, Oxford, Liverpool, Birmingham and Hay-on-Wye.

When binoculars and telescopes got cheap, we already had a story about the fundamental creepiness of looking into other peoples' windows. The illegality of doing so might provide some kind of abstract deterrent, but the statistical reality of peeping tommery is that you could almost certainly peep all the toms you wanted without ever getting caught. Laws against voyeurism are the result of the narrative, not the cause of it.

Rather, the two have a feedback cycle between them: laws that accord with the narrative strengthen it (and vice-versa); laws that are out of step with the narrative weaken it (and vice-versa). As Lenny Bruce famously observed: the law against having sex with a chicken implies that, at some point, someone decided to give it a try. That chicken law affirms our narrative that we should leave poultry be, and that narrative in turn eased the law's passage. Meanwhile, other sexual laws – laws about things that consenting adults do – aren't just unjust, they also legitimize the narrative about the acts' immorality. The counter-narrative about the legitimacy and decency of things that loving people do to make each other happy makes it easier to repeal the laws. The laws' repeal makes it easier to promote the narrative.

The future is a land of contested narratives. Standing on a corner with a camera, recording your neighbors as they pass by – or conspicuously recording them with a dictaphone on a city bus – will earn you something between filthy looks and a punch in the face. But putting a CCTV on the front of your building – or putting a ''Sound recording in effect'' sign up on the city bus – is apt to pass by without comment. We have a narrative about urban privacy that says that recording someone with fixed surveillance gadgets is fundamentally different from whipping a surveillance tool out of your pocket and pointing it them. That narrative – which is tissue-thin and awfully convenient – has transformed our cities without anyone even noticing very much.

Weaponized Narrative [Cory Doctorow/Locus Magazine]