Boing Boing

Max Barry on how science fiction prepares us for the apocalypse

I greatly enjoyed Max Barry's 2013 novel Lexicon (Cory loved it, too — here's his review). Barry has a new novel that came out today from Putnam, called Providence, which I started reading. It's a space thriller about a four person crew on an AI controlled spaceship programmed to seek and destroy "salamanders" – creatures that kill by spitting mini-black holes. It's terrific so far (I'm 70% finished).

I'm happy that Max wrote this op-ed for Boing Boing, titled "How Science Fiction Prepares Us For the Apocalypse." — Mark

My favorite theory on why we dream is that we're practicing for emergencies. Asleep, unguarded, our minds conjure threats and dilemmas so that once we wake, we've learned something. Maybe not very much—maybe only what not to do, because it rarely goes well. But we learn more from our failures than our successes, and this is what our minds serve up, night after night: hypothetical dangers and defeats. Whether we're fleeing a tiger or struggling to persuade a partner who won't listen, we fail, but we also practice.

I suspect that's also why we read fiction. We don't seek escapism—or, at least, not only that. We read to inform our own future behavior. No matter how fanciful the novel, in the back of our minds, something very practical is taking notes.

Popular fiction regularly mirrors the times in which it's published. Two hundred years ago, society readers were thrilled by dangerous flirtations in Jane Austen novels; a century ago, people living in newly urbanized cities devoured mysteries and detective stories; and the 1930s gave rise to the Golden Age of science fiction, with stories that asked where technology might take us.

All of these types of books entertained, and occasionally stretched the bounds of plausibility, but they also delivered something very pragmatic: a chance for a reader to observe a dangerous new situation and explore ways to get out of it. In this way, every novel is not only a journey but also a guidebook.

This might seem a long bow to draw with science-fiction novels, which have, in their most popular variants, included giant sandworms, interstellar warfare, self-aware spaceships, and Morlocks. But those of us who have always devoured such stories know they are painted cloth pulled over real people. For every alien world, there is a foreign country or another race; for every threat from the stars, there is one from a government, or an evolving society, or a neighbor.

But beyond this, there is also the fact that a lot of these far-fetched stories are coming true. We are already living in the world of Fahrenheit 451—not the part where they burn books, but everything else. "Orwellian" has become useless as a descriptor, because it applies so neatly to so much; it has lost all context, all contrast.

Portrait of Australian novelist, Max Barry. Photograph by Chris Hopkins

And the post-apocalyptic stories have never seemed more directly relevant. Some are obviously so: There is no shortage of excellent novels featuring a terrible pandemic, or at least the threat of one, including The Stand by Stephen King, The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Blindness by José Saramago, published in 1995, tells a gripping story of quarantine in the face of an unknown viral affliction: A small group are locked down inside an asylum and guarded by soldiers—and what happens next, I will be very glad to have read if the current world situation gets much worse.

We might have read these stories for thrills, but in truth they offer an unexpected comfort: a sense of preparedness. Although I don't know what's coming, I do know what happened when the man and the boy walked The Road (Cormac McCarthy), and I watched how people survived, or didn't, in Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell).

Some part of my brain has tucked away lessons from these books, I'm sure. What they're worth, if tested, remains to be seen. But I feel better for having them. And for many of us, whether we are health patients or citizens, workers or parents, acting decently and rationally—keeping our heads even as the world gets weirder—is among the most important things we can do. Nothing is as terrifying as the unknown, and for science-fiction fans, who have been reading stories of blasted cities and fractured worlds for years, this is all known. No matter what happens next, or how bad it gets, we've been here before. We have, at least, dreamed about it.