An Inconvenient Apocalypse

Eric Del Carlo’s “Asleep Was the Ship” [in our current issue, on sale now] tells a tale of the far future, but historically, he’s found himself mostly turning to near-future SF. Below, he explores the dilemma that COVID-19 poses for himself and other near-future SF writers, and the appeal of writing contemporary or far-future fiction instead.

by Eric Del Carlo

The liner notes for Bob Dylan’s seminal 1974 album Blood on the Tracks begin thus: “In the end, the plague touched us all.” Pete Hamill, essayist/journalist/novelist, penned that, and the brief string of words has resonated down through the decades. He was describing the American Miasma, and each successive generation could fit its prevailing cultural failings into Hamill’s portrait of our nation.

It’s a desperately sad album, even at its jauntiest. With “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” you may never hear more mournful lyrics set to an uptempo melody. Loss, loss, loss. The blood isn’t just on the railroad tracks; it’s all over the songs. Which are also tracks.

But enough about Bob.

I am writing this as we close on 200,000 dead of covid-19 in the United States. We are standing in the middle of history. Not a history I would have wanted any part of. Throughout my life I have enjoyed imaginary apocalypses. Give me Lucifer’s Hammer, Emergence, The Postman, World War Z. Hell, I’ll take made-up pestilences, even. Let me relax on the sun porch, dozing over The Stand or Earth Abides.

Now it is the real thing. And I don’t like it one bit.

Science fiction writers of a certain stripe face a unique challenge in this crisis. The stripe I mention pertains to near-future stories. Fiction set, say, twenty or forty or even sixty years from now. Time enough for a significant technological element to have been introduced into the world; for society to have undergone a notable evolution or devolution; for organic change to have occurred, allowing the writer to explore the repercussions of the new factor in a setting that is still recognizable, where every square foot of a cityscape needn’t be explained. Where a door is just a door, and your job—even if it involves a speculative technology—is still something your bedside alarm wakes you up for every morning. In short: near-future. Relatively close at hand. The reader can fill in the intervening years with a few nudges from the writer.

But that kind of fiction presupposes that no actual major historical shifts will occur, other than the one(s) the writer deliberately presents. A story that grapples with rising oceans due to climate freakout will probably not also include a sub-history about the time androids ran amok and took over the Nebraska State Legislature.

Such epic cataclysms change the fabric. They shift the backdrop. Whatever tale you wish to tell now takes place in a reality where these massive imbroglios have befallen humankind.

A writer can conjure any number of modest, believable crises to punctuate a future narrative: a terrorist attack here, a massive chemical spill there; a European state collapses; a colony ship suffers a deadly mishap en route to Mars. These are garnishes to let the reader know that the planet is still bumbling along in its familiar self-defeating way. Don’t worry: we’ll soon arrive at the real story, where the fireworks can truly begin.

But what do you do when a global pandemic is dropped inconveniently into the path of your story?

I do not mean to diminish in the least the severity and solemnity of the coronavirus crisis. In fact, that uneasy juxtaposition is what I’m after here. Near-future writers now have to deal with covid-19 because it is already a part of our collective history. It is huge. It has altered every human life on the globe. This is 1929’s Black Tuesday; it’s the outbreak of World War II. If you were writing during these disasters, you had to, as a responsible scribe, incorporate them into your story to some extent, even if your tale never deals directly with the crises. Such epic cataclysms change the fabric. They shift the backdrop. Whatever tale you wish to tell now takes place in a reality where these massive imbroglios have befallen humankind.

So, you want to write about events a few decades down the line? Fine. What do you do about the plague? It’ll be gone by then? Sure. I’ll buy that. But what has it done to society? Are we the same people? Did we learn anything noble from our tribulation? Are we even more susceptible to paranoia and disinformation?

Questions and ones like these have to be answered if you’re going to concoct a plausible near-future. But this is hardly an insurmountable task.

Ja5ob looked up from the plaque riveted to the base of the marble memorial. His father had told him stories of his grandmother’s courageousness working as an EMT (some kind of non-mechanistic medical personnel) during the Scourge. He liked to fancy one of the figures looming atop the great pedestal was her. As he gazed, the black drone with the Agency’s package and orders came into view. . . .

There. Now the writer can get on with the story of near-future shenanigans. If it’s book-length, they need to pepper in a few more references to “the Scourge,” but the narrative can proceed. It is a relatively easy fix.

Here, however, is the problem. And I freely and even eagerly acknowledge that this might be my problem alone: the idea of performing a little science-fictional wordplay jui jitsu to account for the deaths of untold human beings is . . . crass. It gives my gut a twinge. I feel like I’m desecrating the memories and souls of people who deserve better consideration.

Near-future fiction is pretty much my stock-in-trade; or at least it’s probably what I like writing best. It scratches a long-abiding adolescent itch to create glittery or grimy worlds I might still live long enough to witness. But the notion that I could even begin to think of the pandemic as inconvenient to my writerly ambitions makes me want to go fetal on the floor. This is the very midst of tragedy. How can I harbor the smallest sulky thought about how I must now expend a few extra words to align one of my futures to the current turbulent paradigm?

It prompts me to ask: What kind of monster am I?

Let me give an example of how I might have had to configure a short story of mine to assimilate the pandemic. I’ll take something I had published in Analog, in the March/April 2019 issue, because if I ruin a story, it should be my own. In “Final Say,” the technology exists to revive dementia patients for one last moment of complete mental cohesion, after which they will expire. The procedure is used so these patients can say goodbye to loved ones and have a dignified exit. The story is told from the POV of a revivification technician.

Okay. If I were writing that same story today, there is no way I could not mention the pandemic. This is a tale about mortality. Key scenes take place in medical facilities. If I said nothing about a plague that had struck just twenty or so years earlier, it would be like having a character go to Hawaii in 1946 just after the war and not make some–even passing–acknowledgment of the attack on Pearl Harbor. How do you write a 2002-set story in New York City without remarking on 9/11? You don’t. You really can’t. If I’d conceived “Final Say” today, I might not have gone ahead and written it. Which would have been a shame. It’s a pretty darn good story.

So how do I get out of this self-appointed dilemma of mine? Lately I have aimed my literary sights on targets other than the near-future. I’ve tried my hand at contemporary fiction. Strangely, it is far easier to write about the pandemic as a current phenomenon than to conjure past references to it in a futuristic narrative. This doesn’t feel exploitative. It’s more like honest reportage.

But my instincts are, at the core, science-fictional in nature. I project, I extrapolate, I try to envision a believable future. Fortunately, the field leaves me options, the brightest of which, I have found, is far-future fiction.

Here, we are talking about centuries, not decades, added to the timeline. Far-future to me means a starfaring age for humanity. We have “gotten off this rock” and have colonized at least parts of our solar system. Or we have pushed further out, employing whatever FTL drive sounds plausible, and have encountered the greater galaxy. If so, there might or might not be scads of fellow sentient races to mingle with. Things could be friendly, or maybe we’ve walked in on the middle of a galactic brawl. But adventures will abound.

And no one will be talking about that pandemic which happened way back in the early twenty-first century. The writer is off the hook. The tragedy, unless it absolutely crashes civilization, will not be of any relevance to those humans of the far-flung future. They will be occupied with more immediate concerns. The long-ago death toll, no matter how grim to us now, will have faded and lost its bite, becoming just another dry chunk of history.

And so in my current Analog story “Asleep Was the Ship” (again, only going to spoil my own work, nobody else’s), I have found refuge in a far-future setting. The action takes place a hundred years after humans have entered the teeming galactic domain. My POV is an underachieving spacefarer, who at no point spares a single thought for us poor beleaguered bastards back here in 2020. The same as few or none of us gives any regard for all the lives lost to the Peloponnesian War.

In a far-future tale I can still examine human mischiefs, human frailties, human braveries and all the rest of the wonderful stuffing which goes into making us us. And I can do it without guilt, without victimizing anyone in my thoughts. I have my space opera Redmarch universe to go to. Ah, Redmarch. I can even, if I like, stage my own apocalypses, these safely removed to a distant tomorrow where they can do no actual harm but only (hopefully) entertain and engage the reader.

Because we are hurting right here, right now. The plague has, indeed, touched us all.

Eric Del Carlo makes his fourth appearance in Analog with a story belonging to “that narrow band of science fiction which is the starship stowaway subgenre.” His short fiction has also appeared in Clarkesworld and Asimov’s.

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