“The Myth of Man-Made Catastrophe”

The review series on Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds continues.

Review: “The Myth of Man-Made Catastrophe”, Brian Stableford, 1980.Opening Minds

In this long essay, Stableford presents a taxonomy of man-made catastrophes presented by science fiction.

The sense that humans could compete with nature in creating catastrophes started in the latter part of the 19th century.

There were works hostile to the growing effects of technology like Samuel Butler’s Erewhon and William Morris’ News from Nowhere, but they didn’t present notions of true catastrophe at the hands of man’s machinery. Stableford claiming that Richard Jefferies After London (1872) left the reasons for a pastoral, medieval like England being created as “deliberately unspecified” doesn’t quite jibe with my memory of that novel.

While he doesn’t nominate it as the first work of man-made catastrophe, he notes that Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column had a world wrecked by the capitalist system. (And, I suppose, I should clarify that catastrophe does not equal a literal doomsday or human extinction.)

Various late 19th century works which featured anarchists creating a new, better order – or just wrecking things – rubbed temporal shoulders with the future war story. However, as he notes, the sense of catastrophe  in the future war story is only there if you’re not prepared for the next war rather than its victor. World War One, of course, severely undercut that assumption.

The next type of catastrophe is “the lotus eaters”, works which depict societies weakened or made decadent by pleasure enhancing technologies. Or, as we say now in a time where “virtual reality” (though the idea already existed in science fiction works from at least Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars) is a common term, civilizations that have “gone into the box”. The assumptions of these works is that humans should seek to further progress and that there is value in engaging with the real world and not one of technologically mediated dreams. They, as Stableford notes, exhibit “a lack of faith in ourselves” (justified, I’d say).

“Epimetheus Unbound” is Stableford’s name for fictional catastrophes where technology has enabled either a human elite to tighten its grip on its subjects or machines themselves become the masters of humans. This is a common enough theme that you could supply plenty of titles on your own besides the ones Stableford mentions.

A corollary theme is the unintended and sometimes very bad side effects of technology.

“Weapons Too Dreadful to Use” is a theme that first appeared after World War One and only gained strength with Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“Catastrophe a la Mode” looks at some catastrophic fixations that came and went at least from the perspective of 1980. It’s true we don’t see as many Malthusian horror stories as we did in the 1950s and 1960s though the recent UN estimates of future European and African population growth promise a return. We don’t see quite as many polluted Earth stories as in the 1960s and 1970s, but there are some still around especially if you throw climate change stories in that category.

The essay starts out with the interesting observation that, as secular reasoning advanced along with world changing technology and science, humans in advanced societies had to drop primitive justifications for disasters like volcanoes, droughts, and earthquakes. Disaster wasn’t cause by angry gods, sinful humans, or taboo breakers. Natural disasters just happened. Sin didn’t enter into it.

But the man-made catastrophe was different. It was the result of somebody’s actions or inactions. There was someone to blame. I think, though Stableford doesn’t mention it, this accounts for religiously-tinged language being used in political causes by people who proclaim their irreligiosity. Why, for instance, does an atheist environmentalist proclaim a duty to nature? Duty to whom or what in a godless universe?

Secular and technological societies began to develop another notion of sin: failure not to practice reason and to practice bad science. Lotus eaters abandoned the idea of “progress, foresight, and the use of intelligence”. (However, James Gunn’s The Joy Makers, which Stableford calls the “most comprehensive science-fictional account of the fate of a society equipped with the technological means to take the philosophy of hedonism to its logical extreme”, does not depict a lack of intelligence or foresight in achieving its end. Its argument is that it is a bad and final end for man.) The horrors of future war are caused by stupidity and irrationality.

The solution several writers, most notably H. G. Wells, offered pre-World War Two is that those epitomizing reason and science should be in charge: scientists. (Vernor Vinge’s The Peace War, which offers a rare counterpoint to this notion and looks at the totalitarian streak that often goes with intellectuals, was written in 1980.)

The problem, of course, is that one man’s stupid action may be logical in the pursuit of their goals and that humans vary in their desires. Pragmatism and utilitarianism don’t provide complete solutions. A further complication is that we also have differing goals for our progeny.

It is the possibility of future man-made catastrophes, and our inability to stop them, that continues to make this a favorite science fiction topic.

If unreason and stupidity are crimes, one rare work proposed not only indictment of our sins but pity for our own version of original sin: Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.


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