Right now, the largest and most deadly wildfire in California history is burning. Last year, Hurricane Harvey drowned southeast Texas under punishing, endless rain; a month ago, Hurricane Florence did the same to North Carolina. Apocalyptic-scale disasters happen every day (and more often now, as climate change intensifies weather patterns all over the world.) Apocalyptic disaster isn’t always the weather, either: it’s human-made, by war or by industrial accident; by system failure or simple individual error. Or it’s biological: the flu of 1918, the Ebola outbreaks in 2014.
In science fiction, apocalypse and what comes after is an enduring theme. Whether it’s pandemic (like in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Stephen King’s The Stand), nuclear (such as Theodore Sturgeon’s short story “Thunder and Roses” or the 1984 BBC drama Threads), or environmental (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, and a slew of brilliant short fiction, including Tobias Buckell’s “A World to Die For” (Clarkesworld 2018) and Nnedi Okorafor’s “Spider the Artist” (Lightspeed 2011), disaster, apocalypse, and destruction fascinate the genre. If science fiction is, as sometimes described, a literature of ideas, then apocalyptic science fiction is the literature of how ideas go wrong—an exploration of all of our bad possible futures, and what might happen after.
Most of apocalyptic literature focuses on all the terrible ways that society goes wrong after a society-disrupting disaster, though. This is especially prevalent in television and film—think of The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later where, while the zombies might be the initial threat, most of the horrible violence is done by surviving humans to one another. This kind of focus on antisocial behavior—in fact, the belief that after a disaster humans will revert to some sort of ‘base state of nature’—reflects very common myths that exist throughout Western culture. We think that disaster situations cause panic, looting, assaults, the breakdown of social structures—and we make policy decisions based on that belief, assuming that crime rises during a crisis and that anti-crime enforcement is needed along with humanitarian aid.
But absolutely none of this is true.
The myth that panic, looting, and antisocial behavior increases during the apocalypse (or apocalyptic-like scenarios) is in fact a myth—and has been solidly disproved by multiple scientific studies. The National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, a research group within the United States Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), has produced research that shows over and over again that “disaster victims are assisted first by others in the immediate vicinity and surrounding area and only later by official public safety personnel […] The spontaneous provision of assistance is facilitated by the fact that when crises occur, they take place in the context of ongoing community life and daily routines—that is, they affect not isolated individuals but rather people who are embedded in networks of social relationships.” (Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions, National Academy of Sciences, 2006). Humans do not, under the pressure of an emergency, socially collapse. Rather, they seem to display higher levels of social cohesion, despite what media or government agents might expect…or portray on TV. Humans, after the apocalypse, band together in collectives to help one another—and they do this spontaneously. Disaster response workers call it ‘spontaneous prosocial helping behavior’, and it saves lives.
Spontaneous mobilization to help during and immediately after an apocalyptic shock has a lot of forms. Sometimes it’s community-sourced rescue missions, like the volunteer boat rescue group who call themselves the Cajun Navy. During Hurricane Harvey, the Cajun Navy—plus a lot of volunteer dispatchers, some thousands of miles away from the hurricane—used the walkie-talkie app Zello to crowdsource locations of people trapped by rising water and send rescuers to them. Sometimes it is the volunteering of special skills. In the aftermath of the 2017 Mexico City earthquake, Mexican seismologists—who just happened to be in town for a major conference on the last disastrous Mexico City earthquake!—spent the next two weeks volunteering to inspect buildings for structural damage. And sometimes it is community-originated aid—a recent New Yorker article about last summer’s prairie fires in Oklahoma focuses on the huge amount of post-disaster help which flowed in from all around the affected areas, often from people who had very little to spare themselves. In that article, the journalist Ian Frazier writes of the Oklahomans:
“Trucks from Iowa and Michigan arrived with donated fenceposts, corner posts, and wire. Volunteer crews slept in the Ashland High School gymnasium and worked ten-hour days on fence lines. Kids from a college in Oregon spent their spring break pitching in. Cajun chefs from Louisiana arrived with food and mobile kitchens and served free meals. Another cook brought his own chuck wagon. Local residents’ old friends, retired folks with extra time, came in motor homes and lived in them while helping to rebuild. Donors sent so much bottled water it would have been enough to put out the fire all by itself, people said. A young man from Ohio raised four thousand dollars in cash and drove out and gave it to the Ashland Volunteer Fire Department, according to the Clark County Gazette. The young man said that God had told him to; the fireman who accepted the donation said that four thousand was exactly what it was going to cost to repair the transmission of a truck that had failed in the fire, and both he and the young man cried.”
These behaviors match the roles and responsibilities that members of a society display before the apocalyptic disaster. Ex-military volunteers reassemble in groups resembling military organizations; women in more patriarchal societies gravitate towards logistics and medical jobs while men end up taking more physical risks; firefighters travel to fight fires far away from their homes. The chef José Andrés served more than three million meals over three months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Humans all over the world display this behavior after disasters. They display it consistently, no matter what kind of disaster is happening or what culture they come from.
What really happens after an apocalypse? Society works better than it ever had, for a brief time.
The writer Rebecca Solnit wrote an entire book about this phenomenon, and she called it A Paradise Built in Hell. She points out that it is really the fear on the part of powerful people that powerless people will react to trauma with irrational violence that is preventing us from seeing how apocalypse really shapes our societies. Solnit calls this ‘elite panic’, and contrasts it with the idea of ‘civic temper’—the utopian potential of meaningful community.
Apocalyptic science fiction tells us so much about how the future is going to hurt—or could. But it can also explore how the future will be full of spontaneous helping; societies that bloom for a night, a few weeks, a month, to repair what has been broken. The human capacity to give aid and succor seems to be universal, and triggered quite specifically by the disruption and horror of disaster. Science fiction might let us see that utopian potential more clearly, and imagine how we might help each other in ways we never knew we were capable of.
Arkady Martine writes speculative fiction when she isn’t writing Byzantine history. She is overly fond of borders, rhetoric, and liminal spaces. Her novel A Memory Called Empire publishes March 26th with Tor Books. Find her on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.