Sunday, September 11, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Disasters, Threat or Menace?

Someday, American historians will build entire careers out of studying aspects and repercussions of the events of September 11, 2001. There'll be a whole subgenre of fiction using those events as a backdrop.

At about the same time, one historian will do an intensive study of the 2011 Texas drought and September wildfires, and one or two people will write historical fiction based on them. Probably one YA and one juvenile. The adult historical novelists will be too fixated on 9/11; as far as the general public is concerned, 9/11 will be the only significant event of the first decade of the century.

In the meantime, where does that leave us?

The trouble with recent disasters, and those of our own lives, is that they are simultaneously impossible to think about, and impossible to stop thinking about, and impossible to grasp. A correspondent of mine who lives in New York and works nights slept through the attacks, and when she got up and turned on the TV in the middle of the umpteenth replay of the footage, she wondered why 7 Days (Remember that show? About a guy employed by the gummint to go back in time to fix various disasters?) was on at that hour. I thought the first airplane strike was an ordinary, though appalling, air disaster; when the second one hit, I heard myself wonder: "So where the heck is Superman?"

We are all used to disaster in fiction; so used to it, that our initial reaction to a disaster is to treat it as a fiction. This is why it's so easy to collect heartless responses to major disasters. Remarks that would be reprehensible if applied to real people are much more acceptable applied to fictional ones.

At the same time, one of the uses of non-fiction is to help us sort out our own responses to a real disaster; and one of the uses of fiction is to exercise, in a safe environment, the mental muscles necessary to cope when disaster strikes. Our problem, as writers, is to find the balance in ourselves that lets us use real pain, confusion, and horror fruitfully without losing touch with them and turning them into entertainment and an intellectual game.

Sorry, I thought I could do this when I sat down, but the effort of thinking it through is making my head hurt and my eyes unfocus. I'll try to pick up the train of thought tomorrow and get down to something usable.

The wildfires are looking better today, by the way, though they may be about to become the Texas/Louisiana wildfires. For awhile yesterday the map was looking very bad indeed. But I wish it would rain.

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