Thank you for checking out my newsletter! You can read the archives and subscribe. I have three brand new books: my young adult space fantasy Victories Greater Than Death came out in April. And Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times By Making Up Stories just came out -- it’s a writing-advice manual for the scary moment we’re living through. And in November, I’m publishing Even Greater Mistakes, my first full-length short story collection, including tales that won the Hugo, Sturgeon and Locus Awards. Also, check out the podcast I co-host, Our Opinions Are Correct.
The iconic graphic novel Watchmen ends with a shock. Just as the world is on the brink of nuclear war, a massive alien squid goes splat in New York City and kills a million people. In response, the entire world comes together to organize against this unknown alien threat — just as Ozymandias, the ex-superhero who organized the squid hoax, knew they would.
If there's one thing pop culture has taught us, it's that when we all face a large enough common threat, we'll put aside our differences and work as one to protect everything we hold dear.
This trope appears everywhere in pop culture, from Independence Day to any number of superhero team-up movies. This notion is embedded deep in the American consciousness, and informs the ways we talk about real-life events like Pearl Harbor and 9/11. President Ronald Reagan even gave a speech in which he famously said an alien invasion might be the one thing that could bring us together.
But these days, we're all facing two threats that are bigger and scarier than any alien cephalopod: covid-19 and climate change. And far from bringing us together, these threats have only made us more divided. If anything, the sheer depth of these nightmares is only making people more prone to try and destroy each other.
Why did pop culture get it so wrong? For sure, a huge part of the problem is our ongoing political divide, exacerbated by Fox News and social media companies for the sake of their own profits. And our political scene rewards trivial faux controversies, such as whether Mr. Potatohead will remain the man's man we all know and love. And of course, there's tons of misinformation about both covid and climate change, spreading online and infecting our body politic.
But there's a more fundamental problem: these fantasies often rely on the notion of uniting against a shared enemy, rather than merely a shared threat. And unless aliens actually do show up any time soon, that means finding a group of people here on Earth to anoint as the scary "other."
It's truly depressing to contemplate the notion that people can only unify if there's someone to hate. As someone who was a visibly queer kid with a severe learning disability, I know exactly what it's like to be that squid.
A common foe brings out the worst in people, not the best—making us paranoid, angry, self-righteous and vicious. Again and again, Americans who believed they shared an enemy have tolerated such extreme measures as drone strikes, indefinite detention for suspected terrorists, internment camps, and blacklists of suspected communists. It’s notable that many people seemed obsessed with scapegoating Asian people for covid-19, leading to a horrifying increase in violence.
In his famous speech, Reagan even tried to suggest that the "alien force" we might all unite to confront could be war itself — as if he recognized the inherent toxicity of giving people a nemesis. I only wish Reagan's faith in our ability to rally in the face of an abstraction had been justified. The fact is, war is not an alien force, but a part of human civilization that we have to reckon with.
I would like to think that people can get better, and that we can learn to join forces to achieve positive goals, rather than simply linking hands to destroy an adversary. And indeed after every natural disaster, there are inspiring stories about communities banding together to help their neighbors.
A lot depends on what kind of threat people are facing, says Malka Older, a humanitarian aid worker, disaster sociologist and science fiction author. A natural disaster will tend to bring people together, but a human-made disaster, such as an industrial accident, will be "toxic to communities."
"I always go back to my experience working in Japan after Fukushima," says Older. "Tsunami? People came together. Nuclear accident? Not so much."
Older says there are three major factors that determine whether people can unify in the face of a threat, according to research by sociologist William R. Freudenburg. It's harder to join hands if we can't tell for certain how much harm a problem will cause, or to whom. Also, if there's a "blame game," or a dispute over who is at fault. And finally, "people lose their faith in traditional authority figures, and it kind of shakes their worldview."
You can see these factors coming into play with both the pandemic and climate change, says Older — we can't know how hard either of them will hit, or who will be affected most. We point figures and doubt our leadership, and soon nobody can find common ground.
Also, the longer a situation goes on, the likelier a fracture becomes, says Older. The good news is, we can create a virtuous cycle instead of a vicious one, by helping each other out, making people "feel like the community is there to support them." And people who have stronger community ties tend to do better when everything goes wrong.
In any case, we need to let go of this dream that an attack from outer space would bring us closer to each other. Both because scared people make terrible decisions, and because when we're dealing with problems like covid and climate change, we can never agree on an easy scapegoat. Reagan tried and failed to turn this trope into something positive and idealistic, and now it's time to let go of it.
If we want to bring people together to build a future in which we can all flourish, we need to use hope instead of fear.
A lot of science fiction authors, myself included, have been thinking about ways to tell stories about futures where humanity has painfully, and with great effort, created a better world with sustainable technology and fairer distribution of resources. We need stories that show us a better public health infrastructure, as well as a better as well as a more sustainable form of technology.
The surprising part? The more we see the sweat and ingenuity that go into building these better worlds, the more inspired we are to get to work. There is a real hunger out there for stories about hard-won progress—including recent novels by people like Older, or Kim Stanley Robinson.
Even if an alien squid did crash into New York, we might just find ways to blame it on each other. There's a different story of alien visitation that I prefer: in Star Trek lore, humanity spends most of the 21st century mired in war and disasters — until we finally get a visit from the Vulcans, those hyper-rational, pointy-eared savants. The Vulcans offer humanity a chance to belong to the larger family of civilized worlds, and to move forward in peace.
Maybe instead of finding someone we can all hate, we should find reasons for hope that we can get through the worst stuff the world has to offer, if we pull together and help each other through it.
I tweeted about this a little while ago, but I am finally discovering Billy Bragg. I'm probably the last person on Earth to experience the greatness of his music. He released a bunch of new songs that just spoke to me, including "I Will Be Your Shield" and "Ten Mysterious Photos That Can't Be Explained." He has so much warmth and kindness, alongside his righteous fire against oppression and bullshit. His new album, The Million Things That Never Happened, comes out in a few days, and I'm gonna listen to the heck out of it.
Whee I haven't posted in a while. Sorry about that. Gonna get back on a regular schedule.
Today at 6:30ish, I'm reading at the Friends of the Library Book Sale Block Party in Potrero Hill. I'm super excited to support local libraries and to read to an in-person audience. Come say hi!
The folks at Storybound resurfaced their episode in which I read from my young adult novel Victories Greater Than Death, to celebrate the book getting put into development as a TV series by Michael B. Jordan's Outlier Society and Amazon Prime Video. I love how this turned out, so if you missed it, here's your chance to hear it.
On Nov. 13, we're bringing back Writers With Drinks, my long-running spoken word show! It's once again at the Make Out Room, featuring Lucy Sante, Adele Bertei, Baruch Porras-Hernandez, Mike DeCapite, Nazelah Jamison and me. I'll be reading from Even Greater Mistakes, my new short story collection (out Nov. 16). Come hang out!