March 15, 2014
The jetliner that vanished between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing has become another of those catastrophic events, like the assassination of JFK, or the 9/11 attacks, that tend to generate conspiracy theories. The United States arranged it so that we could grab some scientists who were on board. It fell into a small black hole. It's been grabbed by aliens. I'm not sure what else. A couple of people were on TV this morning and they had a list of absurd rumors.
Despite constant claims of breaking news on the story, it has stayed pretty consistent. It's gone and nobody knows what happened. The only real news this morning, as far as I can tell, is that the Malaysian airline has changed the flight number from 370 to 318. There are three flights to Beijing daily.
Everyone with any sensibility feels a sense of regret for those caught on board, and for their families. But I can't help wondering why, whenever there is an event like this, so many of us fall back on fantasy. Is it that the real world is just too dark? Or that it's too predictable? Or too vulnerable? In 1963, we hated the notion that a lone lunatic could bring down a president that the country loved. In 1941, we had a hard time accepting the fact that the Japanese could surprise us in Hawaii, so rumors surfaced that FDR had known the attack was coming, and that we just let it happen to have an excuse to get into the war against Germany.
Some people argued that the George W. Bush administration was behind the 9/11 attacks. I don't recall ever hearing why the feds would have wanted the capital dome, the Pentagon, and the twin towers taken down. Maybe it just gave some of us a chance to sound as if we had a bit more insight than the general population.
I wonder whether it just doesn't track back to a passion for fantasy. How disappointing would it be if we were to land on Mars, discover Martians, and find out that they lived a North Dakota life style? And that the place looked like North Dakota? Or that there's life on Europa, but they live in row homes? There was a show in 2010 about the weakness of the public education system. The title expressed the general sense of disappointment: Waiting for Superman.
Why is science fiction so popular? It doesn't matter whether you go to a con in Los Angeles or in Maine, it always feels as if the same people show up: They have a passion for anything that deviates from routine.
Is it that SF appeals to a sense of something beyond the rooftops, beyond the ordinariness of everyday life? That people instinctively reject ordinary reality so much that even when there's a catastrophe, we try to attach an explanation that lifts it somehow out of the common course of events?
I'm probably not making much sense here. But I can't forget 1947, when the first UFO stories arrived. (There were reports about strange objects during World War II as well, foo fighters, but I don't think they ever reached South Philadelphia.) But when Kenneth Arnold spotted that string of UFO's out in the northwest, I can recall being seriously excited. Every kid on the block was. And there was nothing we wanted more than to see a flying saucer come in and land on the large vacant lot at the north end of our street. We got ramped up even more, a few months later, when a UFO reportedly crashed in Roswell.
We were on our way to the stars! We knew of course that actual visitors from elsewhere presented a hazard. But we were prepared to take our chances if it provided an opportunity to see a starship, and to shake hands with real aliens.
I can't really explain why. I'll stick with the resistance to the routines of daily life theory. The universe was a big place, and we were all stuck on a small street where not very much happened.
On the other hand, it might be more complicated than that. We still have people claiming the Moon landings were faked. Maybe we just have a taste for deception.
The End Is Nigh, volume one of the Apocalypse Triptych, edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey, has arrived. It's an anthology of stories dealing, as the title suggests, with a discovery that the end of the world is approaching. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but it includes my contribution, "Enjoy the Moment," and also work by Nancy Kress, Paolo Bacigalupi, Ken Liu, Sarah Langan, Will McIntosh, and others. I'm looking forward to settling in with it.