For the second year in a row, Karina Sumner-Smith is visiting for Sci-Fi Month! She has written a number of science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories, and her Towers trilogy is set in the same world as her Nebula-nominated short story “An End to All Things.” Though the first book in this trilogy, her debut novel Radiant, was released last year, the trilogy has already been completed—the final book, Towers Fall, was just released earlier this month!
Radiant is an impressive first novel: beautifully written, unique, and thoughtfully composed. I also loved the focus on the development of the friendship between Xhea and Shai and that their friendship continues to be the central relationship in Defiant, which is also quite enjoyable. Although I haven’t yet read Towers Fall, it is on my small books-to-read-soon stack since I’m quite excited to read the conclusion to Xhea and Shai’s story—and I’m also thrilled that the author is here today discussing “Disaster, Worry, and the Unexpected Utility of Science Fiction”!
Disaster, Worry, and the Unexpected Utility of Science Fiction
By Karina Sumner-Smith
A few years back, I took a new job at a new company in an unfamiliar area of town. After settling in—finding the kitchen and washrooms, claiming space for my massive mug, attempting to find a better chair—I started my usual planning for the apocalypse.
Where, in this office, were the exits? Were the doors easily barricaded against the undead; were the halls, or the stairways? Where could one hide if zombies got inside? And where were the air vents, anyway?
“What are you doing?” one of my new co-workers asked on my second day of (apparently not-so-unobtrusive) poking into corners.
“Oh,” I replied absently, “just finding escape routes for when the zombie hordes attack.”
There was a pause.
“Well?” she asked at last. “Will we be safe?”
“Nope,” was my honest reply. “We’re all totally screwed.”
It’s no surprise that writers are good at coming up with stories. Creating stories—or if not full stories, then at least scenarios—is a critical part of the skill-set, and one that gets honed by constant use. Yet this is also a skill of worriers and those with “overactive imaginations”—categories, all, into which I fit neatly.
Worrying, wondering, asking “what if” is something that we all do, at some level. What if I don’t get this job? Should I call him back? What was that noise? Can you even imagine the reaction if I’d gone in there with ketchup smeared across my face?
It’s just that a lifetime of reading and writing genre fiction seems to have shaped the scenarios that my brain presents. On top of all the everyday worries and thoughts of any adult, others slip into the mix.
Like: if all the connected computers of the world gained sentience as a single being, with the world’s data making up its memories and mind, what kind of person would it be? Why would aliens visit us, anyway? What would happen if the people around me suddenly started disappearing into thin air, one by one? What would I do if zombies attacked my office?
Useless thoughts, some would say. Silly nonsense. A waste of time. The same words and phrases that I’ve heard dismissively used toward science fiction itself.
Experts disagree. One need only look to the opening of any survival manual or article to see that the things that result in the best chance of surviving an emergency or disaster are preparation and practice. Our brains are fickle things. Faced with an unfamiliar, dangerous situation, people tend to do one of two things: carry on with normal routine as if everything is okay or will be okay soon (like checking your email and finding your purse before getting out of the building when the fire alarm rings), or get shut down by total panic. Panic is particularly dangerous, especially as we so rarely recognize it for what it is; rather than a screaming, flailing mess, one tends to freeze. Thoughts come slowly, if they come at all. Rational thought is impossible.
Or, in the words of Dune’s Paul Muad’Dib, “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.”
Imagining zombies, I found all the fire exits in the office—including one overlooked by my co-workers—and imagined escaping through each. I found the rungs of a built-in ladder, hidden in a closet behind the water heater, that led up to a hidden space between the floors. I imagined hiding, fighting, running, blocking the doors. I tried to see where, from a hidden location, I might call for help.
No, the building wasn’t a good choice for long-term defense against a shambling horde of ravenous dead, but that truly didn’t matter. What did matter was, in the “safety” of a totally made-up scenario, it was okay to think through the kind of events from which one’s mind usually shies away.
There is a lot, these days, that one might not want to think about.
And a lot of reactions, too, that one might want to practice. Words. Efforts. Deeds. Times one nods and times one turns away.
If thoughts and practice and planning aid in times of emergency and disaster, what else might they help? What other moments of personal fear and stress and anger might we mitigate with the stories that we read? What can we practice—what reactions can we hone—with the stories that we tell ourselves?
Reading exposes us to lives beyond our own; reading science fiction exposes us to worlds and realities and futures far beyond the confines of our lives. It opens us to empathy and compassion the way little else does.
Within all of my imaginings—seeing the stars and first contact, alien attacks and unexpected haunting—I’m right there. I’m living those other lives, experiencing those joys and sorrows and hardships. I’m acting, reacting; I gauge and wonder over my own responses. And sometimes, when what I imagine is my own fear or terror or hatred, I feel ashamed. Then I try again, attempting to do better the next time around, be stronger, even just in the safety of my own mind.
Science fiction, as a genre, believes that we can be better people. No, not all science fictional stories hold this belief as central; not every book or story, movie or game has the goodness of humanity as a central tenant. Yet that message is there, underpinning so many of the big works of the genre.
It’s the belief that we can grow into something more than we are. That we can reach higher, farther; that we can build civilizations in the stars; that we can grow to become people worthy of such achievements. It shows us those futures—good and bad and in-between—and lets us imagine them in the safe space of a story. It lets us think and practice and plan, even when all we want to do is turn away in fear and denial.
“Well?” we ask. “Will we be safe? Will we be okay?”
And you know, watching our world, sometimes I think we have as much chance as my office-mates did when facing the zombie apocalypse. And then I take a deep breath, and close my eyes, and I imagine another choice. Another path. Another way forward.
At its heart, science fiction believes that we can be better than this. And if we try, and we practice, I think we could believe it too.
Karina Sumner-Smith is the author of the Towers Trilogy from Talos Press: Radiant (Sept 2014), Defiant (May 2015), and Towers Fall (Nov 2015). In addition to novel-length work, Karina has published a range of science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories that have been nominated for the Nebula Award, reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies, and translated into Spanish and Czech. She lives in Ontario near the shores of Lake Huron with her husband, a small dog, and a large cat. Visit her online at karinasumnersmith.com.